I thought I’d kick-off this event by revisiting an old Classics Club question about the appeal (or not) of Jane Austen. To do this, let’s begin with some delightful thoughts on Austen, from one of my favorite writers, Mark Twain.
In 1895, Twain was sailing across the Indian Ocean. He wrote in his journal that he found Austen “thoroughly artificial” and praised the ship’s library for its lack of Austen novels. He claimed that this “one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it” -Twain, Following the Equator (1897).
His dislike for Austen did not change much over time. He wrote the following in a letter, much later:
“Whenever I take up Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I mean, I feel as he would probably feel, would almost certainly feel. I am quite sure I know what his sensations would be — and his private comments. He would be certain to curl his lip, as those ultra-good Presbyterians went filing self-complacently along. …She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then 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.” – from “Jane Austen” in Who Is Mark Twain by Mark Twain (2009).
Was Mark Twain right? Was he being fair when he said that Austen’s books so angered him that “every time [he] read Pride and Prejudice [he wanted] to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone?”
Well, it’s certainly fair for anyone to have his or her own opinion. And the great Charles Dickens happened to agree with him, although Dickens’s criticism was more misogynistic in nature (he didn’t think women had the capacity to be genuinely or effectively humorous).
So, who am I to disagree with these giants of American and British literature? Well, I’m a reader with my own equally valid opinions. And I say Jane Austen is a master novelist, perhaps one of the best who ever lived. She’s certainly up there with Emile Zola, D.H. Lawrence, and Thomas Hardy, in my opinion.
Are her books similar in theme? Sure. But they’re also vastly different. Mansfield Park cannot be confused with Sense and Sensibility. Marriage, family, and the middle class – they have a place in every Austen novel, because this is what Austen knew. But it’s also this privileged world and these gossipy people whom Austen dissects and often chastises, in many different ways. Marriage for love or for convenience? Property and station or happiness and companionship? These are questions one can expect to find in Austen.
But there’s much more to her and her works than love and marriage. Did you know, for instance, that you’ll also hear about human trafficking and the slave trade? What about sexual impropriety in the military, alcoholism, parasitism, and hypochondria? Yep, they’re all in there! These issues and so many more are explored through masterfully constructed narratives, delivered in sometimes biting parody and satire.
Yes, it is safe to say that I love Austen. It took a while, though, and I can understand why, in our contemporary world, we might find her to be a bit dull on the surface. But when you take your time with her, when you look for the subtleties, such as her brilliant control of narrative time and her employment of multiple narrative types to craft a deeper, more complex prose, you might begin to see what all the fuss is about.
My first attempt at reading Austen was early in college. I started (and failed to finish) Pride and Prejudice. I reacted in the typically dismissive male-centric way: “This is girly.” Later, in graduate school, I was fortunate enough to study Northanger Abbey and my appreciation for and interest in Austen was piqued. Could I have been wrong??
Shortly after finishing that semester, I revisited Pride and Prejudice on my own. And I finished it. And I thought, “Adam, you dolt!” I had been so utterly, completely, painfully naive and wrong. I re-read P&P again last year, and my appreciation for it grew even deeper. I also hosted Austen in August last year and managed to read Sense and Sensibility, Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon. More recently, I was able to finish Mansfield Park. A lot of these works might seem similar in many ways – style, themes, focus. But in reality, they’re quite different and, somehow, never disappointing.
Do I have my favorites? Sure. Could I rank them in some kind of personal “best” to “worst” order? Yes, although that “worst” categorization would be basically meaningless, as there’s no such thing as a “bad” Austen novel. Ultimately, they all have value, they are all entertaining, and they are all complex, but in different ways. Some readers are going to respond better to the funnier, lighter novels, while others will respond to the craftsmanship and depth of the more serious works.
As for me, my favorite is and will probably always be Northanger Abbey. It was Austen’s first book, though the last to be published. It is raw, it is hilarious, and it has its flaws. But it made me double-check myself and my opinions. It made me fall in love with Austen. So, there it will sit, on its lofty pedestal, forever and ever.