Category Archives: Criticism

Reading Jane Austen – Jenny Davidson

Reading Jane Austen – Jenny Davidson

I am not sure how I first became aware of this book, but when I was looking for a non-fiction book to read, I had this as a sample on my Kindle. It’s fabulous.

Here’s the blurb …

Whether you’re new to Austen’s work or know it backwards and forwards already, this book provides a clear, full and highly engaging account of how Austen’s fiction works and why it matters. Exploring new pathways into the study of Jane Austen’s writing, novelist and academic Jenny Davidson looks at Austen’s work through a writer’s lens, addressing formal questions about narration, novel writing, and fictional composition as well as themes including social and women’s history, morals and manners. Introducing new readers to the breadth and depth of Jane Austen’s writing, and offering new insights to those more familiar with Austen’s work, Jenny Davidson celebrates the art and skill of one of the most popular and influential writers in the history of English literature.

There are seven chapters and a very comprehensive Notes and Further Reading section. The Chapter titles are:

  • Letters
  • Conversation
  • Revision
  • Manners
  • Morals
  • Voice
  • Female Economies

In each chapter, Davidson refers to specific parts of all of the texts (and the letters). She has clearly read all of the novels extremely closely and her insights are interesting and thought-provoking. I need to go back and read the novels again.

For example, in the chapter on Morals, this passage is taken from Pride and Prejudice

Mrs. Bennet found, with amazement and horror, that her husband would not advance a guinea to buy clothes for his daughter. He protested that she should receive from him no mark of affection whatever, on the occasion. Mrs. Bennet could hardly comprehend it. That his anger could be carried to such a point of inconceivable resentment, as to refuse his daughter a privilege, without which her marriage would scarcely seem valid, exceeded all that she could believe possible. She was more alive to the disgrace, which the want of new clothes must reflect on her daughter’s nuptials, than to any sense of shame at her eloping and living with Wickham, a fortnight before they took place.

And then, Davidson writes this

Mrs. Bennet’s shallowness is mocked in this passage, but the novel reserves a more profound indictment for strict exertions of conventional moral judgment that aren’t tempered by the humility and humanity – the empathy, we might call it – that should properly accompany verdicts on other people’s wrongdoing. Austen herself, in her letters as in her fiction, would probably have phrased this point in more explicitly Christian terms, invoking forgiveness rather than sympathy or empathy and resolutely condemning the hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness of Christians unwilling to comprehend and forgive transgression.

If you’re interested in Austen, or reading critically or literature in the Georgian era, then this book is for you.

A review

Leave a Comment

Filed under Criticism, History, Recommended

Fathers in Jane Austen – I P Duckfield

Fathers in Jane Austen – I P Duckfield

My local Jane Austen group chose to read this for one of our meetings – various people were assigned (or volunteered) to read particular chapters. I read the chapter on Emma.

Here’s the blurb …

The role of fathers and father figures in Jane Austen’s novels, showing how the destiny of the daughter is dependent upon the father’s character and foibles.

Fathers in Jane Austen puts forward the view that fathers hold the key to the novels and the destinies of the daughters Austen portrays. Mr Bennet is completely detached (Pride and Prejudice); Mr Woodhouse is self-obsessed (Emma); Sir Walter Elliott is vain and profligate (Persuasion); Sir Thomas Bertram is emotionally anorexic (Mansfield) – these and other fathers leave their daughters exposed to destitution, seduction, financial ruin and unhappiness.

IP Duckfield shows that the heroines of Austen’s novels are caught in a trap made by their fathers’ failure to observe their parental duties, and argues that the fathers’ weaknesses lie at the heart of Austen’s novels.

Duckfield judges the fathers on three points (or at least he thinks Austen assesses them on three points):

  • Financial security
  • Education
  • Inculcating moral principles

So we can see someone like Mr Bennet (from Pride and Prejudice) is hopeless. He has made no provision for his daughters’ futures – once he is dead the Collins can kick them out as soon as they like. I don’t think he did much for their education (although he does have a good library and he seems to have let those who wanted to read what they liked). Given the way he spoke about his wife and younger daughters and Lydia’s flight I think we can say he didn’t do too well on the moral principles either.

Mr Woodhouse (from Emma) seems to fair a little bit better. She’s financially secure (although that is probably because Mr Knightley is taking care of their finances).

Mr Knightley […] being again at Hartfield on business with Mr Woodhouse […], as soon as Mr Woodhouse had been talked into what was necessary, told that he understood, and the papers swept away.

Chapter 3, Volume 2

He, Mr Woodhouse, has engaged Miss Taylor, so he is looking after the education of his daughters (or at least out-sourcing it). I am not sure how he scores on moral principles because I think Mr Knightley does that too. So he is fortunate in his friends, but does that make him a good father?

This is an interesting book, which provides another way of thinking about the novels. I have yet to read the remaining chapters, but plan to in the future.

A review from JASNA

Leave a Comment

Filed under Books, Criticism

Female Maturity from Jane Austen to Margaret Atwood – Michael Giffen

Female Maturity from Jane Austen to Margaret Atwood – Michael Giffen

I bought this at the Jane Austen conference in Canberra two years ago and have only just got to reading it.

Here is the blurb …

This book proposes a relationship between the novel that explores the heroine’s maturity (bildungsroman) and the spirit of her age (zeitgeist). Put another way, how an author of bildungsroman defines and measures maturity, and the process through which her heroine matures, changes between the neoclassical, romantic, realist, naturalist, modernist, and postmodernist periods, and continues to change in the post-postmodernist period. In demonstrating this proposal, Michael Giffin considers the trajectory bildungsroman has made during the 19th and 20th century, with reference to Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”, Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”, George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”, Henry Handel Richardson’s “The Getting of Wisdom”, Iris Murdoch’s “The Bell”, Muriel Spark’s “Robinson”, and Margaret Atwood’s “Alias Grace” (30,000 words).

It is actually very easy to read – each author has a chapter devoted to them, their novel is summarised and then Giffen makes his argument about the zeitgeist and bildungsroman, which essentially boils down to the zeitgeist of the time in which the author is writing affects the trajectory of the hero.

It was fascinating and made me want to read the novels again – I kept asking myself why I hadn’t noticed whatever point it was Giffen was making. At first I thought it might be too religious for me, but it wasn’t. Religion was certainly part of Bronte and Austen’s times (and even Eliot’s)  and therefore does need to be considered in this context, but I wouldn’t describe this book as religious.

Here is a link to the author’s website and an article her wrote on Emma.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Criticism

Jane Austen The Secret Radical – Helena Kelly

Jane Austen, the secret radical – Helena Kelly

I can’t remember where I first heard of this (or when), but, of course, I wanted to read it. Then there was a scathing review by John Mullan and I had second thoughts, but I had already purchased a copy by then.

Here is the blurb …

A brilliant, illuminating reassessment of the life and work of Jane Austen that makes clear how Austen has been misread for the past two centuries and that shows us how she intended her books to be read, revealing, as well, how subversive and daring–how truly radical–a writer she was.
In this fascinating, revelatory work, Helena Kelly–dazzling Jane Austen authority–looks past the grand houses, the pretty young women, past the demure drawing room dramas and witty commentary on the narrow social worlds of her time that became the hallmark of Austen’s work to bring to light the serious, ambitious, deeply subversive nature of this beloved writer. Kelly illuminates the radical subjects–slavery, poverty, feminism, the Church, evolution, among them–considered treasonous at the time, that Austen deftly explored in the six novels that have come to embody an age. The author reveals just how in the novels we find the real Jane Austen: a clever, clear-sighted woman “of information,” fully aware of what was going on in the world and sure about what she thought of it. We see a writer who understood that the novel–until then seen as mindless “trash”–could be a great art form and who, perhaps more than any other writer up to that time, imbued it with its particular greatness.

Ms Kelly has a warning at the end of chapter 1

If you want to stay with the novels and the Jane Austen you already know, then you should stop reading now.

and I think for many people that is good advice.

There is an introductory chapter, a chapter on each of the 6 novels and a concluding chapter. Each chapter begins with an imaginative excursion into Austen’s life – I must admit these sections annoyed me. The rest of the chapter is devoted to convincing the reader of Austen’s hidden meanings. Ms Kelly has an accessible style – no dense academic jargon – and reading this book made me want to read Austen again (surely a good thing).

Some of her theories I agreed with (Mrs Tilney dying from a miscarriage or ‘a disasterously mismanaged early labour’) and others I didn’t (Mr Knightley is my favourite hero, so I might be biased, but I refuse to believe he married Emma for her money and land).

Some of her arguments were of the type A relates to B, B relates to C, so A relates to C. It is impossible to know what Austen was thinking, so people need to decide if a series of coincidences are in fact coincidences or a code that Austen was using that contemporary readers would comprehend (do any contemporary reviewers comment on this stuff?). It reminds me of other Jane Austen conspiracy theorists, however, Ms Kelly has written her book and put her ideas out in the world and I am glad that I read it even if I didn’t agree with everything.

Another review …



Leave a Comment

Filed under Criticism

Jane of Green Gables


It is always interesting what you find when clicking links indiscriminately while browsing the internet.

I came across this interesting article Jane of Green Gables: L. M Montgomery’s Reworking of Austen’s Legacy by Miriam Rheingold Fuller, which links my two favourite authors.

I found this article via Sarah Emsley and I find her through the janeites email list ( it is worth being on the list for all of the controversy about shadow stories and conspiracies).

Leave a Comment

Filed under Criticism, Miscellaneous

Bitch in a Bonnet – Robert Rodi

Bitch in a Bonnet - Robert Rodi

Bitch in a Bonnet – Robert Rodi

I have to say this blog is in a decline a bit like Mrs Bennet after Lydia runs off with Wickham. Time, content and motivation are all my problems. Anyway, Bitch in a Bonnet, was recommended by one of the members of my Jane Austen group – I bought the Kindle version.

Here’s the blurb …

Novelist Rodi (Fag Hag, The Sugarman Bootlegs) launches a broadside against the depiction of Jane Austen as a “a woman’s writer…quaint and darling, doe-eyed and demure, parochial if not pastoral, and dizzily, swooningly romantic — the inventor and mother goddess of ‘chick lit.’” Instead he sees her as “a sly subversive, a clear-eyed social Darwinist, and the most unsparing satirist of her century… She takes sharp, swift swipes at the social structure and leaves it, not lethally wounded, but shorn of it prettifying garb, its flabby flesh exposed in all its naked grossness. And then she laughs.” In this volume, which collects and amplifies two-and-a-half years’ worth of blog entries, he combs through the first three novels in Austen’s canon — Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park — with the aim of charting her growth as both a novelist and a humorist, and of shattering the notion that she’s a romantic of any kind (“Weddings bore her, and the unrelenting vulgarity of our modern wedding industry — which strives to turn each marriage ceremony into the kind of blockbuster apotheosis that makes grand opera look like a campfire sing along — would appall her into derisive laughter”).
“Hilarious…Rodi’s title is a tribute. He’s angry that the Austen craze has defanged a novelist who’s ‘wicked, arch, and utterly merciless. She skewers the pompous, the pious, and the libidinous with the animal glee of a natural-born sadist’…Like Rodi, I believe Austen deserves to join the grand pantheon of gadflies: Voltaire and Swift, Twain and Mencken.” Lev Raphael, The Huffington Post.

I loved this book – it was like chatting to a rather acerbic friend about Austen. Although, I do disagree with his take on Fanny Price (I have a soft spot for Miss Price) I thought the rest was excellent – funny, insightful and easy to read. What’s more it made me want to go back and read the books again (surely that is the highest praise for a book on Austen?). I’ve bought the second volume and will get onto it as soon as I’ve cleared some of my (enormous) to be read pile.

If you are an Austen fan, then you will definitely enjoy this book (particularly if like me you think most people who write sequels etc have completely missed the point – they’re not romances people!).



1 Comment

Filed under Criticism, Recommended

A Jane Austen Education – William Deresiewicz

A Jane Austen Education

A Jane Austen Education – William Deresiewicz

I thought this book was charming. I admire people who can publish unflattering truths about themselves – although I do wonder about his relationship to his father (it is one thing to write unflattering things about yourself, but other people?)

This book makes me want to reread Austen’s novels (can’t get any more positive than that!). In fact I have downloaded them all to my Kindle (from here).

What did I learn?

From Emma I learned that every day things are important they are the substance from which life is built – it is true that the knowledge of every day detail creates intimacy. You can see that when someone moves away and you no longer know all of that ‘pointless’ detail – who puts that kind of detail into an email, letter or facebook post?

Pride and Prejudice is about making mistakes (big humiliating mistakes) and learning from them. It is the learning that is important. Plenty of people don’t learn from their mistakes – Lydia anyone?

Northanger Abbey is about learning and being open to new experiences. Don’t take things for granted including traditional ideas. Think for yourself and investigate your feelings.

I have always thought that Mansfield Park is under rated. Fanny Price is stoic (boring, but stoic). Mansfield Park shows that character is more important than wit, charm, money, etc.

Persuasion is about belonging and finding your ‘family’. It is about true friendship, which is about placing the welfare of your friend above yourself.

And finally, Sense and Sensibility is about love and once again character is  most important. You grow into love by meeting someone and getting to know them. However, not everyone is capable of love. You must have a loving heart. There are plenty of characters in Austen novels who don’t have a loving heart – Lucy Steele, John Thorpe.

More reviews …–-a-review/



Leave a Comment

Filed under Criticism, Recommended

Among the Janeites – Deborah Yaffe

Among the Janeites - Deborah Jaffe

Among the Janeites – Deborah Jaffe

I was keen to read this book and I wasn’t disappointed. It is easy to read and fun.

There are sections on dressing up, sequels, prequels, spin offs, conspiracy theories (Austen was writing a secret code that only one person has discovered in the past 200 years) and Austen therapy.

Ms Yaffe travels the world getting involved in all sorts of austen activities and she does it all with an open mind. I think this is an illuminating picture of the current state of Austen fandom. I’m not likely to dress up and learn a country dance, but I did enjoy reading about it.

I think this would make a great documentary – I would quite like to watch the dress fittings and the dancing and listen to the interviews – Sandy Lerner and Arnie Perlstein seem fascinating.

More reviews …

Leave a Comment

Filed under Criticism, Recommended

What Matters in Jane Austen – John Mullan


I finished reading this book – it is a interesting read and makes me want to read the novels again (that has to be a good thing).

Here is the description …

 Is there any sex in Austen? What do the characters call each other, and why? What are the right and wrong ways to propose marriage? And which important Austen characters never speak? In What Matters in Austen, John Mullan shows that you can best appreciate Jane Austen’s brilliance by looking at the intriguing quirks and intricacies of her fiction – by asking and answering some very specific questions about what goes on in her novels, he reveals their devilish cleverness. In twenty-one short chapters, each of which answers a question prompted by Jane Austen’s novels, Mullan illuminates the themes that matter most to the workings of the fiction. So the reader will discover when people had their meals and what shops they went to, how they addressed each other, who was allowed to write letters to whom, who owned coaches or pianos, how vicars got good livings and how wealth was inherited. What Matters in Austen explores the rituals and conventions of her fictional world in order to reveal her technical virtuosity and sheer daring as a novelist. Though not a book about Jane Austen’s life, it uses biographical detail and telling passages from her letters to explain episodes in her novels; readers will find out, for example, what novels she read or how much money she had to live on or what she saw at the theatre. Inspired by an enthusiastic reader’s curiosity, written with flair and based on a lifetime’s study, What Matters in Austen will appeal to all those who love and enjoy Jane Austen’s work.

There are chapters on: “What do the characters call each other”, “How much money is enough”, “Which important characters never speak”, etc. Did you know that the only married couple to use each others first names is Charles and Mary Musgrove? This book is crammed full of interesting information and also highlights parts that a contemporary reader what have interpreted differently to a modern reader. Mr Mullan has an easy (can I say non-academic) writing style, which makes this book a pleasure to read.

I think this book is a must not only for Austen fans, but for anyone interested in English Literature and the development of the novel.

More reviews …




Leave a Comment

Filed under Criticism, Recommended

What Matrers in Jane Austen? – John Mullan

A friend sent me a link to this review about this book – of course I had to buy it. It just arrived in the mail and I haven’t read it yet, but it is next in line after All That I Am by Anna Funder.


Leave a Comment

Filed under Criticism