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Jane Austen

Writing, Society, Politics


Tom Keymer


Oxford:University Press, 2020

Hardcover. 192 pages. ISBN 978-0198861904. £10.99


Reviewed by Joe Bray

University of Sheffield



Tom Keymer’s Jane Austen : Writing, Society, Politics (Oxford University Press, 2020) is compact, pocket-book size, the perfect companion for a lockdown walk. This is appropriate for the study of an author whose popularity, as Keymer reminds us, ‘is often strongest in times of crisis’ [30], and who famously described herself as working on a ‘little bit (two inches wide) of ivory’ with ‘so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour’. (Letter to James Edward Austen, 16 December, 1816). Like many of her other playfully self-deprecating comments on her own work this is perhaps not to be taken too seriously. Keymer joins many recent critics in arguing that her brush is oftener broader and more engaged with the world around her than might first appear. Yet, as he also shows in this succinct, finely-written (four and a half inches wide) appreciation of her art, a great deal of hard labour did indeed lie behind what has sometimes been put down to effortless genius. Following its subject in adopting a less-is-more ‘minimalist aesthetic’ [70], Jane Austen : Writing, Society, Politics meticulously demonstrates throughout ‘just how strenuously she worked to achieve her signature effect of spontaneous lightness’ [6].

The book takes the form of seven main chapters (one on each of the completed novels, and one on the juvenilia), plus Introduction and Afterword (which includes discussion of Sanditon). Each of the six novels is connected to a broader, sensibly-chosen social or political theme (so for example Northanger Abbey is discussed in relation to the terrors of the French Revolution and the turmoil of the 1790s, Sense and Sensibility to the precarious prospects for unmoneyed women at the time, and Emma to the nation’s moral health and social wellbeing in 1815). Familiar debates which have long preoccupied Austen scholars inevitably emerge: how pressing and pervasive a context is the slave trade in Mansfield Park, how suitable as a model for domestic life is the navy in Persuasion, and, of course, just how much of a monster is General Tilney in Northanger Abbey? In each case Keymer, having set out both sides of the argument, is careful not to resolve it too neatly, emphasising instead the ‘multiple, sometimes competing, points of view’ [10] of Austen’s prose, which complicate any kind of easy answer. This stylistic complexity is illustrated most clearly in Chapter 4, on ‘The Voices of Pride and Prejudice’, which discusses her signature technique, free indirect discourse. As Keymer astutely argues, this style allows Austen to ‘endlessly problematize the origin and authority of her narrative statements’, while also creating ‘a remarkable narrative impression of conversational fluidity’ [87] (superbly demonstrated through analysis of ‘the bloviating Mr Collins’ in a passage describing his first visit to Longbourn).

Instead of narrative certainty then, Austen presents her reader with what Keymer calls ‘puzzles and problems’ which ‘require them to exert their moral and intellectual faculties in thinking [them] through’ [104]. He references twice her comment on Pride and Prejudice (which in turn quotes Scott) that ‘I do not write for such dull Elves “As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves”’ [81, 104], and the fact that ‘Austen’s method is much more about showing than telling’ [67] is rightly emphasised throughout. Her preference for implication over explication is highlighted especially well in a thoughtful discussion of silences and gaps in Mansfield Park, including the ‘dead silence’ which follows Fanny’s attempt to initiate a discussion with her uncle about the slave trade shortly after his return from Antigua. Here and elsewhere Keymer shows clearly how Austen ‘calls on readers to navigate her prose with vigilance and discernment’ [87]. At times this particular reader, while acknowledging the constraints of space, must admit to wishing for more examples of such prose, and hence more opportunities for Keymer to exercise his own sharply analytical discernment (as on the Mr Collins at Longbourn passage, and also, equally perceptively, on the view from Donwell Abbey passage in Emma [108-111]).    

Yet to wish this book longer is not to cast any kind of shadow on what it does achieve. Writing with an economy and lucidity of style befitting his subject, Keymer packs in the thought-provoking insights, not just about Austen’s writing and the social and political world in which it moved, but also about the way in which has subsequently been received. He is especially good on her early to mid-twentieth-century reception, for example starting Chapter 5 with a fascinating discussion of Nabokov’s Mansfield Park lectures at Cornell. He returns frequently to Woolf, whom he describes as ‘Austen’s most brilliant reader of the modernist era’ [144]. A passage in the Afterword on Woolf’s essay “Jane Austen at Sixty” leads into a brief but compelling section on ‘the twelve bravura chapters’ of Sanditon. Keymer is surely right to identify a new scope and ambition here, not least in the ‘modern commercial energies of kinds that had previously lurked in the background of her fiction’ [147]. A growing body of criticism on this unfinished fragment, coinciding with the two hundredth anniversary of Austen’s death, has highlighted just how new and exciting her writing in the last months of her life frustratingly was (see for example Persuasions On-Line).

Keymer’s style also embraces the modern, with a playfulness that again pays tribute to its subject. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe as ‘undeclared frenemies’ [44], Mr Knightley as ‘perhaps the most egregious mansplainer in any of the novels’ [122], and Bath as ‘the Dubai or Las Vegas of her era’ [131]. Such ingenious contemporary touches might not be to the taste of all Austen’s readers, elvish or otherwise, but to my mind they catch something of her ‘satirical energies’ [8] and ‘stylistic exuberance’ [29]. With another of her self-effacing comments on her own work Austen rejected in 1816 a suggestion from James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s librarian, to write a sweeping historical romance, preferring instead to keep her focus on ‘domestic Life in Country Villages’: ‘I must keep to my own style and go on in my own Way’ (Letter to James Stanier Clarke, 1 April 1816). Yet as Keymer shows beyond doubt in this engaging and witty study, Austen knew the importance of aligning this way with the times.


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