BOOK REVIEWS     George Justice, Editor

The “Real” Jane Austen

Searching for Jane Austen

By Emily Auerbach.
The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.
xiii + 344 pages. Cloth. $35.00.

Reviewed by C. H. Hinnant.

In Searching for Jane Austen, Emily Auerbach seeks to uncover the “real” Jane Austen, by which she means the one concealed beneath the preconceptions fostered by well-meaning members of her family and by generations of misguided critics. In a delicious opening chapter, Auerbach shows how Austen became transformed into a sweet, saintly icon who led a blameless life and was never motivated in her career as novelist by anything so sordid as a desire for gain or public recognition. The alterations that take place in successive reprintings of her sister Casandra’s rather realistic sketch of 1811 become an apt emblem of how Jane Austen’s image was softened and beautifed at the same time that it was rendered ever more prim and spinsterish. Here and elsewhere, Auerbach is at her best in dredging up and skewering what might be described as a particularly toxic form of Austeniana, the vast mass of images, ex cathedra judgments, and arbitrary fictions, sometimes embodied in sentimental films and plays, that reveal more about the preconceptions of the commentators than about Austen herself.

A second chapter, devoted to Austen’s early writings, complements this project, for it gives full scope to the robust sense of humor suppressed in the sanitized image of Austen. In a sparkling survey, Auerbach makes fruitful comparisons between Austen and Mark Twain and draws our attention to some surprisingly Swiftian passages in the erased “Fragment Written to inculcate the practise of Virtue.” Here Auerbach’s brisk approach bears more than a passing resemblance to what she understands to be Austen’s own manner and provides the nonspecialist with an accessible introduction to Austen’s Juvenilia.

All this may seem perfectly straightforward. Yet Auerbach also goes on to imply that there is some intuitively graspable distinction between the actual Jane Austen and the sentimental image promoted by others. She asks us to believe that she felt herself “growing closer and closer to the real Jane Austen” as she was composing her own book. This suggests that there is more than traditional piety involved when Auerbach declares that Austen “seems more interested in displaying her artistic powers” in Northanger Abbey “than in telling a story,” or that Elizabeth Bennet shares Austen’s “wit” and “love of narration” or that there are numerous parallels between Austen and Emma Woodhouse. Appropriating an idea from poetic theory, Auerbach suggests that the real Austen is an immanent, perceptible presence within the novels, appearing both in the “voice” of the narrator and in the speeches of certain of the central female characters. In successive chapters on the novels, Auerbach’s readings are shadowed by what seems like an almost inevitable recourse to the voice of the “self-confident woman writer standing tall behind the curtain.”

What exactly is the bearing of this rather surprising point of view on our understanding of the novels? One could begin by noting that Austen’s “narrative voice” is seen by Auerbach as an almost transparent medium, readily available to readers who have shed the misleading assumptions exposed in the opening chapter. In phrases like “Jane Austen reminds us that…” or Austen “aims her satiric gaze at…” or “we find her in the witty, lively good-humored voice of her heroine,” Auerbach appeals to a realm of intelligible, inward intention and self-presence. At the same time, however, she has to admit the disrupting effect of numerous passages where Austen’s intention may not be quite so obvious. She wonders, for example, who is the true heroine of Sense and Sensibility, or why Austen did not pair Elinor Dashwood with the “chivalrous man of action,” Colonel Brandon, rather than the weak, idle, inexperienced Edward Ferrars. In her view, “why Robert Martin should be criticized” (by Austen’s surrogate, Emma) “for not reading this bosom heaver [Regina Roche’s Children of the Abbey] is unclear.” Only by assimilating the text of the novels to a mode of inward vocal enactment can Auerbach overcome these intermittent moments of perplexing uncertainty.

 Nonetheless, Auerbach’s approach has broad implications for our assessment of Austen’s novels. What is offered here is a reading that resists the temptations of a crudely reductive androcentrism. It rejects the assumption that we can find in the recurring stereotypes that seem always to surround Austen’s life a source of insight about her novels. Yet there is one avenue that Auerbach refuses to pursue, an avenue—perhaps first marked out by Eve Sedgwick—in which Austen, to use Auerbach’s infelicitous phrase, is viewed as “a nymphomaniac.” Auerbach’s reluctance to venture down this avenue may be one reason why she mentions Lady Susan only in passing. And it leads to the conclusion that there is in fact almost nothing in this otherwise lively and perceptive study that could possibly offer the slightest offense to those zealous guardians of the Austen household penates—Cassandra, her brothers Henry and James, or James’s son, Edward Austen-Leigh. If there are readers who find this kind of inner constraint unsatisfying, they might wish to consult the rather different approach embodied in Jillian Heydt-Stevenson’s Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History (Macmillan/Palgrave, 2005).

C. H. Hinnant is a member of JASNA’s Central Missouri Region.

JASNA News v.21, no. 3, Winter 2005, p. 25

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