A Brief Guide to Jane Austen
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.