Jane Austen

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Tony Tanner, Fellow of King’s College and Reader in the Faculty of English at Cambridge University, is an authority on the English and American novel. He has edited Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and has published books about such writers as various as Thomas Pynchon and Henry James; his other works include City of Words: American Fiction, 1950-1970 (1971) and Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression (1979). Tanner’s experience and expertise pervade his most recent book, Jane Austen. According to his acknowledgments, Tanner sees his book not as an addition to the already extensive scholarship on Austen but rather as a reading of her work, addressed to a general audience, and demonstrating Austen’s concern with society, education, and language. Tanner has written introductions to Penguin editions of three of Austen’s novels—Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Mansfield Park (1814)—and he has spoken to the Jane Austen society about Persuasion (1818). Versions of the talk and introductions have been incorporated into this book, and Tanner has added an introductory section as well as chapters on Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey (1818), and Sanditon (1975), the fragment written in the months before Austen’s death in 1817. Jane Austen thus represents twenty years of Tanner’s thinking and writing about this important and enduringly popular English novelist. Although familiar with Austen scholarship and with recent developments in literary theory, Tanner presents his reading of her work in a manner so informal as to be described as casual. As a whole, the book is best approached as a series of insightful lecture-commentaries, replete with parentheses and digressions, presented by a delightfully erudite don. The reader who comes to Jane Austen in this way will be impressed by the book’s many strengths and may manage to avoid being disturbed by its weaknesses.

Tanner’s chapters take up seven of Austen’s novels—Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Sanditon—in order to delineate changes in her appraisal of English society. Preceding these seven chapters is an introductory essay divided into four sections which lay groundwork for matters to which Tanner returns in his discussions of specific works. Beginning with a section called “Jane Austen and the Novel,” Tanner presents and then dismisses the conventional view of Austen as a remarkable but restricted novelist. He quotes her famous comments about “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush” and her interest in “three or four families in a country village,” and he cites the opinions of James and Ralph Waldo Emerson concerning Austen’s “narrowness,” only to assert what other readers have also discovered: that the “two-inch” view of Austen that she herself helped to perpetuate does not adequately account for her obvious awareness of the political, economic, and social conflicts from which her works arise. Even her heroines’ absorption in making good marriages, Tanner points out, reflects Austen’s broader concern with marriage and the family as basic social units.

In the second section of the introduction, “Jane Austen and Society,” Tanner offers an analysis of money and property as forces in Austen’s world. Austen, like many of her contemporaries, believed that the concept of the rule of property rested on the propriety—that is, the proper behavior—of the landed class. According to Tanner, Austen saw her society as threatened from within by the failure, on the part of landowners responsible for supporting and reinvigorating the social order, to provide a strong moral example. “Thus the ideal marriage at the end of a Jane Austen novel,” according to Tanner, “offers itself as an emblem of the ideal union of property and propriety—a model to be emulated, a paradigm for a more general combination of the two on which the future of her society depends.” In the introduction’s third section, “Jane Austen and Education,” Tanner briefly considers works by Lord Chesterfield, Edmund Burke, Thomas Gisborne, John Locke, and Thomas More to illuminate Austen’s emphasis on education, not as knowledge of facts and skills, but as the cultivation of wise conduct and prudent manners. The fourth section, on language, describes Austen’s diction and syntax, her use of dialogue and scene, and her sense of her audience to show that, taken as a whole, her novels move from acceptance, to skepticism, to rejection of the values implicit in the changing social milieu of early nineteenth century England. Although this material on language formally concludes the introduction, the next chapter, ostensibly on Northanger Abbey, also has an introductory quality, since it offers numerous useful generalizations about Austen’s work. There is no concluding chapter.

By far, the most impressive part of...

(The entire section is 2078 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Library Journal. CXI, October 15, 1986, p. 97.

The Library Review of Books. IX, February 5, 1987, p. 15.