A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen - Richard Jenkyns The title of this fantastic-- and entirely too short-- volume of Jane Austen criticism is derived from an oft quoted line recorded in a letter of Austen’s to one of her nephews, describing her writing as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.”

More than a hundred years later, Richard Jenkyns believes we should see the irony in this statement. I don’t think there are many critics left that can say Austen’s work has produced little effect, either on literature or even popular culture at large. A plethora of movie adaptations, modern sequels to her books and volumes of critical analysis and essays give the lie to such a modest assertion (an assertion we may also believe to have been in jest even as it was written, as Austen was not as purposefully modest and retiring as some would have us think).

It would be easy for me to say that this book is an extended love letter to Austen; it is an “appreciation,” after all, but while a great deal of it is taken up by scholarly praise, it is tempered with a recognition of her faults as a writer. Jenkyns has managed to capture many of the elements of Austen’s writing that I admire the most but have never been consciously aware enough to capture in my own writing, even when studying her work in-depth in college (like this qualifies my expertise or something).

His opening chapter, fittingly titled “Beginnings,” is devoted almost entirely to the opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice, a construction with the “shape and balance of a piece of music.” Jenkyns analyzes the brilliance of those famous, aphoristic opening lines, followed and supported by the exchange between Mr. and Mrs. Bennett, and comparing this opening to the balance and verse-counter verse structure of the Biblical Psalms. While this may seem like a pretentious comparison, it makes sense in his analysis. The lack of setting and exclusive reliance on dialogue makes Austen’s technique “beautifully unmanipulative,” as it allows the reader to form an opinion, which is then confirmed by the narrator afterwards. Jenkyns’ minute and insightful analysis allows us to finally put to rest the view held by Virginia Woolf that “of all great writers, [Jane Austen] is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”

The lens widens in the next chapter, “The Shape of Comedy,” to examine her other works and their relation to the overall comedic structure of her oeuvre, especially focusing on P&P, Emma and Mansfield Park, with only minor focus on Northanger Abbey, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility. Though the focus on S&S is admittedly minor, he does make some very good points about why it is a more somber and “angular” book than the others. I was especially caught by his assertion that the imbalance in S&S is a result of Austen’s imagination overriding a simplistic structure through her sheer inability to restrain it, thus producing a far more ambivalent work than was originally intended. In comparing Austen with her contemporaries in this chapter, we can see just how original and experimental her novels really were (and still are). However, while Jenkyns argues that “we need not spend time on the idea of the novels as uniformly sweet-natured miniatures of village romance” as “ that notion was laughed out of court many years ago,” I am a little less sanguine in this assertion, as I’m not sure who “we” are. If this is the “we” of critics, then fine and dandy, but if it is the more populous “we” that allowed the Keira Knightley Pride and Prejudice to run headlong into heaving-Bronte territory, then perhaps it is not so accurate.

It is fairly easy to guess what the next chapter is about, as it is simply called “The Character of Character.” Here we are treated to a lively examination of those characters we love but, even better, we also get a look at the profound studies many of her minor characters present. Lady Bertram, of Mansfield Park, is one such character that gives us a bit more substance than at first appears, particularly when compared and contrasted with her sisters, Mrs. Norris and Mrs. Price. I’ve always believed that Austen seems to be very interested in the psychological dimensions of family, from the marriage of the Bennets and Bertrams, to the arguably unhealthy relationship between Emma and her father, as well as the complicated dynamics of the Elliots, she gives her characters more contrasts of light and shade than we may initially surmise, and Jenkyns supports this view with his examples. Even the characters who have died before the action of the novel, such as Anne Elliot’s mother, give us an interesting perspective into the human nature of Austen’s stories. Jenkyns uses the admittedly simple device (first employed by E.M. Forster) of defining characters as “flat” or “round,” but does not allow the dichotomy too much authority.

Like Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma get their own chapters. In “A Park with a View,” Jenkyns gives an argument in favor of MP that I’ve rarely seen anywhere else; not only is it asserted that it is a great novel, but it is “not far from being a perfect novel.” While fighting the prejudice that has plagued poor Fanny Price through generations of readers, he is not afraid to admit that, despite his belief in the near-perfection of it, MP is the “problem” novel of the bunch. This is not in the negative sense of the word, but in the sense that great writers and composers have always had difficulty in transitioning from their earlier triumphs to more subtle and complicated studies. And Jenkyns, like me, lays much of the claims of priggishness at Edmund’s feet rather than Fanny’s.

Now we come to a very interesting chapter, perhaps the most unusual of the bunch. “The Prisoner of Hartfield” shows a side of Emma I had never considered much before, that of The Villain. I have often heard it asserted that Emma has no villain, with the main source of contention being between the heroine and her own blindness, but this may not be the case, if we are to follow Jenkyn’s line of thinking. Who would think that the doddering old valetudinarian Mr. Woodhouse is in fact the dastardly destroyer of peace and harmony in Highbury? Not only this, but Austen’s presentation is so subtle (if intentional) that we aren’t supposed to figure it out anyway! Shocking, I know. I won’t give away anymore here, as it should be read in its entirety to be truly appreciated.

Rounding out the whole is “The Sense in Sensibility,” which is a deceptive title, as it is in fact mostly concerned with Persuasion and then transitions into an overall study of sensibility (and psychology) in all of the major novels, with a focus on S&S only touched on near the very end.

I know that I have devoted a ridiculously large amount of words to a volume that clocks in at under 200 pages, but I can’t help myself. The ideas in this are so stimulating for anyone even remotely interested in Austen, that I dare you not to find something wonderful in its pages, and I only hope that it will receive as much appreciation as it so wonderfully bestows on Austen herself.