Why Jane Austen?

Rachel M. Brownstein. Columbia University Press, 2011. 285 pp. $29.50.

By Carol A. Leibiger

It is not surprising that the literary world has focused on Jane Austen in recent years, celebrating the two-hundredth anniversary of her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, in 2011 and her acknowledged masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice, in 2013. Rachel Brownstein, professor of English at CUNY’s Brooklyn College, points out the ubiquity of Austen in high-brow and popular culture both currently and in the twentieth century as well and examines this phenomenon in this work. Considering the attention that Austen has attracted in the academy and pop-culture media, it is ironic that her public is no nearer to knowing and understanding her than in earlier times, when she was not so available to us. Applying biographical criticism, Brownstein’s book takes up the irony of Austen’s omnipresence in the light of her readers’ inability to know her, “combin[ing] literary and cultural analysis with personal anecdotes and recollections of a lifetime of reading, teaching, and talking and thinking about Jane Austen.”

Biographical criticism, while it runs counter to Barthes’ pronouncement of the death of the author, represents an interesting approach to Austen, not because she is actually present in her works, but because readers continually seek her there. Individual chapters interrogate Austen’s works and examine modern media interpretations of Austen’s life and novels, e.g., the 1990s films Clueless (based on Emma) and The Bridget Jones Diaries (based on Pride and Prejudice) and the BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries, seeking truths about her life and world. Brownstein seeks Austen in her spaces, both biographical (Chawton Cottage) and fictional (mansions that might have inspired Pemberley), themes, and her heroines and other characters. Time and again, the biographical approach fails, as Brownstein demonstrates Austen’s absence in those places where she has been sought. However, the author continually demonstrates Austen’s masterful use of themes, characterization, plot, and other aspects of the popular nineteenth-century novel to produce works of high literary quality and social commentary that have both endeared her to readers and guaranteed her inclusion in the Pantheon of great authors. 

Much of this book consists of musings about aspects of Austen’s writing, popularity, and representation within the academy and popular culture. Brownstein often frames her discussions using teaching situations or conversations about Austen and her works that introduce or illustrate the points she wishes to make. However, the frames include more detail than is necessary, describing how Brownstein teaches or discusses an Austen work, revealing how much more “in the know” she is, and how she manages—and even manipulates and patronizes—her audience. Ironically, the reader seeking the absent Jane Austen is confronted with an all-too-present Brownstein in this work.

Given the fascinating subject and the book’s provocative title, it is disappointing that Brownstein provides “no bright new take on Jane Austen…[beyond the fact] that she is a great writer, delightful to read.” This book reflects much on the absence of Austen, attempting to locate her in her works, spaces, and relationships, real and potential, admitting an inability to find her, but not explaining why Austen’s public seeks to know her. In unsuccessfully attempting to align Austen’s biography with her work, Brownstein does perform a service in validating the literary and cultural value of Austen’s works despite the elusiveness of their author. Unfortunately, this book is too long and too author-centered to be of use to those who would like to learn the answer to the question, “Why Jane Austen?” Readers who wish to explore the reasons for Austen’s popularity over time might look to Claudia L. Johnson’s shorter and more focused study, Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures, recipient of Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award for excellence in the field of literary scholarship or criticism in 2013.

Carol A. Leibiger (ΦΒΚ, University of Connecticut, 1977) is Associate Professor in the University Libraries at the University of South Dakota and a resident member of the Alpha of South Dakota chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.