JANE AUSTEN'S WOMEN: AN INTRODUCTION by Kathleen Anderson, Reviewed by June Sturrock
 

JANE AUSTEN'S WOMEN: AN INTRODUCTION
By Kathleen Anderson
(SUNY, 2018) xxv + 293 pp.
Reviewed by June Sturrock on 2019-10-07.

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Kathleen Anderson founds the arguments of this book on a detailed knowledge of Austen's six novels acquired over years of reading, teaching, and thinking about them. A brief introduction leads to eight chapters organized into three parts: "Women and the Body: Strength, Sex, and Austenian Wellness"; "Women's Natures: Mood, Mind, Spirit, and Female Giftedness" and "Women and Others: The Female Self on Environmental, Social, and Imaginative Space." Throughout each part she considers carefully the significance of minor as well as major female characters--and quite a few males, too. She writes as both a feminist and a Christian, a suitably blended approach to the work of a rector's daughter who consistently portrayed women as persons with moral and intellectual responsibility and agency.

Accordingly, Anderson catches Austen's subtle emphasis on the obligation of her characters, male and female alike, to look beyond and outside the self and its demands to their social, cultural, and natural surroundings. Her chapter on women and the environment, for instance, places Austen's heroines in "their relationships to space" and to the wider world (152). While the sophisticated Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park uses the gardens of Sotherton merely as a backdrop for flirtation, Fanny Price "can admire and commune with beauty outside herself," and the contrast is subtly repeated when the two young women walk together in the shrubberies of Mansfield parsonage (152-3). Austen's characters can also misuse the arts. In Sense and Sensibility, as Anderson notes perceptively, Marianne Dashwood abuses both her art and her own artistry when she treats her piano merely as a "venting mechanism" (91) in her misery over Willoughby's departure. Anderson consistently stresses Austen's concern with "the gender-neutrality of virtue and the onus to cultivate it" (217), an important element in any discussion of Austen's women.

In spite of all these good qualities, however, the book is weakened by too frequent overstatement and some uncertainty of tone. Anderson also tends to interpret Austen's novels as if they were self-help literature rather than fiction. Having co-authored (with Susan E. Jones) Jane Austen's Guide to Thrift: An Independent Women's Advice on Living within One's Means (Berkley Books 2013), Anderson possibly felt that she could apply to the present volume the light-hearted touch used in the previous one. Yet such an approach necessarily distorts any interpretation of a writer who understands and relishes both the conventions and the possibilities of her chosen genre as intensely as does Austen. The subtitle of chapter three, for example, is "The Path to Emotional Health in Sense and Sensibility." In this chapter Anderson writes of "the ultimate message [delivered] to women" (67) by Sense and Sensibility, which unsurprisingly includes the desirability of merging both qualities, and claims that Austen "exhorts . . . women to take control of their emotional lives" (emphases mine). Comments like these, by no means isolated, miss the fact that Austen was a novelist rather than a guide to conduct and by no means given to either exhortation or explicit messages. Though they stand on an ethical basis, Austen's complex fictions differ widely from simplistic and explicitly didactic narratives such as those of her older contemporary, Hannah More.

Anderson's overstatements also blur the fine distinctions that Austen is so careful to establish. Though Miss Bates (in Emma) is certainly a good woman, she is by no means "an approximate Christ figure" (139); similarly, though Anne Elliot (in Persuasion) often exemplifies Christian charity, she never becomes an "almost-Christ figure" (223). Occasionally such exaggerations seriously weaken Anderson's strongest arguments. Stressing, for instance, the significance of Mrs. Jennings and her younger daughter, Charlotte Palmer, in Sense and Sensibility, she contrasts their equanimity and generosity with the super-sensitivity and censoriousness of the Dashwood sisters, especially Marianne. This contrast generally illuminates the sometimes destructive vulnerability of the two young sisters as well as their often judgmental approach to other people. But in claiming that Charlotte and Mrs. Jennings are the only characters who exemplify "the healthiest blend of sense with sensibility" (81), Anderson ignores the way in which Marianne and, to a lesser extent, Elinor grow up into this blend.

Also, in overstating the virtues of Mrs. Jennings and her daughter, Anderson ignores the vital differences among the four characters. While Elinor and Marianne are clever and intellectual, Charlotte's good nature largely springs from her imperviousness. As for Mrs. Jennings, the early chapters lead readers to misjudge her just as Elinor and Marianne do. Since Mrs. Jennings is indeed socially irritating because she lacks sensitivity to other people's feelings, the reader--like the sisters-- must learn to value her real compassion and resourcefulness. Furthermore, Anderson's apparent distaste for Marianne's excessive sensibility leads her to ignore a significant development in the narrative. According to Anderson, Marianne and Catherine Morland (of Northanger Abbey) are the least heroic of Austen's heroines "because they never see their lives' higher purpose extrinsic to their chosen love object (or, by implication, beyond themselves)" (219). Yet Marianne, who like Catherine Morland is very young, changes radically in the course of the narrative and explicitly learns to look beyond herself. While pouring out her heart to Elinor near the end of the novel, she recalls feeling in her convalescence that she might die from "'the very eagerness of my desire to live, to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all'" (volume 3, chapter 10).

Just as Anderson's overstatements tend to blur Austen's subtle sense of nuance and distinction, the instability of Anderson's tone undermines her persuasiveness. Of Elizabeth's elder sister in Pride and Prejudice Anderson writes, "Jane has a hankering for hunks" (34) and "easily develops crushes on cute boys" (35). Besides offering no particular evidence for these assertions, Anderson uses a diction that clashes stridently with Austen's own. She likewise jars the reader--or at least this reader--when she clumsily calls the elegant and reticent Eleanor Tilney of Northanger Abbey "picturesque-savvy" (xxii). Perhaps, since this book is called An Introduction, Anderson aims to appeal to its younger readers. But this strategy can be risky: how many young women now call attractive young men "hunks" and "cute boys"? Similarly disconcerting is the abrupt change of tone in Anderson's discussion of Emma, where she calls Box Hill, the site of the unfortunate midsummer picnic,"a yonic and phallic symbol" (169). Besides anomalously yoking a Hindu term for the vagina with a Freudian phrase, this statement has no factual basis. Since Box Hill was a famous and often illustrated beauty spot, and since Austen stayed near there in 1814, she would have known very well that its name referred to the boxwood trees that proliferate there. Boxwood has nothing to do with a female space, and the long flat top of the Hill is about as unphallic as a hill can be.

As an introduction, Anderson's book quite reasonably examines certain elements of the material world of Austen's fiction and especially the female bodies represented there. But anyone new to Austen's fiction might also have benefitted from attention to other material concerns, especially money. Twenty-first century women facing gender inequities in salary and employment possibilities might well want to consider the care with which Austen defines the socio-economic position of her female characters. Newcomers to Austen might also wish to see how distorted attitudes towards the relationship between money and marriage injure the ethics and warp the histories of such characters as Maria Bertram and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, Lucy Steele in Sense and Sensibility, and Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice.

I also have some minor concerns. Basing her book on Austen's six novels alone, Anderson wholly ignores her juvenilia, fragments such as The Watsons and Sanditon, and the novella Lady Susan. Also, taking the six novels as one homogenous opus, she raises no questions about date and development. Along with her use of the old Oxford editions, edited by R. W. Chapman, rather than the more recent Cambridge editions, I find all these choices surprising. In addition, the index is not at all helpful. And surely an introductory work might offer some guidance to possible secondary sources, rather than merely grafting them into the text, usually without assessing or analyzing them in any way.

Does this book fulfill its promise of providing "a general introduction to Austen's women" (xxii)? Certainly it does, in many important ways. It indicates clearly Austen's sense of the complexity and potential of women's lives, as well as their restrictions. It also shows how seriously Austen treats moral issues affecting women's choices. But it offers little introduction to Austen the artist, to her ironies, her language, her mastery of implication, and her insight into the complexities and contradictions of characters and their interactions.

June Sturrock is Professor Emerita of English at Simon Fraser University, Canada.


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