Tuesday, February 10, 2009

I keep trying....but I seriously dislike Jane Austen

I know it's almost sacrilege, but I just can't stand her. Well not her, but her writings. Every couple of years I try yet another of her novels, or re-read one which has been pretty much completely forgotten. In the intervening years I try to watch the movie adaptations which are so beloved by nearly anyone with xx chromosomes. I keep trying.....but I each time the result is sour disgust rising up into my throat.

This week I checked out the 1985 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, and watched part of Sense and Sensibility Sunday night on Masterpiece (no longer called Masterpiece Theater much to my chagrin- is nothing sacrosanct!?) . Every fifteen minutes or so of watching , I would realise that my face was tense and taut having once again twisted itself into a snarl.

From the outset, isn't it clear that every girl is going to end up with their relegated man?? And yet the reader or viewer must endure the intervening hours suffering all of the characters speaking their trite and uninteresting words. The reader or viewer must endure truly painful characters like Mrs. Bennet, and their boring pointless lives. The reader or viewer must wait, and wait, and wait for something, anything, to happen. I find after an hour or so of interloping, I just don't care if Eliza marries Mr. Darcy or if they just fell off the cliffs of Dover!!

The characters' lives are just an offense to humanity, so full of ennui and nothing of any value to anyone whatsoever. Even our Austen heroines, lack any truly heroic qualities other than saying "No!" to marriage so forcefully that they end up marrying anyway. Apparently no doesn't always mean no, at least not where Ms. Austen's protagonists are concerned.

I truly wonder if the appeal of Ms. Austen's novels isn't built around a mythology of sorts. The mythology of pretty dresses, and parties, and trying to land a man. In short, though of another time, it seems to be the mythology of the American college experience for young women, which our youth-obsessed culture continues to try to convince us is the best time of our lives. The argument has been made that Ms. Austen is a feminist writer, which just seems completely ludicrous to me. For if that is true, women do not seem to think very highly of their liberation.

People have tried to explain their love of Ms. Austen to me before, hence my continuing to read thinking there must be something I am missing. However I just cannot seem to see what they see. Technically I think she is among the best of the best of English language novelists, how unfortunate for humankind that Ms. Austen chose to use her talent to write about such completely unengaging characters and circumstances.

1 comment:

  1. Shannon, that post was quite a surprise! The way I imagine you, I would have thought just the contrary, that you would be one of the people who would easily see the gentle glow of Austen’s world and characters.
    Do you know, when the Cambridge-educated, upper-class Anthony Burgess – one of the infamous Cambridge spy ring, together with McLean, Philby, Blunt and others – had been living in the Soviet Union for many years after having fled there to escape arrest, and was dying of cancer, he was found and interviewed by a British journalist, who asked him what he missed most of England. He answered: Jane Austen’s novels.
    OK, perhaps it’s difficult today to “feel “ her world, to understand it on its own terms – and hers. It’s the cultured, disciplined 18th century, no longer the lusty naturalism of Shakespeare’s world, and not yet the Romantic era with its open expression of dreams and feelings. Yet in this very restricted and regimented world, she managed to observe and describe quite mercilessly just about every facet of the everyday comédie humaine.
    Do you really think her characters’ life is boring? More boring than the average person’s today? I don’t think so. They did not travel as far as we do, but travelled often, to visit friends and family. They had their local community, their books, handicrafts, musical and artistic skills, and the art of conversation. What do we have in our modern communities more than that, except for the global geographic coverage?
    The myth of pretty clothes and finding the right man? But of course. But – far beyond being or not being “the best time of our lives” - isn’t that one of the great themes of humanity? I love the ending of Somerset Maugham’s Razor’s Edge, where he explains the rationale of romantic novel plots which end when the hero and the heroine find each other. It’s the stuff of life, he says, it’s the meeting of two sets of genes and human histories that determine the next generation – “and once they have found each other, interest passes to the next generation” (or something to that effect).
    I take exception at one thing you said. That these lives are devoid of any value to anyone whatsoever. That’s just so not true. It’s just the contrary. These were the people who held the fabric of society together – their husbands were the vicars and teachers and land managers and public servants of the community, and these women were their husbands’ and families’ backbones, they kept alive the web of relationships and communication of the community, its culture, its values. Or at least, they were supposed to. Of course, often they did not. And Jane Austen, who was herself an upright person with limpid morals and high culture, shows us the failings very clearly indeed, whether it is Mrs. Bennet’s all-round hopeless mediocrity, or Mr. Bennet’s one or two disturbing weaknesses, or Catherine Morland’s general good qualities just marred by sentimentalism and immaturity. The reader’s eyes are opened to a rich spectrum of unglamorous, realistic character traits, good and bad (mostly gently, forgiveably bad: Jane Austen was a sharp-penned miss!) and nudged to identify them in himself.
    Hey! That’s the first literary appreciation essay I have written since I left school 40 years ago! Thanks for goading me into it, Shannon! (I hope I don’t get an “F”…)