Wednesday 11 April 2012

Authors on Authors (Part 1)

I'm away this week, off up to Newcastle to give a conference paper, then to one of very my best friends' wedding in Worcester at the weekend (very exciting!) so I've prepared a mini-series of posts to appear in my absence.  It's not another lot of My Life in Books, I'm afraid, but it isn't too far away... the next three posts will be on books about books.  Or, more precisely, authors discussing authors: each of the three books/pamphlets are about famous authors, by our sort of middlebrow authors.  Fun!

First up, and taking the spot for 1943 in A Century of Books, is Talking of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern.  My housemate Mel gave this to me for my birthday in 2010 (thanks, Mel!) knowing how much I'd enjoyed its sequel, More Talk Of Jane Austen.  Yes, I'm doing these things the wrong way around, but it doesn't much matter which order you read these books in - except that I would argue Talking of Jane Austen is even better.

The book is divided into fifteen essays, alternatively by Kaye-Smith and Stern.  Proceedings kick off with 'Introducing Sheila Kaye-Smith to Jane Austen' and 'Introducing G.B. Stern to Jane Austen', where our esteemed authoresses recount how they first came to read Austen - sheepishly admitting their early disregard of her, and triumphantly rejoicing in the moments (both with Emma, incidentally) where they discovered their lasting affinity with Jane.  Their love of Jane shines through every paragraph - this is an appreciation, but one from calm hearts and careful minds.  They do not run mad nor faint, rather they love both wisely and well.
To enter that world is to visit a congenial set of friends, and I still find that in their company I lose my own cares, much as I lost them on my first visit, thirty years ago.  Jane Austen is the perfect novelist of escape - of legitimate escape, such as are our holidays.  She does not transport one into fantasy but simply into another, less urgent, set of facts.  She tells no fairy-tale which might send us back dazzled and reeling to our contacts with normal life, but diverts us from our preoccupations with another set of problems no less real than our own, but making no personal demands upon us.  In fact it is her realism which provides the escape, for the fantastic and improbable only irritate certain minds and send them hurrying back unrefreshed to their own business.
Amongst the topics addressed are the education of female characters; a re-evaluation (now a fairly standard argument) or Henry and Maria Crawford; dress and food in the novels; the device of letter-writing... a wide-ranging group of intriguing minutiae.

Perhaps the bravest section is where Stern and Kaye-Smith turn their attention to characters which they consider failed.  Avert your eyes if you consider St. Jane to be infallible.  Even more bravely, this is how Stern prefixes the discussion:
When an author fails with one of her characters, it must, I think, be defined as a lack of perception, a certain bluntness of outlook where this particular character is concerned.  For where the author is aware she has failed, she will be compelled to do something about it: alter it, cut it, add to it, so that it will remain an uneven lop-sided conception with some irrelevant good scenes and some hopeless; showing traces of exasperated tinkering.  Where a character is a plain failure, evenly spread, we can usually detect some slight complacency in its creator.
And whose names are suggested?  Well, Stern and Kaye-Smith cannot agree on some of them, but amongst their nominations are Colonel Brandon, Eleanor Tilney, Lady Russell, Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  Since those final three characters are amongst my favourite in all the novels, I shall maintain a dignified silence on the topic.  (How could they!)  Ahem.

Perhaps the most fun section is at the end, where is all becomes something of a miscellany.  There are twenty pages of incidental comments and observations, or thoughts which were not quite sufficient to be developed into a whole chapter.  Here's just one of 'em, courtesy of Sheila Kaye-Smith:
No two authors, you might think, would be less likely to have their work mistaken for each other's than Jane Austen and Aldous Huxley.  Nevertheless I have recently seen a quotation from the author of Pride and Prejudice attributed to the author of Eyeless in Gaza.  It was in a review of the screen version of Pride and Prejudice, for the script of which Hollywood, with its fine sense of fitness, had made Mr. Huxley responsible.  The critic, having congratulated him on the complete suppression of his literary personality in this task, goes on to say that one piece of dialogue, however, stands out unmistakably as his own.  He then quotes Sir William Lucas's commendation of dancing as "one of the first refinements of polished society", with Darcy's reply: "Certainly, sir; and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world - every savage can dance."
If you're not already a Janeite, this probably isn't a good place to start.   Indeed, you should probably have read all of Austen's books at least once before you even consider reading Talking of Jane Austen.  The authors are contentedly aware of this themselves, and welcome anyone (is it you?) who fits the description below:
We are not prowling round, my collaborator and myself, searching for converts; only for those insatiable legions who find the same mysterious pleasure as we do in talking Jane, discovering Jane, arguing Jane, quoting Jane, listing Jane, and for ever and ever marvelling at Jane and grateful for her legacy.
And so say all of us!


  1. Well, clearly I am going to need to read this!

    It's interesting that Lady Catherine is highlighted as one of the less successful characters since I remember Margaret Kennedy saying something along the same lines in her Jane Austen book. I completely agree about both Colonel Brandon and Eleanor Tilney though. I find them both annoyingly bland and generally forget about Eleanor entirely from one rereading to the next. I would be interested to read what they have to say about Lady Russell. I've always been drawn to her and felt cheated that we didn't get more of her in the book.

    Have fun at the conference and have even more fun at the wedding!

    1. I think I agree about Colonel Brandon, although I think he might be intended to be a poor hero - to emphasise the reversal of sense and sensibility through the novel. And I had forgotten Eleanor entirely before reading this book!

  2. 'In fact it is her realism which provides the escape.' I love this bit!

    Good luck at your conference! What is your paper on? :)

    1. I know, I love that bit!

      My paper was on The Love-Child by Edith Olivier and Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner - it seemed to go pretty well, thanks :)

  3. Oh I am going to have to track down that book!! I am working on a longer paper on her right now and this sounds helpful =)


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