I. “WHAT IS ALL THIS ABOUT JANE AUSTEN? WHAT IS THERE IN HER? WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT?” —Joseph Conrad to H.G. Wells
I’ve been thinking about Austen again. We haven’t had a new Austen movie since Bush took office (coincidence?) so there’s less smoke blowing around the novels, a clearer view of the books as books. According to BookScan, 100,000 copies of Pride and Prejudice sold last year with no help from the movies at all.
In other news, a tea room in Bath, planning to market Jane Austen teas and coffees (in “distinctively nineteenth-century flavors”) found the name already trademarked for restaurant and catering services by a Mrs. Rachel Mary Morton of Dorchester, Dorset.
Plus, I’ve already seen my monthly quota of writers’ lists of recommended reading in which no woman author’s name appears (Carol Shields’s last book, Unless, has resensitized me to the issue) and we still have three weeks of the month to go.
But the real reason Austen has my attention again is that I’m in the process of publishing a work of fiction entitled The Jane Austen Book Club. Four months ago I passed out galleys of this book at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association Convention. (So much more fun than selling them. I recommend it.) Several people there talked to me about Austen. Many women told me that they read her books over and over again. One woman said, “I read Mansfield Park four times before I liked it.” Another, “I didn’t really get her until I was forty years old.” And from almost every man who picked up a galley, “I’m getting this for my wife.”
Some months ago I showed an early draft of my book to a close friend. He is himself an enormous Austen fan and quotes her aptly when explaining soccer strategies, video games, California politics. The presence in my book, he told me, of one Austen-reading man was perfectly plausible. The appearance of a second was not.
Although my own circle contains multiple Austen-reading men, I suspect he’s right, and have rewritten accordingly.
So among the questions I’ve been asking myself are these:
If I were a man and I liked Austen, would it be for different reasons? (If I were a man, would I ever have read her at all?) And just why is it that I like Austen so much anyway?
II. THE ORIGIN STORY
When I’m not steering it, the conversation these days turns more often to comic books than to Austen. Classic comics inspire a peculiarly reverent, but noisy nostalgia.
Now that someone has explained, (in these very pages—see Benjamin Strong’s “Avengers of Gowanus” in the October issue) I understand why Marvel is so much better than DC. I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer right up until the final season when it got unwatchable, and am willing to talk to anyone, anywhere, about why it was good and when it stopped being so. I see the advantages of superpowers; I see the disadvantages. With great power, great responsibility. I so get that.
(The corollary—with little power, little responsibility, while inarguable on its face, is a political philosophy designed to let super-villains get and stay in office. Power is a slipperier concept than super-power. But I digress.)
As a kid, I read comics only in those minutes while I waited to see the dentist or, later, the orthodontist. The Fantastic Four are linked forever in my brain to the drill and the way the wires of your braces cut up the inside of your upper lip so you tasted blood for four years running.
My dentist preferred not to use Novocain. He strung tiny pieces of cotton on the drill wires so that they slid up and down as he worked, and he told me to imagine they were little rabbits hopping about. He told me there was no more effective painkiller than my own brain concentrating on something else. (He may have escaped from some home for the criminally insane. This is only just now occurring to me.)
So I saw The Hulk this summer and I thought Ang Lee told it like it was—not nearly diverting enough.
That comic-sized space in my brain was filled with fairy tales instead. Fairy tales bear a superficial resemblance to comic books— mythic plots and magical powers, an inclination toward the poetry of glass mountains, ice fortresses, golden balls. A fondness for secret identities.
But mostly they’re different. Fairy tales are nowhere near as hip. They’re too old, too likely to have had parental approval. The characters in comic books save the city; in fairy tales, they can barely save themselves. No one returns in later episodes for the intimacy (and frustration) of long story arcs.
I suspect that the fairy-tale reading experience is significantly less stable.Things you care about as an older reader undermine and overwrite your original readings. Because of this, fairy tales do not lend themselves to nostalgia. (Except for maybe the loathsome Disney versions.)
Skip ahead a few years to where I’m eleven or so. If I make myself imagine what I imagine to be a classic scene—two boys read-ing comic books together, belly down, comics opened on the floor; if I then turn those boys into girls; if I then turn one of those girls into me, the other becomes my best friend, Margaret; the floor becomes the twin beds in her bedroom; the comics become magazines. These magazines belong to Margaret’s older sisters.We’re not supposed to be reading them, but only because they’re not ours, not because there’s anything in them anyone thinks we shouldn’t see.
These magazines are entitled Seventeen, and Teen magazine, and maybe 16, though the latter was a little celebrity-focused for us; we weren’t so into that. I love the makeovers (who doesn’t?) and the advice columns. I’m engrossed in how to get and keep boys interested, long before I’m engrossed in boys. I read with fascination how the right hairstyle can add needed width to a thin face, how the right clothes can mask a short waist, even though my face is not thin and my waist not short.All these years later I can still quote random lines from such articles verbatim.
From an alphabet of beauty tips: “B is for brushes. Bless the whole kit and caboodle of them. When they sparkle, you sparkle, too.”
From an advice column: “Laugh at his jokes.” (They’ll be fart jokes. And not funny ones. Seventeen doesn’t care.)
More advice: “If you see him admiring some girl in the hall, say,‘She is pretty, isn’t she?’ Chances are he’ll turn back to you with new interest. You’ve agreed with him and that’s not bad!” (A writing teacher once told me that Jane Austen used to satirize mawkish sentiment or doubtful advice by putting the words “So true!” in the margin. He suggested we should all write “So true!” in the margins of our own work. He suspected much of our wisdom would not survive the juxtaposition.)
At eleven years old, I was deeply, puzzlingly riveted by these things. I spent hours reading this stuff. I never did graduate to the adult market of Cosmo or Redbook. I don’t even read those magazines at the dentist. I don’t even take the quizzes.
Okay, sometimes I read the medical stories.
This is not a nostalgic reading experience either. I can find sites on the web that suggest some women are nostalgic about it, but my own feelings are chilly.
I was about thirteen when I read my first Austen novel. I don’t remember how this happened; I don’t remember which one it was. It wasn’t assigned to me in a class or I would remember the class. I didn’t see it first at the movies, because they weren’t making movies of Austen books then.(I saw the Greer Garson/Laurence Olivier Pride and Prejudice for the first time eight years ago. I remember it vividly. It was on television. I wore blue.)
But I can guess why I loved it. In this Austen book,whichever one it was, some young woman battled adversity and disappointment, and probably a villainous seducer, too, and ended married to the right man. I thought Austen was surprisingly funny for someone two hundred years old, and romantic. I loved her young heroines. I found her easy to read and I was more impressed with myself about that than I was with her.
I seemed to have been pointedly prepared for her. How does a poor woman marry? She lets a man believe she can spin straw into gold. She gets a flattering haircut and laughs at fart jokes. She captivates him with her “fine eyes and pert opinions.”
The reader of fairy tales, the reader of Seventeen, does not ask herself, “Why can’t Elizabeth just tell Darcy she’s changed her mind? One honest conversation would solve the whole problem,” because this reader understands that a girl’s job is to wait. “Boys don’t like to be chased,” she has read more times than she can count. “They like to think that they’re the pursuers.” (So true!)
This reader is comfortably at home in a place where courtships are conducted according to rigid rules, where happiness is achieved by following the rules, where deviation from the rules results in ruin and regret. Should you kiss a boy goodnight? Sure thing, just as long as you’re willing to “run the risk of having yourself foot-noted as an ‘easy number.’” Just as long as you never plan to marry some nice boy someday.
Fewer men than women seem familiar with fairy tales. I cannot find a single one who admits to reading much of anything in Seventeen magazine. This may have been my route to Austen, but if it were the only way, no man would get there.
III. THORNS AND BRAMBLES
I have never read anything Austen wrote. I just never got at reading Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility. They seemed to be the Bobbsey Twins for grown-ups. —Andy Rooney
There are other barriers. Austen is a specialist in all those things that women’s fiction has been criticized for over the years.
Let’s review the list:
(1) Her books are about women. With only a few exceptions, Northanger Abbey perhaps, her women are more interesting than her men.
(2) She structures her books around the marriage plot.
(3) Her focus is domestic. In one of the few serious reviews of her work published during her lifetime, Sir Walter Scott put a faintly positive spin to this (he was more genuinely enthusiastic on this same subject later) when he wrote:
The turn of this author’s novels bears the same relation to that sentimental and romantic cast, that cornfields and cottages and meadows bear to the highly adorned grounds of a show mansion, or the rugged sublimities of a mountain landscape… the youthful wanderer may return from his promenade to the ordinary business of life, without any chance of having his head turned.
(4) Her presentation is genteel. Her books lack what Anthony Burgess has called a “strong male thrust.” Burgess himself can only enjoy books with a “brutal intellectual content,” but I would argue Austen has that.
(5) Her own sexual history is highly suspect. She probably died a virgin. I find I have nothing further to say in regard to the apparent importance of this item.
(6) And look who reads her. Women. And men. Men of a certain sort.
In D.A. Miller’s Jane Austen and the Secret of Style, in the chapter entitled “Secret Love,” Miller says:
… if Austen meant Woman, then perhaps in turn Woman might mean Austen, and a girl’s command of the language of the one—a dialect, apparently, of her native tongue—would increase…
But the same discovery… made the boy all wrong. Plied with a Style whose unknown strength went straight to his head, he had fancied himself conquering the world with his swank Excalibur; now he woke to sobering sounds of derision and found that, during his intoxication, just as Lydia Bennet had done to another would-be soldier in Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen had put him in a dress…
In one of the Austen chat rooms online a man has asked if there’s something strange about him because he loves Austen. He has trouble attracting women; he wonders if his lack of machismo, as represented by his love of Austen, is part of the problem. Even the Austen-loving women on the list are not sure. Some of them say they find Austen-loving terribly attractive in a man. Others warn that this list is not a representative sample of women. Their husbands don’t read her, they hasten to add.
Only the college professors seem to know significant numbers of men of the Austen-loving persuasion. One man recounts a semester of high-school English in which Austen was assigned. He says that all the boys’ grades went down.
A quick and dirty survey of some of my male friends produces surprisingly uniform results. With only one exception, those men who say they like Austen (five of eight—my friends are a classy lot) also say they first read her because some woman made them. When I ask what it is they like about her, they mostly say that she’s funny.
I ask the ones who don’t like her (two), what it is about her they don’t like. One says she’s annoying. One says he just can’t bring himself to care much about who marries whom. I get the same answer when I ask the one remaining man why he’s never read her.
Question one, part two: if I were a man, would I have ever read Austen? By now I’ve persuaded myself that the answer is no. I might have read Pride and Prejudice in high school, where I would have been given a bad grade and blamed Austen for the whole mess. Or, if I was never assigned her, I might have believed, based on word of mouth, that she wrote light, girlish romances. If I were a man, would I be man enough to pick up a girlish romance all on my own? I’m sadly sure not.
I think this is a shame. I think I would still have liked her, and I think, in my first readings of her, I would have liked her in ways that reflected better on me, ways I would be happier remembering. More interesting ways.
Question one, part one: if the male me had liked her, would it have been for different reasons? I feel certain the answer is yes. Even as I can’t imagine what those ways might be.
IV. NEGUS AND SHOE ROSES
We will, however, detain our female friends no longer than to assure them, that they may peruse these volumes… with real benefits, for they may learn… sober and salutary maxims for the conduct of life. —one of Austen’s first reviews, unsigned
Which brings me to question two: why do I like Austen so much? What is it about Austen?
The most important thing to know about the answer is that it can only ever be provisional.What I like most about Austen, so far, has changed with each rereading.
Let me begin by stressing that the way I first read Austen suited me at that time. I could not have been more pleased. It’s only now that I wonder how the books might have looked if I’d come in on some other road—horse books, say, or through Patrick O’Brian’s Austen-with-boats books.
Or comic books. Professor and critic Brian Attebery tells me, “There is a little Austen in some of the comics—Metal Men maybe, and certainly the Lois Lane editions of the Superman series. A lot closer to Austen than fairy tales are.”
Seventeen had me reading the books as if her world were familiar to me. I wonder how they would have looked if I’d been focused on what was strange. I could have done some world-building out of entailments, shoe roses, Gretna Green, negus, private estates whose housekeepers led tours for anyone who asked. The books didn’t have to be romances. They could have been science fiction. Or fantasy. Or Marxist social realism.
Most irritating to remember is how I read her books as if there were a didactic content. This is a ghastly misreading; it’s a testament to her genius that the books survived it.
Although I am not the first to do this (see review above) it seems to me, now, rather hard to make Austen read that way. The fault here is clearly not hers.
It cannot lie with fairy tales, whose morals and morality are seldom instructive and often appalling. One wonders really why any parent would approve of them.
The fault cannot lie with me. I could take full responsibility for it as is so fashionable nowadays. But what am I, some kind of superhero? I blame Seventeen.
V. FROGS AND TOADS
In order to enjoy her books without disturbance, those who retain the conventional notion of her work must always have had slightly to misread what she wrote. —D. H. Harding
I am not trying to tell you how to read Austen, nor how not to read her. That project has been well in hand for more than a hundred years. Surely no one else’s fans have been scolded so often for so long over the wrongheaded ways they love her. Even Austen herself has been appropriated for this project. She would be so ashamed of you, her fans are told. You’d embarrass her.
I’ve only recently begun reading in the world of Austen studies. So varied, so vituperative! Now that I’ve started, I can hardly stop.
What a lot of male critics have wished to marry her! Probably only Marilyn Monroe has elicited more rescue fantasies. And what a lot of male critics have made it clear they wouldn’t fuck her even if they could.
Rudyard Kipling (whose story “The Janeites” is a fascinating study in gender, war, and Austen, but told in such thick dialect I hardly know what’s happening at any point, so maybe it’s not any of the above) wrote a sappy poem about Miss Austen marrying her own character, Captain Wentworth, in heaven.
But D. H. Lawrence called her, some hundred years after her death, “a mean old maid.” “Thoroughly unpleasant,” he said.
Frederic Harrison described her to Thomas Hardy as “a rather heartless little cynic.” (The “little” bugs me. Otherwise, he can have his own opinion.)
And Mark Twain:“Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” (Samuel, Samuel. Stop rereading the damn book.)
Even skimming the criticism, you can’t help but see how Austen’s work has been put to every imaginable purpose, made to serve every imaginable agenda. Corporate mergers, political movements, self- aggrandizements.
The more I learn to think as a writer, the more I notice and am impressed by the trickiness of her narration. Austen’s voice is both disarming and subversive; you’re simultaneously lulled and put on your guard. It’s both intimate and abstract; you feel you know her when she’s revealed nothing, nothing about herself. She invites you, in the words of Virginia Woolf, to “supply what is not there”and your reading of her is partly determined by what you choose to supply. Apparently this can be whatever you want.
So here’s what I’m liking best about her right now: no other author has ever managed to be simultaneously so authoritative and so absent. Her books are both solid and stretchy.
How does she do that?
VII. JANE AUSTEN, SUPERHERO
Jane Austen and Dickens rather queerly present themselves today as the only two English novelists…who belong in the very top rank with the great fiction writers of Russia and France… That this spirit should have embodied itself… in the mind of a well-bred spinster, the daughter of a country clergyman, who never saw more of the world than was made possible by short visits to London and a residence of a few years in Bath and who found her subjects mainly in the problems of young provincial girls looking for husbands, seems one of the most freakish of the many anomalies of English literary history. —Edmund Wilson
I am not the only reader to discover that Austen’s books have changed since the last time I read them. Katha Pollitt’s poem “On Rereading Jane Austen” begins:“This time round, they didn’t seem so comic.”
Ray Davis, on his Bellona Times website, has posted the following explanation for why he didn’t go to Mansfield Park the movie.“I was too young to deal with Mansfield Park the first time I read it, and I can’t picture a living commercial movie director who isn’t.”
Plus, those women from last month. “I didn’t really get Austen until I was forty,” the one of them said. The other, “I read Mansfield Park four times before I liked it.”
But a third woman told me she thought Pride and Prejudice was almost a great book. “It would be so easy to fix,” she said.
I asked her what she would change, but she couldn’t answer; she said she’d read it too long ago.
I don’t know, therefore, what she found problematic or if she’d still find it so. I don’t care. Let me go on record as someone who dislikes the fixing of Austen.
When I published my first novel, I used a great deal of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The work I used was written in 1872 and ’73; I assumed it was all public domain.
I was wrong. I was told later that, when Dickinson was first published, her work was heavily edited. Someone had smoothed out the odd rhythms, straightened up the odd rhymes. The publications of her poems as she had actually written them were relatively recent, and this involved me in a complicated and bracing post-publication copyright process.
Something similar often happens to the work of Austen when it’s filmed. The most interesting bits, the bits that most powerfully undercut the easy reading, are removed. So Willoughby’s final speech has been cut in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, the entire troubling personality of protagonist Fanny Price from Patricia Rozema’s Mansfield Park. The first thing any Hollywood version fixes is those unsatisfying men. As with Dickinson, some effort has been put into making the work more formulaic, more ordinary. More of a standard romance.
I did this myself, without knowing I was doing it, in my own early readings. Now when I reread I’m also in dialogue with an earlier me. How did I miss that? I find myself wondering. How could I ever think that marriage was a good idea? I can’t quite imagine the books without this double vision, though I’m confident they wouldn’t suffer. Austen is far too wily to depend on your reading her any one way. She’s proved as unstable and, for me, as invulnerable to nostalgia, as the fairy tales. Which is one reason I continue to be interested in both.
Austen’s voice is so addictive I lose my own the minute I read her. It takes copious medicinal amounts of poetry to break her hold on my prose, and it’s never a clean escape. My favorite Austen novel is sometimes Pride and Prejudice, sometimes Emma, and sometimes Persuasion. It’s telling that I can’t narrow it down further than these safe and easily defensible choices.
But I am not done with her yet and I doubt she’s done with me. I have a suspicion that the true Austenite loves Mansfield Park most of all. (Among the many critics who seem to like Mansfield Park best are Virginia Woolf, Vladimir Nabokov, and Edward Said. You go argue with them.) I think that I might get there someday, the way sushi lovers start with California rolls, but one day find themselves longing for a bite of sea urchin.
Recently Mansfield Park has begun to seem the most interesting of the books. I still don’t like Fanny Price nearly as much as Austen does. I still don’t like the hateful Edmund at all. But it’s gratifying to feel—after all these years, after all those readings and rereadings and misreadings—that exciting new progress remains to be made. ✯