Explaining Austen’s World
Jane Austen for Dummies
By Joan Klingel Ray.
Wiley, 2006. xviii + 361 pages.
8 B/W Illustrations.
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appreciation of now-superseded social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
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
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?