Friday, July 11, 2008

Review: So Odd a Mixture

Theme of the week: Book reviews. Today's featured review is on the "scholarly book" I promised on Monday.

So Odd a Mixture

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a person immersed in the world of autism, must see a little autism in everyone. The tendency to "diagnose" someone seems to be so well fixed in the minds of everyone who has a little knowledge or more of autism.

"Austen. Autism. Austen. Autism. What can [those two] words possibly have in common?" (15)

The previous sentences are the first to appear in Phyliss Ferguson Bottomer's introduction of her book So Odd a Mixture. Some of us amongst those who must see a "little autism in everyone" are parents. Bottomer, however, is a speech therapist who has worked with individuals on the spectrum. After reading her book, this reviewer has no doubt that Bottomer is one who must see autism. She sees it in an over abundance of characters in Jane Austen's best known work, Pride and Prejudice (P&P).

"Must" is the key word because if she analyzed the only character in P&P that is obviously on the spectrum (Mr. Collins, who is the first character in the book to be diagnosed) than she would only have ten pages of character analysis. Add these pages to the forty or so pages that make up the introduction, the reference and index pages, and the four extra chapters she includes, then Bottomer would have authored a very short book indeed.

While this reviewer feels that Ms. Bottomer has stretched a bit in "diagnosing" in seven of the eight characters included in her analysis, she does feel that the name of the book (So Odd a Mixture) is quite clever. It should come as no surprise that Austen herself inspired the title of this little scholarly book which is six and two hundred pages long. In P&P, Austen described Mr. Bennet, the heroine's father, as "so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character" (3).

As can be inferred by the title and the above paragraph, the author has diagnosed Mr. Bennet with Asperger's Syndrome. Unfortunately, Bottomer used the quick and humorous wit of Mr. Bennet in part to prove that he has Asperger's Syndrome (AS), a mild form of autism.

It is when Bottomer analyzes Mr. Bennets witicisms that this reviewer believes that Bottomer is stretching the most. It's not that a person with AS does not have a quick wit, but rather the fact that this writer believes that the intent the authoress's gift of wit to Mr. Bennett was to add humor to the novel and to link him with Elizabeth, the beloved heroine who was granted a similar sense of sharpness and humor. That said, one can argue that Austen did not provide Mr. Bennett an abundance of wit in order for scholars to prove that he has a disorder.

Bottomer has also diagnosed Mr. Collins, Lydia Bennett, Mary Bennett, Catherine de Bourgh and her daughter Anne, and the one and only Mr. Darcy, the hero! If one wonders what the value of diagnosing so many characters are, it can be said that making such assertions can spark a great deal of debate amongst Austen and autism scholars. I think this reviewer could go into endless debate about Mr. Darcy alone.

Other chapters included in So Odd a Mixture are titled "Autism Spectrum Disorders for Janeites", "Pride and Prejudice for Autism specialists", "Happily Ever After? (this one analyzes the happiness of all the couples in novel) and "How did Jane know [about autism]?" Of these chapters, Bottomer does a pretty good job with her explanations and analyses in all but one. In the chapter "Pride and Prejudice for Autism specialists", Bottomer inexplicably leaves out a brief plot summary. Such an inclusion would have added a little depth to the chapter, not to mention two or five pages to the book.

As for the other chapters, one chapter is dedicated to each of the characters Bottomer diagnoses. One complaint is that Bottomer goes into all the "whys" in terms of a character having AS, but if she went into any of the "why nots," then they were easily missed. And though she supplies many, many "whys," Bottomer avoids going into why Kitty may or may not be on the spectrum too. After all, Kitty and Lydia seem to act identically (putting the Wickham incident aside) with Kitty only improving in behavior when separated from Lydia.

In conclusion, this reviewer would say that despite the weaknesses of the book, it could potentially serve as a great resource for college students writing papers on P&P or AS. There is also plenty of fodder for scholars and thinkers who wish to read a quirky, scholarly book about a P&P or about fictional characters with AS. Outside of scholars, other readers may find Bottomer's book to be too odd of a mixture.


Anonymous said...

An interesting concept, but I think it is stretching artistic license in terms of criticism to the extreme. I would be interested in why Mr. Collins is considered the only one "obviously on the spectrum." The only one I would think likely might be Catherine de Burgh.

J said...

Confession: I found out about the existence of this book by googling Mr. Collins and Asperger's Syndrome. I had merely figured Mrs de Bourgh to be a rich woman used to getting her way and it never occurred to me that she might be on the spectrum.

Mr. Collins, however, went on too much about Mrs. de Bourgh and Rosings, tended to speak in Monologues without waiting for replies, had trouble believing Elizabeth when she rejected his proposal, and beforehand thought reading biblical texts to a roomful of potential wives was the way to go. He also had difficulty with the dances he participated in and improperly introduced himself to Mr. Darcy at a party.

That said, I thought Mr. Collins and Mrs. de Bourgh made quite the "couple." He was the only character to pander to the elderly lady's demands. They had sort of a symbiotic relationship, kind of like the one he and his wife Charlotte did.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I think you should post this on Amazon since they have no reviews of this book there.

Sounds interesting but I think I will pass on this one.