“Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone” – Mark Twain
“Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.” – Charlotte Brontë
“I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem 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.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Mr. Twain did not stop with the shin bone, for his other quotes attest just as vehemently to his voluble distaste for Austen. It is not a generalization to say that more women than men read Jane and yet men are encouraged to embrace their hidden Austen. There is a blog encouraging men to read her, there is a blog by two guys who read her, there is a web page for all the novels and includes genealogy trees for all the characters, and You Tube has Real Men Read Austen. There is a blog devoted to her prose; to the film adaptations of her books; to a study of her continuing appeal in popular culture, for Janeites and even one article that adds her to the conspiracy theories, suggesting that she was murdered. Addison’s Disease, bovine TB, and typhus are among the suspects.
Is Austen a universal writer? A universal writer for women?
The standard defense for Jane Austen is that she revolutionized prose with the use of free indirect speech; displayed virtuosic observational skills of society; offered great comedic moments in her novels (precursor to the sitcom?); wrote masterful dialogue and dramatic scenes, which may explain the ease at adapting her novels to film and, of course, that she illustrated the social state for women and their emotional lives. Note ‘social state’ and not ‘social plight.’ One can also add a slew of other possibilities of what makes Jane run: moving the novel out of the epistolary and episodic mode, and showing and not telling consciousness, the human mind in motion. She was certainly not the first women novelist (does that distinction go to Aphra Behn or Ann Radcliffe?), although her only true rival was Henry Fielding when it came to narrative construction and plotting.
So where are the male readers?
One last word about Jane’s ‘reputation‘ — she was considered a cult writer – a writer’s writer – well into the 19th century after earning praise from Sir Walter Scott while she was alive, and the admiration of George Eliot and Henry James later; and yet she was (and remains) dismissed as a ‘chick lit author’ – a really dismissive term in my book, along with ‘gay author,’ ‘writer of color.’ Great writing should be that: great.
Jane wrote six novels, four of them published in her lifetime: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816), and two posthumously, in 1818, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. She left one incomplete novel at the time of her death, Sanditon. And Dick seems to hate all of them.
Here are some reasons collected from around the blogosphere that explain why men dislike Jane Austen:
-all her female characters are simply out to get married and find the best mate with the best social connections and that means good looks and money.
-it’s a ‘matter of taste’ men don’t like a ‘love story.’
-forced-read her (pick either Emma or Persuasionas as the poisonous pill), although it was surprising to read that many male readers prefer the Brontë sisters to Jane — guess that is another great divide along gender lines, Austen versus Brontë. Literary-celebrity death match?
-her novels are contrived soap-opera nonsense with manipulative women.
-the ubiquitous Anonymous opined, “1) Her novels are virtually interchangeable in plot, character, and diction; 2) Her characters are robotic and devoid of normal human emotion. Dull and insipid, the few passions they seem to have revolve around finding insult where none is intended, and masking other, natural sentiments and emotions.”
Ouch, ouch, and OUCH.
When I first read Austen I was aware of the limitations women had in her day but, while I overlooked that, I was bothered that there are no real poor people in Austen (and by that I mean Dickens poor). I was bothered by the fact that characters in her literary world lived in very parochial settings not touched by the reality of the closing of the 18th century – the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolution, subsequent wars with France, and the rise and fall of that pesky little Corsican named Napoleon. None of this looms large in her novels. It is, for me, like reading a Faulkner novel and choosing to remain oblivious to that minor social institution called ‘slavery.’ Can we say ‘sheltered’ and ‘living in a vacuum’? I was also bothered by Austen writing about women of a certain social class, so it begs the question how Austen would view modern women — an idea explored in the movie, Lost in Austen, an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Her women are not the women of George Eliot or of Thomas Hardy. As for the men in her novels, they seem distant and at the periphery. This blog post summarizes masculine sensibility in Austen’s novels.
It seems that none of the Austen readers who are either explicit or covert Anglophiles seems to mention this one singular omission in her novels – the England of her day was the first capital society and well on its way to Empire. The characters in her novels are landed gentry with some merchants or career military men, but the forces of history never seem to disturb the idyllic grange (oops, that’s Brontë country).
I’d like to offer one last observation. Austen began writing in her twenties, and stopped writing for some time while her family moved to Bath and other places, but resumed writing after her father’s death and her family had moved back to Hampshire. She significantly revised many of her earlier writings, which became her novels, notably Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility. One of her juvenile works, the epistolary and quite sexually explicit Lady Susan (1805) stands out as disturbing. The main character, Lady Susan, is a rather disagreeable creation who, I think, is very similar to Fanny Price in Mansfield Park. While I have no evidence, I think a blend of Fanny and Susan is the real Austen, emotionally and psychologically. When she wrote Lady Susan, Austen was clearly taken by Samuel Richardson’s use of rape as a plot point. Quite disturbing in a Brontë sort of way. Rape figures again in Mansfield Park. Why? When Austen wrote Mansfield Park (1812-1814) she was already wealthy and could write whatever she wanted to write, but the themes and concerns, particularly with trauma, in Mansfield, are very different from all her other novels – which Austen fans have noted. Mansfield is not family drama but family trauma; and it is a very different novel from Persuasion, which she wrote while she was dying.
But for those of you who do like Austen, here is a list of other writers you may enjoy.