Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels
By Rachel Cohen
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 288 pp. $28
Reviewed by Marion Winik
Should you read Rachel Cohen’s thoughtful “memoir in five novels,” Austen Years, if you are not up on your Austen? Having just done so, I wish I had not, and, thus, hereby advise you to read at least four if not all six of Jane Austen’s novels before you attempt Cohen’s extended meditation on them, and do not try to get away with watching the movie versions.
If you disobey me, the main thing you will take away from Cohen’s book is that you must read all of Jane Austen as soon as possible. I have read only Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, and it was a long time ago, and like Cohen in her jejune early reading of the novels, I didn’t properly appreciate them. I cannot say, as does Ta-Nehisi Coates, quoted here, that “My Pride and Prejudice is truly mine.” Cohen goes on to explain, “After I had learned more of what Austen had meant and meant to others, I saw more of who I had been, reading her pages.”
OK, I'm convinced. I want that!
Among the myriad passionate readers of Austen, who seem to produce dozens of new books about her every year, Cohen occupies a special place. She read only Austen for several years straight. "Some scenes of Emma's education," she reports, "I have probably read a hundred times." She found a role model in Virginia Woolf, who not only read Austen but lived through her intellectually, writing of her in "letters, diaries, essays, in her own first novel. Some nights she immersed herself in Austen, other times she read her in fragments, 'two words at a time.'"
Like Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City and The Trip to Echo Spring and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, Austen Years is a hybrid memoir, combining literary criticism with personal history, including synopses of the novels to help readers who aren’t familiar with them. Since that doesn’t quite work here, the question is what else is on offer, besides the most persuasive commercial for Austen ever created?
Cohen writes with emotion and insight about her father and his death, and she includes the unusual backstory of her marriage (Austenian, it turns out) and vignettes of motherhood and family life. To my taste, there was a bit too much of the father and a bit too little of everything else. For example, I lingered over this passage, wanting to know more about the complicated girl who committed the sin described, the same one who read through all the Austen novels straight and could barely remember them afterward:
"I was a lonely, reading child, and usually had one friend each year, a friend whose parents were visiting at the university from somewhere else, a place to which she would return at the end of that year, and perhaps send me a letter or two that I would never reply to, but would keep, guiltily, in a kind of pincers of knowing I ought to write and not writing, in the drawers of my rolltop desk."
That is such an interesting confession. I can almost see a whole novel in it.
But Emma and Elinor and Elizabeth and Marianne, and of course Jane, are the central characters of this book. Rachel is supporting cast. I plan to go back to her Austen Years after I’ve put in mine.