A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
When I reviewed Margaret Kennedy’s wonderful novel Troy Chimneys I noted her incursions into the world of Jane Austen and her clever use of a contemporary reader’s opinion of her. That made me seek out her elegant short critical work on Jane Austen (published in 1950), which is simply the most enjoyable commentary on her life and work that I, a convinced Janeite, have ever read. Then, by sheer coincidence, when finally going through some books that belonged to my mother, I discovered that she had owned Phyllis Bentley’s study of the Brontës (1947), the first volume in this post-war series. So now, without intending, I seem to be a collector, and will have to work out how many more of these little essays I can get hold of (or even want to – Bulwer-Lytton, anybody?).
The series in question is The English Novelists, originally published by its general editor Herbert van Thal, then later by Arthur Barker. Looking down the list, one of the delights is that some of them were written by my favourite novelists about theirs: apart from these two, Elizabeth Jenkins on Henry Fielding and Marghanita Laski on Frances Hodgson Burnett (or as the title has it, Mrs Hodgson Burnett – we are still in the days of Mrs Gaskell, to say nothing of Mrs Molesworth and Mrs Ewing). Not only do they shed light on their subjects, but, certainly in the case of Margaret Kennedy, on the influence on their own work and inspiration. I do not know the work of Phyllis Bentley (shamefully, as a librarian of many years, there are many novelists of whom if asked if I know their books I can only reply ‘not to read, but I have shelved them many times), but I’m now keen to remedy that.
These little books are essentially the forerunners of the well-informed Introductions to paperback classics that came in during the 50s and 60s and that I find add so much to my pleasure in reading classic novels. In the space of a hundred pages, though, these studies have the chance to let in a little more light and air than in the 30 pages allowed at the front of an Oxford World’s Classic.
The great pleasure of these studies is that because the authors are novelists themselves they write with a winning combination of their own skill and art and their particular appreciation for their subjects’ genius. The structure of each is introduce the background, then retell the life with particular reference to their works, then provide a commentary on their works. There is a often rather piquant impression, particularly in Margaret Kennedy’s study, of ‘I wish I’d written that!’ – the appreciation of a fellow artist.
Margaret Kennedy on Jane Austen is wonderful, probably because they are both favourite authors of mine and one of the great pleasures of Kennedy’s work is in its implicit homage and explicit nods to Jane Austen. So hers is a study full of a particular affectionate insight. For Kennedy, Jane Austen’s crowning achievement is Pride and Prejudice, and in particular the creation of Elizabeth Bennet. Every line of her analysis of P&P had me saying ‘Yes! That’s it!’ and some of her ideas were so fresh and new to me that as soon as I have a gap in my insane reading schedule I will go straight back to re-read it. She reminds us of just how young the author was when she began First Impressions, and how she returned to it over time to refine it before it was published after the modest success of Sense and Sensibility – yet it still retains the sparkle of a very young writer finally finding her voice. What is truly refreshing for the reader today is that she is writing about the characters long before the glamour of TV and cinema have fixed their ‘image’ in the collective mind – in particular, she is brilliant about the complexities of Darcy, retrieving him from his ‘Regency hunk’ stereotype. I was delighted to be reminded that about him when he first appears, Mrs Bennet, rather like a clock stopped at 12, was right –
But in bringing Fitzwilliam Darcy [upon the stage] she introduces a figure which must have been almost as rare in the ballrooms of Kent as in those of Hampshire. He is shown to us from the first, as being several cuts above the average country squire. He is reputed to have ten thousand a year, large estates in Derbyshire, a house in town and title relations. He is the best born of all the Austen heroines, and, in a Burney novel, would have been the best mannered. But his behaviour, on his first appearance, is so appallingly insolent that few readers can entirely forgive him for it. pp49-50.
How refreshing to be reminded of this! These days, he seems to be forgiven anything.
The wish to see Mr Darcy get a set-down is planted, at once and strongly, not only in Mrs Bennet but in the reader. The great art, the consummate skill, of the book lies in the fact that this wish is satisfied, that we see him brought low, feel he deserves it, and are yet led on to like him and to feel tolerably resigned when he gets Elizabeth too, before the story is finished. Few readers have have felt that he was quite good enough for her, but that which would have seemed incredible in the opening chapters becomes in time not merely credible but almost desirable. p50
I really enjoyed this refreshing breeze blowing through all 21st c assumptions about Darcy and Elizabeth and their respective deserts. At the end of the study there is a short chapter on Jane Austen’s critical reception, in particular her appeal to male readers and critics before she gained acclaim from women:
Her best supporters have always been men. The leading women of the Victorian age, occupied in the struggle for the liberation of their sex, found less to appreciate in her. Even where they praised, they did so with a touch of patronage, a frequent suggestion that she was a little old fashioned. … “Her homely heroines charm, ” said Miss Thackeray, while Mrs Oliphant’s “model English girl, simple, saucy and fair,” so stuns the mind that is it difficult to assess the value of some other things which she had to say. p96.
Which brings us to one of Jane Austen’s severest critics (in private) – Charlotte Brontë, and Phyllis Bentley’s study of her and her siblings. This volume started the series to some acclaim, and must have contributed to its future success. Reading it for me was a different experience, as I have not read any of Bentley’s novels. She was born in Halifax, and her novels have a distinctive Yorkshire setting. It was of interest to me to detect her muscular authorial voice in this study, and to appreciate her personal immersion in the Brontës’ world. Her biographical chapter is headed, significantly, The Brontës’ Materials and Equipment. This is a solid foundation for a strong line of argument throughout for reclaiming their works for Yorkshire, and sometimes I felt that she strayed into overstating this, particularly at the end, where she signs off with a rather weak attempt to trace the influences of their Celtic heritage and their Yorkshire environment, a conclusion that I felt is rather unworthy of the strength of what has gone before.
As a short introduction to their inner and outer world, this study has great empathy and insight, and a determination to trace the influence of the landscape and climate on their imaginations. Within a work of about 100 pages, there is great skill, I felt, in strongly differentiating the distinctive characters and talents of the four siblings. Bentley sets great store on how the Brontës’ experiences in life were transmuted into their art. In this case there may be more of an open goal, given Charlotte’s two attempts to process her Brussels experience into a novel; and Bentley is at her best when trying to characterise Emily’s particular gifts. I guess it is a product of a particular school of literary criticism that the influence of authors’ lives and experiences on their works was held to be of supreme interest. I am not sure that this is deemed to be sound now, but, given that these are novelists writing about novelists, this line of enquiry deserves some attention, I feel.
Both studies are a very enjoyable two hours’ read – multi-layered in that they tell us about the writers that are their subjects, but also give an insight into the history of critical thought about them, and also into the art and craft of the novelist authors, an insight into what they have brought from the past into their own work. Just a warning though (a 21st century warning): the concept of the spoiler was unknown to readers and writers at that time. Neither author has any compunction at all in telling the reader what happens in the novel under discussion. How else are we going to discuss it? So some readers may prefer to read these studies after reading their subjects’ works. Naturally, this series is no longer in print, but it is well worth a search of second-hand booksellers to find them. They are elegant little books, handbag or large pocket-sized.
Margaret Kennedy: Jane Austen. London: Arthur Barker, 1950.
Phyllis Bentley: The Brontës. London: Home & van Thal, 1947.