There is no doubt in my mind that Speaking of Jane Austen (or Talking of Jane Austen) by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern will find its way onto my “Top Ten Books of 2013” list at the end of the year; the only question is what position it will occupy. Were I to make that list today there would be no doubt: it is far and away the best thing I have read in 2013.
I always enjoy reading other people’s thoughts on Jane Austen and, goodness knows, there are more than enough books and blogs out there to make even the most rabid Janeite happy. My preference has always been for personal, informal lit crit: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Margaret Kennedy both wrote wonderfully intelligent and personal books that highlight both Austen’s technical genius and the kind of intense relationships her readers form with her characters. Speaking of Jane Austen falls in this same category but is quite honestly so much more detailed and joyful than anything else I have ever read on Austen that it deserves to be in a class all its own.
There is no pleasure so complete as reading a book about a topic you love by authors whose tastes match yours in every particular. I had expected, after reading her memoir, to enjoy Sheila Kaye-Smith’s (SKS) chapters the most and was surprised – but delighted – to enjoy G.B. Stern’s (GBS) just as much. Both women felt similarly towards the six books but even in their agreement they retain their own unique personalities. They are warm and funny and their joy at getting to explore any and every Austen-related topic that catches their fancy is immense, as was my joy in reading.
The authors trade off, chapter by chapter, touching on every imaginable topic: the influence of current events on Austen’s writing; the “chumps” in her novels and which ones are most loveable (answer: Mr Woodhouse and Mrs Dashwood); SKS’s desire to know what the heroines were wearing and eating; life in the country; women’s education and accomplishments; Austen’s portrayal of decidedly unspiritual clergymen; the importance of letter writing; and then, most enjoyably, discussions of characters Austen failed to bring to life (GBS picks include Colonel Brandon, Eleanor Tilney and Lady Catherine de Bourgh; SKS is disappointed by Mary Bennet, Mr Palmer, and Lady Russell) and characters who are mentioned but never emerge from the background (Mary King, Colonel Forster, Isabella Thorpe’s friend Miss Andrews, etc). There is a shamefully difficult quiz (which can be found in its entirety here), with questions like: What kind of apricot did Dr Grant discuss with Mrs Norris and what was the price of it? And What do we know about – (a) Miss Grantley, (b) Mrs Speed, (c) Miss Pope, (d) Charlotte Davies, (e) Miss King, (f) Biddy Henshawe, (g) Lady Stonoway, (h) the Lady Frasers, (i) the Tupmans, (j) Lady Mary Grierson? Who??? Immediately following these stumpers there is a section of odds and ends, brief musings from both authors on topics that did not fit elsewhere in the book. After “The Mansfield Park Quartette”, which despite its title is really a chapter discussing all of the romantic pairings in all of the six books, this miscellany was my favourite section, offering perfect observations like:
However often I may re-read Jane Austen, I am for ever discovering some new small proof of genius in a sentence. I have just found a gem of irony: it occurs after the scene in Persuasion where Frederick and Louisa go nutting down the hedgerow and (his subconscious still sore over the loss of Anne) he extols in an exaggerated style her firmness, decision and strength of mind. Then, a little later, in family conclave: “Louisa now being armed with the idea of merit in maintaining her own way…”
No small part of my delight came from the discovery that both GBS and SKS counted Emma as their favourite of Austen’s works. It is no secret that it is mine, too. After years of searching, I have finally found a book that spends enough time dissecting and heaps enough praise on Emma to satisfy even me. I loved reading about their worship of Mr Woodhouse, their fantasies of what it must be like to attend a dinner party at Hartfield, their reasons why Mr Knightley is the Austen hero they would most like to marry (Henry Tilney coming in second, as well he should), and, most of all, why they adore dear, flawed, adorable Emma. I was particularly touched by SKS’s comments about how her relationship to Emma has changed over time:
At the start, Emma was my contemporary; now she might be my granddaughter, but I still have that warm, urgent sense of a personal relationship. It is curiously charming, this experience of growing up with and round and past a character, entering into ever-changing and new relationships with it as one passes from girlhood’s interest and envy into motherly affection and grandmotherly pride. Dear Emma! Dear snobbish, cocksure, deluded Emma! – “faultless in spite of all her faults.” She is and will doubtless always be my favourite among the Jane Austen heroines…
But that is not to say that they do not heap praise on the other books and the other heroines. Catherine Morland and Anne Elliot are held in particular esteem (as GBS says, “There is no end to what I can find to praise in Anne Elliot; she deserves all the felicity which her creator bestowed upon her.”), Elizabeth is admired, Fanny is admitted to have virtues than both women feel would have been better served by a marriage to Henry Crawford, Elinor is esteemed and Marianne…frankly, I was surprised by how tenderly Marianne was treated, how sympathetic and admiring both SKS and GBS were to the young girl’s tragedy. We are reminded how ill-behaved Marianne is compared to other girls of her age (can you imagine Catherine Morland, also seventeen, forgetting herself in public the way Marianne does?) but that does not override their love for her. The discussions about Marianne and her emotions were some of the best in the entire book, with SKS in particular admiring the “power and sympathy” with which Austen presented “the flaming spirit of youth”, with all its attendant flaws. The way GBS contrasts Marianne’s suffering with the turmoil experienced by the other heroines was also intriguing:
…the young girl’s tragedy is so vividly translated, and she lies on her bed at Mrs Jenning’s house in Conduit Street, with Willoughby’s letters in her hand and ‘almost screams with agony’, unbearable revelation of what someone we love can do to us if their love is not so great as our own, that it does not seem possible ever to dislike Marianne again. Poor child; poor wounded child. Even Anne is not so tormented, for she must always have had a mind to sustain her, even at seventeen; whereas Marianne has evolved no such protection against the storm. Marianne can only rush out in the thin shoes into a damp shrubbery on a rainy night, and thus fashion some sort of fool’s consolation out of rashness. Emma, too, like Anne, has a mind with which to meet grief; she is heavy-hearted, but she is not sunk when she believes she has lost Knightley to Harriet; she can still determine that her father shall feel no effects from her own grief. Yes, Emma, as well as Anne, commands our respect. Jane Bennet and Elinor Dashwood can also meet perfidy and disillusion with fortitude and put on a serene disguise. Elizabeth is given very little suffering to try her; she has but hardly discovered that she could love Darcy after rejecting him than here is Darcy back again; ready to stoop his pride and put his fortune to the test for the second time.
I loved all of the questions this book brought up, both serious and whimsical. While it is little short of ecstasy for obsessive Janeites to spend hours considering which of the heroines you would most like to meet, which hero would make the best husband or which scene you wish you could step into, I was brought up short by SKS’s confidence that all Janeites would roughly agree on how to order the six novels according to their merits:
There is one subject which true Janeites never weary of discussing, though as far as my own experience goes no discussion has ever been brought to a satisfactory conclusion. By this I do not mean that it has never been settled; on the contrary, it is always settled much too easily. There is very little difference of opinion among Jane-lovers as to the relative merits of the six novels. You are not likely to find any one of them maintaining that Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey are flawless and none of the rest is worth reading, or that Sense and Sensibility is a finer book that Persuasion. As a body we are agreed that the standard is very even and very high; none of the novels is disappointing, but if a list were to be drawn up either Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility would be at the bottom and either Emma or Persuasion at the top. SKS
As usual, I was in complete agreement with SKS and GBS (for the record, I would rank them as follows: Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and, finally, Pride and Prejudice) but I know from past discussions that many of my readers will disagree! I can vaguely understand how people can shuffle the bottom four around but to rank Emma and Persuasion as anything other than one and two (or vice-versa) is inconceivable.
This is the Austen book I have spent years searching for. It is intelligent and energetic, quick witted and affectionate. It is, quite simply, perfect.