Our favourite heroine addict

A Fine Brush on Ivory - Searching for Jane Austen - So You Think You Know Jane Austen? A Literary Quizbook
September 2, 2005

What is it about Jane Austen's writing that brings such pleasure?" This is the premise of Richard Jenkyns's thoughtful book A Fine Brush on Ivory , which is devoted to unearthing the pleasure principle of Austen's work through close analysis of her craft. Jenkyns (the great-nephew times four of Austen) explores her style, her storytelling techniques, the beginnings of her novels, her use of comedy and her characters. Much of the book is focused on Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice (which Jenkyns suggests might be added to Coleridge's list of the most perfect plots) and Emma . The other novels enter the discussion in varying degrees; particularly worthy of note is Jenkyns's thorough and insightful study of the complexities of Sense and Sensibility .

Embedded within this book are some real gems; its extensive analysis of family likeness in the novels is a particular high point, as is its exploration of education and different senses of humour. Jenkyns has an enviable ability to present sophisticated academic criticism in a thoroughly accessible way, which makes his work a delight. Laced with witty references (for instance, his reading of Mr and Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice as Sybil and Basil Fawlty), A Fine Brush on Ivory has the scope to attract a wide readership, ranging from Austen scholars to enthusiastic readers.

After a work so closely concentrated on the intricacies of Austen, it is challenging to turn to Emily Auerbach's innovative and excellently researched Searching for Jane Austen . This wonderfully illustrated study stands back from the "maiden aunt" image of Austen constructed by early editors and well-meaning relatives, and seeks to bring us closer to the "real" Austen via a host of very different sources.

Auerbach raises many important questions. For example, why are we so preoccupied with Austen's marital status when we give little thought to the marital status of, say, Coleridge or Dickens, and why is it that Austen is so often referred to as "Jane"? Auerbach also spends time on the various "touch-up jobs" on Cassandra Austen's original portraits of Austen (dated 1802, 1811), in which Austen's image is "softened" and "feminised" by giving her a fuller mouth, a rounder face and even a wedding ring.

Most of Auerbach's book consists of in-depth studies of the novels, exploring the ways in which Austen used her fiction as a means of vocalising her own ideas about women, writing by women and life in general.

Auerbach's study of Austen's "heroine addiction" in Northanger Abbey is particularly strong, as are discussions of "narrative intrusion", gentlemanliness and marriage. In her final chapter, Auerbach turns to the many Austen dramatisations, examining how film-makers have overemphasised the "romance element" of Austen's novels. Auerbach may conclude her book by saying that "Austen seems closer yet still out of reach", but for the reader there is a certain satisfaction that Austen unquestionably seems much more within reach than before. This sense of satisfaction ultimately makes Auerbach's book a very pleasurable read and a must for fellow Austen scholars.

And what better way to test my newly extended knowledge than with John Sutherland and Deirdre Le Faye's "literary quizbook"? Austen fans, scholars and students - be prepared. This witty and ingenious book will test your factual, deductive and interpretative powers. It is focused on Austen's first five novels, and comprises questions at levels of increasing difficulty, ranging from straightforward factual ones (" In Sense and Sensibility , what is Willoughby, a Somersetshire man, doing in Devon?"), through factual but tricky ones (" In Pride and Prejudice , how has Sir William Lucas enriched and ennobled himself?"), very tricky and occasionally deductive ones ("In Northanger Abbey , what do we know of the Skinners?") to interpretative questions inviting deduction or speculation ("In Persuasion , what can the reader put together of William Elliot's back story?").

Each level is scored out of 25 marks, although there are bonus points available in the "interpretative" section if your answer seems "more plausible, witty, or ingenious than the authors offer." The answers at the back of the book make for interesting reading in themselves. Some are so well researched that they read like mini-essays. I especially enjoyed intriguing little touches such as the discussion of Robert Ferrar's purchase of a toothpick-case in Sense and Sensibility .

As for the book's readership, I can imagine Austen fans and scholars ruminating on some of the more interpretative questions, for example: " In Pride and Prejudice , why does Wickham elope with Lydia?". Others may well pick up the book simply to browse through the answers in search of some extra Austen trivia. A snip at £4.99.

Charlotte Stevens is an educational adviser to the Open University.

A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen

Author - Richard Jenkyns
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 215
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 199 661 7

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