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Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen: A Companion’

Book Review by Brenda S. Cox

I am enjoying reading a brand-new book, Jane Austen: A Companion, by Laura Dabundo. I’m finding it easy to read and full of fascinating information and insights.

Jane Austen: A Companion, by Laura Dabundo, is an encyclopedic resource on Austen, her novels, and her world, full of fascinating insights.

The book is essentially an encyclopedia of Austen. Sample topic entries cover agriculture; animals and hunting; the Church of England and Anglicanism; and sensibility and sentimentality. She explores each topic in the context of Austen’s England and shows how it connects to Austen’s writing.

You’ll find people from Austen’s life, both family members and friends. I met a few new ones, including Brook Edward Bridges, who apparently proposed to Jane at one time, though he was “too young and thoughtless” to be an appropriate husband for her. While many books include Austen’s friends and family in her story, it’s helpful to have each one’s story told separately.

Dabundo also explores locations, ranging from Chawton House and Manor to Brighton to Tonbridge. Each is given its place in Austen’s life, novels, and world.

Longer, deeper entries describe Austen’s life and each of her novels and shorter works. Dabundo argues in her Introduction that Austen is quintessentially a Romantic era writer. The novels fit chronologically into the Romantic period of English literature, and explore the feelings and internal lives of individuals.

I’ve interviewed Dr. Dabundo, who is a retired college professor, asking her to tell us more about herself and her book.

Laura, thank you for putting together this great reference on Jane Austen.

How did you first get interested in Jane Austen, and how did your interest grow from there?

From childhood I loved reading Jane Austen. I did not study the works in my academic career, but afterwards I returned to reading for pleasure. I slowly began critically appraising, researching, writing, presenting, teaching, and publishing about Austen. Eventually, besides my personal interest in her, she became one of my principal scholarly interests.

What do you most love about Jane Austen and her novels?  

I can’t pin it down to any one thing, because she was a genius. Her vision of the world was anchored in morality and religion, but represented the great variety of humanity. I don’t mean the diversity of backgrounds our societies seek today, but she included the full range of human behavior, motivations, and actions. And, of course, she was a splendid crafter. She wove eloquence, themes, ideas, complicated characters, and more into her beautifully written works. 

What led you to write Jane Austen: A Companion?  

Such a book was not on my radar at all.  I was not familiar with the publisher (McFarland) or the series (McFarland Companions to 19th Century Literature). However, I had written book chapters and book reviews for the series editor, Larry Mazzeno, who works for different journals and publishers. He wrote me out of the blue to ask if I would be interested in writing this book. Of course, I was thrilled! I had to prepare a long, formal proposal according to the publisher’s specifications, and the editor and publisher asked me to write the book. 

There are other “companions” to Jane Austen available; what is special about yours? 

Thank you for this question! Maybe a dozen books about Austen include the word “companion” in the title. Mine is the only single-authored one, which means it is unified and consistent. I could include extensive cross-references because I knew all the material and how it was related.

Also, most other “companion” books are collections of scholarly and academic essays designed for scholars and graduate students. Mine is specifically aimed at an educated general audience. That may include scholars, students, Janeites, and anyone seeking to know more about Austen and the people, places, events, times, and tropes of her life and work. I also explore what I call the strange “literary-industrial complex” of her afterlife in later adaptations. Of course, I read tons of literary criticism in writing this book. But I wanted my version to be accessible and useful as an introduction, a review, and a resource covering the remarkable cultural phenomenon of Jane. 

I know that your publisher chose your title and cover image to match the rest of the series they are producing. What title and image would you have chosen for your book, and why?

I had hoped to use a beautiful, full-color watercolor of the Cobb at Lyme Regis on the cover. As you know, this artificial breakwater features at a climax of Persuasion. However, the publishers naturally wanted the book to look similar to others in the series. So they used Cassandra’s portrait of Jane, which is probably not very accurate and is certainly overused. The picture of the Cobb I had suggested appears as a black and white version opposite the Table of Contents. (See the original here, The Cobb, Lyme Regis.)

Similarly, I wanted to call the book “Here, There, and Everywhere with Jane Austen.” This quote from Sanditon would have set the book apart from other companions on the market and emphasized Austen’s wide appeal. But the title needed to fit the rest of the series.

“Here, there, and everywhere” is a quote from Austen’s unfinished novel Sanditon about Sidney Parker. His brother says Sidney is “here and there and everywhere” (chapter 4).

What were some interesting things you learned when researching your book?

One thing I hadn’t realized was that Jane Austen’s cousin, Jane Cooper, spent much of her childhood with the Austen family, especially after her mother’s death. So really there were three girls in the house full of boys. Young Jane Austen had, in effect, the experience of two older sisters, not just one.

Also, I knew that her rich Aunt Jane Leigh-Perrot was arrested, jailed, and tried for shoplifting in Bath and then cleared of the charge. I learned that her attorney believed her guilty and that she was later accused again of shoplifting. That time it was settled and hushed up quickly. I felt more sympathy for her when I learned of her background. When she was just six years old, she was dispatched from her home in Barbados to boarding school in England. Imagine what trauma that experience of separation from home and family and the long, lonely trans-Atlantic crossing must have done to her psyche!

I’ll leave you to read the book to find more insights about Austen’s novels and times and those who followed her and tried to keep her alive in their works! 

What parts of your book do you think a serious “Janeite” will find most interesting and illuminating?

It depends on their interests. I tried to be comprehensive as well as open-ended. Someone wanting to know about the times—for example, the Regency, the Napoleonic Wars, the Industrial Revolution, slavery and abolition, or the Church of England—will find useful information. Those looking for coherent interpretations of the works of Austen and her contemporaries will find those. I included biographies of all her family members and a few friends, pulling together into single entries information which is scattered through Austen biographies as those people appear in and disappear from her life.

What part of the book did you most enjoy writing, and why?  

Whatever I was writing at the time! Even the historical stuff! I waited until the end to write about most of the novels, so I would know what I had already said, and because that would be the most fun to do. I believe in delayed gratification!

Tell us about what you have written about Jane Austen in the past, and any projects you have planned for the future.

My previous book is The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth. I argue that Austen and Wordsworth, the preeminent novelist and poet of English Romanticism, were at heart Christian writers. (That belief seeps into my latest book also, of course.) I examine their works separately and comparatively to make the point. My favorite parts are two essays that began as presentations. In one I compare Lady Catherine de Bourgh to the Tempter/Devil who confronts Jesus in the Wilderness. She comes to scold Elizabeth Bennet out of marriage to Darcy in the “wilderness” of Longbourn. The other was written for a JASNA AGM in Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love,” where I was born. So I wrote about the City of Sisterly Love in Austen, developing the motifs of “city” and of sisters in Austen.

Professor Dabundo’s earlier book on Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth

When I sent the Companion manuscript off to the publisher, we were all stuck at home in the first round of Covid. I cast about for something else to write and hit upon three autobiographical prose pieces I had written over the years. I pulled them together into a memoir of my own personal spiritual journey. Wipf and Stock published it, to my delight, as When the Parallel Converge, with a better cover than I imagined. It is very short and not at all like my work on Austen, though I do mention her a couple times. 

Future projects will be more religiously and spiritually based, I think. I did just get an idea for something about Austen, but now I don’t know where I put that piece of paper!

 

I know you’ll be speaking at the JASNA AGM next month in Chicago, and that the talk will be based on material in this book. What will you be talking about, and why did you choose that topic?

At first I could not think of anything useful on my part to say about the Arts and Austen. But I realized I could write about popular/contemporary arts. That includes what I think is a unique section of my book, though it has been relegated to an Appendix. I have called it “the military-industrial complex” of Austen, though it is really a “literary-industrial complex.” In it I discuss, with examples and criticism, Austen’s “afterlife” of sequels, prequels, works in which Austen or her characters appear, movies, plays, and TV shows. The paper I will be presenting contains some new thoughts on those areas, though the book includes more than the presentation can cover.

I was privileged to hear a trial run of your talk, and I know AGM participants will enjoy it! Thank you for sharing with us, Laura.

 

Readers of JAW, you can read Jane Austen: A Companion straight through or dip into the parts that interest you. I am appreciating every section. I’ll be glad to have it as a handy reference on my shelf, and I recommend it to you.

 

Books by Laura Dabundo

Jane Austen: A Companion, by Laura Dabundo. McFarland Companions to 19th Century Literature, 2021. 

The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth, by Laura Dabundo. Mercer University Press, 2012. 

When the Parallel Converge, by Laura Dabundo. Wipf and Stock Resource Publications, 2021. 

Laura Dabundo’s spiritual memoir

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