Friday, September 06, 2013

Reconsidering Jane

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.

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Blogger Liz said...

I totally agree with you about Persuasion. I hope it was the 1995 BBC version with Amanda Root that you saw. It's a favourite of mine, especially the soundtrack with the baaing of sheep and the creak of cartwheels quite audible. I'm also a fan of Georgette Heyer, who clearly took her historical research seriously. Can't wait for Sebastian's next mystery.

3:32 PM  
Blogger cs harris said...

Liz, yes, I first saw the Amanda Root version when it was given a theatrical release in Australia back in the 90s. I've always thought they did a wonderful job of capturing the realities of 19th century life, from the mud and pigs to the dimness of a room lit only by candlelight. And I, too, have been a huge fan of Heyer since my teens. Also a good painter of human nature, but with a surer sense of plot.

4:41 PM  
Blogger paz said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:15 PM  
Blogger paz said...

It is funny you would post on Austen. I was just looking at the video of the re-enactment troupe you just posted (which I found wonderfully droll, btw). As it panned the audience, I thought to myself: "This is what any visitors in a real, contemporary Austenland would look like."

8:19 PM  
Anonymous lmhess said...

Congrats, Candy, on developing a liking for Jane. She is an acquired taste but each time you reread you discover something that you didn't before. I get to lead my book club on their favorite Austen novel and I will be interested to hear their reactions - some may think as you do. By the way, the BBC version of Emma (with Ramola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller) is very fine - watch if you can after you've read the book. Is she really going to figure in the next book? How fun!!!

12:17 AM  
Anonymous Lily said...

I too never cared that much for Jane Austen's books with one exception - Persuasion. I loved that from day one because in my opinion it's more mature.
If you don't mind a parody of Pride and Prejudice I recommend the tv mini series "Lost in Austen". It shows Wickham (and many other characters) in a very different light and I had a great time watching it.

5:53 AM  
Blogger cs harris said...

Paz, yes, I suspect reading Austen makes one view their fellow men and women in a slightly different way!

Imhess, I suspect I will always prefer books with lush descriptions and a more solid plot structure, but the experience of liking books I previously didn't has been very interesting. I'll put the BBC version of Emma on my Netflix list, thanks! And yes, Jane is going to be in book #10. I have tried to be very, very faithful to everything I've read by and about her (a task that has probably added months to the writing!), so hopefully I won't infuriate her readers. I recently watched BECOMING JANE and wrote a scathing review which I then tore up, because we're told never to criticize books or movies our own readers may love!

Lily, I recently read an article by someone who put PERSUASION dead last on his list of Austen books, claiming it wasn't as good as the others because it wasn't reworked as much. Personally, I think Jane reworked her earlier books--S&S especially--too much, and like most authors gained confidence and a surer sense of what she was doing as she went along, and that shows in Persuasion. I really like the 1995 BBC version, which I think does a tremendous job of faithfully capturing both the story and the characters, as well as being true to the period (unlike Becoming Jane!).

11:19 AM  
Anonymous Elaine P. said...

I read Pride and Prejudice as a teen and I loved it. Over the years I've tried to read other Austen novels, except Persuasion, and have not been able to finish them. I don't know what it is about the other novels but they just don't capture my interest, while P&P grabbed me from the start. Maybe I'll give Persuasion a go one of these days. That's a good idea to read these as e-books; I think that it does make reading faster and it make me less inclined to skim over boring parts or skip ahead ( I have the horrible habit of peeking ahead to the end of mysteries to see who the villain is).

2:55 PM  
Blogger RevMelinda said...

I recently listened to the audiobook version of Pride and Prejudice and thought it was even better read aloud. I do wonder sometimes if these older books were designed that way--given that reading aloud to others was probably more prevalent then. I have a fond affection for Emma as well--and since you are reading it now, perhaps you can report (question of great literary import) if you picture her as a blond or as a brunette? Does Austen actually say? I have always pictured her as a brunette (sorry Gwyneth Paltrow and Romola Garai), but perhaps that's just because of the illustration on the cover of my college edition? Hmmm.

3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to say that I was never an Austen fan until the BBC Colin Firth version of P&P. I then re-read all the books. Liked P&P the best and really disliked Northanger Abby. I re-read Persuasion again after the latest BBC version with Sally Hawkins came out. I really liked it much better the third time around, but then again, it might be just because I had visions of Rupert Penry-Jones in my head. He does so make a delightful looking hero. Sabena

7:51 PM  
Blogger cs harris said...

Elaine, I think that in addition to its popular Cinderella story line, P&P succeeds so well because it opens with a loud and clear story question: Will one of the Bennett girls catch Mr. Bingley? This is an important question, because we are told how horrible their fates will be otherwise. To it is added the question, If Mr. Bingley is for Jane, what will happen to ELizabeth? And then, Will Lizzie get her Prince Charming. None of Austen's other books have such a well defined, escalating story question, and they suffer as a result. Emma, we are told, is quite happy being single and rich. While we may come to suspect she might end up with Mr. Knightley, it's not a pressing issue or really even a problem.

Persuasion also has a story question, although it's a bit too open-ended until it shifts. Fist it's, How will the Elliots cope with their financial problems (although we're told right away how, since they are downsizing)? To this Austen soon adds the question, When will Anne see her captain and how will he react to her when he does? And then the question becomes, Will he forgive her? I suspect Persuasion is one of those books that is actually better if you know the story ahead of time, because the pleasure comes from watching it unfold.

RevMelinda, I'll have to go back and see if Austen tells us Emma's haircolor or not. I'm picturing her as blonde, although whether that's because of Paltrow or her personality, I can't honestly say. And I would think listening to the books would be a marvelous way to digest them, since yes, they were meant to be read aloud, as families did in those days. A friend and I used to read Georgette Heyer books to each other in our teens, and they also read very well that way.

Sabena, I've discovered MANY people who call themselves Austen fans will secretly admit they hate Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park (I'm only just starting MP and have never tried NA). I haven't seen the 2007 Persuasion (another one to add to my Netflix list!), but I loved the 1995 version.

11:06 PM  
Anonymous lmhess said...

Candy, A friend found a copy of "Jane Austen for Dummies" for me a few weeks ago and it turns out to be a very thorough overview of her work and life. Yes, I was very skeptical - aren't Dummy books mostly for computer neophytes?? Well, I always thought so. But this title is written by the (then-2006) Pres. of the Jane Austen Society in North America and she does an excellent job of writing about Jane. If you can find it you may like it for reference material. (I'm looking forward to seeing Jane in the next book - a very clever, wait, I'm just looking forward to the next book, period!!)

11:56 PM  
Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

I can see how reading it as a study in character building and so on could be interesting. Don't know that I've ever tried that kind of reading myself. Perhaps I should

10:32 AM  
Blogger cs harris said...

Imhess,Thanks for the tip. I'd heard of the book but, like you, dismissed it. I'll have to look for it.

Charles, it was interesting how NOT looking for a story meant I wasn't frustrated by the lack of one. The characterizations are priceless. Because it's a comedy of manners she does exaggerate and mock her characters' flaws, but then that's part of what makes them so entertaining.

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