Monday 2 January 2012

Jane Austen by Margaret Kennedy

One day in, and the first book for A Century of Books is completed.  Truth be told, I read the first two-thirds in 2011, but spent this afternoon finishing it off.  It's a bit of a cheat, because although it was published 1950, it's one of those not-very-of-its-time books - being Jane Austen by Margaret Kennedy.

I was sorting through my books in Somerset and found a paper bag filled with books from my aunt, which she was either lending or giving to me back in 2004 (Jacq - which was it?!) and discovered this book in it.  I've yet to read anything by Margaret Kennedy (despite getting a lovely copy of Together and Apart for Christmas) and I had no idea that she'd written a book about Jane Austen.  Being in the mood for a little quirky non-fiction, I picked it up and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Apparently it was the first in a series called The English Novelists, and it is part-biography, part-criticism.  In fact, it's mostly an assessment of Austen's various novels - written by an unashamed fan, but one who is not incapable of pointing out what she believes to be areas for improvement.  Her views are unusual - how many of us would call Mansfield Park 'the most important of the novels, the most ambitious in theme, and the best example of her powers'? - but it's a good look through the eyes of an perceptive reader of the 1950s, to see how Austen was estimated sixty years ago.

Jane Austen is scarcely more than a hundred pages long, but Kennedy packs a lot in, with precise organisation.  In fifteen pages she covers 'The Background'; a wonderfully informative summary of the novels which preceded Austen's.  Then Kennedy covers 'The Life' in fourteen pages, thereby providing as good an overview as you're likely to encounter in many books ten times that length.  It is a more modern phenomenon to elaborate where details are not known, or invent suppositions where discretion is more flattering.  Austen's momentary engagement, for example, is not mentioned.  Was it not known in 1950?

The next sections onto 'The Letters', which are often held up simply as an example of the biographer's disappointment.  Kennedy is no different:
To search through these letters for any trace of the novels is a most disheartening task.  It is not merely that the books themselves are scarcely ever mentioned; there is so little trace of the material from which the books were made.  We feel as some archaeologist might, who comes upon some large and promising mass of fragments buried under a lost city once famous for its art, and finds that they are all shards of coarse kitchen ware; that every trace of sculpture, urns, tiles, tablets and inscriptions has been scrupulously removed.  It is with gratitude that we identify a few cooking pots.  There is a Moor Park apricot tree at Chawton; we remember one at Mansfield Parsonage.  Isabella Thorpe advised Catherine Morland to read The Midnight Bell; here is Mr. Austen reading it at an inn.
I do not entirely agree with this estimation of Austen's extant letters, but I love the image Kennedy devises.  I also love the sensitive way she explores the difference between Austen's early and later letters.  Like everything else in Kennedy's book, it's a speedy but excellent summary and assessment.

And then the chapters for which I was waiting.  'The Novels - First Period' and 'The Novels - Second Period'; 'Some Criticisms' and 'Jane Austen's Place in Literature'.  It's no secret that I love Austen's novels, and I especially like reading about her novels - an area understandably skirted around by those with a strictly biographical outlook.  In these, Kennedy gives quick outlines of the novels, before delivering her own verdict - always admiring, but never gushing.  She knows Austen's characters as well as her own friends and family - watching their actions, carefully considering their qualities, and understanding the work of the author all the while.
At twenty-one she has served her term.  She knows what she wants to say.  She has discovered how to say it.  First Impressions, afterwards called Pride and Prejudice, is written with all the fresh exhilaration of that discovery.  It has faults which are to disappear in the later books, but never again is she to write with quite the same vitality and high spirits as she does in this first spring of her powers.  They give it a quality which makes very many of her readers choose it as their favourite.

We are told that it was extensively polished, corrected and revised between 1796 and 1813, when it was published.  But its great merit must have been inherent in the first draft, since characters spring to life at once or never, and truth is one of the things which cannot be "put in afterwards."
I'm not sure I agree with this somewhat whimsical statement, but I would very much like to.  However, what makes Kennedy's analysis of the novels so worth reading is her own status as a novelist.  She writes of the characters with an authorial eye; she critiques their well-roundedness or believability with the voice of one who has striven at the same tasks and encountered the same obstacles.  I especially liked her imagined scenario of Austen considering Jane Fairfax as a heroine, and being gradually swayed to focus instead upon Emma Woodhouse.

In the final sections of the book, Kennedy considers views of Jane Austen from her death onwards, and is especially good on Charlotte Bronte's notorious bad-mouthing of Austen (without getting as vicious and biting as I would.)  I'm once again amazed that Kennedy can write so economically - covering such ground in so few words.

I cannot think of a better person to write a book like this.  Being both a novelist and an Austen addict, she has both the authority and the affection to write a book which is knowledgeable and perceptive, but never cold or detached.  Anybody who could write the following wins my approval:
Kitty is better managed; her complete insignificance is so well relieved by the untimeliness of her coughing fits.
Austen isn't lacking in admirers and there is no shortage of words written about her.  A slim 1950 hardback will probably get lost amidst the Tomalins, Jenkins, Le Fayes etc. - but I would definitely encourage you to seek it out.  As a reader and a writer, Kennedy has written a beautiful little book which is a stone's-throw away from an appreciation - but with an authorial acumen which prevents it being the enthused ravings of someone like me, who, without Kennedy's restraint, would doubtless fill all 107 pages with the single sentence I LOVE YOU, JANE AUSTEN, I FLIPPIN' LOVE YOU.

A Century of Books has got off to a good start!


  1. What a delightful-sounding book to start your year with, Simon! As much as I love "enthused ravings" it is always wonderful to read more considered analysis, particularly from an Austen addict. My library happens to have this (your recent reviews are aligning perfectly with their catalogue) so I will certainly be reading it at some point!

  2. This sounds lovely, Simon. I've only read MK's Constant Nymph but I have a couple more novels on the tbr shelves. She was one of the Somerville novelists (along with Dorothy L Sayers, Vera Brittain & Winifred Holtby) so I've always been interested in her.

  3. Thank you for this review - I, too, had no idea Kennedy had written an Austen bio. I wonder if you've read Elizabeth Jenkins'? I read it last year and enjoyed it very much. I'd be curious to know how you'd compare the two, as Jenkins' book is also part-bio and part-criticism. Besides which, she writes SO beautifully, as you know, from reading her wonderful novel The Tortoise and the Hare. Jenkins' also holds Mansfield Park in very high esteem, by the way. Perhaps sensibilities have changed considerably since she and Kennedy wrote; Jenkins certainly didn't consider Fanny Price to be a prig, as so many readers nowadays (not me) do.

  4. Sounds like a great way to kick off the new reading year, and another one to add to my list.

  5. I've read and enjoyed The Constant Nymph pre-blogging days -- maybe you should try that sometime. I actually agree with her in some ways about Mansfield Park -- at least I feel it is much under-rated.

  6. I agree about 'Mansfield Park' being unjustly underrated by many readers these days. It's interesting what Leticia writes, that ideas of priggishness, like ideas of feminine behaviour, may have changed.

    MK's 'The Ladies of Lyndon' is also very good.

    Happy new year!

  7. Having picked up Margaret Kennedy's The Ladies of Lyndon in a second hand bookshop, never having heard of her but seeing it was a Virago and I liked the title I bought it. It took me a very long time to finish reading it. Then she pops up here. Reading the comments on Margaret Kennedy I may now read another of her novels - if I find one in a second hand book shop.
    Happy New Year to you.

  8. You are being a bit hard on yourself by describing this book as "a bit of a cheat". A book about an early nineteenth century novelist written in the 1950s is as much a part of twentieth century literature as a book about ancient Egypt written in the same decade. Both will inevitably reflect something of the time in which they were written, however hard the author might strive for objectivity. In any case, as I understand it, you have set yourself the challenge of reading one book from each year of the twentieth century, not necessarily the best or most representative of the zeitgeist. As such, Margaret Kennedy's book fits the bill.

  9. Claire - yes, it was a lovely discovery! How nice that, for once, I'm talking about a stream of obscure books to which you actually have access. I'm pretty sure you'd like this a lot.

    Lyn - I discovered that the other day when chatting to Becca, who works at Somerville. The library there really is doveish heaven.

    Leticia - I haven't read the Jenkins, but my Mum has it - I'll wait a while before reading another Austen book, but I am much more keen to read it now you've told me that it's part-criticism. I feel I know her life off by heart now. So, thanks v much for mentioning that!
    I didn't find Fanny a prig when I read MP - I just found the novel dragged a bit in the middle, but that was probably the impatient eyes of a 17 year old.

  10. Susan - I'd be intrigued to know your first book of the year, Susan?

    Harriet - The Constant Nymph has danced around my consciousness for years (what an image) and I never expected this to be my first Margaret Kennedy - but I was very much in the mood for non-fic. Together and Apart will be my next MK, I think.
    And I'll be joining in a Mansfield Park re-read with Rachel et al!

    Helen - I do think Fanny fits in with other contemporary heroines. Compared to Pamela (obviously earlier) she is a daredevil! Such a shame that Edward Said's absurd views of Mansfield Park have dominated criticism of it for ages.

  11. JHD - a very happy new year! Was the long time reading Kennedy because it was dreary, or did it just happen like that? Some books I take forever to read and don't really know why...

    David - thank you very much, that really does make me feel better! I wouldn't want my whole year to be this sort of book, but you've made me realise that it doesn't have to be a hundred zeitgeisty books either.

  12. This sounds really interesting. I've only read two Austen's before, and was rather underwealmed, but I think that I may revist an Austen this year.

  13. I'm beginning 2012 by taking part in a Jane Austen challenge, and this sounds like the perfect book to understand both Jane Austen and her books better.

  14. I recently read Carol Shields' book on Jane Austen and enjoyed it very much - it seemed to me to be half biography and half empathy. I didn't know of the Margaret Kennedy one, but now I want to read that too. You are so right about the pleasure of reading books on Austen as well as by her!

  15. ABS -oh do make this the year of Austen, do!

    Geetanjali - wonderful! Is it the Mansfield Park challenge, or a different one?

    Jodie - all these people who have written on Jane Austen and I didn't know about it! How lovely to have all these sources to go to - it makes up for Austen only writing six novels...


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