We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

John Wiltshire's _JA: Introductions & Interventions_ · 9 February 08

Dear Harriet,

Another book I read straight through (this time swiftly) and enjoyed very much: John Wiltshire’s Jane Austen: Introductions and Interventions.

The first part of Wiltshire’s collection is made up of introductory essays on P&P, MP, Emma, and Persuasion. They are the results of close reading and sensible and insightful. I’d recommend the book for new readers to Austen: it’s short, lucid and the opening 4 essays are only to be criticized because they are not 7; there needed to be one on S&S, one on NA, and one on Catherine, or the Bower, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon (as a group).

In the second half he places essays in response to controversies.
These I’d recommend to people who know recent issues plaguing Austen studies: they are called “interventions.” He’s very good on the misreadings of MP: he easily shows the overemphasis on slavery, & how the novel has itself been colonized and taken over, displaced. He does show the absurdity of some of the post-colonial interpretations of MP particularly: they put in the center what is at the margins and entirely miss the point of the text, indeed displace the text. As I was reading, I was reminded of another movie beyond Rozema’s which does something Rozema doesn’t do: Wadey reverses Austen’s original text: in Wadey’s 1987 NA Austen’s novel becomes a sadomasochistic version of a Radcliffe book. There the problem seems to be Wadey would have preferred to do a movie adaptation of Mary Webb’s Precious Bane.

Wiltshire’s coda is an essay where he offers some reasonable suppositions for why Austen is still read, her books are adapted into movies, and a cult has developed around her name and books. He goes into how a myth of southern England as a site has become a cultural ideal; and how since Austen writes from the center, she is seen as writing with authority. (I’ve written about the Anglo-centrism of Austen criticism more than once.) He writes of why Austen continues to be read by women: they are looking for models for the formation of their own female selves. The very truth of the Fanny Price conception and trauma is too painful for them to accept.

There are detractions: 1) the way he seems to put down some modern movements (say feminism or postcolonialism) which implicitly suggest a conservative agenda though his own passing observations seem to deny this; e.g., his use of the word “preposterous” in talking of Emma’s resolve not to marry in her conversation with Harriet is a bludgeon. Sometimes he goes over the top (and it’s natural considering some of the folly he goes over); sometimes he reveals his lack of understanding of women’s lives (because he’s a man and doesn’t suffer what they do so some of the cries of the heart and refusals are to him laughable). Very bad: he omits S&S and NA and seems to suggest (though I may be wrong here) they are not as good novels as the four he deals with. This is a return to older attitudes I thought (really had hoped) were vanquished at long last, but not so. Sense and Sensibility is an enormously important text for women and archetype for women’s novels; NA is about young women and the gothic, also central for women and reading.

But these passing comments and the omission of two books are minor in comparison with what’s actually in the essays. Wiltshire reads with real subtlety and attention to detail. He genuinely close reads (much in the spirit say of the recent In Search of Jane Austen by Emily Auerbach and numerous classics, say by Tony Tanner). He writes of Kathryn Sutherland’s move to try to get editions published where Austen’s texts as mirrored in the first editions have not been normalized, polished and so on. Sutherland’s book is the most important book in Austen studies this year (see my A Year in Books). Wiltshire’s especially good in his close reading of MP; his analysis of Fanny Price is a model of candour, insight, and humanity.

And it takes only a short time to read, a couple of hours.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. As you were reading Wiltshire, Ellen, I was reading Stuart Tave’s SOME WORDS OF JANE AUSTEN, which really is, in the words of Marilyn Gaull, “luminous”. Wiltshire didn’t move me as much as you. Though for studies in close reading, Q.D. Leavis and Marvin Mudrick – and Tave above – set an excellent example. And I recall that Wiltshire’s 132pp. book was quite expensive…

    T. Wood    Feb 10, 4:59pm    #
  2. Dear Tom,

    I may have overpraised Wiltshire’s book: he has no central ethical vision (like Tave); he does not strike at the heart of what’s wrong with much Austen criticism (like Marvin); he has no original (probably right) and important theory (like Q.D.Leavis's that Austen’s texts’ greatness is the result of many patient years’ work).

    But he is excellent (with the important proviso he doesn’t deal with NA and S&S) for new readers, & explains & demolishes the post-colonial twisting of MP that has gone on for a long time now. It’s also salutary to see someone who enjoys the comedy and optimism of Emma.

    The last quality does give away the half-hidden agenda: he’s conservative and masculinist in political outlook. It does limit what he sees.

    I overpraised in response to a dissing of Wiltshire on Janeites.
    As to price, well I got the book for $5 in cash at the MLA on the last day when books are given away for a pittance.

    Elinor    Feb 11, 12:42pm    #

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