Learning to Love Jane Austen

Please welcome Heather from The Bastard Title!

 

I didn’t want to take the Jane Austen class.

It was my sophomore year of college, and it was time to sign up for Jan term—a special, between-semesters intensive class that gave students a chance to do internships, or trips abroad, or study something outside of their majors. But that year I didn’t have an internship, and I sure as heck didn’t have a chance to do study abroad. I don’t even remember now what other classes were offered. All I know is, I didn’t want to take the Jane Austen class.

I mean, four weeks of tea parties and love letters? Yawn.

A few years earlier, I’d discovered that one of my best high-school friends was a huge Jane Austen fan. And I’d been surprised, because it didn’t seem to fit her at all. She liked anime and fantasy novels and all the weird stuff I liked. When she tried to get me to read Pride and Prejudice, I laughed. Wasn’t that all just romantic comedy girl stuff?

This is perfectly illustrative of one of the more damaging aspects of patriarchy and the male-dominated literary canon. I was a self-described feminist from the moment I learned the word, and a practicing feminist long before that. I wrote essays bemoaning gender inequality in first grade. Most of my favorite authors were and had always been women, and I attended a women’s college—for many reasons, but chief among them so that I could always feel free to stretch my intellectual muscle, without consciously or unconsciously molding myself to male pressures. And yet I thought Jane Austen was less worthy of study than male writers, because she was just writing about “girl stuff.” Tea parties. Romance. Clothes.

I’ll step off the soapbox now, but I think you know where I’m going with this. I was a complete idiot.

But I have to forgive myself. I was nineteen.

With all of that baggage, I don’t actually know how I ended up in the Austen class. But thankfully, someone convinced me to take it.

So for four weeks, I was immersed in Austen. We read five novels—skipping Northanger Abbey—and watched a number of film adaptations. And yes, we had tea parties. We decorated hats. We learned parlor games. We cajoled the professor into replaying the Colin-Firth-in-the-bathtub scene five times. But in between all that, I actually learned some stuff.

I think that what convinced me that Jane Austen was relevant to the 21st century was the adaptations. Particularly, the 1999 version of Mansfield Park, and Clueless. The 1999 Mansfield Park is smart and postmodern, it breaks the fourth wall, and it contextualizes a lot of uncomfortable realities relating to the slave trade that Austen never wrote about explicitly but which were a part of her world and thus a part of her worldview. And Clueless was…Clueless! It was one of my favorite movies, but I had no idea of its source. I loved that I was watching it for college credit, and even got really into analyzing it’s costuming as related to Regency fashion (there are more parallels than you might think).

It was these adaptations that taught me that Jane Austen is both of her time and timeless; that her work is ripe for re-imagining and remixing. That you can read beneath the surface of her comedies of manners to find deeper meaning but you can also enjoy them as escapism and fantasy, and yes, girl stuff. And that neither approach is the “right” one.

A part of me wishes that I’d borrowed my friend’s Pride & Prejudice in high school, but a larger part of me wishes that I had been taught it, alongside all the Shakespeare and Hemingway and Faulkner and Ellison. Perhaps I wouldn’t have internalized the idea that you have to be a male writer to have relevance. Perhaps I wouldn’t have minimized and denigrated so many of the things I secretly enjoyed. I know that I would have had a lot more fun.

15 thoughts on “Learning to Love Jane Austen

  1. Love this, Adam! I would be in heaven taking that class. It sounds so fun to be able to just immerse yourself in not only Austen and the Austenesque literature, but also tea parties and Regency culture? SIGN ME UP. I wish very much I had taken more than two lit classes in college. I couldn’t appreciate it at the time coming off of the hell of high school English selections – The Scarlet Letter, Lord of the Flies, Beowulf. But now I would eat it up in a heartbeat.

  2. Excellent points — beneath the traditionally feminine trappings Austen is dealing with universal human concerns, so it’s a shame if gender bias causes us to miss out on that. And this class does sound like a ton of fun! I read only one Austen in college (Emma) but a month-long immersion would have been a blast.

  3. Wonderful commentary! And it’s nice to see someone else who likes the 1999 Mansfield Park, juvenilia mashups and all. Not Fanny Price, but still fascinating. And it points very clearly to the way in which Jane Austen is of all times, not just her own time.

    1. It’s still one of my favorite adaptations, I think perhaps because I’m less tied to the source material than with some of Austen’s other novels.

  4. What a lovely article! I’m on the same boat, it also took me some time to get into and appreciate Jane Austen, and while I sometimes wish I had read her works in a younger age, I’m glad no one really forced me to do it back then. We also had an elective course on Austen in my uni, but I really disliked the professor so I never took it.. :/

  5. Wonderful post!! Despite reading tons if “classics” in school Austen hever found her way to me. It was catching an episode of P &P on pbs ( of couese the Firth version that got me hooked! I brought the complete novel collection the next day and have loved the novels every since

  6. “Jane Austen is both of her time and timeless.” Well said Heather! I discovered Austen around the same time and she really defied what my expectations of “classics” were at that time.

    1. My introduction to Austen came at just the right time and in just the right way for me, honestly. It’s serendipitous when it happens like that 🙂

  7. What an excellent post! Having just read Pride & Prejudice for Austen in August, I too was surprised by how relevant and feminist the prose was. I don’t think I went into it with quite as reluctant an attitude as you did at first, but I was definitely pleased by all the unexpected humor and wisdom.

    Now I want to rewatch Clueless!

  8. Great post. I don’t think Austen made my official high school reading list, but my mom had a copy of Pride and Prejudice at home that I read somewhere in my teenage years.

  9. I think for me I was glad I wasn’t taught Austen in high school. I had such a loathing and hatred for the books I read in high school if only because I was being forced to read them. Coming to them on my own made me treasure her wit and social critiques that much more than I ever could have as an idiotic teenager.

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