BOOK REVIEWS    Sue Parrill, Editor

Who Are the Geniuses?

Literary Genius: 35 Classic Writers Who Define English & American Literature
Edited by Joseph Epstein.
Illustrated by Barry Moser.
Paul Dry Books, 2007. 246 pages.
Paperback. $18.95 US, $23 Canada.

Reviewed by Elsa A. Solender.

If reading Jane Austen’s novels brings you comfort, you must be reading wrong—or so says Hilary Mantel, British novelist and contributor to The New York Review of Books, who offers some insights into Jane Austen’s genius in her chapter for this volume, as well as some gratuitous insults for Austen’s fans: “Éher fans have given her a bad name: her fans with their faint praise settling like dust on fine china, their camp petit-point sensibilities, their retreat into a dimity Neverland where only hearts bleed.”

Which “fans” does Mantel mean, I wonder: George Will, William Buckley, Mary McGrory, Murray Kempton, Peter Drucker, Harold Laski, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the editors of Persuasions and JASNA News?

True, Austen’s “fans” seem to develop proprietary feelings, as if only they truly understand her: nineteenth-century literary gents who considered her comprehensible only to cultivated males; political conservatives whose pretensions to exclusive ownership were initially accepted by feminists until they discovered her subversive qualities and, like Mantel, laid their own claims.

Mantel’s account of Austen’s life begins with an error: “She was a spare woman in every sense: no one married her, and she grew lean and died at forty-two.” Austen’s birth (December 16, 1775) and death (July 18, 1817) dates are offered in the margin: You do the math. Mantel’s play on the word “spare” seems to deny Austen any of the comforts of a full and loving family life, many friendships, and the fact the she did receive at least one and possibly more marriage proposals; she declined that offer, which would have secured her economic future if that was her principal marital objective.

Mantel’s definition of literary genius is more persuasive, so much so that the editor of the collection—the estimable Professor Epstein, emeritus professor at Northwestern, emeritus editor of The American Scholar, and author of several fine volumes of essays—quotes her in his Introduction on the quality of timelessness in the works of geniuses: “ ... the capacity to make a text that can give and give, a text that is never fully read, a text that goes on multiplying meanings.”

But no, we may not, says Mantel, return to Austen for comfort: “No one who read it closely was ever comforted by an Austen novel. Her project might be called ‘against illusion.’” Mantel offers abundant evidence of the satirical Jane Austen; missing, however, is awareness of the benevolent Jane Austen, whose created world makes room for Miss and Mrs. Bates, both sinking in status, and the merits of the Gardiners, William Price, and Robert Martin, who are rising in that world. Citing examples of failed marriages, Mantel suggests that Austen viewed marriage as “a brutal bargain.” She omits mention of successful unions such as the Gardiners and the Crofts. In the bitter, merciless, Swiftian universe of Mantel’s Austen, no comfort is to be found in the love and support of siblings, spouses, and friends, nor in the orderliness of the Austen universe, its civility, its delight in the ridiculous, its toleration of eccentricity and, indeed, its abundant justice. Some evil doers and mischief makers escape retribution— Lady Catherine de Bourgh will continue to terrorize those in her power—but others, like Mrs. Norris and Willoughby, suffer varying degrees of retribution. And I think Austen intends her heroines to be rewarded for their virtues, another comfort. Mantel is mistaken in asserting that the novels end with “the wedding, not the marriage”: We are given clear references to the happy marriages of Elizabeth, Anne, and Fanny.

I share Mantel’s revulsion at cozy, trivializing sequel and prequel rip-offs that Austen’s novels have inspired, “the ersatz Jane” quite different from “Jane on the page.” To consider Austen as merely “acid” or “spiteful,” though, is also to trivialize her vision. Perhaps Mantel should return to the novels to see if she can discern some of the generosity of spirit that she missed before, recollecting that a work of genius “is never fully read.”

Barry Moser’s illustration reflects Mantel’s dark, unforgiving vision of Austen. Nothing of her playfulness or joyfulness is reflected in his wood engraving of the novelist, surely one of the most unflattering renderings of her elusive image. A small view of the English countryside is better, as is a spread of unidentified Austen characters, each of whom strikes me as cruel, sneaky, or unhappy.

I do not mean to put you off this admirable collection of literary “appreciations,” although some (particularly admirers of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton) may bemoan the inclusion of a scant four women — George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and Willa Cather are the others. All the same, when so many of today’s literary scholars have become, as Morris Dickstein recently wrote, “mechanics of the spirit,” two dozen readable analyses of literary “greats” must be welcomed.

Elsa Solender, independent scholar, was president of JASNA, 1996-2000.

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