One day in, and the first book for A Century of Books is completed. Truth be told, I read the first two-thirds in 2011, but spent this afternoon finishing it off. It’s a bit of a cheat, because although it was published 1950, it’s one of those not-very-of-its-time books – being Jane Austen by Margaret Kennedy.
I was sorting through my books in Somerset and found a paper bag filled with books from my aunt, which she was either lending or giving to me back in 2004 (Jacq – which was it?!) and discovered this book in it. I’ve yet to read anything by Margaret Kennedy (despite getting a lovely copy of Together and Apart for Christmas) and I had no idea that she’d written a book about Jane Austen. Being in the mood for a little quirky non-fiction, I picked it up and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Apparently it was the first in a series called The English Novelists, and it is part-biography, part-criticism. In fact, it’s mostly an assessment of Austen’s various novels – written by an unashamed fan, but one who is not incapable of pointing out what she believes to be areas for improvement. Her views are unusual – how many of us would call Mansfield Park ‘the most important of the novels, the most ambitious in theme, and the best example of her powers’? – but it’s a good look through the eyes of an perceptive reader of the 1950s, to see how Austen was estimated sixty years ago.
Jane Austen is scarcely more than a hundred pages long, but Kennedy packs a lot in, with precise organisation. In fifteen pages she covers ‘The Background’; a wonderfully informative summary of the novels which preceded Austen’s. Then Kennedy covers ‘The Life’ in fourteen pages, thereby providing as good an overview as you’re likely to encounter in many books ten times that length. It is a more modern phenomenon to elaborate where details are not known, or invent suppositions where discretion is more flattering. Austen’s momentary engagement, for example, is not mentioned. Was it not known in 1950?
The next sections onto ‘The Letters’, which are often held up simply as an example of the biographer’s disappointment. Kennedy is no different:
I do not entirely agree with this estimation of Austen’s extant letters, but I love the image Kennedy devises. I also love the sensitive way she explores the difference between Austen’s early and later letters. Like everything else in Kennedy’s book, it’s a speedy but excellent summary and assessment.
And then the chapters for which I was waiting. ‘The Novels – First Period’ and ‘The Novels – Second Period’; ‘Some Criticisms’ and ‘Jane Austen’s Place in Literature’. It’s no secret that I love Austen’s novels, and I especially like reading about her novels – an area understandably skirted around by those with a strictly biographical outlook. In these, Kennedy gives quick outlines of the novels, before delivering her own verdict – always admiring, but never gushing. She knows Austen’s characters as well as her own friends and family – watching their actions, carefully considering their qualities, and understanding the work of the author all the while.
We are told that it was extensively polished, corrected and revised between 1796 and 1813, when it was published. But its great merit must have been inherent in the first draft, since characters spring to life at once or never, and truth is one of the things which cannot be “put in afterwards.”I’m not sure I agree with this somewhat whimsical statement, but I would very much like to. However, what makes Kennedy’s analysis of the novels so worth reading is her own status as a novelist. She writes of the characters with an authorial eye; she critiques their well-roundedness or believability with the voice of one who has striven at the same tasks and encountered the same obstacles. I especially liked her imagined scenario of Austen considering Jane Fairfax as a heroine, and being gradually swayed to focus instead upon Emma Woodhouse.
In the final sections of the book, Kennedy considers views of Jane Austen from her death onwards, and is especially good on Charlotte Bronte’s notorious bad-mouthing of Austen (without getting as vicious and biting as I would.) I’m once again amazed that Kennedy can write so economically – covering such ground in so few words.
I cannot think of a better person to write a book like this. Being both a novelist and an Austen addict, she has both the authority and the affection to write a book which is knowledgeable and perceptive, but never cold or detached. Anybody who could write the following wins my approval:
Austen isn’t lacking in admirers and there is no shortage of words written about her. A slim 1950 hardback will probably get lost amidst the Tomalins, Jenkins, Le Fayes etc. – but I would definitely encourage you to seek it out. As a reader and a writer, Kennedy has written a beautiful little book which is a stone’s-throw away from an appreciation – but with an authorial acumen which prevents it being the enthused ravings of someone like me, who, without Kennedy’s restraint, would doubtless fill all 107 pages with the single sentence I LOVE YOU, JANE AUSTEN, I FLIPPIN’ LOVE YOU.
A Century of Books has got off to a good start!