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Jane Austen & why she is wonderful

I die a little inside whenever one of my students (inevitably male) dismisses one of Jane Austen's novels as "girly literature", something for women to read, but not worth the time of Men.

Austen is subtle, she is funny, she is snide and she is sharp as a very sharp thing in her satire (not suffering fools without cutting them down in a less-than-apologetic manner), but because her books feature women and love and generally end in (happy) marriages, it cannot possibly be of any interest; it must be trivial, limited, hopelessly gendered and unable to speak to any universal human experience outside of the limited, female; it cannot be serious literature. Unlike, say, a Dublin-obsessed man who plays around with language (lots of love to Joyce).

In fact, the best description of Jane Austen's writing is probably that which she herself supplied, in Northanger Abbey, as a description of the novel as a form (defending them against those who dismissed them wholesale as trivial and silly):

only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language

I am not going to pretend love and marriage are not central to the plots of these novels: Austen was writing at a time when a woman's only way to avoid (well, comparative) poverty was finding an acceptable husband; a central part of the female experience (for a woman of her class) was therefore the search for such a husband, first for herself and then for any daughters who might follow. This is portrayed as simply the happy fulfilment of female destiny (available to the good and sweet) by all too many authors (*cough* Samuel Richardson *cough* and to some extent even the women who influenced Austen -- Anne Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho comes to mind), but Austen does not unquestioningly adopt this position (in fact, she has no time for the perfectly good and tender and lovely heroine who serves and obeys).

Austen's genius lies in poking and prodding and interrogating, highlighting the hypocrisy (there is no greater crime in Austen than hypocrisy), the calculation (Lucy Steele), the horror (marrying Mr Collins), the other horror (women who fail to follow the marriage route, like Beth or Miss Bates -- the seduced woman and the impoverished spinster, respectively), and the problematic structures and expectations of the society that surrounds her. Austen is by no means all about finding happiness with Mr Darcy.

It should, at this point, go without saying that the idea that women's literature cannot say as much about universal human experience (to the extent that there is such a thing) as that written by men is absolute hogwash. Unfortunately, these things still require repeating. Repeatedly. Because people keep forgetting: Half of human experience is female (as is half of human history, a fact which Jane Austen has the heroine of Northanger Abbey nudge at one point, in her usually arch manner:

The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all).

Anne Elliot's argument, in Persuasion, when faced with female figures of literature, is not unrelated:

Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.

Part of the value of Jane Austen is that she fills this gap. She is a woman writing primarily from women's perspectives. It is therefore ironic (in a less wonderful way than Austen's usual brand of irony -- in fact, I find myself wondering whether it is ironic or just plain sad) when male students want her off the syllabus because she is too feminine. But not terribly surprising.

There is an idea of universal human experience which has traditionally been fostered by the literature and history written by and about a particular group of people, a group whose identities remain unmarked (male, white, heterosexual &c.), while the voices of those who are marked as other (female, non-white, homosexual &c.) have been largely silent (or silenced). It is this, and the structures of thought that goes with it, that leads some people to dismiss Jane Austen out of hand as limited to her gendered box, while they would not dream of doing that to James Joyce.

But even disregarding the rather obvious point that the myriad things that give us different perspectives on what this humanity thing is all about is precisely what comes together to make literature interesting, Jane Austen's novels are not all about women's position in society, or about the need to find a husband, or the injustice of a social system where women do not inherit and cannot legitimately earn their keep. They are about people. And about how these people behave towards other people. And whether these behaviours are acceptable.

There are two main reasons, I suspect, why Jane Austen is sometimes underestimated (apart from the obviously disturbing fact that she is a woman who writes about women). One of them is perhaps that which should stand most clearly in her favour: She is funny. This is unfortunately a fairly common problem: The perception seems to be that if you are writing about serious social issues you should make this clear by keeping it dull and depressing; making your reader laugh is a definite no-no. While this claim should be immediately identifiable as absolute poppycock to anyone with an ounce of good sense (in fact, I am considering using it as a test for potential new friends), a certain type of reader seems to subscribe to it. Self-important, joyless agelasts that they tend to be, I am not sure whether the problem is that they dismiss Austen as trivial because she is humorous, or that they fail to understand the humour, and therefore the point, of these novels. Austen trusts her readers, expecting them to share in the joy of poking fun at stupid people, and her dry wit can be quite subtle at times.

Austen's irony is delicious, delightful. She can be snide about the expectations of the world, as when she consoles her heroine in Northanger Abbey:

The advantages of natural folly in a beautiful girl have been already set forth by the capital pen of a sister author; and to her treatment of the subject I will only add, in justice to men, that thought to the larger and more trifling part of the sex, imbecility in females is a great enhancement of their personal charms, there is a portion of them too reasonable and too well informed themselves to desire anything more in woman than ignorance.

Or she can use it to gently chide even her sympathetic characters (like when she has Marianne, the daughter of a second marriage, who will herself marry the second man she falls in love with, claim that "no one can ever be in love more than once in their life" (gloriously having the 16-yearold state that "At my time of life opinions are tolerably fixed. It is not likely that I should now see or hear any thing to change them").

But Austen is at her most devastating when she deals with characters whose failings double as targets for social criticism, like Mr and Mrs John Dashwood, Sir Walter Elliot and Lady Catherine De Burgh. Austen's irony is therefore closely tied to her satirical tendency, which is particularly interesting in view of the second reason why Austen is sometimes underestimated: She is dismissed as trivial (this is closely tied to the "female" charge); the claim is that she is not political, that she does not engage with the historical events of her period (she writes, after all, during the Regency and the Napoleonic wars, but neither really show up at the forefront of her fiction -- although she did give a very snide dedication to the Prince Regent). Instead, the allegation runs, she writes of silly, private things like balls and their aftermath.

I must confess, however, that I am generally a bit baffled by the idea of an unpolitical Jane Austen, out of touch with the great questions of her period. The whole basis for the plot of Sense and Sensibility is how a widow and her three daughters are left without a socially acceptable way to supplement their meagre funds. In fact, the book opens very clearly with the focus squarely on the economic side to things. Inheritance (or the lack thereof) through male primogeniture is central to the necessity to secure a good marriage in Pride and Prejudice and remains significant in Persuasion. The vulnerability of both Jane Fairfax and Fanny Price, meanwhile, is entirely (and explicitly) tied up with economic dependency.

W. H. Auden, in his "Letter to Lord Byron" (which is worth reading in its entirety, although the Austen section is possibly the best part), offers a section on Austen:

She was not an unshockable blue-stocking;
If shades remain the characters they were,
No doubt she still considers you as shocking.
But tell Jane Austen, that is, if you dare,
How much her novels are beloved down here.
She wrote them for posterity, she said;
'Twas rash, but by posterity she's read.

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of middle class
Describe the amorous effect of "brass",
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

(And, of course, this last point is what will make it all the sweeter if Austen is featured on the next British £10 notes.)

Likewise, Austen deals quite viciously with the sexual double standard which leaves Henry Crawford perfectly comfortable and Mrs Rushford hidden away from good society; it is there in the fact that Wickham must be bribed to marry Lydia, because while her reputation would be ruined, he could still entertain hopes of catching a rich wife; and through Willoughby, who does get Mrs Grey and her £50,000, while Beth has her child and disappears (only protected from the fate of her mother before her by the benevolence of Colonel Brandon). I confess, it is not immediately clear to me why a novel about the war with Napoleon would be more significant.

The final thing that makes Jane Austen Wonderful, though, which makes her worth reading over and over again, is her playful attitude to literature. She is not some isolated blip unaware of her literary context. Her books are as much about language and the creation of meaning as they are about love and marriage.

The ironic propensity, which as I mentioned comes to expression in a satiric bent, also shows up in her interrogation of other texts. She never uses the trite and hackneyed plot contrivances that were all too common in her period. There are no long lost orphans with noble parents, no wicked noblemen who murder their wives or use their nefarious machinations to cheat worthy young men out of their inheritance. Rather, these plots show up in the novel as parodied structures that do not correspond to real life. Emma dreams that Harriet might be a nobleman's daughter (she is not); Northanger Abbey is throughout a parody of the gothic conventions, and Mr Wickham simply uses the romantic idea of the vicious nobleman to slander Mr Darcy. Austen shows the power of narrative structures in how we think of everyday life. And in Sense and Sensibility she has great fun poking holes in the discourse of the Romantics, used to such great effect (although eventually emptily) by Willoughby. Austen, writing in the middle of the Romantic period, pre-emptively deals with some of the ways of thinking that still run rampant in Hollywood:

I must confess that his affection originated in nothing better than gratitude, or, in other words, that a persuasion of her partiality for him had been the only cause of giving her a serious thought. It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine's dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.

The novels are full of word play (the use of the word "engagement" in Emma is worth noting, for example, in a novel which portrays a number of other word games as part of its plot, and in which the main part of the plot hinges on the lack of successful communication and the doubleness of meanings), and there is a delight in the good turn of phrase which makes Jane Austen perhaps more closely related to Oscar Wilde than either party would be comfortable admitting. At this point I could regale you with a list of examples of her finest language, but I'll leave you to find it in them books themselves. I will simply leave you with the observation that this playful and innovative attitude to language, together with her no-nonsense attitude and the creation of characters that remain alive and true, is probably why she still reads as so modern today (and in an ironic twist, this itself does perhaps detract from her gravitas, as Classics are of course supposed to be hard to read, what with being old and suchlike).

Now, go read the books, if you haven't already. If you have, go re-read. Persuasion is my favourite, but Pride and Prejudice is famous for a reason. And there is much to be said for Sense and Sensibility. Emma is interesting in its own way. And Mansfield Park will allow you to take part in the most heated Austenite flame-wars. And Lady Susan is the hipster's choice, as hardly anyone has read it. And if you want to try something else, there is always the juvenilia and the unfinished novels. Or the Letters.
Tor, Arul likes this


Tor,  12.07.13 22:01

First, let me begin by pointing out that I'm actually re-reading Pride and Prejudice at the moment. Of my own free will, and just for pleasure. I think it's mostly the language, and the fact that she is funny, that makes me want to re-read Austen. Actually, most of the books I read more than once has very good language. You can remember the broad strokes of a plot, but you can't remember all the sentences in a book, so good language makes it worth the effort. The exception is of course the Wheel of Time, which compensates for not all that great language (though not all that bad either, I think) with a ridiculously detailed plot, all of which it is also impossible to remember.

Anyway. I particularly liked the bit about Austen being political. I've never thought of her as such, and if someone had asked me before I read this article, I'm not sure what I would have said, but I certainly agree that she is, now it's been mentioned.
Camilla, Arul likes this
Camilla,  25.07.13 09:06

It has now been confirmed that Jane Austen will appear on the new £10 note; here is another article on why Jane Austen deserves this.
Arul likes this