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Why did Jane Austen?

February 25, 2012

What is it about Jane Austen? We all know the basic dichotomy. You know, the division between those who dismiss her as being slight, inconsequential, fluffy, chicklit and those who read her again and again swearing that each time they do they find something new to enjoy and appreciate. But, do you know about the dissensions that rage amongst the ranks of the latter? I often wonder how a writer so loved and admired can engender such huge and ongoing debates amongst those very ones who love and admire her!

English: Fanny sewing (detail from File:Mp-Bro...

Fanny sewing in Mansfield Park (Illus. Brock, Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

Here are some of the issues Janeites debate ad infinitum:

  • Fanny should have married Henry Crawford, not Edmund (Mansfield Park)
  • Marianne and Colonel Brandon could never be happy (Sense and sensibility)
  • Emma’s relationship with Mr Knightley is too “incestuous” to be acceptable (Emma)
  • Fanny is a weak and boring heroine (Mansfield Park)
  • Henry Tilney didn’t really love Catherine but married her out of honour for his father’s poor treatment of her (Northanger Abbey)
You would think, wouldn’t you, that fans of her books, those who read them multiple times, would agree at least on basic plotting and characterisation? But not so.
Why is this? That is, how can readers disagree with Austen and yet love her? Well, I would argue that it’s her wit and humour, her comedy – and the fact that her comedy is pointed, wicked even, but not bitter. Mr Collins (of Pride and prejudice), for example, is one of her silliest, most comic creations. He’s a snob, he’s tactless, he’s boring, but does he get his come-uppance? No. He ends as he always was, sublimely unaware of his failings – and fortunately (for him) married to the tolerant, sensible Charlotte. Then there’s Mr Wickham, the villain of the same novel. Far from getting his come-uppance for his dastardly deed – other than being stuck in a marriage with a silly girl – he receives help from the families he wronged:
Though Darcy could never receive him at Pemberley, yet, for Elizabeth’s sake, he assisted him farther in his profession.
Perhaps I should rephrase this. It probably is a come-uppance for Wickham to be stuck with the silly Lydia. Likewise, for Maria Bertram (in Mansfield Park) to end up as she did:
It ended in Mrs. Norris’s resolving to quit Mansfield and devote herself to her unfortunate Maria, and in an establishment being formed for them in another country, remote and private, where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment.
But these punishments are mild by comparison with what happened to “villains” in most novels of the 18th and 19th centuries. This comes about because Austen’s characters exhibit a psychological realism that is somewhat unusual for the time. Her characters aren’t archetypes. They are fully realised creations who move and act in a comprehensible way. We’ve all known (or been!) an over-emotional Marianne, a proud and reserved but reliable Darcy, a silly boy-chasing Lydia, a mine-is-bigger-than-yours John Thorpe, a too-willing-to-judge Elizabeth Bennet. To so accurately render humanity was Jane Austen’s aim, as she most clearly expressed in Northanger Abbey when she described a novel as something
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.
And this is why we Janeites keep reading – and arguing about – her.
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40 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2012 10:15 pm

    Hi Jane Austen addict!

  2. February 26, 2012 2:02 am

    I think this means I should read some Jane Austen. (It has been ages and I never completed her oeuvre, so I still have new ones to read. Not that that matters, as you point out.) Emma is on the shelf and, still, unread by me. This will be the year.

    Loved the post, even if I don’t have anything intelligent to say about the debates. While not an addict, I have very much enjoyed every JA novel I’ve read.

    • February 26, 2012 8:10 am

      Thanks Kerry. Chances are then that you’ll like Emma. Some have gone so far to describe it as a “perfect” novel. And I must say that on my last rereading I was awed by the meticulous plotting. I look forward to your review … After TOB perhaps?

      • February 26, 2012 9:21 am

        Yes, sometime after TOB. I am also planning on getting to some long-overdue Australian lit, so you input there will be much appreciated.

        FYI, so far, I have penciled in Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, Kim Scott, and Gail Jones (Five Bells). Patrick White’s A Fringe of Leaves is on hand and will be one of my first post-TOB reads.

        • February 26, 2012 5:27 pm

          They are great starts … also, in terms of contemporary writers (but I can’t recollect what you’ve read) are Tim Winton and David Malouf. So many others but what you’ve got in your pencilled in list is a great start.

        • February 27, 2012 5:50 am

          I have read Dirt Music by Tim Winton. I thought it was good, but not so great that I have sought out more by him. Malouf is another I should get to. Thanks!

  3. February 26, 2012 2:57 am

    I’ve always considered it a fairly risky venture to put a bunch of Jane Austen fans in one room.

    • February 26, 2012 8:12 am

      Ah, good one, Guy. It is … As I can attest given I do it every month with my local JA group … Which rather inspired this post!

  4. February 26, 2012 2:16 pm

    You totally win all these points 😛

    Oh, and by the by, I have recently allowed Fanny to move higher in my estimations. At least she’s better than the bloody pure-as-sickeningly-pure-as-can-be Esther in Bleak House! 😉

  5. February 26, 2012 2:43 pm

    There are numerous reasons to love Jane Austen despite numerous criticisms. Since you’ve mentioned a few regarding Mansfield Park, there’s this one from the post-colonialist critic Edward Said, accusing Austen as an sympathizer of imperialism since she mentions Sir Thomas Bertram’s Antigua plantation. I really don’t care what critics say about her… my mind is made up. 😉

    • February 26, 2012 5:31 pm

      Oh really, Arti …sometimes I think people just look for something to be provocative, don’t you! My mind is with you … of course! (BTW Looking forward to the Oscars though unfortunately I will have to watch a little delayed as it’s on at midday Monday our time and I have a meeting, for which I’m secretary, to attend.

  6. February 26, 2012 6:33 pm

    I loved this post, not least the quotes, especially the last one.

    It inspires me to return to my loved set of JA (a school prize set, dated 1955, of which, sadly, Mansfield Park is missing, cos I lent it to someone years ago and they never returned it). I started my eldest daughter on reading Jane Austen, one year when she was 14, and we were holidaying on Rottnest Island (WA); she was entranced, and moved from Mills and Boon to literature overnight.

    • February 26, 2012 7:16 pm

      Good story, Christina! I started reading JA when I was 14 too … and although I hadn’t been quite a Mills and Boon reader, it did mark, I think, the real beginning of my maturity as a reader.

  7. February 26, 2012 6:58 pm

    I love Fanny as a eroine…But I think I’m the only one in the World!

    • February 26, 2012 7:14 pm

      Welcome Alessia – particularly as you are a Fanny defender! I’m a Fanny defender too. Too many people see her in the light of late 20th/21st century and not in terms of a girl plucked out of poverty to live with wealthy relatives most of whom treat her poorly, and during a time when class and social etiquette were important things.

  8. February 27, 2012 8:20 am

    Claire Tomalin’s biography of Austen has been sitting on my shelf forever and day. Need to get around to that this year. I resolve.

    • February 27, 2012 9:10 am

      Naughty me has it on my shelf too but I have only dipped into it … I have SO many Austen books.

  9. February 27, 2012 1:30 pm

    “You would think, wouldn’t you, that fans of her books, those who read them multiple times, would agree at least on basic plotting and characterisation? But not so. Why is this? That is, how can readers disagree with Austen and yet love her? Well, I would argue that it’s her wit and humour, her comedy – and the fact that her comedy is pointed, wicked even, but not bitter.”

    Try this as another explanation for all the disagreements about Jane Austen:

    http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2011/01/jane-austens-anamorphism.html

    Cheers, ARNIE PERLSTEIN
    @JaneeAustenCode on Twitter

    • February 27, 2012 6:17 pm

      Thanks Arnie … that’s a fascinating and mindbending post. I will share that with my JA group here I think. I do like the idea of the overt and shadow stories. You’re suggesting that the disagreements are based on which of these “stories” people see and respond to?

      • February 28, 2012 12:19 am

        A simple example—in Emma’s overt story, Jane Fairfax has been engaged to Frank all along, Harriet Smith is a naive ditz, and Miss Bates has nothing interesting to say, whereas in Emma’s shadow story, Jane Fairfax has been concealing a pregnancy, Harriet Smith is a manipulative social climber and Miss Bates is speaking nonstop about the shadow story, but Emma (and therefore also the reader unaware of the shadow story) is not listening.

        This same double structure holds in all of the novels–so when readers unaware of the shadow story have glimpsed a chunk of it, in which a given character appears opposite to the normative way of seeing them, there is an argument!

        That’s it in a nutshell. But if you browse in my nearly 800 blog posts, you will find hundreds of examples of what I talking about.

        Cheers, ARNIE
        @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

  10. February 27, 2012 7:26 pm

    I haven’t read Jane Austen for years now (I did prefer the Brontes!) but I did make a special pilgrimage to Bath, trying to imagine her life there with her afternoon teas and needlepoint and empire dresses.

    • February 27, 2012 9:45 pm

      Oh Catherine! I did love the Brontes when I was a teenager too .. but somehow it’s Austen with her sharp, clear eye on humanity that has won my mature love! The president of JASA, though, I think loves them equally … and to be fair, I should read Emily again. I did enjoy rereading Jane Eyre a few years ago.

  11. February 27, 2012 9:42 pm

    Ah Kerry, people have their favourite Wintons … I suggest you try him again before giving up on him. Probably Cloudstreet – oft touted as a possible great Australian novel – is the one to read. The turning – more like connected short stories is good too. Also Breath. But Malouf, yes, you must try him one day if you haven’t at all. (And if you are interested pop over to Read, Ramble – link in my blogroll – for her review of a Jolley short story, Woman in a lampshade).

  12. February 28, 2012 6:29 am

    It’s good harmless fun, isn’t it? The North American Jane Austen conference is going to be in Minneapolis next year I believe. I plan on being there and I am looking forward to it in all it’s Jane obsessed glory. 🙂

    • February 28, 2012 6:57 am

      It will be in NYC, Stefanie:

      http://www.jasna.org/agms/newyork/index.html

      Better join JASNA or you won’t know when attendance goes up for grabs in the Spring. They are limited and they will go VERY fast, you can be sure!

      Cheers, ARNIE

      • February 28, 2012 8:30 am

        Good advice Srnie. I think your mag is Pesuasions, isn’t it? I’ve read articles online over the years. JASA’s journal is Sensibilities. Peer reviewed. But perhaps you know that.

        • February 28, 2012 8:35 am

          Yes, I know about Sensibilities, but have never actually had an issue in my hands. There are two journals put out by JASNA, Persuasions (which is in print, but which is accessible via scholarly databases a year after publication) and Persuasions Online:

          http://www.jasna.org/publications/index.html

          You can browse to your heart’s content about a hundred Austen topics, but they don’t go where i go with shadow stories, I am too heretical for them, although I have addressed 10 different Austen Regional Chapters and I also spoke at the 2009 AGM in Portland Oregon.

          Cheers, ARNIE
          @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

    • February 28, 2012 8:28 am

      Oh I do hope you get there. I have been to a couple of JASA conferences. Smaller than JASNA but growing, and great to attend. I want to hear your report!

      • February 28, 2012 8:31 am

        whisperinggums, Imagine a large ballroom at a large hotel filled to capacity with 650-700 Janeites–that is what a JASNA AGM is like! An experience not duplicable in any other way!

        When Andrew Davies addressed the last AGM in Ft. Worth, it was standing room only in the ballroom!

        Cheers, ARNIE
        @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

        • February 28, 2012 9:12 am

          Oh Andrew Davies would bring them out in droves I am sure, Arnie. Our conference is more in the 125-150 but bursting at the seams so it is on the rise and new venues are needing to e found.

          Ah yes, I remember now that there are the two versions of Persuasions and of course it’s the online one I read every now and then.

          As for heresy, you do sound somewhat so! Is one of your shadow stories the fact that Marianne was pregnant when she was ill?

        • February 28, 2012 9:22 am

          “Is one of your shadow stories the fact that Marianne was pregnant when she was ill?”

          Exactly so, yes! But the same is also true, e.g., of Jane Fairfax in Emma, with even more clues!

          And concealed illegitimate pregnancy is only one part of the complex shadow story of each of those two novels…

          Cheers, ARNIE
          @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

  13. March 2, 2012 2:28 am

    Lot’s of food for thought Whisperinggums: how valid is it for readers to interpret characters differently from what the author meant? And if we do think differently, does that mean the author didn’t do her/his job properly or that she/he did such a great job that his characters were complex and “real life” enough to become independent?

    PS: I always list Catherine and Tilney in my list of “Couples who won’t be happy after the Happy Ending”, right there with Amy and Laurie…

    • March 2, 2012 8:42 am

      Very good question, thanks Alex. I think of readers who decide that a character is, say, autistic when the author hasn’t told us so. I prefer to say that the character exhibits autistic like behaviours than to say the character IS autistic. I tend to prefer to stick to the text. But I guess there’s a grey line here … There is always an element of interpretation in our response to what we read isn’t there and we can’t always KNOW the author’s intention beyond the facts on the page. So I think there is room to move … The question is just how far, eh?

      You’re not alone re Catherine and Henry … Though, you know, as with Amy and Laurie, opposites attract. I think that was Alcott’s point wasn’t it?!

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