Sunday, May 6, 2018

Two recent books on Jane Austen: Paula Byrne and Helena Kelly

Books discussed in this post:
Paula Byrne: The Genius of Jane Austen (updated edition), Collins, 2017
Helena Kelly: Jane Austen, the Secret Radical, Vintage, 2016
Jane Austen's novels have been in print continuously since the early 1830s, but there are periodic surges of interest in her work. The months approaching the 200th anniversary of her death in 2017 saw the publication of a number of new and reissued books examining her life, work and legacy.

Paula Byrne's The Genius of Jane Austen is one such reissue. It was originally published in 2002 as Jane Austen and the Theatre, a title which is more descriptive (but perhaps less marketable). When theatre is mentioned in connection with Jane Austen, many readers are likely to think of Mansfield Park. A key sequence in that novel features the planning and rehearsals for a private performance of Elizabeth Inchbald's Lover's Vows, an adaptation of the scandalous Das Kind der Liebe (The Love-Child) by the German playwright August Kotzebue. Some readers have assumed that Austen shares her heroine Fanny Price's objections to the play, and to the theatre in general.

Byrne convincingly shows that this isn't the case. As a young woman Austen regularly performed with family members in private theatricals. Even as late as 1809, two years before beginning work on Mansfield Park, she acted the part of the gossipy Mrs. Candour in Sheridan's The School for Scandal during a Twelfth Day party held by the Biggs-Wither family. She was a lifelong theatre- and opera-goer, and had favorite actors whom she tried to see as often as she could. One actor she admired, Robert Elliston, appeared in performances of Lover's Vows in Bath during the time that the Austen family was living there.

The influence of the theatre is most directly apparent in Mansfield Park, of course, but Byrne traces it throughout Austen's early works and her first four published novels:
  • in Sense and Sensibility, the contrasting personalities of the reserved, thoughtful Elinor and the unguarded, impetuous Marianne echo the characters of Julia Melville and Lydia Languish from Sheridan's The Rivals.
  • in Pride and Prejudice, the lively Elizabeth Bennet and her more serious sister Jane parallel Shakespearean pairings such as Rosalind and her cousin Celia in As You Like It. Elizabeth's preference for a man who, rather than matching her sparkling, irreverent wit, "boasts only worth, spirit, honour and love," echoes the romantic choice of the vivacious Lady Bell Bloomer in Hannah Cowley's Which is the Man? (p. 148). And the eloping Lydia Bennet shares her name and her preference for impoverished soldiers with Lydia Languish.
  • in Mansfield Park, the roles that the family members and neighbors take on in Lover's Vows parallel and comment on their romantic attractions outside the rehearsals.
  • in Emma, the heroine discovers that "Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken. . ." (Vol. III, Ch. XIII). Austen's recognition of the "strong element of role-playing" in social interaction is, Byrne writes, "the great lesson she took from the drama" (p. 232).
It's a bit odd that Byrne doesn't devote chapters to Northanger Abbey or Persuasion, both of which are set partially in Bath and both of which feature attendance at the theatre. In fact, the theatre is the setting for an important scene in Northanger Abbey in which General Tilney is told that Catherine Morland is an heiress—misinformation that motivates him to invite her to the family estate, setting the rest of the plot in motion. And in Persuasion, a discussion over whether to attend a play or a party with Lady Dalrymple gives Anne the opportunity, while responding to Mrs. Musgrove, to signal her own preference to the listening Captain Wentworth—a very theatrical device:
"If it depended only on my inclination, ma'am, the party at home (excepting on Mary's account) would not be the smallest impediment.  I have no pleasure in the sort of meeting, and should be too happy to change it for a play, and with you.  But, it had better not be attempted, perhaps."  She had spoken it; but she trembled when it was done, conscious that her words were listened to, and daring not even to try to observe their effect. . .

Captain Wentworth left his seat, and walked to the fire-place; probably for the sake of walking away from it soon afterwards, and taking a station, with less bare-faced design, by Anne. 
"You have not been long enough in Bath," said he, "to enjoy the evening parties of the place." 
"Oh! no.  The usual character of them has nothing for me.  I am no card-player." 
"You were not formerly, I know.  You did not use to like cards; but time makes many changes." 
"I am not yet so much changed," cried Anne, and stopped, fearing she hardly knew what misconstruction.  (Vol. II, Ch. X)
Austen drew on novels as well as plays in creating her characters and plots, and sometimes those connections are even more direct than the ones Byrne makes with the theatre (see the previous posts in the series "Jane Austen's predecessors"). But her book brings out a less-familiar dimension of Austen's work and will enrich any reader's experience of the novels.

For the updated edition Byrne has added a new concluding chapter, "Why She Is a Hit in Hollywood," focusing on film and television adaptations. Byrne writes,
If Jane Austen were alive today, she'd probably be appalled by the movie adaptations of her books. She would be baffled by the fact that the majority of films emphasise the romantic aspect of her novels, when her intention was to subvert and undermine the romantic. Perhaps she would be vexed that her comic genius, and precise social satire, have been subsumed by Regency frocks, beautiful houses and impeccably landscaped gardens. (p. 274)
She writes that "the best adaptations of Austen are those that. . .remain true to the spirit of the novels and the essence of the characters. They assume no special knowledge" (p. 262). She cites in particular Patricia Rozema's Mansfield Park (1999), Amy Heckerling's Clueless (1995, an adaptation of Emma), Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (1990, an adaptation of Mansfield Park) and his Love and Friendship (2016, an adaptation of Lady Susan).

I've written briefly about some of these films in "Six months with Jane Austen: Favorite adaptations and final thoughts." Byrne notes the "deployment of feminist, gender and post-colonial themes" in Rozema's Mansfield Park (p. 262), but I felt that the subtexts of Austen's novel had been made too explicit, and the character of Fanny Price changed into a version of her creator. Clueless, with its thinly disguised Beverly Hills High School setting and contemporary slang, brilliantly obscured its origins in Austen. As I wrote about Alicia Silverstone's Cher/Emma, however, "the updating places a key issue in stark relief: why should we care about this superficial and super-privileged character?" Updatings of Austen can work well: the delightful Kandukondain Kandukondain (I have found it, 2000), a Tamil-language version of Sense and Sensibility, is situated in a place that is geographically, culturally, and temporally remote from Regency England.

I don't share Byrne's antipathy to adaptations set in Austen's time that try to remain true to the letter as well as the spirit of the novels. In particular, the Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion adaptations from 1995 make fully apparent the economically and socially subordinate position of women and the injustices of class in Regency society; both films are subtle, many-layered, and emotionally engaging. The highly enjoyable 2007 adaptation of Northanger Abbey even, as Byrne says of Rozema's film, "nods to academic literary criticism"—in particular, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's "Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl"—without being too, well, academic about it. Of course, I agree with Byrne that the great hope with even the best Austen adaptations is "that they introduced new readers to the novels, and sent those who had already read Austen back to the pleasures and rewards of re-reading her" (p. 275).

Helena Kelly's Jane Austen, the Secret Radical poses the question, which Austen character "has married a man who doesn't love her, who is a fool and a hypocrite"? (p. 196). A few names might spring to mind: in Sense and Sensibility, perhaps Miss Grey, the heiress who marries the unscrupulous Willoughby; in Pride and Prejudice, perhaps Charlotte Lucas, who marries the fawning Mr. Collins, or Lydia Bennet, who elopes with the cad Wickham; in Persuasion, perhaps the ill-fated first wife of Anne's fortune-hunting cousin William Elliot.

For Kelly the answer to this question is Mansfield Park's Fanny Price. Never mind that the narrator describes her union with Edmund Bertram as possessing "true merit and true love," that we are told that "the happiness of the married cousins must appear as secure as earthly happiness can be," and that "their home was the home of affection and comfort" (Vol. III, Ch. XVII). Kelly reads these statements as ironic—a reflection of Fanny's own willful and willing blindness to her situation—and Mansfield Park as a tragedy.*

This is hardly the only misreading in Kelly's book, which is a curious mixture of genuine insight together with overstatement, error and hubris. For example, she characterizes Northanger Abbey and Persuasion as "two novels, neither of which Jane herself had seen fit to have published" (p.22). Well, not quite. Northanger Abbey, then entitled Susan, was the first novel Austen herself tried to have published, in 1803, and through her brother Henry she successfully sold it to publisher Richard Crosby. In 1816 the novel had still not been printed, and Henry was able to buy the manuscript back for the original £10 the publisher had paid. Austen revised the novel, in the process changing the heroine's name from Susan to Catherine, and wrote a short preface:
This little work was finished in the year 1803, and intended for immediate publication. It was disposed of to a bookseller, it was even advertised, and why the business proceeded no farther, the author has never been able to learn. . .The public are entreated to bear in mind that thirteen years have passed since it was finished, many more since it was begun, and that during that period, places, manners, books, and opinions have undergone considerable changes. ("Advertisement, by the authoress, to Northanger Abbey")
Why would Austen write a preface addressed to the public if she was not planning to publish Northanger Abbey? As for Persuasion, in March 1816 Austen wrote in a letter to her niece Fanny Knight, "I have a something ready for publication, which may, perhaps, appear about a twelvemonth hence." Again, "I have something ready for publication" does not sound as though she does not see fit to publish. It's not hard to find an explanation for why she might not have submitted it to a publisher herself in 1816 or 1817: she was experiencing increasingly severe symptoms of illness, and died in July 1817.

Kelly casts doubt on documents related to Austen, even when their provenance would seem to be unimpeachable. For example, she writes of the letters in which Austen discusses her flirtation with Tom Lefroy (see "Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?"),
All three letters are missing. We have no idea where they currently are. [Indeed, that would seem to be the definition of "missing"—P.] Two of them—the first and last—have never been seen by anyone outside the Austen family. Our only authority for what they say—or indeed, for the fact that they existed at all—is the volume of letters published in 1884 by Lord Brabourne (Edward Austen's grandson, and so Jane's great-nephew). (p. 29)**
She also has something to say about the chronology of Jane's novels:
We do have a list of composition dates for Jane's novels, but it was written by Cassandra, not Jane, and we have no idea when it was drawn up. [The Morgan Library, where this list currently resides, has dated the list "ca. July 1817"]. Writers on Jane have tended to treat this document as if it were completely reliable; they really shouldn't. (p. 18)***
While I don't share Kelly's uncertainty about the veracity of Austen letters published in the 19th century in a volume edited by a family member, or of a document written by Austen's older sister, who lived intimately with her for her entire life, she is right to call attention to areas where evidence is lacking. Kelly notes correctly that "there are so many gaps, so many silences, so much that has been left vague, or imprecise, or reported at second or third hand" (p. 20).

One of Kelly's responses to this paucity of information is to occasionally exercise (in my view, often undue) caution in what is asserted as fact, as in the above examples. Elsewhere, though, she has a tendency to overstate the implications of the evidence. And she also uses gaps in our knowledge as a license to fantasize. Each chapter of the book begins with a short fictional introduction written from Austen's point of view, often using free indirect speech. You may feel differently, but I found these fictional interludes to be so annoying that I quickly began to skip them entirely. In my view fan fiction about Jane Austen does not get us any closer to understanding details about her life that remain unclear from the documentary record. Instead we should have the humility to accept that there are many aspects of her life and work that we may never be able to know fully.

But the fictional interludes are easily skimmable. Less ignorable is that Kelly's book draws extensively on the work of other Austen scholars who generally go uncredited. Paula Byrne's book has 35 pages of notes and an 11-page bibliography of Austen sources and scholarship, while Kelly offers a smattering of footnotes, only a paltry three pages of endnotes, and one page of "Further Reading" which contains nothing published after the 19th century.

Two examples will stand for many others. In Northanger Abbey, Austen wrote the following passages (heavily edited by me), which Kelly describes as "probably the sexiest thing you'll read in Jane's novels":
She applied herself to the key, and after moving it in every possible way. . .Catherine's heart beat quick. . .with a cheek flushed. . .straining. . .her fingers grasped. . .The place in the middle alone remained now unexplored. . .back into the further part of the cavity. . .her feelings at that moment were indescribable. Her heart fluttered, her knees trembled, and her cheeks grew pale. . . (Vol II, Ch. VI)
Kelly writes, "Let's not mince words here. With all those folds [actually folding doors] and cavities, the key, the fingers, the fluttering and trembling, this looks a lot like a thinly veiled description of female masturbation" (pp. 64-65).

Or vulgar Freudianism. It's clear that Catherine is excited by the exploration of the cabinet in her room, but does Austen want us to see that excitement as specifically sexual? For someone who is skeptical of the concrete documentary evidence of Austen's letters and Cassandra's chronology, this seems like a bit of a leap. But if you're going to make that leap you should credit Eve Sedgwick's article, which was the first (to my knowledge) to raise the issue of female self-pleasuring in the context of Austen's work. (Sedgwick wrote mainly about Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, but still.) And you might also reference the 2007 Andrew Davies/Jon Jones adaptation of the novel, which makes an, er, explicit connection between Catherine's explorations and sexual excitement.

In her discussion of Mansfield Park Kelly mentions that Austen's own family had connections to the slave plantations of Antigua: "Her eldest brother, James, had a slave-owning godfather: James Nibbs, an Oxford acquaintance of the Rev. George Austen's [Jane's father]" (pp. 168-169). That connection was first discovered by Brian Southam, and published in an article in the Times Literary Supplement in 1995; in fact, Southam found that George Austen had been named as a trustee of Nibbs' Antiguan sugar plantation. Kelly dismissively footnotes Claire Tomalin's 1999 biography of Jane Austen, but does not mention Southam's original painstaking detective work. (For more details, see "Mansfield Park and slavery III: An estate built on 'the ruin and labour of others.'")

Kelly's elision of her sources, in my view, calls her whole enterprise into question. Which is a shame, because her book does occasionally offer intriguing insights into Austen's novels:
  • Sense and Sensibility seems to be a fictional exploration of a passage from Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792): ". . .when the brother marries, a probable circumstance, from being considered as the mistress of the family, [his sister] is viewed with averted looks as an intruder, an unnecessary burden. . .The wife, a cold-hearted, narrow-minded woman. . .is jealous of the little kindness which her husband shows to his relations; and her sensibility not rising to humanity, she is displeased at seeing the property of her children lavished on an helpless sister" (pp. 83-84). This, in outline, is the plot of the first two chapters of Austen's novel.
  • "Mansfield Park," Kelly tells us, "is about slavery" (p. 180). Readers of this blog, whose posts were written before Kelly's book was published, have no reason to doubt it. In one of my posts on the novel I pointed out, following Paula Byrne's The Real Jane Austen (2014), that the pro-slavery propagandist Robert Norris was a probable inspiration for the name and character of the odious Mrs. Norris in Austen's novel. Kelly suggests another Norris who may also have been in Austen's thoughts: Henry Hadley Norris, a member of the slave-owning Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.
  • Emma's hero is Mr. Knightley, and Kelly points to evidence in the novel that he is in the process of enclosing the common lands around Highbury. Enclosure restricted for the use of a particular landowner lands formerly grazed or cultivated in common, and the practice impoverished local herders and farmers. If Mr. Knightley is enclosing the lands around the village it certainly complicates his character.
  • Persuasion is read by Kelly as a representation of the Stuart-Hanoverian succession: "The Elliots are obliged to rent out their estate as a means of economizing. Their removal from Kellynch, and the arrival of the Crofts, as tenants, and of Sophia Croft's brother, Frederick Wentworth, replay the dynastic break, the replacement of the Stuarts with the Hanoverians" (p. 256). She quotes a suggestive passage from Austen's novel (a quote I've expanded slightly here): ". . .however sorry and ashamed for the necessity of the removal, [Anne] could not but in conscience feel that they were gone who deserved not to stay, and that Kellynch Hall had passed into better hands than its owners'." (Vol II, Ch. I)
But without proper attribution, there is no immediate way to know whether these insights are Kelly's or someone else's. The absence of a complete set of notes and bibliography is a damaging omission that, along with its other idiosyncrasies, makes Kelly's book impossible for me to recommend without major reservations.

For more on Austen's novels, please see "Six months with Jane Austen":

* Part of Fanny's blindness, according to Kelly, is that "she forgets that she is her husband's second choice" (p. 196). I might point out that in Sense and Sensibility Elinor Dashwood is Edward Ferrar's second choice (after Lucy Steele) and Colonel Brandon, Marianne's (after Willoughby); in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy is Elizabeth's third choice (depending on how seriously we take her flirtations with Wickham and Colonel Fitzwilliam); in Emma, Robert Martin is Harriet Smith's first and fourth choice (after Mr. Elton and Mr. Knightley). Are we to understand that all of these marriages are blighted as a result?

** In addition to the letters, though, we also have the testimony of members of Austen's family, of Tom Lefroy himself as reported by his nephew to Austen's nephew James Austen-Leigh, and the suggestive name of Lefroy's daughter, see "Jane Austen and Cecilia: A personal connection?" for more details. Is Kelly suggesting that this evidence should be disregarded?

*** Strangely, Kelly later writes that "We can't be sure how much she reworked Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, but there are enough indications remaining in the text to suggest that the family tradition [it's not a "family tradition," but a contemporary document] that they were originally written in the 1790s isn't wide of the mark" (p. 160). So is Cassandra's document unreliable, or close to the mark?

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