“No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.” -Northanger AbbeyNo one who had ever seen a vegan feminist, a composer, and a graduate student would have supposed them to write a book about Jane Austen. However, in a bold move as unassuming as Catherine Morland, these three have strayed from their usual career paths and done exactly what we thought they’d never do: written a clever and engaging partner book for Jane Austen lovers everywhere.
Touting itself as a something-for-everyone work, The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Jane Austen weaves non-spoiler plot summaries of each of the novels with interesting tidbits of information: interviews with Jane scholars and artists, framework for the “ideal Jane Austen tour”, a description of fashionable Regency Era dress, and answers the age-old question we all must ask of Mr. Bingley, “What the heck is ‘white soup’?” There is a Jane Aptitude test (challenging even for the most dedicated addict), analyses of film adaptations and gift ideas for your best Janeite friends, an original song entitled “On Reading Jane Austen” and a delightful section about why young women look upon walking so favorably. Witty comments abound, and the reader finds themselves engrossed almost immediately in this amusing little adventure!
Among the most interesting aspects of the 218-page paperback is the summary of Northanger Abbey and the breakdown of Gothic clichés so readily parodied within. Catherine Morland’s mind runs away from her upon arriving at the abbey—looking around every corner for danger, assuming the worst about the mysterious General Tilney, and expressing dissent at the furniture being “in all the profusion and elegance of modern taste.” Upon investigating a strange Japanese cabinet during a predictable “dark and stormy night,” Catherine finds—horror of horrors!—a laundry list! A stack of bills for services rendered! SAY IT AIN’T SO! The Companion seems to chuckle along with the reader during these positively ridiculous happenings, describing Northanger Abbey as “the education of a naïve reader—both the reader in the book, Catherine Morland, and the reader holding the book, you.” (What? Did you expect something else in that cabinet? Me too.)
The Companion does what it claims, which is, in basic terms, to awaken interest in Jane Austen. I found my imagination buzzing with possibilities about the characteristics of Jane’s life during my short visit to The Companion, my mental imagery growing more intricate with every passing article about carriages, dresses, and ruminations about dinners that require a change of clothes. However, I was keenly aware that my imaginings were most-assuredly inaccurate, a usual side effect of a “brain candy” book. Those who value a scholarly approach to Jane Austen may find the work to be a bit trite, overly concerned with contemporary details that mattered little in Jane’s world. A reader who expects a significant contribution to Austen research will be disappointed, and may trip over some less-than-perfect areas of writing and a sloppy table of contents, penned by seemingly unqualified authors. But for those who wish to simply lean back and enjoy need look no further—The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Jane Austen is victorious, inciting more curiosity and unapologetic musings than many Austen addicts have felt in a long while.
Gentle readers, please welcome reviewer Shelley De Wees, who will be contributing her book reviews to Jane Austen Today and Jane Austen's World in the future. Check out her website, The Uprising, at this link.