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Mastering the Novels of Jane Austen
Richard Gill & Susan Gregory
New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
£14.99, 373 pages, ISBN0-333-94898-X.

Cher Holt-Fortin
SUNY Oswego, Oswego, NY

This is a very serious book intended to help the reader or teacher of Jane Austen’s novels. It is part of the Palgrave Master Series, which includes titles in such diverse categories as British Politics, Java, and Team Leadership. The series seems to be a more intellectual version of the famous Idiot’s Guide books. Unlike those books, however, Mastering the Novels of Jane Austen has no humor, no dopey cartoons, and no snide tone talking down to the reader. The authors deliver readings and interpretations with a seriousness that becomes tedious after a while. Austen, after all, was a humorist. Declaring that they “have not sought a systematic reading of the novels from one critical perspective” [p. xv], Gill and Gregory divide their book into six parts, each covering one of Austen’s published novels.

While there are no cartoons, each chapter opens with a collage of drawings. Quotes from the work, which reflect some of the themes of the novel it addresses, are overlaid on the collages. The chapter on Emma opens with a diagram of dance steps, which are actually ballet positions. Beneath the sketches of footsteps, drawings of men and women show the women in second position, the men in fifth. The quote implies that it is possible to do without dancing, a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor from the narrator because Austen, as novelist, certainly could not have done without the dance and the ball as plot points. The opening page of the Persuasion chapter is covered with naval flags, tiny warships, and a sketch of a naval officer. The quote refers to Admiral Croft. While the main male characters in Persuasion are indeed a part of the Royal Navy, the Navy itself remains in the background. It is not the focus of the novel, except perhaps as a remote pun on the Royal Navy’s ability to “persuade” the rest of the world to do Britain’s bidding, a thing which was only coming to pass in Austen’s time.

On the other hand, the opening page for the Pride and Prejudice section does focus on Pemberley and Elizabeth’s reaction to a pivotal moment in the novel. Despite their thematic inconsistency, the drawings are nicely done; they remind one of toile, and add a bit of period flavor to a book designed with numbered sections that remind one of a military handbook. Gill and Gregory intend a large schema that covers the whole opus in terms of substantive issues. They begin with a discussion of the conscious plan of the novel, calling attention to Northanger Abbey’s literariness and Austen’s “stylistic bravura” [p. 3].

The next section, on Sense and Sensibility, opens with a discussion of the design of the novel and goes on to discuss its “parallels and polarities” [p. 63]. The discussion of Pride and Prejudice moves to the concepts of narrative and theme, including of course the concepts of “pride” and “prejudice.” The authors point out that “Both ‘pride’ and ‘prejudice’ have moral force in Johnson” [p. 150]. Concerned for “the nuances of her vocabulary” the authors consult Johnson’s Dictionary throughout to give the modern reader the meanings of the words Austen uses that were current in her day. The section on Mansfield Park covers such topics as “The seven deadly sins” and “Nature.” And the section on Emma includes subsections on “Female friendship” and “Loves,” continuing Gill and Gregory’s interest in substantive issues.

Part six, on Persuasion, begins with the subtitle “Anne and the other characters.” The section also begins with a subtitle: 21.1 “Anne as romantic heroine.” This is followed by a quote from the book:

Anne, with an elegance of mind and sweetness of character, which must have placed her high with any people of real understanding. [p. 309]

Without elaboration the text plows on to a bold face but not numbered subtitle, which indicates that Anne is the centre of it all, which she is. But she may not be a Romantic heroine. "Romantic heroine" has not been defined in a literary sense. To the modern reader of romances, including today’s high school and college students, an elegant mind and a sweetness of character are not part of the stereotypical heroine. For those readers some clarification of terms would seem to be essential to understanding Jane Austen’s complex novels of character. They are also romances in the sense that they end with weddings, but Austen is above all a social satirist and approaches “romance” from the side. Her happy couples display more rational intelligence and friendship than passion. And Marianne Dashwood and Lydia Bennett, characters who act from passion like the modern romance heroine, do not end in the fantasy relationships they envisaged at the height of their romantic folly.

Marianne, who learns from her disastrous infatuation with Willoughby, is rewarded with the steadier love of Colonel Brandon, while Lydia, a hopeless romantic featherhead is left to repent at her leisure with Wickam. Rather than selecting one critical approach with which to dissect each novel, the authors select elements of the novels they examine in particular. Freed from most of the recent politically correct critical dogmas, Gill and Gregory explore what might be called old-fashioned concerns: the gaining of knowledge, the importance of place, the necessity and difficulty of relationships. We go to Austen, often over and over in one lifetime, because of what she knows of the intricacies of the human heart and its possibilities for both good and evil. While Gill and Gregory address the language, structure, narrative strategies and other rhetorical devices that Austen is so skilled at, they seem over the course of this book to want to look at the old-fashioned virtues of story telling. They are interested in character and story as vehicles of expression for deeper moral and philosophical concerns. By eschewing current critical approaches and a rigid schematic, they open the novels to the reader in a new way.

On the other hand, this approach may be more useful to those already familiar with the novels and less useful to the first-time reader. The lack of a general introduction to each novel assumes a familiarity that may not be there for high school and lower level college students. On the positive side, this book will resist the efforts of students looking for an easy plot summary. Clearly written and relatively free of jargon, Mastering the Novels of Jane Austen will be useful to students already conversant with the plots and characters of the novels. Teachers too will discover a mixed bag of information here.

Does the reader need to be told in boldface no less, that “Frank can misread Emma as well as the other way round” [p. 295]? Bolding gives such pronouncements a typographical weight they probably do not deserve. Gill and Gregory use these bold-faced summaries of things one hopes the reader would define for herself, as teaching notes or shorthand throughout the book. Given the uneven quality of the bolded items, they provide, at best, an unreliable outline of things to point out about the novels. In all, the book will make an excellent auxiliary to a basic text in lower division and secondary classes. It will also provide an aid to upper division Austen students looking for resources that use interpretive criteria outside the politically correct confines of recent theory.



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