Thursday, March 7, 2013

Beating Up Austen...Or Not

Here's the question from The Classics Club for March:

Do you love Jane Austen or want to "dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone?" (Phrase borrowed from Mark Twain).
1. Why? (For either answer)?
2. Favorite and/or least favorite Jane Austen novel?
Well. I do feel that as a classics blogger, Jane Austen tends to follow me around everywhere, and this is just more evidence of that. But I always love to answer the Classics Club questions and I haven't quite addressed this on my blog yet, so I'll answer it.

I've heard numerous complaints about Austen, but the main one I've heard is that her novels are distant, cold, and inaccessible. And I would have to say that I agree with them. But I also really like Jane Austen.

Jane Austen fans will probably gasp in astonishment that I could profess to love Austen and not be perfectly in tune with Mr. Darcy's heart and soul (or Emma's, or Eleanor's, or whoever's). But the truth is, if I had never heard anyone say that they wished they had their very own Mr. Darcy, the thought would never have crossed my mind. I probably would never have identified myself with any of Austen's characters. They are simply un-identifiable. I mean, I can identify with certain of their personality traits, or some of their actions. But to be perfectly honest, I've never thought of Austen's novels as having any ability to speak to my soul. (And lest you proclaim me a stone-hearted skeptic, I really have had that experience with other novels.)

Austen is distant, even from her own characters much of the time. She's not the loving, warm-hearted author that tenderly nurtures her characters; she exposes their weaknesses and laughs at them (but in the end, she shows her forgiving nature by giving each of her characters a marriage to the person of his or her choice). The reason to love Austen, for me, have nothing to do with relate-able characters.

So without further ado--the reasons I love Jane Austen:

1. Her novels are about regular life.
I'm not a fan of fantasy and sci-fi; there are enough interesting things that happen in daily life, we don't need to dream up totally different worlds. And Austen proves that. She makes even the most boring occurrences, like waiting for an acquaintance to make good on his promise and visit already (all while listening to the whining of a needy mother or father) somehow interesting. And yet, there's a cry for help. There's some little voice in there of an independent 19th-century woman who is saying, Do you see how boring this life is? Do you see how awful it is for women, who are perfectly capable of making their own way in the world, to wait around for men to do everything? Because, of course, Austen made her own way in the world without the help of any man. (Unless you count family members...but you know what I mean. She didn't require an advantageous romantic attachment.) Austen shows how boring ol' everyday life is actually interesting and should be getting some attention.

2. She's just so darn hilarious.
Jane Austen skeptics might laugh at this and think I'm being sarcastic, but I'm not. Austen's dry humor is so intelligent and funny. Whenever I read an Austen novel, I'm always seized with the urge to share various passages with whoever will listen (and then promptly discover that they really lose something when read aloud, particularly to someone who doesn't care). While many of the writers before or during Jane Austen's time were making profound statements about morality, Jane Austen was quietly chuckling over her characters' stupidities.

3. They're timeless.
Even though I don't usually identify with the characters or empathize with their feelings, I do often identify with the issues. For instance, as many of us know, one of the themes in Sense and Sensibility is learning when to be sensible and when to allow yourself to be emotional. I think there are few of us who haven't had to come face to face with this issue in life. Even though many of the events are unique to 19th-century England, the challenges the characters deal with are challenges we all have to face. Human nature is one of the few things (if not the only thing) that has truly lasted throughout the ages, and these novels are stories about human nature.

So there you have it. Three reasons to start appreciating Jane Austen, if you don't already. But the truth is, when people say they don't like Jane Austen, I can understand why. There are reasons not to like Austen as well as reasons to like her, just like with any author. So what if she's just not your cup of tea? You can still be a perfectly educated, intelligent person (I mean, we can see what Mark Twain thought about her).

As far as my favorite novel, that would undeniably be Emma. But I also love Northanger Abbey, which I read and reviewed for the Club recently. If you've already read Austen's major works, you might also try Lady Susan, which isn't exactly genius but is really quite funny (and very short).

What do you think about Jane Austen?


  1. I'm afraid I have always shared Twain's opinion that "is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. It would be worth while, too. Some day I will examine the other end of her books and see."

    I think I have read the first part of all her books but only managed to find the end of Northanger Abbey. I was always hoping someday someone would explain what they liked so that I might be able to share the joy. The response I usually get is "But they are sooo goooood! Don't you just love..." Well, no. That's why I asked.

    But your essay helps a lot. Perhaps in a couple months I'll try diving into Sense and Sensibility again. I hear that one is the best. Or was that Pride and Prejudice? You seem to prefer Emma. I think you may be right.

    1. Ha, ha! I've never heard that particular Twain quote. I love it! I know what you mean about people's responses. Even though I like Austen, it irks me when people "fangirl" over her books. I'm not quite sure that's what Austen intended for her novels (and it certainly makes some people pre-disposed not to like Austen). I'm glad this post might have helped just a little bit in your understanding of Austen (even if you don't end up being her biggest fan).

      I do like Sense and Sensibility, but I think it's one of Austen's slowest-moving novels. I like Emma the best because I think it's the funniest, but Pride and Prejudice is the general favorite.

  2. I've never read your blog before, but I followed the link that you left on WXROZ's blog today. And I did something I've never done before -- I started following your blog before I'd even finished reading this post. Usually I read at least five posts before I decide whether or not to be a follower. But I agree with you here so completely on every point (except regarding what our favorite Austen novels are -- I love "Persuasion" best) that I am eager to see what else you have to say.

    1. Wow! I'm so flattered! Thank you! I hope the rest of the blog measures up! I really like Persuasion as well. I visited your blog and I'm your newest follower. :)

    2. Well, as I have the chance, I'm reading back through some of your old posts, so prepare for comments on random stuff you wrote a while ago :-)

      Thanks for following my book blog too!

  3. Great post! That's interesting that you can enjoy her works while not necessarily liking her characters. I like her okay, but don't love her. But since you read my post you already know that! One thing I don't like about Emma is the ending... it feels way too drawn out. Do you ever feel that way when you're reading it? I always think to myself, just end it already! But it is still one of my favorites - that or Persuasion.

    In response to your 1st reason: I still like some sci-fi and fantasy! :P Do you not read anything along those lines at all?

    1. Thank you! It's actually been a few years since I read Emma, so I don't remember my exact thoughts about the ending, but I do remember thinking that there were some parts that were just too drawn-out. One of Austen's failings (I think) is a tendency to devote pages and pages to scenes that just might not need it. (There is a lot of dialogue in Emma that just doesn't need to be there.)

      As far as sci-fi and fantasy books, I can't say that there is not a single one in the world that I like, but I really try to avoid books in those genres. Every time I read one, I either get mad or bored before the end. But to tell the truth, I'm often too harsh on those genres here on the ol' blog. Really, sci-fi and fantasy just don't happen to be my cup of tea, but that doesn't mean nobody should ever read them!

  4. I do love Austen, but I'm definitely not a "fangirl" of her works. I admire her wit, her style, and vivacity. At first, Austen seems to have a limited view of the world because she just writes about "three or four families in a country village." Yet, in those three or four families, there is a wide array of different types of people and Austen brilliantly understands each type, showing her readers their depths and quirks.

    So, for me, Jane Austen isn't Colin Firth in a wet shirt; instead, I love Austen for the insights she gives me of the world. I can reread Pride and Prejudice over and over again and still finish it, realizing something I hadn't noticed before.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I totally agree and I love the way you put it. "Jane Austen isn't Colin Firth in a wet shirt" --THANK you, that needed to be said!