The first edition of the Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, edited by Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster, which was published in 1997, has for a long time lived in my essential pile of books. This pile contains about 20 or so reference books I refer to constantly, and they sit in a slightly teetering pile on my desk in my study. They sometimes have to be replaced when they fall apart from overuse, as happened with my first copy of the Companion, which was held together with some pink legal tape till I succumbed and bought another copy out of shame.
It was more than a starting point for further research, a collection of seriously but clearly written essays by leading Austen scholars, which attempted to put Austen’s works into context, critically and historically. It was a great success, coming as it did in 1997 on the crest of the wave of the Austen boom in popularity, caused in the main by the very successful adaptations of the early 1990s.
A new edition has been recently published, again edited by Copeland and McMaster, and, like the first edition, I can highly recommend it, and would encourage even those who have a copy of the first edition to buy it, as there is so much new material within it to think about and internalise.
Old essays which have been retained are The Chronology of Jane Austen’s Life by Deirdre Le Faye, The Professional Woman Writer by Jan Fergus,The Early Short Fiction by Margaret Anne Doody, The Letters by Carol Houlihan Flynn, Class by Juliet McMaster, Money by Edward Copeland(possibly my favourite chapter in the book), Jane Austen and Literary Tradition by Isobel Grundy and Austen Cults and Cultures by Claudia L. Johnson.
New essays which have been commissioned are Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility by Thomas Keymer, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park by Jocelyn Harris, Emma and Persuasion by Penny Gay, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon by Janet Todd, Making a Living by David Selwyn, Gender by E. J. Clery, Sociability by Gillian Russell and a very intriguing essay Jane Austen on Screen by Katheryn Sutherland. The chapter on Further Reading originally written by Bruce Stovell has now been updated by Mary M Chan.
The Preface to the Companion has some interesting points, and it might be illuminating to consider them. One that did jump out at me and made me sit back in my chair with a little unease, intimates that the audiences at which the book is aimed- academics and the Janeites, of which I suppose I am one- are often separated /divided despite a common love of the subject:
Those people who gather to talk about Jane Austen, for example, still divide loosely into two friendly groups seeking mutual conversation, but often sailing past one another-enegertic non-academics with avid feeling for Austen and limited tolerance for bookish harangues and academics also with great love for Austen but certainly bookish and with perhaps less enthusiasm of the Janeite kind..
Hmm..I do hate the way the word Janeite has become ever-so-slightly a disparaging term….
Students who first encounter her works and even old hands who read her novels annually all sense that Austen’s culture recedes at unsettling speed. Younger readers for example can find themselves puzzled by the insistent economics of Austen’s novels or by her subtle class distinctions. They are startled to find that Austen’s works posses political resonance. The old Janeite enthusiasm “how do they make whip’t syllabub?” has altered almost universally to “why do they make whip’t syllabub”
Hmm…. I suppose here I show my amateur but lawerly colours and wonder if it isn’t better to ask both questions,and surely the answer to the former informs the latter? How sad that there is considered to be a great divide between the academic professional and serious amateur. I wonder what it says about us all….I have had little interaction with Austen academics, but I do have to say the divide between history academics and amateurs does not, in my opinion and personal experience, seem to be so marked or so jealously guarded. This does beg the question, what would Jane Austen make of it all ?
Enough of that.
Onto the new essays, my favourite being a very thoughtful chapter by Katheryn Sutherland on screen adaptations of Austen’s works. The proliferation of them in the mid 1990s is, of course, what prompted the rise in Austen’s recent popularity and was a prime reason the first companion was produced and, dare I say it, found a wide audience.
She makes the point that in the main, the adaptations do not reflect the subtlety of Jane Austen written world.When Jane Austen makes a point of mentioning a domestic object it is an alarm bell to the informed reader. Film cannot convey this. Also, modern adaptations tend to see the stories primarily as love stories, when obviously they are so much more than that. She also reviews the new packaging of Austen’s novels as modern chick lit and points out that while such books are more likely to be brought by younger Janeites, they will have first seen the adaptations, and do the adaptations colour their views of the novels, instead of the other way around? They probably do. But what now can be done, that the collective genii are out of their respective film canisters?
Her criticism of the re-invention of Darcy by the 1995 BBC adaption is very interesting and is an opinion I have long shared. And I very much like her appreciation of the new attitdue-the dirty hem look- of the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice and of Persuasion from 1995. This adaptation, which is top among my favorites, gets special praise:
The sequence of mainly silent images suggestive of the turmoil of Anne Elliot’s inner life in the opening sequence of the 1995 Persuasion works so well because we are seduced into sympathy by Amanda Root’s reticent performance. There is no intrusive voice-over, no coy Hollywood style diary-writing or mirror-gazing to bring the viewer up to speed and when she looks camera-ward her gaze is inward.
The recent biographical TV film, Miss Austen Regrets, also a favourite of mine, recieves a special mention:
Played with great assurance by Olivia Williams, this is a complicated controversially adult Austen:tart and barbed, amusing, desperately flirtatious, lonely, by turns intolerant, dependant and afraid, a complicated biographical portrait that works because film unlike words can trade effectively in since.
Of course to all this I would add the practical caveat that filmmakers, in my experience do not make films with the Austen academic or Janeite in mind. They aim for a far wider audience, and this is all done, of course, to make a profit.
The second edition of the Companion is a very useful book. It contains interesting articles, ones that provoke thought and some that inform opinion. Like the first, it tries it educate so that a better understanding of Austen is acquired. Because of the major additions to this second edition, this is now a book Janeites( ought I use that term?) should strive to read or buy. Very good value. I wonder if I will have to purchase another due to overuse in a few years time…?