BOOK REVIEWS     Sue Parrill, Editor

A Large Garden with Well-Tended Blooms

Jane Austen in Context

The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen
Edited by Janet Todd.
Cambridge University Press, 2005.
xxx + 467 pages. Hardcover. $90.00.

Reviewed by Juliet McMaster.

“What did I find?” Charlotte Brontë memorably asked after reading Pride and Prejudice. “An accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face: a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers: but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck.” Such might be today’s reader’s initial response to this large and inclusive set of essays on Jane Austen in Context. It “ruffles the reader with nothing vehement.” It isn’t revolutionary, reactionary, unexpected, or perverse. It is, rather, comprehensive, measured, balanced, certainly “highly cultivated.” It’s a large garden with well-tended blooms, not a chunk of heath. It won’t change forever your reading of the novels, juvenilia, or letters. But it will enrich your reading and enlarge your understanding in many directions. It turns out to be no bad thing in a critical collection that it is like Brontë’s reading of an Austen novel.

The book is divided into three parts: “Life and Works,” with an emphasis on the historical, biographical, and documentable; “Critical Fortunes,” including essays on early reviews and evaluations, the many translations and illustrated editions, and the sequels; and “Historical and Cultural Context,” with the last getting the lion’s share of available space, 25 essays out of 40. Janet Todd and the Cambridge editors deserve full credit for going after the best of the best in each area: Jan Fergus on biography, Deirdre Le Faye on letters, David Gilson on publishing history, Maggie Lane on food, Alistair Duckworth on landscape, Edward Copeland on money, Brian Southam on professions. As recognized experts in their own areas, they may have had some difficulty in coming up with new things to say, but the context and the necessary brevity of the essays have required them to reshape their ample knowledge, and to be pointed and succinct. In general, the essays are not only widely informative, but a pleasure to read.

Janet Todd’s Preface quotes Austen’s “Advertisement” to Northanger Abbey, in which she apologizes that in the thirteen years between the conception of the novel and its publication “places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes.” The changes between her time and ours, of course, have been immeasurably greater; and this book, designed to recover her time for us, is a critical exercise in la recherche du temps perdu. “Manners” gets an essay to itself, by Paula Byrne. Austen’s “places” enter into essays on “Cities” and “Landscape”; “books” occupy essays on “Literary Influences,” “Literary Scene,” and “Reading Practices”; “opinions” are canvassed in essays on “Philosophy,” “Politics,” and “Religion.” If this book doesn’t exactly take on the notorious Professor Maurice Zapp’s project to deal with every possible critical angle on Austen’s oeuvre, so that nothing will ever need to be written on it again, at least it has attempted to cover the ground on her cultural context.

Anything missing? I would have liked more on Austen’s relation to earlier literature (Shakespeare, Johnson, as received in her day), and literature other than the novel (Sheridan, Inchbald). There’s surprisingly little on drama, despite the two books on Austen and the Theatre in recent years. Penny Gay has to fit the Austens’ private theatricals into her essay on “Pastimes,” and she has little room among the card games and the sewing to explore the pastime of going to the theatre.

Anything specially good? Most of the essays are admirable for the down-to-earth nitty-gritty information they provide, for instance on the cost of postage or the manufacture of fabrics. (How intriguing that the new roller-printing machines, first used in 1783, first “produced the distinctive striped designs of the period”) I particularly liked, and learned from, the essay on “Agriculture,” by Robert Clark and Gerry Dutton, which demonstrates the Austens were much more dependent on farming and the agricultural scene than I had realized. And David Selwyn’s elegant essay on “Consumer Goods,” with its lively exploration of the shopping excursions in the letters and novels. Tom Keymer on “Rank” is particularly adept at demonstrating Austen’s extensive knowledge of hierarchy, within the aristocracy as well as among the many downward steps on the ladder: knowledge that is unobtrusively operating in the letters as well as the novels. And here, as in other essays, one gets the benefit of full facts and figures: “Beneath the peerage of three hundred or so families in England there ranged the graduated demographics on which Austen concentrated her gaze: a gentry society comprising the families of approximately (in 1803) 540 baronets, 350 knights, 6,000 landed squires and 20,000 gentlemen, amounting in total to about 1.4 per cent of the national population.” Such hard information goes along with full and supple reference to chapter and verse in Austen’s works.

None of the essayists, whether best known to us as experts on Austen or a particular historical area, takes off on a hobby-horse (as one might easily, for instance, on “Nationalism and Empire” or “Politics”) and leaves Austen behind in the dust. Whether from their own preference or under editorial pressure, they all anchor their information firmly on Austen and her work, and so demonstrate how her novels are by no means the little pastoral idylls they were once thought to be, but touch the multitudinous complexity of her time at myriad points.

If Austen admitted that she got her knowledge of history from reading Shakespeare, many of us could similarly admit that we get ours from reading about Jane Austen. And reading about her in this book may make historians of us yet.

Juliet McMaster is a University Professor Emeritus at the University of Alberta. She is the author of Jane Austen, the Novelist, coeditor of The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, and founder of the Juvenilia Press.

JASNA News v.22, no. 3, Winter 2006, p. 25

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