JANE ON THE BRAIN: Exploring the Science of Social Intelligence with Jane Austen. By Wendy Jones. Pegasus Books. 336 pages. $27.95.
The name of Jane Austen has long been settled in the public consciousness. Her books have inspired movies and miniseries, parodies and even weekend retreats where attendees immerse themselves in the novelist’s work and period-appropriate clothes. But Austen isn’t only for nerds of English literature; she also has inspired other authors to write books, including some with a scientific bent such as “Jane Austen, Game Theorist” and “Jane Austen: The Secret Radical.”
Wendy Jones merges a literary and scientific reading of Austen in “Jane on the Brain: Exploring the Science of Social Intelligence With Jane Austen.” Her inspiration for the book seems to be how “Austen’s novels are all about the transformative power of social connection.” Jones acknowledges that other authors have addressed the psychology of Austen’s characters, but says that what sets her book apart is how she peers “beneath the surface of the mind into the anatomy and neurochemistry of the brain.”
As a practicing psychotherapist and former English professor at Cornell University, Jones has the qualifications to make this leap, and as a self-professed “Janeite” — the Austen version of a “Trekkie” — she certainly has the passion for it.
Jones uses Austen’s characters and plots to explain and illustrate neurological and sociological concepts. In the first chapter, she discusses the difference between feelings and emotions and analyzes a scene in “Pride and Prejudice” where Darcy and Elizabeth meet unexpectedly on his estate. Austen’s descriptions of these characters’ physical reactions to each other expresses not only their emotions, or “subconscious neural signals that subsequently travel on to higher brain areas,” but also their feelings, or recognition of those emotions, Jones explains.
This is one example of her approach: She gives a definition of a neurological or social concept, connects it to an example from Austen, then restates the concept in simpler terms. One chapter uses the well-known plot of “Pride and Prejudice” to explain the mechanics of the brain; another uses “Sense and Sensibility” to explore the relationship between reason and emotion.
As the book goes on, Jones introduces less well-known novels and uses the characters in them to illustrate more complex concepts like theory of mind, mentalization and empathy disorders. Jones is not proposing new theories but, rather, suggesting a new way of analyzing Austen’s work and explaining neurological concepts.
Even with all the science, Jones the English professor shines through the text. The scientific analysis of passages are the result of deft readings of the material. I was surprised when I read her interpretation of Elizabeth’s disapproval of her friend Charlotte’s marriage of convenience. Since marriage vows include a promise of love, “if this isn’t possible, speaking these words is perjury, forswearing oneself before God.” Jones is saying that Elizabeth is concerned about her friend’s mortal soul, an interpretation I had not encountered in my readings of the book for school.
How characters in books and people in life influence one another is where the scientific and literary readings converge in “Jane on the Brain,” and the topic Jones always comes back to is empathy. But it takes Jones about five chapters to really get into that. The technical first few chapters, no matter how many times she mentions the fan favorite Mr. Darcy, gives the volume an almost textbook-like start and makes reading slow going, despite the inclusion of illustrations that look like they belong in a kindergarten classroom.
However, Jones succeeds effectively at explaining not only neurological and social concepts but also characters and plots. She repeats definitions and concepts across chapters knowing that the information she’s presenting could be foreign to her readers. This attempt to be accessible can cause Jones to overexplain and use an overly familiar tone.
While I appreciated the multiple opportunities to learn about emotional resonance and attachment systems, I didn’t much like how she interrupted an explanation of schema to clarify that she is, in fact, capable of imagining complex houses.
Even in the midst of technical explanations, Jones’ admiration for Austen is evident. No comparison or reference is too remote or far-fetched for her, not “Star Trek,” not “King Lear,” not “Frankenstein.” To her credit, Jones never suggests Austen was the one who developed the concepts illuminated in “Jane on the Brain,” such as the influences of the subconscious. Instead, she writes that Austen “was well aware of” or “also understood” these ideas.
Jones assumes her readers are all part of the Janeite club and familiar with Austen’s entire body of work, resulting in the use of phrases like “as you know.” But the tone is off. If she thinks her readers are so well acquainted with Austen’s books, why bother with such lengthy explanations?
This is an indication that Jones is unsure of her audience, or that she’s too sure it’s bigger than it really is, or ought to be. If it’s the literature you’re interested in, you may find your attention drifting during the explanation of the eyeball early on in the book. If it’s the social science you want, your mind might drift through the passages of literary criticism.
Surely there are readers who relish both — a portion of Jones’ fellow Janeites — and they will reap rewards from “Jane on the Brain.” Others might find that their brain, pulled in two directions, is left a bit rattled.
Reviewer Debbie Clark is a news clerk at The Post and Courier.