Monday, February 11, 2013
Book Review: Miniatures and Morals
I loved this book. If you are a Jane Austen fan, I highly recommend it. This is from the back cover:
“Jane Austen’s novels are not only still widely read, they continue to influence modern film and literature. In both their moral content and their focused, highly detailed, ‘miniaturist’ execution, they reveal Austen’s mastery of the art of fiction and her concern for Christian virtues exercised within communities. Her sharp wit and sense of irony entertain, edify, and challenge both men and women alike. From theological and literary angles, [Peter J.] Leithart unpacks both character and theme while summarizing each of Austen’s major works. For all who desire a richer appreciation of her enduring genius, Leithart offers a hearthside seat.”
That sums it up pretty well. Peter Leithart is an impressive scholar, and Jane Austen is just one of several subjects he has studied throughout his career. I read the major part of this book at a time when I was thirsting for an author who really understood Jane Austen and respected her Christian worldview. He not only respects it, but focuses on it, explaining how her beliefs brought wisdom into her fictional portrayals. His insights are unique and, for me, sometimes jaw-dropping. I especially loved the first chapter, “Real Men Read Austen” (which quite convinced me that men should read Austen) that explains “miniaturism.”
“If ‘nothing happens’ in Austen, it is because ‘nothing happens’ most of the time [in real life]. Yet, precisely because of this limitation, because so little seems to happen, every nuance and contour of what does happen takes on considerable importance. … If we read Austen sensitively and begin to see things through her eyes, we begin to realize that much is happening in our lives even, or especially, at those frequent moments when ‘nothing is happening.’ If this is a ‘feminine’ vision of the world, it is one that men would do well to pay attention to.” (p. 20)
His insights aren’t all “heady,” however. He also writes with a genuine, humble love for the novels that we unscholarly readers identify with. I haven’t read Miniatures and Morals cover-to-cover because I decided to savor it by reading each chapter in conjunction with the novel it details; I lack only the chapters on Emma and Mansfield Park. There are review questions and thought questions within each chapter that help readers remember his points or search the text of the novel for deeper insights of their own.
If you like Jane Austen literary criticism at all, please, please do yourself a favor and get this book. It is a gem.