I did finish this book on August 31st – on the Oxford Tube back from London – but since I am reviewing it in September, it sadly cannot qualify for #AusteninAugust. This is another Austen-related book which has been lurking in my Kindle for a very, very long time. Having already read What Matters in Jane Austen, I was not sure whether this book could have much in the way of fresh material to bring to the table. However, rather than being an analysis of issues and literary puzzles, Maggie Lane has instead created an intricate and illuminating explanation of Austen’s use of language; Understanding Austen is both interesting and highly insightful – rather than retreading old material, Lane’s gives the reader a fresh perspective and a deeper understanding of the deeper meaning of Austen’s words and what they reveal of the author’s thought processes.
In seventeen chapters, Lane dissects the meanings of words which are frequently bandied about by Austen’s characters and discusses not only their true definition, but also what they seem to have meant to the characters who spoke them. Her first point centres on ‘Genius, Wit and Taste’, culminating in a final chapter on ‘A Nice Distinction’ contemplating the uses both proper and improper of the word itself; along the way, a whole chapter is devoted to ‘Elegance’, others to ‘Gentility’, ‘Delicacy’, ‘Temper’, ‘Spirit’ – no term is released by Lane until it has been shorn of any ambiguity. As consultant-editor of Jane Austen’s Regency World and author of over thirty books related to Jane Austen, Ms Lane is a highly qualified commentator but she never wears her authority very heavily and Understanding Austen seems bound to assist the reader in doing just that – coming to a better understanding and appreciation of Jane Austen.
There is no real crossover with What Matters in Jane Austen, and indeed Lane’s general tone is quite different to that of John Mullan. While Mullan was concentrating on Austen’s techniques as an artist, Lane is considering her as a linguist and indeed how her own attitudes and personality fed into her work. In the chapter on ‘Genius, Wit and Taste’, Lane comments that in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth comes to see the danger of wit; her adored father has encouraged her to take a mocking and even cruel view of her mother but by the end of the novel, Elizabeth is mortified when her father reads out Mr Collins’ letter and sniggers at the idea of Mr Darcy ever being interested in her for ‘never had his wit been directed in a manner so little agreeable.’ Henry Tilney is another too who has to watch his tongue and Emma Woodhouse is mortified when she realises how her wit has hurt Miss Bates’ feelings. Lane explains that Austen herself is on the record as having composed two prayers for help in watching her words – as a woman of wit, she was well aware of the risk of hurting people’s feelings.
The vague abstract words such as ‘elegance’, ‘air and address’ are analysed here in greater depth and to great effect. Of the Bennet sisters, only Jane and Elizabeth can pretend to elegance, with their next down sister being too priggish and the others too wild and stupid. Elizabeth tearing about the countryside and muddying her petticoats disgusted Miss Bingley however due to the total lack of elegance displayed. Mr Collins believes that he is composing ‘little elegant compliments’ for Lady Catherine and indeed for his fair cousin Elizabeth but the reader – and anyone who ever meets him – knows better. He believes that Elizabeth is refusing him to be elegant but she protests that she has no pretension to such a quality if it means making a mockery of a respectable man.
In Persuasion, Sir Walter and Miss Elliot believe that they have a duty and a right to elegance even if they cannot support it while the younger Musgroves attempt to inject some elegance into Uppercross by buying a harp. Emma Woodhouse tries to improve Harriet by instructing her in elegance and she discourages her from marrying Robert Martin since he lacks ‘air’ or ‘elegance’ – yet Emma is jealous of Jane Fairfax whose elegance is innate. In Sense and Sensibility, the Steele sisters are seen as pretty but noted as being lacking in any elegance, in contrast to the Dashwood sisters. This takes us back to the original debate on the meaning of accomplishment in Pride and Prejudice where Miss Bingley claims that a woman needs something special in her air or manner of walking to truly deserve the word.
Delicacy is another word whose meaning may have gotten lost down the centuries from when Austen first deployed it. When I hear it, I imagine ladies wincing over a cup of tea (finest porcelain, of course) over some frightful faux-pas. Jane Austen’s work herself is dismissed by her detractors as overly delicate. However, as Lane describes it, delicacy means a scrupulousness for the feelings of others, along with a sense of social honour. Harriet Smith may be lacking in birth or certain finer points of manners but she has delicacy of character. Catherine Moreland gets herself into all kinds of scrapes but remains a lady of great delicacy in that she always tries to do the right thing. By contrast, Mrs Norris tells the older Mrs Rushworth very proudly that Maria Bertram has a great delicacy of character – the reader knows that nothing could be further from the truth. The smitten Edmund Bertram is certain that Mary Crawford mirrors Fanny’s delicacy of taste. Sir Thomas remarks that Fanny’s social position within Mansfield Park is a matter of ‘great delicacy’, while Edmund frets about the play Lovers’ Vows since the recently engaged Maria is in a ‘delicate’ situation.
However, in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor Dashwood (and through her, both Austen and the reader) are frustrated by Mrs Dashwood’s apparent ‘delicacy’ in refusing to ask Marianne whether she has entered into an engagement with Willoughby since this is more like negligence. Mr Collins is ridiculed again by supposing that Elizabeth’s apparent ‘delicacy’ precludes her from immediately accepting his proposal while Lady Catherine de Bourgh bombasts that Elizabeth must be lacking in ‘delicacy’ if she presumes to marry Mr Darcy. As Lane concludes, true delicacy seems to be that modelled by Mr Knightley, a concern for the feelings of others, rather than cold ‘over-refined false modesty imposed on women by fools such as Mr Collins or Lady Catherine de Bourgh.’
Lane is not afraid to critique Austen, remarking in her chapter ‘Reason and Feeling’ on the cruelty behind some of the more barbed wit. In Pride and Prejudice, so much of the ridicule is directed at the characters behaving irrationally – poor Mary Bennet’s observation are not inaccurate in and of themselves, but the humour comes from how inappropriately she deploys her ‘wisdom’, while Caroline Bingley claims that conversation rather than dancing would make a ball more ‘rational’ but her brother acknowledges the truth of it while pointing out that that would make it rather unlike a ball. We are aghast at Charlotte Lucas’ calculated and highly rational decision to marry Mr Collins simply because the positives outweigh the negative. When the ever optimistic Jane Bennet hopes that the Wickhams will settle in a ‘rational manner’, we know that there is not a shred of a chance of that. ‘Rational happiness’ is within the reach of only the Bingleys and the Darcys.
Yet, by the time that Austen wrote Persuasion, her opinions seem to have changed. Anne Elliot is entirely rational in her decision to call off her engagement to Captain Wentworth, but ‘learnt romance’ as she grew older. Jane Austen seems to have softened slightly as she herself grew older – but not enough, as Lane points out, to stop herself from ridiculing poor Mrs Musgrove for being fat and sad about the death of her worthless son Dick Musgrove. I sensed Lane’s pursed lips in that section and as a reader slightly cringed at the implied telling off for Austen. At other junctures in the novels, the reader is told that various men, such as Charles Musgrove and John Dashwood, might have been more rational had they been wiser in their choice of wife. Similarly, there are hopeful signs of improvement in Henry Crawford’s character as he attempts to win Fanny’s heart – but alas for him that he is unable to sustain them. Austen always prizes characters who are able to behave with a greater degree of sense and rationality but although it is this which has caught the ire of her more vocal critics, Lane emphasises that it is not about having the feelings, but rather about how one responds to them. Marianne Dashwood believes that her ‘openness’ is a virtue but she is mirroring the behaviour of the heroines of popular novels who Lane explains ‘feel everything more acutely than those around them: their appreciation of nature, their loves, joys and sorrows, are all more highly developed than in other people’. Much of the humour of Austen’s writings in Love and Freindship comes from her spirited mockery of such ludicrous behaviour but in Sense and Sensibility, she takes this to its logical conclusion – that Marianne’s behaviour can actually lead to her becoming seriously ill. Further explorations of terminology such as ‘fortitude’ and ‘spirit’ made me think that Austen would have applauded the words of that great lady Nora Ephron – be the hero of your life story, not the victim.
Despite her occasional criticisms, Lane is obviously a huge fan of the period and of Austen in particular. Her clearly phrased explanation of how certain issues of rank worked finally put into context for me how various of the titles worked – this is a book for a fan of Austen but I think even the more committed enthusiasts are guaranteed to learn something. What Lane underlines is that Austen’s novels, far from being the neatly ordered gardens derided by Charlotte Bronte, are in fact full of feeling and emotion and sensitivity and that the author made very careful use of language in order to put this across. Lane signposts how words can be misunderstood or misused by the more foolish characters, that it is truly hilarious when Isabella Knightley comments innocently that living with an ill-tempered man must be a very bad thing, and even that the use of ‘nice’ becomes something of a battleground in Northanger Abbey. Phrases which Austen held to be vulgar find themselves in the mouths of the characters we are supposed to distrust – Austen tells us very little about her characters because she expects her language to do the work for her. Understanding Austen revealed the true depth of detail in Austen’s writing and gave me a whole new level of respect for her as both author and artist. Lane closes her book with the words of Austen’s own creation Henry Tilney and his powerful defence of the novel, it being the work ‘in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties’ – as Lane points out, this may not be true of all novels but it is definitely true of Austen.
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Published by Robert Hale on July 30th 2013
Genres: Literary Criticism, General
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