I thought of this Blog–I try to write daily–since last night. It is not about Bridget Jones’ Diary (I saw the movie but never did get to the bookstore for that one). It is about the biggie of currently misunderstood (no, not that misunderstood–Dickens) author, Jane Austen. I have heard a variety of readers who have loved or disliked Jane Austen who make the same vile mistake. What is it? One philosophy student who didn’t like it summed it in one sentence, “What people who like her won’t admit to themselves is that Jane Austen is just ‘chick lit’?” Even one fan said, “It’s true her books don’t go very deep, but the characters are well-drawn and likeable and I enjoy reading them so much.” And by God, the second girl’s heart is right if even her head isn’t.
Jane Austen’s books are misconstrued as sappy, sentimental love stories, romances almost, books which appeal to emotion over intellect. This ignores the woman herself, who heroically wrote rather than marry and was said in her own day to possess “a man’s mind.” However, it just as importantly ignores the books. Because though Jane Austen writes about sentiments–not exactly love, always–she shows a subtle world view in which besides issues of justice and character development, she shows how aristocratic women balance the feelings of being in love with practical and character concerns. Though some of this is rather class-oriented to an American–we hate to admit that a poor boy cannot marry a rich girl–some of it is actually wise. In Sense of Sensibility, Willoughby is an incorrigible lout who is Marianne Dashwood’s first love. Marianne is forced to face the fact in the end: Willoughby is not a suitable match. Now on the face of it, this is silly stuff, except for this: how many women have imagined that their first love will be their only love? How many people have married young only to find themselves incompatible with their spouses? How many people have valued things that are shallow and silly in the opposite sex instead of what is deep and rewarding? Of course, Marianne is not all wrong, as Elinor learns with her first love, who is her true love. For Elinor is not spared pain when even after great prudence her first and appropriate love neglects her. Now I know a reader is saying it, “Yes, but all of this about love affairs is uninteresting to modern readers.” If it is, and I admit they are generally very good, why do romance novels exist at all? If nobody cares about girlfriends and their beaus, why is even the worst Harlequin churned out. For all that Harlequins lack the artistry and intelligence of Jane Austen, why not admit that all of this nonsense about Jane Austen being mere “chick-lit” is because love stories usually sell to women.
Now, this being said, I actually believe the Jane Austen cannon is much more variated than most “chick-lit” critics charge. Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are her best read books–but I personally like Northanger Abbey with its sly satirizing of Gothic Fiction and a thoroughly dislikeable first love for the main character. I even have a librarian aunt whose favorite Jane Austen novel is Emma, about a barely likeable heroine–I know some people love her but Aunt Margaret and I can’t–makes matches and seems deluded about the good–which is to say the harm–she inadvertently does others. Emma is no doubt the author’s negative self-characterization, which is why some people love Emma the character, probably. If Emma causes others to suffer, no doubt the real Jane Austen had flaws of her own (all people do) and she claimed that “no doubt nobody will like her much except perhaps me.” So if you care to pick up the book, do not assume Aunt Margaret and I are right for being among the haters. I learned a long time ago that some times the worst thing a person can do to discover whether they love or hate a book is to read the Introduction. I always do, and yet as an adult I have to remind myself, “They do not have to be right about anything.”
With all this in mind I have given my tribute to Jane Austen. She is not shallow; people who ignore her charms are misguided by the fact that in her world the sun shines and the worst villains usually have redeeming qualities. Of course, I do have a cousin whose favorite movie Austenland highlights that one troubling feature of Austen for an American reader: in the movie a fan enters the books only to find herself in the lower classes. Austen is a patrician author. Yet Austen is also a very feminine author, who proves that smart women can think about the little problems and make up tapestries that explore deeper themes than the problems themselves seem to. Pride and Prejudice is about the superficiality of wealth, whether it knows it or not. Northanger Abbey is about literature, only superficially restricting itself to Gothic fiction in its attitude towards fiction. These books remind us that though Tolstoy’s War and Peace is one way to write fiction, there are themes as important as politics and military ventures to write about. Is it really true that love is less important than the Napoleonic Wars, or the fact that the road to love is rarely simply about two hearts beating as one. Usually, their are problems, and occasionally no solutions. Yet if we have faith than these little problems often work themselves out. It is not true, frankly, that “romantic sentiments” handled with irony, are less worthy a subject than any other. And if I were truly a great literature teacher, I could no doubt point to the fact that there is a philosophical structure as deep in Austen as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.