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.