Much of The A-Z of Jane Austen pays attention to what you might call the ‘surface’ of Austen’s writings – to activities such as dance or matchmaking, for example, whose centrality in her storylines might seem to go without saying. In so doing I’m making the case that readings of Austen don’t necessarily have to be esoteric to be fresh or revealing. Some of the major contributions to Austen studies in recent years have focused on the ‘secret’ or ‘hidden’ dimensions of her writings. Titles such as D. A. Miller’s Jane Austen, or the Secret of Style (2003) or John Wiltshire’s The Hidden Jane Austen (2014) have a certain frisson because they seem to promise access to regions of her fiction that might not otherwise be visible to the naked eye. Inspired by such promises, a reader might approach Austen’s writings in the same way that Catherine Morland approaches Northanger Abbey – that is, poised and primed to make thrilling discoveries of secret material buried in the bowels of the text. Nor do Austen’s writings, many of which exhibit a fascination with riddles and secrets, always discourage such an approach. But let’s not forget, when we read Austen, to attend to what’s there in front of us on the surface. Her novels are, in very obvious ways, about social visits, making friends, writing letters and being young – but the fact that these experiences are right there on the surface doesn’t make them uncomplicated or negligible. Part of the pleasure and challenge of Austen is that the more you read her work, the harder it becomes to say with any confidence what’s inconsequentially superficial and what’s rewardingly ‘deep’, what counts as foreground and what lies in the background, what occupies centre-stage and what languishes on the margins. When Austen directs her readers’ attention, she engages in all kinds of double-bluff about the trivial and the consequential elements of her fictional worlds. One of her specialities is entrusting potentially fascinating topics to bores, windbags and other ignorable talkers. No one’s ears prick up when John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey rattles on about horses. But if we do pay attention to horses in Austen – in Northanger Abbey and elsewhere – they will enable us to see how equestrian culture sheds light on matters of status, power, gender and mobility in her world. Mr Woodhouse in Emma talks about horses too, in his amiably distracted way, and about illness and servants. He doesn’t have anything particularly compelling to say on these issues. But Austen does.
The alphabetical structure of this book ties it closely to Austen’s own vocabulary. In particular, it takes its cue from Austen’s own fondness for games with words and letters. A short poem of 1811, inspired by news reports of the marriage of a ‘Mr Gell’ of Eastbourne to a ‘Miss Gill’ of Hackney, revolves delightedly around the one-letter difference between Gill and Gell. The Jane Austen’s House Museum at Chawton in Hampshire holds a box of ivory letters once owned by the author that were used for word games. Riddles and games of anagrams feature in Emma in ways that become even more conspicuously significant when we re-read the novel. Austen is a professional author who sees no distinction between working with words and playing with them. One of her final pieces of writing is a letter to one of her nieces in which every word is spelled backwards, with six as xis and so forth. When Austen looks at the alphabet, the possibilities for pleasurable experiments with words and meaning dance before her eyes. Not all of her characters are quite so eagerly responsive to the imaginative and creative possibilities harboured by those twenty-six letters. In Mansfield Park, when the bookish Fanny Price returns to Portsmouth she is disappointed to learn that her rambunctious sister Betsey regards the alphabet as ‘her greatest enemy’ (MP: 453). This book, with all due respect to Betsey, operates on the assumption that the alphabet can be a powerful creative ally in our reading of Austen.
Michael Greaney is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Lancaster University, UK. He is the author of three monographs, the most recent of which is Sleep and the Novel: Fictions of Somnolence from Jane Austen to the Present.