Posted by: chartroose | March 13, 2008

Our Recent Unfathomable Jane Austen Craze

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I’m kind of persnickety when it comes to reading.  There are certain genres that I will never touch if I can help it, and the most untouchable for me personally is romance.  If someone were to hand me a romance novel, I think I’d drop it as if my hands were on fire and then I’d have to run to the bathroom and scrub them furiously until they were raw and bleeding.

There are exceptions, of course.  I was forced to read Wuthering Heights in high school, and I liked it just fine, probably because Cathy died.  I was really into the futility of life at the time, and the tragic denouement appealed to me.  The Laurence Olivier/Merle Oberon film is terrific as well, and I try to watch it whenever it’s on TCM.

Thus, it is with deepest regret that I must admit that I can’t stand reading Jane Austen, and I really don’t understand her appeal.  The film versions are much more enjoyable to me than the novels.  Austen seems to translate well into film, but she doesn’t translate well from the page to my brain.  I’ve tried reading Pride & Prejudice several times, and a couple of others (Sense & Sensibility, Emma) at least once.  They seem trite and insipid to me. I could care less about the whole courtship and marriage formula that is so prevalent in these novels, and it really is a formula.  Austen novels are gothic novels without the supernatural elements.  The female protagonist needs to marry as soon as possible so that she won’t become a (gasp) spinster and will have enough money to enable her to live comfortably for the rest of her life.  She meets a guy with all the requisite qualities and falls in love.  Soon after this, something comes between her and her true love to jeopardize her future with this “man of her dreams,” but it all turns out well in the end.  Yuck!

I understand that middle-class women during the Regency Period needed to marry well so they wouldn’t end up destitute and shunned by society.  They weren’t allowed to go to college, get divorced or own property.  Jane Austen wrote timely fantasies about women’s lives back then, but not about women’s lives now.  So why do modern women love these, or any romance novels?  For me, there is no possible way I can suspend disbelief enough to enjoy the genre.  I’m more likely to be kidnapped by Orcs than to meet and be swept away by someone like Mr. Darcy!

So, this finally brings me to the subject of this post: what’s with the recent humongous Jane Austen sequel fad?  My local Barnes & Noble carries a whole slew of these.  I tend to shy away from sequels of any kind because they’re usually so much worse than the original.  These books have to be total trash, and I wonder why anybody buys them.  Well, at least the women reading these are reading something, which is more than can be said for most of the country.  I will continue to ponder this, but I doubt that I will ever understand our current attraction to derivative Jane Austen novels.

If you’re one of the aforementioned Jane Austen fans, please don’t hold this against me.

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Responses

  1. Excellent rant! I have to admit, it’s been a long time since I’ve read any Jane Austen, and seeing as how I have to same regard towards romance novels as you do, I wonder if I would like Jane Austen now, as an adult. And while I enjoyed Pride & Prejudice at the time, why would I reread it when there are so many books I have yet to read?

  2. Absolutely Trish! So many books, so little time. I also wonder how many people say they love reading Austen when they’ve barely touched her novels. It’s like saying you’ve read “War and Peace” which is a bloody lie, but you do it because it’ll make you seem more sophisticated.

  3. Hee, this post amused me.

    Mostly because I absolutely HATE romance in general, but LOVE Jane Austen specifically. I’ve read a couple of sequels (actually, more of different takes on the same story. I seem to be allergic to actual sequels) lately. Not because I think they will be better, or even equally good, but because sometimes I love a story so much I can’t get enough. Which is why I tend to read a lot of fan fiction, and this just happens to be published in book form, rather than floating about on the internet.

    Also, I actually have read War and Peace. ;D

  4. Hey, Love, maybe Austen is one of those authors that you either absolutely adore or absolutely despise–kind of like Martin Amis. I’ve met people on both ends of the spectrum, although more adoring fans lately.

    I’m still thinking that some people are saying they like her simply because it’s the “in” thing to do, i.e. teeny-boppers pretending to like Hannah Montana.

    Did you read W & P in English?

  5. That is quite possible. I mean, while I love Austen, I can see how others might not. Or that people claim to like her, when they haven’t really read her works. I mean, people make such claims about things all the time!

    I read W&P in English, yes. I wish I knew Russian, but unfortunately not.

    As for Austen’s P&P, I’ve read that in three different languages. ;D

  6. That’s a fairly incendiary and sacriligious post, but it’s always nice to see honesty. It raises the issue of Austen’s extraordinary popularity, which is truly astonishing. No writer is going to be a good fit for everybody, and that’s okay, right?

    But the key here may be in saying that you don’t like romance lit, on which a lot of readers would agree, but they still love Austen (one in the comments already, and me as well). And how does one explain that?

    My guess is that perhaps you’ve been reading Austen for plot, which is all very predictable. Character is predictable as well, but what I (and I think many others) love about Austen’s books is the precision, depth, and subtle style and wit of the writing. She can somehow be catty and insightful and so many other things all at the same time, and the omniscience has a spice to it. We see how Elizabeth Bennett is smarter than everybody else, but at the exact same time she’s also making a big mistake in judgment–which makes Austen and the narrator smarter than she is. So in the end, it’s the writing, and the psychological elements, within the specific historical context.

    Tracing Austen from epistolary novels and books like Richardson’s Clarissa is also helpful. Reading the endless pages of Clarissa for the story and romance is similar to reading Moby Dick as a chase novel. Clarissa is a brilliant study of human character and psychology and moral dilemmas, and romantic jeopardy keeps things going, but it’s not really the point. And we’re also talking about authors writing before William James or Freud, who don’t have the same toolkit for investigating psychology that we do. Austen seems to be a refined, acute version of the effort of Richardson, and a set of highly readable romantic novels is the product, but they aren’t the source. If you work backwards from romance fiction, which isn’t so great or interesting, and read Austen in that way, it makes sense that you might find it ordinary and unappealing. And I’ll add that I have no interest in any sequels. I like biography (and the movie versions, like you) so I’m sure I’ll like Becoming Jane when I get around to seeing it.

    None of which is to say that you have to like Austen.

  7. Geez, Zhiv, what an excellent reply to my rant! I think part of my problem may be that I approach Austen novels with a snooty attitude already in place, like I’m too worldly for these little drawing room dramas.

    The best part of your comment is when you mention reading Moby Dick as a chase novel. Moby Dick is near and dear to my heart, and I was thinking about rereading it just the other day, so this really hit home with me. Since I can’t seem to be able to get through Austen on the printed page, maybe I should try an audio version of one of her books.

  8. I like romance novels but I can’t seem to read Jane Austen books. But, I do like the films.

  9. I love Jane Austen but after reading Northanger abbey it became so boring…it sounded like a single girl’s desperate attempt to find love…anyway i still love P&P and emma, of all. I’ve haven’t read Wuthering heights yet but I’ve heard it’s good.

    I also do not understand why there are too many sequels…i can’t afford them this time so i haven’t read them.

  10. I more of a Jane Austen film addict, but have read and enjoyed a couple Austen inspired books lately. Some are fun reads (Austenland by Shannon Hale) while others are just awful (The Jane Austen Book Club). I don’t mind a little romance in my reading every once in a while!

    BTW, I realize that you tagged me twice not that long ago for memes. Sorry I haven’t gotten to them! I’m just a bad, bad girl….

  11. Really, I don’t object in the least to your not liking JA’s novels. It’s your loss, not mine. What I see as highly offending, however, is your belittling those novels, without having the least idea what they are about.

    ‘…and it really is a formula. (…) The female protagonist needs to marry as soon as possible so that she won’t become a (gasp) spinster and will have enough money to enable her to live comfortably for the rest of her life. She meets a guy with all the requisite qualities and falls in love. Soon after this, something comes between her and her true love to jeopardize her future with this “man of her dreams,” but it all turns out well in the end. Yuck!’

    Yuck indeed. Not one single Austen novel has a plot like the one you described (you must have got that ridiculous idea from watching the films, most of which are just simply awful). To elaborate on this would take too much space (I’ll only do it if required), so let’s just contemplate another of your preconceived notions:

    ‘(Women) weren’t allowed to go to college, get divorced or own property.’ While it’s an indisputable fact that women weren’t allowed to go to college, everything else in this assertion is nonsense. You claim to have read PRIDE & PREJUDCE; now, there is a Lady Catherine de Burgh in that book who has inherited a vast estate from her husband, and will pass it down to her daughter… Mrs Ferrrars in SENSE & SENSIBILITY has all her family dancing attendance because she holds the strings of a sack of money, and Emma Woodhouse will inherit 30.000 pounds (e.g., a few millions in today’s money)! Fact is, unmarried women and widows were absolutely allowed to own estates; it was marriage that disowned them, joining their property to their husband’s. As for divorces, they were generally rare; and even most men would not seek them, for two reasons. Firstly, divorces were incredibly expensive. Secondly, those who could afford them, were prominent enough to create a huge scandal by such procedures. Therefore, lots of people who were tired of their married life preferred a quiet separation (only drawback was they couldn’t marry again as long as their partner was alive; but this should be fine with you).

    By all means, don’t read Jane Austen. But please don’t comment on things you know nothing about, either.

    GeorgeD

    (As to Austen sequels, I abhor them. It’s certainly not my fault that there are so many of them around.)

  12. Wow, George, you make some excellent points here, and I stand corrected in some areas where I think you’re right and I’m wrong.

    There is one little area where I think you are quite incorrect, and that’s the history of women’s rights back then. I stand by my statements that women had basically nothing unless it belonged to some dumb guy. Austen focused on a very small group of women in a very large underclass. She wrote about the rule for this small segment of society and the exceptions to that rule (like Ms. de Burgh). Unmarried women and widows weren’t always allowed to own their family’s estates. Once again, it was often men in the extended family who made the decisions about whether these women would live well or live as paupers.

    I know I should try to give Austen another chance. So many people have told me that her novels represent the apex of literate fiction. Even my own daughter has called me an ass about this. She claims that Austen wrote the best dialogue she’s ever read.

    So, I will retract my “formula” statements. Since I have never finished an Austen novel, I shouldn’t rush to judgement about this.

    Thank you for your comments.


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