Monday, 19 July 2010

Speaking of Jane


The book I'm talking about tonight is one of those lovely books which just doesn't seem to be written anymore. I bought it in Colchester as one of my first books under Project 24, and it's as lovely as it looks and sounds: More Talk of Jane Austen (1950) by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern.

Now, of course, I've done things in slightly the wrong order, because I've not read Speaking of Jane Austen, the volume preceding this one. Nor, in fact, have I read anything by Kaye-Smith or Stern, though Stern's A Name to Conjure With has been on my bookshelf for about a decade. But no matter - for anyone who has read Austen's novels (and it is important that you've read all six before opening this book) More Talk of Jane Austen is delicious, self-indulgent fun.

The first chapter is called 'What is it about Jane Austen?' I don't know if the scenario is real or imagined, but the question is posed by Barbara (age 17 and a half) to G.B. Stern, as Barbara's beloved is mad on Austen: '"It's his thing." And Barbara added, being a tolerant girl: "Nobody can help their thing."' Of course, the same misconceptions Barbara has are those which fly about nowadays - that she's for 'maiden aunts in drawing-rooms' and so forth. And naturally Stern disabuses her - excuse the lengthy passage, but it's too lovely not to quote in full.
"She's neither bitty nor boisterous about her people; instead, she has irony, tenderness, clear vision, and most of all a gorgeous sense of their absurdity which is never really exaggerated into more than life-size. You're absurd, I'm absurd, and so in some way or other are most of the people we meet. She does not have to distort or magnify what they're like; she just recognises them, delights in them herself, and then re-creates them for our benefit without illusion or grandiloquence, and without any array of special circumstance, of drama, for instance, or horror, or even topical events of the day; luckily for her and for us, to leave them out was natural and not forced for her period, unless you were a gentleman actively involved in war and politics and religion and the struggle for existence; at her period you could be one of an isolated group living in the same country neighbourhood in England, without in any way meriting the reproach of escapism. Escape need have no 'ism' when we escape into Jane Austen; and when we have to return there's no wrench, no jolt, no descent from the aeroplane, no bump back to life with a shock, no subsequent daze and resentment; it's escape from our reality into her reality, and we can fuse our world with hers which is curiously and essentially 'unrubbishy'. So there they are, her characters, concentrated for our benefit into a small circle of time and space, deliciously giving themselves away not only in action but by the smallest working of their motives and pre-occupations; absolutely unaware, of course, that anyone is catching them out at it. It's no crime to be a lover of Jane Austen; but if you aren't, you can't understand why we find her so restful, because you're much too inclined to translate 'restful' into 'soporific'; if we just wanted an author who would send us nicely to sleep, we should not go to Jane Austen; she's restful from exactly the opposite reason: we're alert all the time when we're reading and re-reading and re-re-reading Jane, otherwise we might miss something, some tiny exquisite detail, an almost imperceptible movement in the mind of her characters. Her poise is unassailable; you can trust it, and that's restful in itself. The same with her judgments; you can trust them, and relax; mind you, to be able to relax wit an author isn't the same thing again as to say she's relaxing; the air of Bath is relaxing, but the air of Jane Austen isn't; she's pungent, she's bracing; you're breathing good air while you read Jane, and so you feel well. Apart from her gorgeous sense of humour, her vision is so fairly and evenly adjusted that you don't have to get distracted all the time by the author's own prejudices and neuroses subconsciously creeping in to distort the whole thing, and having to make allowances for environment ---"

"Darling, do you think you could stop talking like a handbook on psycho-analysis? Because if it's just to please me ---"

"Dear little girl, I'd forgotten for the moment that you were there."

That should be required reading for any Jane doubters. In truth, the rest of the book doesn't really have this tone - it's not done 'in conversation with' anyone. Stern and Kaye-Smith take alternate chapters, and address topics like letters, beauty, servants etc. etc. It is well-researched but not unduly scholarly - More Talk of Jane Austen can only be described as an appreciation. There isn't a hint of objectivity, nor would I have there be: this is the unashamed indulgence of Janeites keen to delve into every detail of Austen's novels. Not with the mad (and maddening) conspiracy theories or secret-subtext theories so beloved of Edward Said and his chums, but a simple gleaning of all the details Jane Austen actually put in the novels.

The book never feels over-zealous or superfluous - perhaps it would, were they examining any lesser writer than Austen. Or perhaps, as a Janeite, I cannot see clearly - for I revelled in this delight of a book, and only wonder why such things seem to be so out of fashion. Or, perhaps, they've just transferred to the blogosphere?

ETA: after posting this, I saw Rachel's abundantly lovely Janeite post here - transferred to the blogosphere indeed!


Things to get Stuck into:

Howards End is on the Landing - Susan Hill: unquestionably my favourite book-about-books, even if Jane Austen gets short shrift within these pages (everyone has their faults).

Mrs. Darcy's Dilemma - Diana Birchall: one must tread carefully when it comes to Austen sequels - but Diana Birchall's witty and loving sequel is very respectful and an entire delight.


11 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I always get very indignant when people dismiss Austen's novels as twee "romances" by a sheltered spinster, because I've always thought of her as having a rather lacerating view of human nature that is every bit as relevant today as it was 200 years ago. I certainly have "met" Mrs. Elton, and Lady Catherine, and Sir John Middleton, and Emma Woodhouse. (But alas, no Mr. Knightley!)

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  2. What a lovely post Simon - I haven't read this or "Speaking of..." but it sounds interesting. i would really recommend a collection of short stories called Dancing with Mr Darcy - they are all inspired by Jane Austen and some of them are real gems. I think you would enjoy.

    Hannah

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  3. I have yet to read an entire Austen... isnt that shameful!?!

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  4. No it isn't in the least bit shameful that you haven't read an entire Austen, "savidgereads"! What would be shameful was if you adopted the attitude rightly deprecated by "Karen" in her earlier comment. I know that there are a whole series of authors whose work I have not read anything more than an excerpt of (Hardy, the Brontes, Updike etc.) and I can probably come up with a "must read" (how I worry about and dislkie that phrase) list that many of you won't have read any of. It's the reasons we chose not to read a particular that I find interesting; much more so than v.v.

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  5. I have read bits of the volume that precedes this one in the library, and what little I have read leads we to endorse your every word. I am not allowing myself to bring the book home until I have read some of the works of the two authors. I started on Joanna Godden yesterday and so far it is love. Should country tales of farming folk in the early part of this century appeal to you, I do believe you would feel the same way.

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  6. And I'll second Hannah's recommendation of Dancing With Mr Darcy!

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  7. Hi Simon, thanks for your review.
    I own a copy of Speaking of Jane Austen which was published in 1943 on wartime economy type paper (actually incredibly sturdy looking to me, and now since reading your post I wonder if it is a wee bit 'collectible'.) It was 50p at the secondhand book table at a meeting of the London branch of the Jane Austen Society which I belonged to when living in London. (A brilliant society for all you London JA lovers by the way.) I read the whole of Speaking Of and loved it. At times it was a little quaint, but actually has very relevent comments which hold their own today amongst today's copious JA criticisms. I think the closest equivalent to this style of unapologetically personal/subjective discussion would be Susan Hill's Howard's End is On the Landing. You kind of have to get quite famous before you can write one of these...

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  8. I keep seeing copies of 'Speaking of Jane Austen' everywhere I go...I must pick one up next time I see one, though I haven't read any of Sheila Kaye-Smith either, and would like to know more about her as an author. This book sounds absolutely delightful, and just the sort of cosy criticism/appreciation I like to read. What serendipity that we both decided to post about Jane Austen this week! Thank you so much for the link!

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  9. I own both of these gems. I wish some intrepid publisher would re-issue them. Thanks for your thoughtful review.

    Yes Merenia - both editions are very collectible and if in good condition command a steep price.

    bookssnobb If you are finding Speaking of Jane Austen everywhere, buy it. You will not regret the pleasure of reading it nor the value it will maintain.

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  10. I'm reading Howards End is on the Landing at the moment and am enjoying it, too. I rejected it for a while, when it appeared on amazon, when I saw that she didn't like Jane Austen. Then last week I picked it up in a bookshop and spent about 10 minutes browsing. That's how I knew I should buy it after all!

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  11. Karen - I don't think I know anyone who's actually *read* any who uses that dismissal! Most of the prejudice is from those who have only seen adaptations on TV

    Hannah - yes, I've heard of that, could be fun! And I'm sure you'd like More Talk of JA...

    Simon - it is QUITE SHOCKING!

    Peter - really? More interesting why we don't read books? Most just because I wouldn't think of them! But I do think Jane Austen is in a category apart... of course every ounce of logic goes against that, but I still feel it is difficult to comment on the English novel as a form without having read JA. I would imagine your 'must read' list would be largely foreign or modern, if you think we won't have read them, and that's a different ball game :) (Oh, and I'm pretty sure "Karen" is really called Karen!)

    Jane - oo, give in, take it home! The first book is one of the ones I will buy as soon as Project 24 is over...

    Merenia - only 50p, how lucky! And yes, HEiotL is one that sprang to mind - if only more famous people would use their opportunity to write something similar.

    Rachel - well I never seem to see it, so they are definitely being laid in your path ;-)

    Laurel Ann - oh, wouldn't a reprint be lovely? I think there could be a market for it, given how many JA sequels and spin-offs seem to find publishers.

    Penny - and I'm just rereading it! Once I'd forgiven her JA blip, I loved it :)

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