Okay, we all know that I have very strong feelings about the nineteenth century. The twentieth century is great, but the twentieth century can feel like the cheerleading squad of Great Literature High School. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying twentieth century literature is shallow or not as “good” as other literature. But next time you watch a movie featuring one of those cool reading rebel characters, what are they reading? Vonnegut, Salinger, Kerouac. Which authors do "serious" or "literary" people read? Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner. Where’s the intellectual rebel reading Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontës?
Maybe Austen isn’t something rebellious people read. After all, Jane Austen is hugely popular today. There are plenty of film adaptations that remain very true to her novels, pretty good short adaptations, obvious contemporary adaptations, and not-so-obvious contemporary adaptations (for skeptics: Colin Firth’s character’s name is Mark Darcy).
There’s also a whole other Austen industry at work, which falls into what I call “Jane Austen Fan Fiction.” Contemporary authors still adapt Jane Austen, writing sequels, mysteries where Jane Austen is a detective, books where people bond over Austen, genre mash-ups that make people like me (i.e., snobs) gag, and even erotic vampire re-tellings. People change the cover art to expand readership. And that’s not counting the film world, which has plenty of biopics and other movies that aren’t straight adaptations.
Let me tell you a story about my very first real adult college English Literature course: English 205: Basics of the Novel. It was a survey course designed to hit major plot structures and major eras of the English novel. We started with Robinson Crusoe (early novel) and ended with Foe by J.M. Coetzee (a postmodern deconstruction of Robinson Crusoe). Our “marriage plot” book was Persuasion by Jane Austen.
To me, Austen was like a breath of fresh air. In eleventh grade, Pride and Prejudice made me laugh out loud. It was the third novel in English 205, but the first with well-structured plot, interesting characters and a highly developed social world. Austen’s biting wit was just gravy. Delicious, delicious gravy.
At the beginning of class discussion one day, some guy in my class said, “This is the girliest book I’ve ever read.”
What we all should have done is said, “Well Robinson Crusoe has no women in it and it is the most boring book in all of Christendom!” and then beat him with our little Penguin Persuasion paperbacks.
I don’t remember where the discussion went after that, so either we either ignored him (our class was mostly women), or he came up with an acceptable justification for such a comment.
What bothers me is that people who brand Austen as an author of proto-romance novels (I can only assume that is what someone means when they call Austen’s books “girly”) are not only limiting their own horizons, but pigeonholing the author of beautifully structured, well-written, brilliant social satires.
Before I open a can of Austen Whoop-Ass, I have to go on a brief tangent: I am that person who is always bored by the love story. I have a strong aversion to romantic comedies. I haven't seen The Notebook, Pretty Woman, or Sleepless in Seattle. I can't stand When Harry Met Sally... and Marius' and Cosette's interlude of goo-goo eyes in this winter's Les Misérables movie made me want to scream, "OH MY GOD I AM SO BORED GET BACK TO THE REVOLUTION!”
Yes, it's true that Austen's male characters are pretty hot. And I don't just mean Colin Firth's lake-swimming scene from A&E's five-hour 1995 miniseries of Pride and Prejudice. I mean things like this from Persuasion's Captain Wentworth: “You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever.”
Even I am not without a sentimental side. I certainly wouldn't mind if my crush told me “You pierce my soul” or “you have bewitched me body and soul.” (Hell, it doesn’t have to be soul talk. I’d take Mr. Tilney’s “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”) The love stories in Austen novels suit me well: overwrought emotions usually either remain inward or are written in a letter, and are often tamed by the end of the novel.
As someone (no Austen fan) put it to me, "So much could be avoided if the characters would just have a conversation." You really get the sense in Austen, though, that when two people fall in love, they both have to kind of sand down the rougher edges of their personalities in order to be together. They have to go through the process of truly bettering themselves. In my mind, this sets Austen apart from, say, Grease, where I read the message, "Want to win the object of your affection? Change who you are/how you look!"
But I'm not here just to swoon over Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentworth, Mr. Tilney, and Austen men. I think doing only that is a huge disservice to Jane Austen's work and to Austen herself. Yeah, yeah, Mr. Darcy can spur a certain visceral reaction. I find romantic plots tolerable, but not substantive enough to tempt me.
I know that no good English major should bring up authorial intent. However, a quotation from Austen’s letters to her niece Fanny Knight sums up perfectly what anyone can infer from a good reading of her novels. Fanny had one of her suitors read Austen’s novels (which had all been published anonymously). The suitor did not like the behavior of Austen’s heroines. Austen responded to Fanny: “Pictures of perfection, as you know, make me sick and wicked.”
And Austen’s novels are not pictures of perfection. Many of them present a difficult social situation for women of her time. Sure, Austen heroines wind up with good romantic matches, but many of them begin the novel facing a bleak future. In Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, inheritance laws force the women in the Dashwood and Bennet families to choose between marriage and utter destitution. Austen’s protagonists end up happily married, but many other characters around them cannot say the same.
And it’s not all gorgeous estates and fancy balls: there is a sprinkling of bawdy humor (may not be safe for work). And as that latter link points out, sex scandals positively abound in Austen novels: illegitimate children, rogues romancing and abandoning women (ruining reputations or creating more illegitimate children), imprudent marriages made in haste (subtitle: people elope so they can get it on and get at someone’s fortune).
Alright, I get it. Austen is complicated. But what can writers learn from her?
A lot. But here are three examples:
First of all: if you want an example of good plot structure, read Austen. Almost every character introduced plays an integral part in the plot, almost every subplot is resolved (and sometimes more than one intertwine), and by the end of every novel almost every question introduced gets answered. In general, her works have even pacing and end neatly. I rarely leave Austen’s work with any dangling questions or dissatisfaction.
Second: internal processing. It’s true, Austen isn’t as action-packed as, say, The Da Vinci Code. Austen’s novels are full of emotion and take place in a vastly complicated social environment and characters need a lot of time for reflection to try to navigate that environment. She takes time to let her characters feel and analyze (and overanalyze). If your character ever takes time to reflect on something, you could stand to learn a lot by spending some time with Austen.
Finally: if you want to write funny, Austen could be your best friend. Dry humor is the hallmark of Austen. Sometimes this humor comes across in declarative social observations made by the narrator. Take the opening of Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”
Many of the characters that populate Austen’s novels are what E.M. Forster calls “flat characters”—one-note, one-dimensional people who are more caricature than character. And Austen’s narrator pulls no punches, often reducing entire personalities to what can be said in one or two acerbic sentences. Take Mrs. Allen from Northanger Abbey: “Mrs. Allen was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them” (10). Do you think Mrs. Allen needs some ice for that burn? And there are scads of similar examples.
So writers and readers alike: do yourselves a favor and pick up an Austen novel. People who think Austen is “girly”: I triple-dog dare you to read Pride and Prejudice. And if you’d rather roll your eyes at me and go back to your Jack Kerouac novel or whatever, then it ain’t no thing. As Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra: "I do not want people to be agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal."