Matters of Fact in Jane Austen (review)

October 3, 2013 at 10:19 pm (books, entertainment, jane austen, jasna) (, , , , )


Entitled “The Sister Arts and Jane Austen,” Janine Barchas entranced her 2009 JASNA AGM audience in Philadelphia with a show-and-tell about the “Sister Art of Painting,” hypothesizing how the insertion of artists’ names suggested extra-textural nuggets Jane Austen’s original audience would have spotted and mined. The most cited instance concerns Pemberley’s housekeeper: Presumably bowing to the famous portraitist, Austen’s “Mrs Reynolds” sketches a verbal portrait of Mr Darcy that serves to enlighten Elizabeth Bennet to his true worth.

matters_barchasBarchas proved a riveting, persuasive speaker. I left the room overwhelmed with the idea of how painting indeed played this unassuming role in Austen’s novels. Her conference paper appears in print in Persuasions (the journal of the Jane Austen Society of North America) [issue No. 31, pp. 145-162], but does not reappear in the book Matters of Fact in Jane Austen: History, Location, and Celebrity. The three chapters that are reworked prior publications (chs 2, 3 and 5) are among the most convincing, so it is a minor pity that painters and paintings were not similarly “revised and extended.” Mere referencing of this appealing topic (in the Introduction) is no compensation when one is faced with the longueurs of a chapter on John Evelyn and his influence on Burney’s Evelina and Austen’s juvenile effort Evelyn.

Perhaps indicative of an academic press (The John Hopkins University Press, in this instance), there seems an assumption that readers of Matters of Fact would be fully conversant with Donald Greene’s 1953 article “Jane Austen and The Peerage”. The Introduction is heavily predicated upon a discussion of Greene as preparation for the ensuing six chapters. I felt compelled to hunt up a copy before I could continue; an appendix, reprinting Greene, would have been helpful. (Thank goodness for JSToR.)

A name that “‘has the right ring’” (Greene quotes Charles Morgan, author of The Fountain) is a notion most writers will agree holds a certain degree of importance. For topicality and a recent frenzy, examine discussions of names, titles, and estates behind the popular TV series Downton Abbey. While only the writer knows where inspiration sprang from — it can be fun to dissect and deduce!

Clever dissection is why Barchas’ book will have value to readers attracted to slices of history. Thought-provoking connections will create a desire to tease out further avenues of “historical references and topographical clues.” As in her AGM presentation, when Barchas illustrates how a particular historical incident or person elucidates some aspect of an Austen novel, her story engages the imagination. Readers can delve into Austen’s fiction with renewed attention, or simply enjoy the tale imparted.

One favorite chapter, “Touring Farleigh Hungerford Castle” (chapter 3) invokes the life-history of Miss Tilney-Long. Barchas’ recognition that Miss Tilney-Long may have been on the minds of those first readers of Austen’s Northanger Abbey was enlightening. She also presented an interesting story of a long-forgotten heiress. In recovering the “long-forgotten,” Barchas exposes the type of everyday-knowledge Austen surely possessed — knowledge of scandals, travel, books, paintings, politics, general news, which would have been culled from conversation, gossip, letters, newspapers. Anyone reading even a small correspondence – Jane Austen’s own, for instance – will see the rapid succession of news (family or the greater world) and topics that made up an average letter. If, in bringing forth some of the more accessible “histories,” Barchas sheds light on Austen’s integration of the world into her novels, that discussion ultimately aids fans of Austen’s fiction, as well as those who wish to study the “times” in which Austen lived. For instance, reading this condensation of Miss Tilney-Long’s life and struggles made me long to learn more about her.

“Jane Austen as keen observer” should come as no surprise to fans. Barchas highlights more of Austen’s personality – from her individual wit, to her use of word-play; as well, she provides explanation of the mindset of Austen contemporaries. In an online interview, Barchas comments,

Historicizing is back. New editions are encouraging the reading of Austen’s novels in their original historical context, with new notes and increasingly fuller explanations of how a contemporary reader might have understood a detail of dress, money or manners. This is a different impulse from the prior view of celebrating Austen as “timeless” (that view is only partially true). My own book is part of a trend in scholarship that would historicize Austen to her time and place. [read the entire article]

After reading about Sense and Sensibility’s nominative association with some rather-infamous Dashwoods (chapter 5: “Hell-Fire Jane”), it’s rather amusing, in contemplating writers who use Austen’s name, characters, and words (“Zombies” comes to mind) as a marketing tool, to concoct a similar advantage for a newly-published author in 1811. “Quite Unconnected” and “Persuasion’s Battle of the Books” (chapters 1 and 6) invoke the passage wherein Sir Walter Elliot attaches – then detaches – Frederick Wentworth from an influential family tree. Association and detachment, games of hide and seek for “hidden-in-plain-sight truths” (to borrow Devoney Looser’s phrase), all heighten the comical, satirical, timely, and masterful aspects of Austen’s fiction.

An academic remoteness, especially in sections that go a little off-topic, repeat information, or serve to merely inform about prior points or upcoming subject matter, sometimes creeps into Barchas’ discourse, which will distance some readers. Despite a style that occasionally gets in the way of storytelling — and only Austen (in the end) knows what Austen intended, Barchas’ revelations of the histories and “coincidental” references will engage those looking for some timely reading material. New this summer (2013) in a less-expensive paperback edition, Matters of Fact in Jane Austen should gain Barchas larger audiences whenever she offers a public presentation. Hearing her in person is an even better treat.

three and a half filled ink wells

Further Reading:

Downton Abbey links:

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