So this year Austen in August has been slightly more low-key than last but I’ve still really enjoyed diving back into Austen-mania. Not only is it great to hide from the tottering pile of review copies which currently seem rather overwhelming – I am a long-term fan so it always feels more like catching up with some old friends but I’ve been really struck lately by the under-current of anti-Austenism (new term, I came up with it) in even the articles that claim to be written in support. Certain quarters would claim that her books are about money-grabbing and social-climbing – I have even heard one friend quote the opening line of Pride and Prejudice in support of this theory, blithely unrecognising of its blatant irony. I’ve read posts by bloggers claiming that the fan fiction is better for readers who want to avoid Jane Austen’s ‘heavy’ prose – I’ve probably mentioned this before but it really caught my ire. So I started to think about why I love Jane Austen, not just the costumes from the films, but why I love her works and assorted writings quite so much as I do. And this is what I came up with …
She is wickedly funny
Jane Austen is hilariously funny – she is a writer who delights in all that absurd, just like her most famous character Elizabeth Bennet. What I love though is that it never feels as though she is taking cheap shots, poking fun only at those who deserve it – Mr Knightley berates Emma for making fun of Miss Bates because it is an unfair abuse of her power. I feel that given that a lot of Austen’s humour is ironic, not everyone gets it but her books (except for maybe Mansfield Park) always make me giggle. There is the hypocrisy and absurdity of the Mrs Bennets, the cringe-humour of Mr Collins, the comedy of Emma’s continual misaprehensions and misunderstandings and even poor little Catherine Morland’s Gothic obsession – this is parody and satire of the very, very finest quality. And it is still as funny and fresh as ever!
Strong, flawed heroines
Characters like Katniss from The Hunger Games irritate me – there are a lot like her, especially in YA Fiction. They prance about going on about how socially awkward and humble they are while boys swoon over them and then it turns out that they have special powers/skills in martial arts. Austen’s heroines are actually believable. Elizabeth is charming and witty but her pride and self-confidence leads her into massive misunderstandings. Anne is sweet and good-natured but has to ‘learn romance’ as she gets older. Catherine is well-intentioned and well-meaning but has some truly ridiculous notions! And Emma … well. We have to remember that she is only twenty-one and has some growing up to do. Fanny Price is a funny creature, morally upright but so difficult to take to! No wonder so many people take to Mary Crawford instead! Indeed, there are so many complex female supporting characters such as Jane Fairfax, Isabella Thorpe, the glorious Charlotte Lucas and even young Lydia. The women are interesting, believable and always, always with credible flaws.
(c) Lyn Stone
A lot of people like Austen because of the manners. I am among them. It’s nice reading novels which are built on courtesy – her books were revolutionary of their time in not being centred around abductions and Gothic castles, this is kind of the point of Northanger Abbey. But for me, Austen shines most of all with her dialogue. When I read Dickens or Trollope though, I never get the same feeling that I am hearing from real people. So few authors, no matter their era, can handle dialogue like her. Austen is the grand high queen of showing things about her characters without having to tell her readers anything. An exchange in Emma over whether it is a good idea for Jane Fairfax to collect her letters personally from the post office reveals so much about all of the other characters – that Mrs Elton is trying to take up office as Queen Bee, that Miss Bates frets over everything and that Jane Fairfax has private reasons for wanting to keep which letters she receives as absolutely confidential. Another classic is the time when the Dashwood sisters of Sense and Sensibility visit London and are invited to comment on the height of Fanny Dashwood’s child, particularly in comparison with Mrs Jennings’ child – as each of the characters offers their opinion on the question, we find out about each character’s attitudes.
She understood human nature
Austen really understood people – she lived her life observing the fancies and follies of those around her and she captured the truth of her fellows with affection but also great accuracy. In Pride and Prejudice, we visit a variety of households alongside Elizabeth and see the unhappy marriage (Bennets), the overbearing matriarch (De Bourghs), the cunning wife with the foolish husband (Collinses) and finally we visit Pemberley, where Elizabeth will make her home. Austen makes wry observations on the fate of Lydia Bennet, how it might have better suited the gossips of Meryton for her disgrace to be complete – indeed it would have been more fitting for a sensational Gothic novel – but alas they had to make do with tutting over the miserable marriage she would instead have. Similarly, in Emma, the people of Highbury take a pride in Frank Weston as a son of their community although they have never beheld him, but simply because they esteem his father. The oddities and snobbishness of the upper classes is lampooned in Persuasion with Sir Walter’s vanity and fondness of mirrors contrasted with the warmth of Admiral Croft and his wife. Even the longed for visit with the Dalrymples proves unsatisfactory for Anne who is struck by their superficiality in comparison with her poverty-stricken friend Mrs Smith. Even her cruel characters are perfectly drawn – Miss Bingley attempts to tease Mr Darcy about his admiration for Elizabeth and it is with a cringe that we read that her wit was indulged long since she believed Lizzie no rival, but later in the book she is caught by Darcy’s rough dismissal of her attempts to reintroduce the topic and given ‘the satisfaction of having forced him to say what gave no one any pain but herself’. Emma‘s Mrs Elton fares no better, with her constant witterings about Maple Grove tiring even the indefatigably polite Mr Weston who dashes away to greet guests as soon as she tries to speak. Reading the books two centuries after they were written, what is most surprising of all is how recognisable her characters are.
She cared about her characters
There is something so sweet about Jane Austen’s letter home after visiting an art gallery where she wandered around looking for portraits of her own fictional characters – the above was the one she decided was Jane Bennet, presumably to mark her marriage to Mr Bingley. There are so many writers who seem to rejoice in the debasement or humiliation of their characters – these tend to be the authors who I try to avoid – but Austen does always seem to want things to go well, even if it did always have to be within the bounds of realism. Her original draft of the ending of Persuasion had a slightly convoluted encounter between Anne and Captain Wentworth at Mrs Croft’s home but what she actually came up with was the far more satisfying scene where Wentworth overhears Anne’s passionate defense of female affection and writes her a note begging her for a second chance. Sense and Sensibility is a debate between two different ways of living, the romantic sensibility of Marianne versus the hard-nosed good sense of Elinor but Austen shows real concern for Marianne whose admits herself that her behaviour was reckless and foolhardy and that if she had died from her fever, it would have been a kind of self-murder. She had previously thought the idea of dying for love to be a glorious one, but in practice she realised what a waste it would have been. For so many readers, Jane Austen can seem like the ultimate aunt, doling out advice on who to marry to her niece Fanny Knight, and this does come across in various of her novels.
The endings are happy
Some truly great novels end in misery – e.g. The Great Gatsby. That’s fine. But it is nice reading a book where you know that the ultimate destination will be a good one. Charlotte Bronte famously took against Austen due to the ‘lack of poetry’ in her work but I think that this was a classic case of Missing The Point. There is something reassuring about being in the hands of an author who you can trust to guide you to a positive conclusion. What I really like though is that characters do reap the rewards that they deserve – even Persuasion‘s Mrs Smith ends the story contented because her attitude in life is one that chooses happiness despite the hand that she has been dealt. Many people decry the fact that Marianne ended up with Colonel Brandon and to be fair, it is a bit of a problematic finish (I kind of wanted Elinor to get together with him, he was a lot more together than Edward Ferrars ever was), but what I really liked was that Austen emphasised that Marianne had a loving nature and would only ever have a happy marriage – she would master her circumstances and find joy among them. Austen heroines are not the type to throw themselves down and give up, like Austen herself they put one foot in front of another and try to be the best versions of themselves.
Her writing is seamless
What really upsets me about people who give up on the original novels (which are absolutely not “heavy”) is that they are missing out on just how superb a writer Austen really is. A few years ago, my mother expressed an interest in Spineless Classics, I was torn about which one to get her as her favourite book is technically Jane Eyre but the reason why in the end I plumped for Pride and Prejudice was that every place I looked at it, each sentence was just perfect. She drafted and redrafted over decades, each sentence polished to the point of flawlessness – she read her chapters out to her family and their circle meaning that she had extensive focus group testing, very few authors refined their work to the same standard. She is fantastic!
She was a trailblazer
I had to study Development of the Novel module at university – this was a pretty awful decision on my part as I had to read Pamela and then Oliver Twist too, but what a joy it was when we got to Jane Austen! Admittedly at that point I didn’t know how awful Oliver Twist would be … but my point is that as you observe where the novel started from with the turgid epistolary of Pamela, the faux-confession of Moll Flanders et al, you realise how far Jane Austen was experimenting with the form. Austen was not satisfied with the ubiquitous epistolary story, confessing via Lady Susan how tiresome she found it and thus translating “First Impressions” into Pride and Prejudice and “Elinor and Marianne” into Sense and Sensibility. Even scenes such as the one where Mr Collins proposes to Charlotte Lucas are individually trail-blazing in how they switch back and forth in perspective – Jane Austen dived into the minds of her characters in a way that had not really been done before.
Female characters had true agency
Having plodded my way through Pamela and Moll Flanders – and then even Evelina which I did really enjoy, it is so lovely to read characters who make their own decisions. This may sound like a re-run of the above point about strong women but I would disagree, again because I do like Evelina. It’s subtly different. Austen makes fun of the previous conventions around female behaviour in novels by mockingly scolding Catherine Moreland in Northanger Abbey for dreaming about Henry Tilney before he had dreamed of her – according to propriety, a woman was not supposed to be aware of her own feelings before she had been approached by the man. There was more honesty here about how actual people actually behaved. Elizabeth Bennet took control over her life in the only way she knew how – she would not marry Mr Collins since she knew that it would only make both of them miserable. She would not submit and be grateful to Darcy for proposing in such an arrogant way. Then later, she would not bow and curtsey and allow Lady Catherine to decide on her future. Emma Woodhouse bossed everyone about and caused a great deal of damage in her wake, but when she received her reproof from Mr Knightley, she did not simply flop down in repentance, but went round to see Miss Bates to formally apologise and make matters right. Anne Elliot’s famous speech to Captain Harville comments on how much more difficult it can be for a woman to put aside a lost love since their lives are so much more confined but when he exclaims that literature and poetry have long charted female inconstancy, she points out that these were all written by men and now, at last, the pen is in our hands. With that pen, Miss Austen changed the face of literature.
Regency etiquette is fun!
(c) Lyn Stone
For all that I have spent the rest of my list complaining about the books are as fresh now as ever (and they are), there is no denying that part of the appeal is the Regency aesthetic – a world of dresses and top hats, carriages and long walks, a time when Tinder meant what you put on the fire – I love it just as much as everyone else, I just wish that people didn’t cite the wet shirt scene as the reason why they’re a fan! I love the scenes amongst the Musgrove family in Persuasion, the bedlam of the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice, the ballroom scenes and this world of paying calls and trimming bonnets and dinners and going out into the shops. There is a charm and even a humour as a twenty-first century reader in looking back on this bygone world where one ought not to dance three times with a male partner if one was not engaged, or where rules were strict over who might or might not call you by your first name, and it never gets old, no matter how many times that I return to the books.