Review: Why Jane Austen?

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Why Jane Austen?Why Jane Austen? by Rachel M. Brownstein
Published by Columbia University Press on June 16, 2011
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 285
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher

From the first publication of "Pride and Prejudice" to recent film versions of her life and work, Jane Austen has continued to provoke controversy and inspire fantasies of peculiar intimacy. Whether celebrated for her realism, proto-feminism, or patrician gentility, imagined as a subversive or a political conservative, Austen generates passions shaped by the ideologies and trends of her readers' time--and by her own memorable stories, characters, and elusive narrative cool.

In this book, Rachel M. Brownstein considers constructions of Jane Austen as a heroine, moralist, satirist, romantic, woman, and author and the changing notions of these categories. She finds echoes of Austen's insights and techniques in contemporary Jane-o-mania, the commercially driven, erotically charged popular vogue that aims paradoxically to preserve and liberate, to correct and collaborate with old Jane. Brownstein's brilliant discussion of the distinctiveness and distinction of Austen's genius clarifies the reasons why we read the novelist-or why we should read her-and reorients the prevailing view of her work. Reclaiming the rich comedy of Austen while constructing a new narrative of authorship, Brownstein unpacks the author's fascinating entanglement with readers and other admirers.

In Why Jane Austen?, Brownstein successfully walks the line between readability and scholarship. She clearly discusses topics with an academic’s eye, but the writing is not dense, difficult to understand or boring. There is some possibility that this book will be more meaningful to those who already have a familiarity with Jane Austen’s work, but it could also be useful for those who have steered clear of her work but want a working knowledge of her works and life.

My only criticism of Why Jane Austen? is that it seems to wander away from the thesis quite a bit, with many of these wanderings not seeming to support the overall argument particularly. Really though, the overall question is never, to my mind, satisfactorily answered; Brownstein’s explanation is essentially what my off the cuff answer would be if asked.

Why read it you may ask? Because above and beyond the so-called thrust of the book, there is a ton of delightful literary analysis and historical information to enjoy. Reading through this academic publication is like nerding out over all of Austen’s books at once (all of which I now really want to reread, even the dreary Mansfield Park).

I also love learning about some of the other authors of the time, such as Byron and Charlotte Smith. The discussion of the film versions, especially of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, were charming and made me look at them in a new light. I also now want to reread Ian McEwan’s Atonement, even though it was a slog the first time; I never noticed the ties to Austen (and am not particularly sure from the summation how much I agree with that argument, which by the way has little to nothing to do with why we read Jane Austen) and am curious to see if I can find them, even though the novel was a painful, heart-wrenching slog the first time through.

If you love Jane Austen or nerding out over authors in general, this is a really great read. From an academic standpoint, Brownstein clearly knows what she is talking about and has compiled a useful collection of footnoted and references. Reading this could give you a good list of other works to use for a paper on ‘dear Jane.’

3 responses to “Review: Why Jane Austen?”

  1. Nori says:

    Interesting. I also just love the cover.

  2. bas1chs says:

    Sold! I had never heard of this book but I will add it to my wish list. Thanks for reviewing it.

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