I know what you're thinking… Another book about Jane Austen?! There's already been so much scholarship, she has her own society, legions of fans, and everyone with even a passing affection or admiration for her has already published a book about this much-beloved literary icon. So who is this woman that feels there's still more to say?
She's Rachel M. Brownstein, an English professor at the Brooklyn College of CUNY, who's published two previous books: Becoming a Heroine: Reading About Women in Novels and Tragic Muse: Rachel of the Comédie-Française. She was educated at Barnard College and received her Ph.D. in English from Yale University.
And what does she have to say about Austen that hasn't already been said? I can't vouch for everything that's ever been written, but I can describe this book as an overview of the basic trends and genres of women's writing – dipping a bit into aspects of feminism – as it pertains to Austen, and deep analysis of the novels, both as expressed by critics and also students. In addition, why Austen continues to be so popular, and the various ways popular culture has adapted her novels to film, are delved into in detail. In short, it's more information about the author than I'd ever have expected to be found in one volume.
Those such as myself who have all the novels, seen some of the film adaptations, and read a couple Austen biographies – including Claire Tomalin's and Austen's nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh's – and possibly other pieces of criticism, Brownstein's treatment is a wonder. Those as smitten by the Regency author as I will find Why Jane Austen? contains a wealth of information, pulling in new perspectives (some seen through the opinions of Brownstein's students), as well as a gathering of previous scholarship. The addition of the heart of popular culture, why Austen became so wildly popular after a period of relative dormancy, is fascinating, as is the way in which this perspective is wound into the criticism as a whole.
Put simply: Reader, I loved it. So will those with an interest in somewhat more scholarly studies, though you don't need your own Ph.D. in literature to appreciate it. Maybe I should say serious fans, rather than scholarly, though scholars will likewise find much here.
It's just a joy, an essential, updated addition to the already-loaded canon of Austen criticism that isn't a repetition of anything I've personally read before. Once I've re-read the novels – which Brownstein has inspired me to do – I intend to read it again, for it can only improve upon re-reading. Very highly recommended.