Joanna Smith Rakoff: The French Revolution

Joanna Smith Rakoff, author of A Fortunate Age and former editor of Nextbook.org, is guest-blogging for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.

Some years ago, when I was a doctoral student in English literature, my more conservative-minded peers sometimes made fun of the critics who practiced a more theory-based form of analysis — the followers of Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva,joanna smith rakoff, author blog and, in this case, the movement known as “New Historicism” — by saying, with a sarcastic roll of the eye, something to the effect of, “Right, and in not commenting on the French Revolution, Jane Austen is really commenting on the French Revolution.†Titters would ensue.

They were referring, of course, to the famous lack of historical context in Austen’s much-loved novels, and to the critic Warren Roberts’ then-famous (or, in some circles, infamous) book on the subject, Jane Austen and the French Revolution. Roberts set out to prove that Austen was not just a frippery writer of proto-chick-lit novels about shabby genteel young ladies in search of husbands, but a politically- and culturally-engaged chronicler of the major events of her day, who very much had the French and American Revolutions on her mind while writing Mansfield Park.


a fortunate age by joanna smith rakoff
As a scholar, I was on the old-fashioned side and, thus, happy to simply read Austen’s novels for pleasure, rather than scrutinizing dialogue for coded ideas about the Napoleonic Wars — which may well be why I dropped out of said doctoral program and began writing my own marriage plots. But, though I laughed along with my classmates whenever that French Revolution comment was uttered, I was secretly attracted to the idea that a writer’s silence on a subject might say as much as her explicit exploration of a subject.

And so it was that years later, when I took a job as books editor of the Jewish culture magazine Nextbook (now Tablet), that I found myself drawn to fiction that was less than straightforward in its approach to Jewish ideas or, more often, identity. It was easy to discuss the Jewish content of, say, The Counterlife or Bee Season. What interested me more — and still interests me — were the ways in which, for instance, a character’s Jewishness comes into play in a novel (or story) that doesn’t necessarily center on things Jewish.