Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Austen v. Brunton

H. J. Jackson has an excellent essay in the TLS on Jane Austen's 'rival' Mary Brunton. This is her conclusion:

I am not proposing to replace Austen with Brunton, only to spread the word about one worthwhile neglected writer. But let Mary Brunton stand for the whole class of potentially interesting non-canonical writers. Obscure but rewarding works like hers have a lot to offer non-specialist as well as specialist readers, and up to a point, the less professional attention they have had, the better. Jane Austen is at present an Eiffel Tower in the literary world - a Taj Mahal, an Empire State Building, St Paul's Cathedral. Where is there for readers to go once they have satisfied their curiosity and established their credentials by visiting the great sites? Do they seek out other monuments and work their way through the Republic, War and Peace, Moby-Dick, the Divine Comedy? Reread their old favourites? Wait for the next movie version? Turn to historical fiction? Give up old books and try instead to keep up with the new ones? For those 'general' or 'serious' readers who like the psychic space of Regency Britain first encountered in Austen, it might be a pleasure to explore lesser edifices and so bit by bit to discover the great city that surrounds the monument.

Famous works come bearing a weight of expectation, commentary, controversy. They have, to transfer the tourist metaphor, a ton of baggage of their own. The obscure ones travel light. They may be unappreciated but they are by the same token unspoiled, so readers encounter them directly and if they like what they find they experience something like a revelation: that they don't need the usual aids to enjoy an old book, and that there is a parallel literary universe out there open to the adventurous. So may serendipity, even if it should appear in the improbable form of a sale catalogue, lead readers to discover Bruntons of their own.

Well put. I totally agree. I am fond of the fiction of this period: Brunton's novels Self-Control and Discipline are both enjoyable as well as interesting reads. (Plus, what fun titles....) I also particularly recommend Maria Edgeworth's Belinda and Susan Ferrier's Marriage.

I teach a graduate seminar on women, politics and the novel from the 1790s to the 1810s, I'm extremely interested in Austen and her contemporaries, but a lot of these book are fun too and really not very canonical or pawed-over at all: as Jackson's piece says, you can come to them fresh (and aside from everything else it casts great light on the ever-slippery and elusive Austen--I think I must reread these Brunton novels, actually, for an essay I have to write this summer called "Austen's Voices").

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