Me and Jane Austen (#AustenInAugustRBR)

janepictHello, Austenites & Austen Newbies!

I thought I’d kick-off this event by revisiting an old Classics Club question about the appeal (or not) of Jane Austen.  To do this, let’s begin with some delightful thoughts on Austen, from one of my favorite writers, Mark Twain.

In 1895, Twain was sailing across the Indian Ocean. He wrote in his journal that he found Austen “thoroughly artificial” and praised the ship’s library for its lack of Austen novels. He claimed that this “one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it” -Twain, Following the Equator (1897).

His dislike for Austen did not change much over time. He wrote the following in a letter, much later:

“Whenever I take up Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I mean, I feel as he would probably feel, would almost certainly feel. I am quite sure I know what his sensations would be — and his private comments. He would be certain to curl his lip, as those ultra-good Presbyterians went filing self-complacently along. …She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. It would be worth while, too. Some day I will examine the other end of her books and see.” – from “Jane Austen” in Who Is Mark Twain by Mark Twain (2009).

Was Mark Twain right? Was he being fair when he said that Austen’s books so angered him that “every time [he] read Pride and Prejudice [he wanted] to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin bone?”

Well, it’s certainly fair for anyone to have his or her own opinion. And the great Charles Dickens happened to agree with him, although Dickens’s criticism was more misogynistic in nature (he didn’t think women had the capacity to be genuinely or effectively humorous).

So, who am I to disagree with these giants of American and British literature? Well, I’m a reader with my own equally valid opinions. And I say Jane Austen is a master novelist, perhaps one of the best who ever lived. She’s certainly up there with Emile Zola, D.H. Lawrence, and Thomas Hardy, in my opinion.

Are her books similar in theme? Sure. But they’re also vastly different. Mansfield Park cannot be confused with Sense and Sensibility. Marriage, family, and the middle class – they have a place in every Austen novel, because this is what Austen knew. But it’s also this privileged world and these gossipy people whom Austen dissects and often chastises, in many different ways. Marriage for love or for convenience? Property and station or happiness and companionship? These are questions one can expect to find in Austen.

But there’s much more to her and her works than love and marriage.  Did you know, for instance, that you’ll also hear about human trafficking and the slave trade? What about sexual impropriety in the military, alcoholism, parasitism, and hypochondria? Yep, they’re all in there! These issues and so many more are explored through masterfully constructed narratives, delivered in sometimes biting parody and satire.

Yes, it is safe to say that I love Austen. It took a while, though, and I can understand why, in our contemporary world, we might find her to be a bit dull on the surface. But when you take your time with her, when you look for the subtleties, such as her brilliant control of narrative time and her employment of multiple narrative types to craft a deeper, more complex prose, you might begin to see what all the fuss is about.

northanger-abbey-jane-austen-paperback-cover-artMy first attempt at reading Austen was early in college. I started (and failed to finish) Pride and Prejudice. I reacted in the typically dismissive male-centric way: “This is girly.” Later, in graduate school, I was fortunate enough to study Northanger Abbey and my appreciation for and interest in Austen was piqued. Could I have been wrong??

Shortly after finishing that semester, I revisited Pride and Prejudice on my own. And I finished it. And I thought, “Adam, you dolt!” I had been so utterly, completely, painfully naive and wrong. I re-read P&P again last year, and my appreciation for it grew even deeper. I also hosted Austen in August last year and managed to read Sense and Sensibility, Lady Susan, The Watsons, and Sanditon.  More recently, I was able to finish Mansfield Park. A lot of these works might seem similar in many ways – style, themes, focus. But in reality, they’re quite different and, somehow, never disappointing.

Do I have my favorites? Sure. Could I rank them in some kind of personal “best” to “worst” order? Yes, although that “worst” categorization would be basically meaningless, as there’s no such thing as a “bad” Austen novel. Ultimately, they all have value, they are all entertaining, and they are all complex, but in different ways. Some readers are going to respond better to the funnier, lighter novels, while others will respond to the craftsmanship and depth of the more serious works.

As for me, my favorite is and will probably always be Northanger Abbey. It was Austen’s first book, though the last to be published. It is raw, it is hilarious, and it has its flaws. But it made me double-check myself and my opinions. It made me fall in love with Austen. So, there it will sit, on its lofty pedestal, forever and ever.

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21 thoughts on “Me and Jane Austen (#AustenInAugustRBR)

    • Haha. I agree. He’s one of my favorites, but everyone gets it wrong, sometimes. He’s hilarious when he’s on a rant, though. When reading his autobiography, I discovered how truly vicious he could be (off-putting, at times, but mostly very, very funny – and the people he went after usually deserved it).

  1. I’ve always loved the shin bone quote from Twain. Obviously I love Austen dearly, but the fact that Twain hated her so much has always reminded me that it’s okay for readers to have differing opinions and tastes in books. If someone as intelligent as Twain could hate Austen, then it’s okay for me note to love all classics equally.

    I love how each time I read one of Austen novels I’m struck by a new insight or level of depth. The first layer might be a romance, but her social commentary was unmatched! I love Austen in August!

    Also, I just read something hilarious. Apparently Twain used to write really mean letters to people who pissed him off. He would put them in the mailbox, completely satisfied that he was giving the person a much-needed thrashing… then his wife would get the letter out and throw them away. He never knew it! Cracked me up.

      • I remember. I never liked Twain until I read his biography and saw the depth of feeling beneath the harsh humor. (To be honest, I didn’t like Austen until I read her biography, either.)

      • I can understand that, at least about Twain; although many people do mistake Jane Austen for being too simple, too saccharine (Twain was one of these) and therefore do not consider her a very important writer, until they dig a bit deeper. I could see how reading about her actual life would help in that regard!

        It’s difficult not to judge works by their authors – I sometimes have the opposite problem (hate to buy/read/praise books by writers I can’t stand personally, such as Orson Scott Card and Ayn Rand). I do my best to remain objective but, you know, feelings are feelings. 🙂

      • My issue was I found her trite, shallow, and cold. I couldn’t understand why everyone loved Pride & Prejudice. Sort of like my initial opinion of Twain, I thought she was famous for pointing and laughing at people — that’s all. When I read about her life, I became immersed in the world she grew up in, and I realized a great respect for the way she quietly observed and made light of what she saw. I started to realize how bold she was, for a woman of her era. I could imagine her romping with her brothers. Her quiet mockery became courage, joviality, great intelligence. I saw depth in the little social intricacies I didn’t understand in my initial read of P&P. I imagined myself in her world, and what courage it took to read sweeping, romantic horror novels like Radcliffe’s, and male versions of female characters, and present a different picture in her own works. To say with her pen — that’s not what women are like at all. Here, then, is our true world. And deliver it gently, and laughingly, and intelligently, and distinctly, and critique it while entertaining. To keenly debate the traditions of her era and social setting while also story-telling.

        I don’t know if I’m describing this well at all. But she was and is so original. Reading her works is like going back in time and observing her world through a reporter’s eyes — a reporter with a sardonic Mark Twain eye and a dry sense of humor. Quite funny!!

  2. I think author’s tend to be more critical of other author’s work and sometimes are maybe too fond of their own work to appreciate others work the way that readers are able to appreciate different authors work, as maybe readers don’t have such a narrow view of a author’s work and maybe that is why Twain was more critical of Austen’s work. And maybe Twain just didn’t appreciate the sublteness of Austen’s work.

  3. I am not Austen fan but feel Twain’s words were a little over the top. The question I would have for Twain is “why did you read her books more than once?”

  4. I have yet to read any Mark Twain (I have seen enough of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn). Charles Dickens may have been an extraordinary author but he lacks morals (in my opinion) so his opinion of Austen holds little or no water with me. I would also place Austen up there with Hardy (I have read 2 of his books in the last year) but I have yet to get through my first Zola (ugh, just not excited enough to pick it back up). I have read Emma, S&S, and I am no reading P&P. I have been reading in order of publication but you have made me wonder if I should now find out the order they were written and go that route. However, I have not been disappointed with any of them so far. I am so thrilled that you are hosting Austen in August! I am making a TBR list from your posts. Austens birthday is in December and i will be be reading more of her then too!

  5. The more I hear about Northanger Abbey, the more I want to read it.

    I’ve heard (probably from you) that Twain and Dickens didn’t like Austen’s novels, but everyone can have an opinion. I know people who have loved books I’ve hated and vice versa.

  6. Do I have my favorites? Sure. Could I rank them in some kind of personal “best” to “worst” order? Yes, although that “worst” categorization would be basically meaningless, as there’s no such thing as a “bad” Austen novel.

    Exactly!! My least favorite so far is Persuasion. When people find this out, they always want to convince me to like Persuasion, and it’s hard to make them understand that I love Persuasion. (I do!) I just don’t love it as strongly as Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey. And that’s not really a bad thing.

    (No idea yet what I think of Mansfield Park and Emma.) 🙂

    • Yep! I’m actually reading Persuasion right now and, so far, it is my least favorite. But, again, it’s least favorite in a rather incredible oeuvre. I’m only about half-way through it, though, so I’m trying to hold off actual opinions until I finish.

      • I slated to read this one myself [Persuasion] for the simple reason of not being able to drink into it, nor get a proper feel for even the first chapter! I was told by a friend that it improves from there, yet, they too, found it to be disagreeable, and I find this rather remarkable that nearly everyone I find who reads it walks away with the same opinion?

  7. A forever fan of Persuasion … and happily looking forward to Emma later this month. Not a fan of Emma, but def enjoying Geo Knightley’s perspective in my current read, Charity Envieth Not by Barbara Cornthwaite.

    Posted a FuN JA snapshot for Wordless Wednesday if you have a minute to join me for an AinA laugh ;))

  8. Notice the key words “every time.” Mark Twain clearly liked Jane Austen more than he claimed to read her more than once. I enjoy his novels but for sheer beauty of the written word, plot and characterization, I prefer Austen.

  9. I had begun to read this post at some point last week, [forgive me, my sense of time is lost!], yet I never had the proper chance to lay thought to mind on what I wanted to impart on this question of how or why we have come to appreciate Jane Austen! For me, it was a quiet sense of ‘knowing’ that I would appreciate her writing(s), as I felt instinctively drawn to her narratives and prose,… her words lit up like a lightning bug to me in other words! I sensed it might take a bit to dip into her books properly, as I do find that I do best when I can clear the clutterment out of my mind, sink in slowly, and fully feel fused to her world which feels as real as our living one! I love the subtle nature of her revelations, and the pacing of the story as it evolves forward and ebbs outward to encompass more than what is on the superficial level. She draws you in and makes you see more than you first thought you were going too.

    I cannot speak ill of Twain OR Dickens, as I have not studied them in depth, yet, after reading *Girl in a Blue Dress* which is based on Dickens [although, I am uncertain if honestly OR loosely!], I can concur that they are not always as we first appear to know them! It’s a bit like how when I read “Z” by Therese Anne Fowler this year, I learnt far more about the writing salons in Paris & of Scott Fitzgerald than I dared to ever hope to know! I sided with Zelda, of course, but more to the point, I wonder if any of us knew of these gentlemen up close and personal, if we would side with them OR walk quickly in the opposite direction! I mused whilst posting in a book club discussion for “Z”, that perhaps, we ought to judge them solely on their written legacies; on the novels, short stories, and breadth of work they left behind because that might have been the only time they could be truly honest and real. Perhaps they spoke volumes more in print and context, than they could in life. As I am coming to find most writers of the ages in the past, are rather disagreeable and have beliefs that are a bit gobsmacking! And, more than naught, were determined to undermine each others’ abilities and draw negative attention to others of writings outside their own spheres! Having “Z” still in mind, I am curious if it was a trait for writers [who were men] to always attempt to squash the efforts of a writer [who was a woman] solely based on their gender!? I know there is a prejudicial line in the sand for most women writers, the further you go back, the harder it was for any of them to get published, yet once they were published, I have not found it to ease!?

    Her clever turn of phrase is what endeared me to the very core, as I love how she writes her stories,… the usage of dialogue and expressions that are generally dismissed of or not in ready use in modern literature. The effect she has in her descriptions and the staging of the interactions with key characters. I even like her use of secondary characters, as she keeps everyone closely knit in the story-lines! Of course, all of my impressions of her are tied into *Pride and Prejudice*, as I am slowly embarking on a path to reading her other stories [ie: Adding to my Classics Club List!]. Reading that you first read Austen in Graduate school for some reason flashed before my eyes the scene in *You’ve Got Mail* where Kathleen Kelly is attempting [rather ill-attempting!] to explain the appealment to Joe Fox! I completely appreciated that in the next scenes that follow, you see him attempting to read it, but not fully grasping it at all! 🙂 Laughs. As foresaid, it took me a bit to get into it as well,… I started to pick up Austen in my early 20s, which is around the time I knew it had come to get a handle on the classical authors that I was most curious about!!

    It’s my hope that when I join the Classics Club in January [2014], I can get a good pace set for reading other authors who are as near-to-me as Ms. Austen, so that by the time August rolls around next year, [if of course, you host Austen in August in 2014! I daresay, I pray you do!], I can entertain the notion of reading her other novels!! I’d love to explore each of them in due course, and then, I can determine which of hers is my favourite!

    I do have a question for you, of all the books spin-off, re-told, sequelled, and the bit to follow in her footsteps, which authors &/or books do you gravitate towards!!? I am a bit of a purist when it comes to finding authors &/or books that spin out of canons, as I appreciate a common thread that unites both the original with the contemporary versions,… this would be true of my Sherlockian side of literature as well! Thanks for sharing so much insight into how you came to know Austen! I shall have to do the same as I read & post about my own reading adventures this month! And, I was also curious, being a bloke yourself, how do you like how she introduces the men in her novels? And, tends to give them as much of a character arc as her women characters?! Which stand out to you, aside from your beloved Northanger Abbey!

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