I have a confession to make: I never liked Jane Austen. Oh, I enjoyed the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice as much as the next woman. But the books themselves left me cold, even back in the day when my teenaged self was gamely plowing through a list of One Hundred Books Every Educated Person Should Have Read, given me by some well-meaning high school English teacher. (I am probably the the only student she handed that list who actually kept it and tried to read them all. I was soooo determined to be an Educated Person.)
I tried reading Jane again in my 30s when I was writing romances and the Austen craze was sweeping Hollywood. Once again, my reaction was, "Eh."
But the plot of Who Buries the Dead, the Sebastian book I'm currently writing, happens to involve Jane Austen. So I started reading Austen biographies and her letters, then moved on (with a loud groan) to her novels. The first one--Sense and Sensibility--I still loathe. But then I tried Persuasion, and wonder of all wonders, I liked it. I mean, I really liked it. The BBC's Pride and Prejudice is so faithful to the book that I could hear the actors' voices echoing in my head as I read it, making the experience impossible to judge. But I'm now halfway through Emma (a book I started and abandoned at least three times in the past) and I find myself enjoying it, too, albeit not as much.
Why the shift? Perhaps it's because I'm reading them as e-books, and I find I read faster electronically. But I think part of it is because I didn't come at them this time looking for a romance or even a story. I'm reading for voice and social observations, and so for perhaps the first time I find myself actually enjoying all those funny, nasty things Jane says about almost everyone.
Because the truth is that while she cloaks her venom in humor, Jane Austen peoples her books with a collection of characters who are almost without exception self-absorbed, hypocritical, silly, pompous, self-indulgent, self-delusional, stupid, weak, and/or vain. It's impossible to read Austen and not come away with the conclusion that she had an extraordinarily low opinion of the vast majority of her fellow men, and that the Austen family delighted in the endless lampooning of their acquaintances and neighbors (and probably each other).
In fact, the portrayals are so relentlessly uncharitable that at first they made me uncomfortable. But the truth is, I have a pretty low tolerance for self-delusion, hypocrisy, and vanity myself. And here's the thing about Austen's characters: they may be silly and self-absorbed, but they are rarely evil. Their cruelties are almost always the result of their selfishness, their obsession with wealth and status, or their greed. George Wickham is perhaps the most undiluted villain in her books, a true textbook-worthy sociopath; others such as Willoughby and Crawford are above all else weak. Obviously, Jane knew of the existence of evil only too well. But she found moral weakness more interesting--and useful.
I still think the push to elevate Austen to the same heights as Shakespeare is misguided. Her language is studied and contorted rather than lyrical, and her plots are episodic and weak. But I no longer agree with Mark Twain, who wanted to dig her up and hit her over the head with her own shinbone. Jane Austen's shining talent was her ability to take ordinary life and people and, by her biting wit and astute observations, make them both memorable and endlessly entertaining. And that is a rare talent indeed.