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The Pride and Prejudice of 21st-Century Literary Critics

16 July 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

Two hundred years ago this Tuesday—July 18, 1817—the beloved novelist Jane Austen died at 41 in Winchester, England. That her era is not our own is part of the attraction. Hollywood’s Austen adaptations, more than 70 and counting for film and television, beguile with elegance, manners, green countryside, candlelit balls, handsomely dressed ladies and gentlemen—and, of course, romance.

Alas, this pleasant vision of Austenworld gets it all wrong, as literary critics insist they have discovered. Far from celebrating the genteel society presented in her novels, Austen was an angry subversive who “repeatedly demonstrates her alienation from the aggressively patriarchal tradition,” according to an influential feminist study from 1979, “The Madwoman in the Attic.”

Another critic, who wrote a book on Austen’s novel “Persuasion,” exults in an interview that its heroine has “few options in the repressive society of her time” yet still “escapes from the toxic systems of rank and gender that control her woman’s life.” Curiously, she escapes by marrying a man she has doted on for eight years.

. . . .

From the cloudy heights, academic jargon trickles down to street level. A paperback edition of “Sense and Sensibility” touts its “powerful analysis of the ways in which women’s lives were shaped by the claustrophobic society in which they had to survive.” So much for romance.

We might better mark this bicentennial by revisiting Jane Austen in her own time, without nostalgia or reinvention. She grew up in the crowded rectory of a rural village. Never married, she remained close to her many brothers and beloved sister, Cassandra. Her circle otherwise comprised local gentry and a maze of aunts, uncles, in-laws, nieces, nephews and cousins.

All fell under her quick observation. In one letter to Cassandra, Austen describes a guest at the ball she attended as having a “broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck.” In another letter, a local clergyman is said to appear “in such very deep mourning that either his Mother, his Wife, or himself must be dead.”

. . . .

Austen’s assumptions were old-fashioned Tory, her political interests slight. Her novels dramatize not social ills, but individual failings: vanity, greed, pride, selfishness, arrogance, folly. For all her humor and wit, she was a rigorous moralist. Adult life demanded adult behavior: self-awareness, propriety, kindness, good sense.

. . . .

Urged to aim higher, to write a serious historical romance, she replied firmly: “No—I must keep to my own style & go on in my own way.”

That was enough for Austen, and for 200 years it has been enough for readers. But a book out this past May, “Jane Austen, the Secret Radical” reveals that her novels “deal with slavery, sexual abuse, land enclosure, evolution, and women’s rights.” The evidence? “I offer flashes of an imaginary Jane Austen,” the critic admits, “glimpses of what the authoress might have been thinking.”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

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12 Comments to “The Pride and Prejudice of 21st-Century Literary Critics”

  1. I understand that the publishing industry believes that people normally skip introductions, forewords and afterwords.

    I’ve always found this idea a little strange – I almost always read them – but, when it comes to editions of Jane Austen’s works, I’ve found it a pretty good approach as one then avoids all the nonsense Robert Garnett identifies.

  2. “I offer flashes of an imaginary Jane Austen,” the critic admits, “glimpses of what the authoress might have been thinking.”

    In other words they’re just making it up.

    ‘The good/bad person thought good/bad thoughts about good/bad things as they did good/bad things to good/bad people.’ (Flip a coin for each good/bad and you have this joker’s thinking process …)

    • Aw, you beat me to it. So I’ll just add that Austen wrote about men and women, the pride and follies, their rationalizations for bad behavior, and the difficulty of finding love and a true meeting of minds versus what our bodies desire.

      But I guess that’s not enough for some people.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if she had other things to say, but it’s perfectly all right to admire the romance and empathize with women’s limited roles of the time.

      But some people seem to have that problem, too.

  3. Hollywood’s Austen adaptations, more than 70 and counting for film and television, beguile with elegance, manners, green countryside, candlelit balls, handsomely dressed ladies and gentlemen—and, of course, romance.

    Um… A lot of film and television adaptations of Austen’s works change the time and social setting. The focus of her stories — “individual failings: vanity, greed, pride, selfishness, arrogance, folly” in the words of the OP, “men and women, [their] pride and follies, their rationalizations for bad behavior, and the difficulty of finding love and a true meeting of minds versus what our bodies desire” in Bill Peschel’s words above — translate time and society well. We all recognize people we know in those characters and situations, and, if we’re honest, ourselves.

  4. translate time and society well

    Lois McMaster Bujold translated part of “Pride and Prejudice” into “A Civil Campaign,” which happens on another world in the distant future. I could picture some class reading ACC as a companion piece, to underscore the timelessness and universality of Austen’s themes. It sure as hell would entertain students more than this other book. Glimpses of what Austen was thinking? Oh, please.

    • What’s that line about ‘great’ artists ‘steal’ – and only from the best! 😉

  5. How do you justify telling Jane Austen “she got it wrong” when she lived in that time and we don’t? Maybe it’s me. but I hate when people take modern ideas and morality and try to apply it to the past.

    • Don’t you know Jeff? We are the best generation that has ever and will ever exist.
      All of our ancestors were complete imbeciles, I mean forcing people to do jobs that they didn’t like what’s that all about?
      Luckily, we came along just-in-time to straighten everything out.

  6. I was forced to read Pride and Prejudice in high school freshman English. I hated it, as did all the boys in the class. Predictably, the girls loved it.

    I’ve never read any Jane Austin since. Thank God.

    And I intend to keep it that way.

  7. Thing is, what Jane Austen wrote wasn’t “Romance” in the modern sense (or the medieval one, either) but “Comedy of Manners”.

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