A bonanza for Jane Austen fans
Reviewed by 
For common audiences across the world, there are a great number of cinematic adaptations, spin-offs and theatrical performances of Austen’s work and life
A Companion to Jane Austen  Ed Claudia L. Johnson and Clara Tuite.
Wiley-Blackwell, U.K. Pages 537. Price not mentioned.

Henry James once famously complained that the public's enthusiasm for Jane Austen was being “abetted by a body of publishers, editors and illustrators who find their dear, our dear, everybody's dear, Jane, so infinitely to their material purpose." James, actually, acknowledged that Jane Austen would not be so “saleable if we had not more or less … lost our hearts to her." To be sure, her reputation in the literary world continues to rise. No longer considered as a mere comic entertainer, she is widely recognised as the pre-eminent novelist and a major figure in world literature. Her fictional worlds provide a fertile testing ground for new theories of philosophy of language and methodologies.

They attract the attention of scholars well informed in a wide variety of critical approaches, such as deconstructionist, feminist, and psychoanalytic, as well as in more traditional social and historical perspectives.

However, today, Austen study is a varied, comprehensive, excitable, critical life-form, with “feelers that reach out and across disciplines." For common audiences across the world, the great number of cinematic adaptations, “spin-offs” and theatrical performances of Austen's works and life, and all the commentaries they have in turn generated, have produced “new modes of transmission” and more different audiences. A Companion to Jane Austen not only takes cognisance of the present state of Austen studies but also explores how it “both informs and is informed” by changes and new ideas within the broader fields of literary and cultural readings.

Emphasising on “changing contexts and cultures of reception," the book provides a new and monumental insight in understanding the nature of Austen’s fictional universe and dispels the myths that surround it. Its 42 essays (written by a distinguished team of influential literary critics and Austen scholars who live and teach in a number of countries and are actively engaged in the ongoing process of revising critical opinion of Austen and her work) focus, in one way another, on how Austen has intriguingly been delivered to “mass audiences” in the mode of cinematic and televised versions, and how these versions, inevitably “saturated with a sensuous visual detail notably lacking in the novels themselves,” have inspired a renewed attention to “the specificities of print and reading,” as other particular forms of “cultural pleasure and forms of enchantment.”

The volume opens with an interesting essay on Jane Austen's Life and Letters by Kathryn Sutherland. The essay provides an account of Austen's life and time as a recoverable narrative that is marked at every turn by partial knowledge and “the accidents of survival” —scraps of letters, broken memories and gaps in the evidence. However, it interestingly reveals that the “puzzle of letters” stimulate Austen readers to “articulate just what it is that makes Jane Austen's fiction so special.”

The five essays that follow address to Austen's fiction as largely made up of “gossip” — a kind of gossip that participates at its root level of meaning in “a moral vision which confers a kind of mystical sanctity on the connection between the present to both past and future generations.” Subsequent essays (such as, “The Property of Self in Sense and Sensibility,” “The Illusionist Northanger Abbey,” “Re-Reading Pride and Prejudice and Emma: Word Games and Secret Histories”) draw our attention on what one might call the study of the historicity of form and of “form, style and genre” as modes of social practice. Many of the essays which are explored with a sharpness and wit that illuminate their originality register Austen’s own pleasure in writing and in writing “as a form of rereading and rewriting, as experimentation and pastiche.” Seven further chapters illuminate the inter-textual indebtedness of Austen's work to genres such as sentimental fiction, history writing and historical fiction. The final chapters consider Austen in relation to political, social and cultural worlds, and also to other artistic modes and media: illustration, theatre, and film.

There has been no new critical reading of the work of Jane Austen for many years. This volume serves that purpose, and will particularly be welcome to the enthusiast. Designed for novice and specialist alike, it illuminates the power of Austen's fiction to enchant readers.