230 pages, Oxford University Press, ISBN-13: 978-0199276615
Richard Jenkyns’ A Fine Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen from 2004 is the very best kind of literary criticism; an elegant and fascinating exploration of the art and artistry of romance novelist Jane Austen. Austen's fans know that her novels are entertaining through repeated readings; Jenkyns explores the why of that happy fact.
Although Jenkyns does not quite come out and say so, Jane Austen was something of a perfectionist in her writing technique. Her stories are authentic, closely crafted, and subtle comedies of manners. She wrote for her own times, and Jenkyns helps us appreciate what might not be visible to the modern reader by peeling back the stories to examine the fine details of character and plot underneath. Jenkyns surveys the published novels and some of the juvenilia, but, inevitably, Pride and Prejudice gets a great deal of attention as her most successful work. Jenkyns explores the advantages of seeing the story through Elizabeth's eyes, including the result that Darcy remains something of a fascinating mystery to the end of the story. Supporting characters suggest surprising depth even with very brief appearances in the novel. Austen's characters successfully advance the storyline while behaving “in character” without the need for exotic events or circumstances.
Austen was not afraid to experiment within the narrow range of her experience and her improving technique. Jenkyns carefully disassembles Mansfield Park to reveal the complexities of its difficult plot. The conundrums inherent in the potential pairings of Mary and Henry Crawford with, respectively, Edmund Bertram and Fanny Price reveal the subtle workings of Austen’s writing technique. The outcome suggests that Austen deliberately set out to build a story around an atypical heroine and succeeded. Emma, perhaps the most straight forward of Austen's romantic comedies, turns out to have unexpected heroes and villains. Jenkyns notes that Persuasion was very possibly wrapped up in some haste as Austen began to succumb to the disease that would kill her, but still manages to combine the essential elements of her style in a successful if shortened novel.
A Fine Brush On Ivory is very highly recommended to fans of Jane Austen as a delightful and detailed exploration of her art. Readers need not agree with every item to appreciate Jenkyns' enthusiasm for the topic. Students with less familiarity with Austen will also find this book to be a fascinating and accessible introduction to her style.