BOOK REVIEWS     George Justice, Editor

Austen’s Major Phase

Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets

By William Deresiewicz.
Columbia University Press, 2004. x + 211 pages.
Hardcover. $29.50.

Reviewed by Beth Lau.

This is an important, well-written book that makes a number of bold claims about Austen’s work. Deresiewicz argues for a sharp distinction between the novels of Austen’s “early phase”—Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey, all written in the 1790s (in that order, he maintains, and not significantly revised afterward)—and the novels of her “major phase”—Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, composed in the second decade of the nineteenth century. The latter novels, according to Deresiewicz, “represent manifestly greater artistic achievements than do the first,” a fact that “can to a considerable extent be attributed to” Austen’s reading of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, and Sir Walter Scott.

Chapter 2 sets forth what Deresiewicz views as the central differences between the early and major phase novels and the ways in which the latter reflect themes or techniques in Romantic poems, especially Wordsworth’s. For example, the later novels, unlike the early, convey an interest in nature, children, and childhood; an attachment to home and belief that individuals are shaped by their circumstances; a complex understanding of time and memory; a concern with the poor and with marginalized figures, especially women; and the importance of feelings, especially ambivalent ones. Many of Deresiewicz’s distinctions between the early and later works are perceptive and illuminating, and it is salutary to consider ways in which Austen evolved as a writer instead of viewing her corpus as, in Norman Page’s words, a “homogonous body of work, capable of being discussed as an entity.”

Occasionally, however, one takes issue with Deresiewicz’s characterizations of the novels. For example, his point that the heroines of the early works are “all young and lovely, all cynosures of their circle, all avidly courted” whereas “the late fiction gives most of its attention to young women whom no one regards” does not seem apt for Elinor Dashwood or Catherine Moreland in the early works or Emma Woodhouse in the later. Deresiewicz makes Emma fit his scheme by stating that the novel highlights Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax since it “is told through the eyes of its heroine, who is herself fascinated by” these humble women, but this argument seems rather a stretch. Instead of insisting on absolute differences between Austen’s two phases, Deresiewicz might have noted ways in which the later works sometimes extend or deepen concerns that also appear in earlier works. In addition, he could have acknowledged other possible sources for the last three novels besides the Romantic poets. Some features of the later works, such as their appreciation of home, sensitivity to loss, and interest in memory and the passage of time surely can be attributed in part to Austen’s life experiences and not solely to her reading.

Deresiewicz’s three chapters on Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion are the highlights of the book. In each he explores a particular theme or motif in the novels that Austen is said to have adopted from one or more poets. Many characters in Mansfield Park practice what Deresiewicz calls “‘substitution,’ a set of psychic processes whereby individuals adjust to deprivation or loss by accepting alternative objects of desire,” a strategy Austen learned from Wordsworth. Emma features “ambiguous relationships,” in particular egalitarian friendships, related to those in the works of Byron, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. In Persuasion, Austen follows Byron and Scott in structuring her novel around widows, both literal and figurative, and processes of loss and recovery.Ultimately, Deresiewicz claims, Persuasion addresses the national story of England’s bereavement after twenty years of war. Ashort review such as this cannot do justice to the many provocative points made in these chapters. Each offers a major new reading of the novel it treats, noting significant patterns in each work and illuminating many passages, characters, and relationships. In addition, the book is clearly written and readable, even engrossing, and should be accessible and rewarding to general as well as to specialist readers.

It is perhaps both a strength and a weakness of Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets that one can find Deresiewicz’s analyses of Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion fascinating and convincing without agreeing with his central theses that these works are radically different from the earlier ones or that the later novels drew their chief inspiration from Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Scott. Indeed, for a book that argues for the direct, major influence of these poets there is surprisingly little in-depth comparison of particular poems to Austen’s novels, a fact that Deresiewicz seems to acknowledge by twice explaining why he does not provide more such detailed juxtapositions (p. 4 and n. 9, p. 172). Nonetheless, he certainly helps to connect Austen’s later works to the major literary currents of their time, and in this as well as in his astute readings of the novels he makes a valuable contribution to Austen studies.

Beth Lau is Professor of English at California State University, Long Beach. She edited the New Riverside Edition of Sense and Sensibility (Houghton Mifflin 2002) and has published several essays on Austen’s affinities with the male Romantic poets.

JASNA News v.21, no. 3, Winter 2005, p. 23

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