An unostentatious introduction to Austen

Blaize Castle
Blaize Castle

Charles Jennings
A Brief Guide to Jane Austen

Robinson 2012

For an Austen newbie like me this Brief Guide – though at over two hundred and forty pages not that brief – is an excellent introduction and summary, told intelligently and sympathetically. Four succinct but readable chapters deal first with her life and novels, followed by an overview in ten sections of life in Regency England and a summary of Jane’s afterlife in criticism and the media. Added to this core are a short introduction, a select bibliography and, finally, an indispensable index. While the map of southern Britain helps chart Jane’s travels (despite the central area being obscured by the binding) what would have made this Guide complete would have been a family tree, however simplified, to elucidate sibling and other relationships.

Jennings, an Oxford English graduate and former journalist, certainly proves an able but unostentatious escort around the nuances of the Regency period and particularly Jane’s contribution and significance to the literature of the time. I’m never going to be enough of a Janeite to spot any flaws or inconsistencies in his account, though of necessity much discussion has to be left out, especially of juvenilia and works, both complete and incomplete, that only get passing mentions. Despite the limitations of space, Jennings manages to give a commentary on each of the six canonical novels (including Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey), which is, of course, what draws most readers in. He’s not afraid to be critical, but he also draws attention to their subtleties and strengths in ways that deepen my understanding of those I’ve already read and prepare me for the ones I haven’t.

For more detailed studies one has to go elsewhere (I’m very much looking forward to Irene Collins’ Jane Austen and the Clergy, for example, an area that Jennings devotes just one page to), but as a general introduction this is perfect. First of all, however, I must hobnob with those other titles beckoning to me from their shelves.

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6 thoughts on “An unostentatious introduction to Austen

  1. I admire your industry. I’ve been reluctant to delve into Austen scholarship, relying only on the Penguin edition introductions and Daniel Pool’s “What Jane Austen ATE and Charles Dickens KNEW.” I agree with you about Austen’s complicated family relations. You can find several Austen family trees online, including at this site: . And if you haven’t read it already, look at Kipling’s “The Janeites” ().

    1. Thanks, Lizzie! I’d already spotted a couple of sites with family trees, and the Collins book I mentioned in the review has two trees detailing how many of Jane’s relatives were clergymen; I just thought it a shame that Jennings’ guide didn’t include one when it had so many other good points. I’ll certainly look out for the Kipling book. So much to read and hopefully enjoy!

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