Jane Austen. I Ain't Mad Atcha.



By all accounts, I feel that I should adore Jane Austen. I mean, everybody does, right? She's always been well loved, but her popularity has exploded in recent years. Big budget movies, BBC adaptations, spin-off books. Even people who don't read have read her books and love her. I am quite fond of her contemporaries (Shelley, Brontë, etc.). And having a lit degree from a small midwestern college means I have some appreciation for British literature (my program was all about the dead white guys). Austen was considered somewhat of a rule-breaker in her time; novels weren't entirely accepted as an art form, and she supported (tried to) her family by writing rather than marrying well. I like rule-breakers.

I have tried, over the years, to like Jane Austen's work. I've tried really hard. I'm not sure why, but I kept telling myself, "You should like these books, why don't you like these books? Try reading just one more, maybe you'll like this one." After reading the third or fourth book and thinking it seemed an awful lot like the previous 2 or 3 books I'd read, I finally gave it up. I admitted and accepted it. I do not like Jane Austen's books. Then, because I have to analyze everything to death, I had to figure out why I don't like them, when it seems like everyone else in the world does.

Join me after the jump and I'll share what I discovered about myself and Jane Austen.





OH LOOK, ANOTHER BOOK ABOUT UPPER-MIDDLE CLASS PEOPLE TRYING TO GET MARRIED

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All the stories are about who is going to marry whom, who is a suitable prospect and who is not, marrying for love or marrying for practical reasons or marrying for a balance of the two, and learning a lesson related to all of the above. Which is fine. I just don't need to read 5 books about it.

The common rebuttal to this criticism of Austen is that if this is all you're getting out of her books, you are reading them only at a superficial level. And I suppose that is true. But, superficially, I just find this topic boring after a while. And, for me, this isn't a criticism of Austen's work. I think she is a fine writer, who uses social commentary and symbolism and metaphor and subtlety far better than most. I'm just not a fan of her subject matter.



I'M SO DEPRESSED

Austen's life itself could have come straight out of one of her books. Here's the deal. So Jane met someone she liked quite a bit. But neither was a suitable marriage prospect for the other. So his family sent him away and they never saw each other again. Some time later, a suitable match (read: enough money to provide a comfortable life for her family) proposed marriage and Austen accepted. But she wasn't fond of him (at all), so she rescinded her acceptance the next day. After Austen's father died, the family had significant financial problems. Jane was the de facto head of the family (her, her sister, and her mother), and tried to support them with her writing income, but there were all sorts of problems there and she wasn't too financially solvent until towards the end of her life. Alright, maybe her life is more Austen as interpreted by Dickens.

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It's obvious to me that Austen used her writing as catharsis. (Who doesn't? This is cathartic for me right now.) But she must have played the "what if" game regarding the "love" proposal she wanted but couldn't have and the "practical" proposal she had but rejected. The themes around marrying for love versus marrying for practicality, and losing your one true love due to circumstance, are repeated throughout all of her books. The one main difference being her books all end with suitable marriage matches. Because all of her books center on these themes, it makes me think she spent most of her life thinking about her circumstances and trying to work through her feelings about them. And that is what depresses me and interferes with my enjoyment of her books. (To clarify: I don't think she regretted her decision about the practical proposal—I think she makes quite clear her values related to marriage throughout her books—but I have to wonder if she felt some guilt about not being able to provide for her family.)


I CAN'T BRING MYSELF TO CARE

I actually just don't like reading the books. When I read, I want to fall into the story, escape from my world, and live in the world the author has created. That doesn't happen for me with Austen's books. They don't hold my attention. For me, the writing is repetitive, preachy, and the protagonists annoy me.

Sense and Sensibility: I don't think Elinor changes or grows much as a character. She just waits around for Edward to become available to her, and helps Marianne understand that she might be a tad overly emotional. Elinor learns a bit about herself, but in the end I feel like it is really about Marianne learning the lesson more so than Elinor. I find it odd that your secondary character has the primary growth arc.

Pride and Prejudice: I'm not sure what the plot is here. It is all just one big misunderstanding, really. I suppose people find the characters interesting, and there are a few good twists and surprises. I know this is a very popular book and everyone loves Darcy. But, again, everyone is just trying to get married.


Northanger Abbey: Catherine is the victim throughout the book and the resolution is out of her control. I'm not sure she even qualifies as a protagonist. She's supposed to overcome her romanticizing of Gothic novels, but it's really just about her naïveté, and eventually real-life experience is all that's needed to resolve that issue. Her resolution seems rather passive. And the in-laws are all satisfied and happy, once they realize everyone is suitably married (i.e., there's enough money to go around).

Mansfield Park: I can't even. Poor orphan girl who is universally hated and ill treated gets her revenge. In the end, everyone realizes how great she was all along, and they universally love her. What?

Emma: Hey. I actually liked this book! I have spent quite some time trying to figure out why this one out of all the others. Like many of the other characters in other books, Emma has her share (more, even) of hubris. Unlike most of the other characters, Emma recognizes and overcomes her hubris. And I like Knightley. He remains her friend, even when Emma is not a very nice person, and he calls her on her shit when it's needed. But, of course, everyone gets suitably married. The whole book is about Emma trying to get everyone suitably married.

These are only my opinions. I have not done a thorough read and analysis of each of these books, and I am not presenting any of this as an argument on how any of the books should be viewed or approached. The above statements are nothing more than my individual emotional reactions to a few Austen books.

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I had a conversation with an Austen fan recently, trying to figure out why, exactly, I wasn't fond of her work when it seems like everyone else is. It was an enlightening discussion, one that helped me understand my opinions of her work and why I felt that way. But what I found even more interesting: the reasons I did not like Austen's works were the exact reasons this person loved her work! A Jane Austen novel is a Jane Austen novel. Her work is distinct, and you know what you're going to get. It's a glimpse into life of that era and social strata (when, really, life at a certain age was all about making a suitable marriage match, and one you could live with for the rest of your life). And, yes, my friend conceded, some of the characters are annoying. But they tend to be dealt with accordingly by the end of the book.

So, I say, to each person her own. I don't like Jane Austen's novels, and that is okay. I don't have to keep reading them in a futile effort to find something different in them. And I understand why many other people love Austen's works. In the end, she was a talented writer who opened doors for the women writers who came after her. She made some unpopular decisions because they were the right thing to do. And for those things I respect and admire her. A book with her life story, fiction or not, would be an interesting book indeed.

Am I alone out here? Anyone else have trouble seeing what all the fuss is about with Jane Austen's books? Are there other authors you just don't "get" but everyone else seems to love?

Comments

  1. Brilliant post Veronica. I am a Jane Austen fan and agree with your friend that you do know what you are getting, but I enjoy the social commentary in the books a lot and yes everyone gets married. But in this era it really was all about getting married in the circles Jane Austen lived in and if you could moving up the social ladder.

    Yes to not understanding why people love some works. I'm not a Chicagoland Vampires fan myself. I can't see what all the fuss is about at all. I know quite a few Wenches love that series. And I fell no inclination to start the Cat and Bones series. I wonder why I don't like them. Basically with CLV the characters irritated me, and I did persevere for 3 books thinking it would get better. With Cat and Bones, I've read one of the books and it didn't grip me.

    As you say, each to their own as we all like different things.

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  2. Great post, Veronica! I started to read P & P a little while back, but I didn't get very far. There were no supernaturals in the book for one thing, hahaha! I wanted to read it because I felt like I should. I felt like I was missing out on something. I might try it again one day.

    Hmmm, I'm not into Chicagoland Vampires series either, but I enjoyed them while I was reading them. I just didn't become obsessed. Very likely, I was probably obsessed with something else at the time. :P

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  3. I love this post and I also love Jane Austen...weird!! It's interesting to read a point of view of a non-fan.

    I must say that I think the opinion that all her stories are basically the same may be true but, in retrospect, most of the series we read on this blog, and love, have the same plots that are in 90% cases very predictable.

    Jane Austen may have similar plots but she was writing these stories before they were cliche and is one of the rare people who made it possible for Jeniene Frosts, Chloe Niells, KMMs and Patricia Briggs' of the world to write their novels with similar plots, not so complicated characters and predictable story developments.

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    Replies
    1. Shau, I agree with you 100% that we wouldn't have Frost, Neill, or KMM with Austen. She broke a lot of new ground in her time. Novels were still a fairly new art form, and not very well-respected as a whole. She broke a lot of rules and paved the way for many writers who came after her.

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