BOOK REVIEWS    Sue Parrill, Editor

Explaining Austen’s World

Jane Austen for Dummies

By Joan Klingel Ray.
Wiley, 2006. xviii + 361 pages.
8 B/W Illustrations.
Paperback. $19.99.

Reviewed by Pamela Regis.

The world’s bestselling reference series, For Dummies, has added Jane Austen to the brand. In the list of the more than 1000 titles in the series, Jane Austen for Dummies follows Jack Russell Terriers for Dummies and Jakarta Struts for Dummies. What Austen has in common with small dogs bred to catch vermin (Jack Russells) and Java programming entities (Jakarta struts) is a large potential readership for a volume that explains, in clear language and format, the intricacies of the subject at hand—in Austen’s case, her novels and her life.

If you have discussed Austen with the uninitiated—or with a student who, say, has Clueless memorized and now wants to read about the original Cher—you know how much background, context, correction of misapprehensions, new appreciation of now-superseded social and economic realities, explanation of old institutions (the church, education, marriage!)—are required before a person new to Austen can “get” the novels and the novelist’s life.

Never fear. Help is at hand. You just have to get over the For Dummies part of the title, because this volume was written by Joan Klingel Ray. Yes, “our Joan”— President’s Teaching Scholar at the University of Colorado, three-time President of JASNA, and lifetime student of Austen. The combination of the For Dummies format and Ray’s vast knowledge of Austen has given us a gem of a book.

The For Dummies format is standard from book to book, and is as reader-friendly as possible. The front matter includes not only a nine-page Table of Contents, which lists every chapter and subsection, but also Contents at a Glance, which surveys the entire book in little more than a page. The volume has three indexes as well: General, Character, and Quotation. All of this makes for quick access to exactly what you need. Imagine that your students are beginning, as mine do, with Pride and Prejudice. Before they read even the first line, you have to explain the idea of entail. The index takes you right to the admirable section “Disentangling the Entail” where you see that there are just three paragraphs (imagine your students’ relief at this brevity). You see that the “remember” icon, common to all For Dummies titles, appears in the margin, marking this as an important section. You read, “Like primogeniture [covered in the two paragraphs immediately prior], the entail was a legal device to ensure that property would be handed down in a way that suited the ancestor, normally to a male heir, thus keeping the family estate intact. The restrictions of an entail could include prohibition on dividing or selling the estate; in essence, living on entailed property was being that property’s life tenant. If the property was entailed on male heirs, and the life tenant had no sons, the property—on the tenant’s death—would go to the nearest male heir. The only way to end or cut off an entail would be through an agreement of the current tenant and the next male heir.” The next two paragraphs apply this explanation to unfold Austen’s often-puzzled–over description of Longbourn, “entailed in default of heirs male, on a distant relation” (Pride and Prejudice1:7). For a reader new to Austen, the power of Mr. Collins is revealed—as is an explanation of Mrs. Bennet’s desperation. What is at stake in the novel is illuminated in three clear paragraphs.

Ray begins the admirable chapter on manners with the Renaissance, where the manners of Austen’s time (and ours) had their roots. A checklist of nine characteristics (based on Castiglione) details the “specific characteristics” of a courtier: “He should be educated from youth to behave well in the company of others like him . . . An excellent and affable conversationalist, the courtier should also be modest and considerate of others' feelings . . .” Ray then analyzes each of Austen’s heroes using this checklist. The results provide a firm basis for interpretation and nuanced judgment. If my students wish to claim that Colonel Brandon is “boring” (an argument many wish to make), I can insist that they do so in the light of the list detailing Brandon’s gentlemanly qualities, and in light of the list of Willoughby’s superficial manners, which obscure, for the uninitiated, his often destructive inconsiderateness of others.

From the specific—the book will tell you how to get to Chawton from London and the difference between a barouche and a gig—to the sweeping—an impressive survey of the seven deadly sins as they are manifested in the novels—Ray’s learning informs this admirable volume. The For Dummies publisher claims that this series is “for beginners.” Austen beginners will indeed find this packed, clear volume a must, but who among the rest of us has no need for an inexpensive, reliable, clear, learned reference work that explains Austen’s world?

Pamela Regis is Professor of English at McDaniel College where she teaches the Austen course. She spoke on Austen and courtship at both the Los Angeles and Tucson Annual General Meetings.

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