I’m away this week, off up to Newcastle to give a conference paper, then to one of very my best friends’ wedding in Worcester at the weekend (very exciting!) so I’ve prepared a mini-series of posts to appear in my absence. It’s not another lot of My Life in Books, I’m afraid, but it isn’t too far away… the next three posts will be on books about books. Or, more precisely, authors discussing authors: each of the three books/pamphlets are about famous authors, by our sort of middlebrow authors. Fun!
First up, and taking the spot for 1943 in A Century of Books, is Talking of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern. My housemate Mel gave this to me for my birthday in 2010 (thanks, Mel!) knowing how much I’d enjoyed its sequel, More Talk Of Jane Austen. Yes, I’m doing these things the wrong way around, but it doesn’t much matter which order you read these books in – except that I would argue Talking of Jane Austen is even better.
The book is divided into fifteen essays, alternatively by Kaye-Smith and Stern. Proceedings kick off with ‘Introducing Sheila Kaye-Smith to Jane Austen’ and ‘Introducing G.B. Stern to Jane Austen’, where our esteemed authoresses recount how they first came to read Austen – sheepishly admitting their early disregard of her, and triumphantly rejoicing in the moments (both with Emma, incidentally) where they discovered their lasting affinity with Jane. Their love of Jane shines through every paragraph – this is an appreciation, but one from calm hearts and careful minds. They do not run mad nor faint, rather they love both wisely and well.
Amongst the topics addressed are the education of female characters; a re-evaluation (now a fairly standard argument) or Henry and Maria Crawford; dress and food in the novels; the device of letter-writing… a wide-ranging group of intriguing minutiae.
Perhaps the bravest section is where Stern and Kaye-Smith turn their attention to characters which they consider failed. Avert your eyes if you consider St. Jane to be infallible. Even more bravely, this is how Stern prefixes the discussion:
And whose names are suggested? Well, Stern and Kaye-Smith cannot agree on some of them, but amongst their nominations are Colonel Brandon, Eleanor Tilney, Lady Russell, Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Since those final three characters are amongst my favourite in all the novels, I shall maintain a dignified silence on the topic. (How could they!) Ahem.
Perhaps the most fun section is at the end, where is all becomes something of a miscellany. There are twenty pages of incidental comments and observations, or thoughts which were not quite sufficient to be developed into a whole chapter. Here’s just one of ’em, courtesy of Sheila Kaye-Smith:
If you’re not already a Janeite, this probably isn’t a good place to start. Indeed, you should probably have read all of Austen’s books at least once before you even consider reading Talking of Jane Austen. The authors are contentedly aware of this themselves, and welcome anyone (is it you?) who fits the description below:
We are not prowling round, my collaborator and myself, searching for converts; only for those insatiable legions who find the same mysterious pleasure as we do in talking Jane, discovering Jane, arguing Jane, quoting Jane, listing Jane, and for ever and ever marvelling at Jane and grateful for her legacy.
And so say all of us!