Beth Lau (ed.), Jane Austen and Sciences of the Mind

Beth Lau (ed.), Jane Austen and Sciences of the Mind (Oxford and New York: Routledge 2018) ix + 238 pp. £110 Hb. ISBN: 9781472488183

Despite the numerous volumes being published in the ever-growing field of cognitive narratology (the inter-disciplinary dialogue between narrative theory and cognitive sciences), there have not been many devoted to the practical analysis of a specific literary text, or a specific author. In this sense, Jane Austen and Sciences of the Mind, edited by Beth Lau, fills this gap in the field, offering an entire volume dedicated only to the application of cognitive narratology’s tools and methods to Jane Austen’s novels. This is definitely a significant theoretical move, since, as Peter Stockwell emphasises, “it is under application – the practical exploration of a cognitive framework – that approaches are tested and achieve any sort of value”[1] – implying that is in the practical testing of its premises that any theory can be proved and strengthened.

In her introduction – which could maybe have taken more space, in order to in an even clearer way this interesting collection of essays – Beth Lau first briefly refers to the field of cognitive narratology and its main names, subsequently she justifies the choice of Austen’s novels, highlighting the reasons why Austen seems to be “one of the most popular author to analyse from a cognitive perspective” (1). One the one hand, Austen’s novels often provide depictions and analyses of mental processes in action, which can be read through the lenses of cognitive notions such as Theory of Mind (ToM), meta-representation, embodied cognition, social minds. On the other hand, there is also a more historically situated claim which further validates a cognitive reading of Jane Austen, that is the new ideas about how the mind works which were circulating during Austen’s time and which may have influenced her writings (2-3).The main theoretical goal of the volume is to “provide further evidence of the explanatory power of cognitive and related approaches by applying them to the analyses of Jane Austen’s fiction” – this, in turn, aims to contribute to the field of Austen studies, providing new interpretative lens.

The essays contained in Jane Austen and Sciences of the Mind approach different ways in which the relationship between Austen and cognitive studies can be articulated. Alan Richardson’s contribution, for instance, “Jane Austen and the perils of mental time travel”, explores how the complex interrelation of memory of the past and imagination of the future is narratively depicted in Austen’s novels, and how the writer has precisely represented the ways in which this relation can function or malfunction. Throughout the volume, the main cognitive concept examined as a tool to enrich and expand the understanding of Austen’s fiction is ToM, which comprises the mental skills required to understand other people’s thoughts, intentions and beliefs. Austen being a famously “keen observer of interpersonal interaction” (182), her novels very often offer in-depth analyses of how we interpret or misinterpret other people’s minds. In this sense, several features of ToM emerge in her narratives, and the essays by Patrick Colm Hogan, William Nelles, and the one written by Lau herself, all touch upon it. Wendy Jones’s “Mapping love in Mansfield Park” and Kate Singer’s “Austen agitated: feeling emotions in mixed media” address the treatment of love in Austen’s fiction, understood from a cognitive viewpoint: Jones focuses on “the neurobiology of three different types of love in Austen’s novels: attachment, romance, and sexual desire” (6), concentrating in particular on Mansfield Park; while Singer inspects the articulation of romantic emotions and feelings in Austen’s heroines. Both essays build upon the idea of an “embodied consciousness”, highlighting the interconnections between body and mind, fostering a non-dualistic perspective (as notably shown in the studies of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, repeatedly quoted by Singer). Matt Lorenz and Bethany Wong deal with the social implications linked to Austen’s minds: Lorenz’s “Pride and Prejudice and social identity theory” shows how being a low or high identifier[2] with a specific social group can function as a hermeneutic tool for understanding characters’ behaviours in Pride and Prejudice; Wong’s “ ‘My Fanny’: the Price of play” links neuroscientific studies on children’s development to Fanny Price’s inability to play in Mansfield Park, in order to explain the neuro-biological reasons behind it. Kay Young’s “Resilience and Jane Austen” inquires on the representation and significance of “elasticity of mind” (as defined by Anne Elliot in Persuasion, 167) in Austen’s novels, concluding how this mental attitude is a typical trait of all Austen’s heroines, and how through its depiction Austen “trains our imaginations to recognise, to value and to grow our own capacity for resilience” (200). The contribution which differentiates itself more from all the others is the study by Natalie Phillips et al., “Patterns of attention and memory in Jane Austen”, which combines the results of an empirical study on reading attention (with subjects required to read sections from Mansfield Park), carried out with the use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging), with a more qualitative analysis grounded in the humanities (subjects are asked to write a short literary essay). The scope of this study, in the words of the authors, seeks “to demonstrate how literary research on the history of mind can enrich traditional neuroscientific studies and provide a more reciprocal model of cross-disciplinary engagement in cognitive literary studies” (158).

In conclusion, Jane Austen and Sciences of the Mind is an important, ground-breaking step, both in the field of cognitive narratology, and in the area of Jane Austen studies, showing the multiple, interdisciplinary connections that can be found between them. The essays well situate themselves in the field of cognitive narratology, building on and expanding works by Lisa Zunshine, Alan Palmer, Suzanne Keen. However, the excellent contributions included in this volume are perhaps organised in a way which lacks a logical order, or a theoretical development. The first essay, William Nelles’s, is the only one whose position in the book is rationally clear (it deals with Jane Austen’s early writings and juvenilia), the others show points of connections among each other, as seen, but their cross-dialogue could have been stronger. In this sense, there could have been for instance a more explicit logic guiding the essay disposition, being it a chronological, or a thematic one. Notwithstanding, it is important to emphasise how this volume opens up new directions and suggestions for Austen scholars and for cognitive approaches to literature, furnishing an example of a balanced combination between theory and practice.

Francesca Arnavas, University of York


[1] P. Stockwell, Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 166.

[2] The concept of “identifier” and its connection with social identity are introduced at the beginning of Lorenz’s essay (115-116).

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