Inspiring Older Readers
Jane Austen: Sorry, but I just don’t get it
My time at university as an English Literature undergraduate student now feels so distant that I don’t have too many memories I can wholly trust to be entirely accurate. However, one that is completely seared into my memory is a ghastly week when I was trying to prepare for a seminar tutorial on the novels of Jane Austen. Try as I might nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, could make me get past the first 50 pages of any of her novels. I hated them; I couldn’t relate to any aspect of the books and within minutes I found my mind wondering off to think about almost anything else. I even found that washing up or tidying my room were preferable subjects with which to occupy myself.
As the deadline for the tutorial approached and, knowing I’d come under some scrutiny about my reading, I got increasingly desperate and frustrated. I decided I must be able to finish one of them even if only superficially and I chose to focus my dwindling time on Emma. God, it was torture. Me and that Pan Classics edition became mortal enemies. Every page I read I instantly forgot and found myself rereading it only to forget it again. In the end I gave up in despair never having finished. I didn’t go to the tutorial. I never picked up Jane Austen again during my university time and have never ever considered going back to them again as an adult. My only real regret about this incident is that I didn’t have the personal confidence or courage to go to the seminar and tell my tutor about just what a misery I found the books that he was clearly very emotionally invested in.
And so over the years I have watched the steady growth of what might be called the Jane Austen Industry (JAI) with bewilderment. New generations of Austen scholars seem to burst forth every year with different interpretations of her work – she’s a radical, a Tory, a bitter and twisted social observer, a lesbian… and on and on…… I’m just waiting for the ‘Jane Austen was an alien’ exposé and you’ll have the full set. Then there’s the films, the television, the radio, the banknotes and I’d be willing to bet that somewhere in the BBC there is a policy paper that says it’s obligatory for Jane Austen to be featured somewhere on its network at least once a week – after all they’ve probably got a big box of costumes they want to get their full use out of.
By this point, if you’ve bothered to keep reading, I’m pretty sure there will be those who are now shaking their heads in disbelief or smiling that gentle, pitying smile you keep for the unsavable philistine. “He doesn’t like Jane Austen?”, some will say, “Doesn’t he see the sly humour, the sensibility at work, the wonderful dissection of social mores, the mocking of the sexual politics of the day?”. Well, truthfully, no I don’t. What I see is a tedious playing out of a middle class drawing room fantasy. And, it turns out, I’m not alone in being nonplussed by the adulation. I’m pretty happy to be in the good company of Mark Twain who rather memorably said :
“I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone!”
Or, try this from Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seems to me vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in their wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit or knowledge of the world. Never was life so pinched and so narrow ... Suicide is more respectable.”
Ah, now there’s a man after my own heart.
What I also dislike is the gendering of Austen’s work – the lazy assumption that she’s a ‘woman’s’ writer, that she deals in issues only women will get and that men are in some way excluded from or have to work especially hard to gain privileged access to. The JAI insists on this gender divide and I suspect it does so because it sees this as a marketing opportunity – money making - and nothing at all to do with the books or their literary merit.
Now, I wish to be clear. This is not a criticism of all those people who love reading Jane Austen. Good luck to them and I’m delighted they enjoy the books. But what I dislike is the growing hegemony of taste that Austen has come to represent - if you don’t like her then you’re wrong and in some way deficient in your cultural taste: you should like Austen god-damn-it and we’re going to make sure you do.
So when it comes to the next adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Emma or any of the rest of them, you’re welcome to my share. In exchange how about giving a bit more breathing space to some other novelists and writers of that time who also have claims to have written some interesting stuff – Fanny Burney, Henry Fielding, Ann Radcliffe, Samuel Richardson, Maria Edgeworth to name a just a few.