Ode to Jane Austen
Maneuvering through academia as a lover of Jane Austen can be hard. Not only is she an older author, but she's a SHE. Many students I've met along the way have had similar reactions to my JA love: similar in their unhesitating and unfounded disdain. The people that hate Jane have never read her. And the people that mildly dislike her, simply read her works absentmindedly as "chick lit." Nothing makes me more crazy than disregarding a whole a body of work by placing it into a marginalized and delegitimized genre. What is "chick lit" really?? Is it written by women? Or just FOR women? Either way, it's a vague and useless categorization. Well, it's not totally useless. It's pretty effective if your goal is to distract generations of readers from the genius and insight that typifies a Jane Austen work. Here are some responses I've come up with after years of defending Jane:
1. Jane revolutionized the novel. She played an important role in shifting the novel form away from the epistolary mode towards it's modern format. Ever read a novel that was written as a series of letters? That's epistolary. And after reading it did you have a strong desire to avoid that genre forever? Thanks, Jane for saving us from epistolary novels.
2. Jane perfected the free indirect discourse mode of narrative. This is where she cleverly weaves the voice of the narrator and the voice of the character together. Wow, Jane, that was genius!
3. Jane was a keen critic of her social world and a successful and extremely witty satirist. She was the stand-up comedian of the day. Running a sharp and questioning eye over her society she spotted problems and oddities which she illuminated in a funny yet subtle way in her novels. She was smart AND funny??
4. Contrary to popular belief, Jane Austen did NOT invent the marriage plot. The main argument against reading Jane Austen that I hear constantly from men is that her books don't appeal to them because they're only about marriage. First of all, love and relationships are universally important issues, regardless of gender. Secondly, male authors have been telling stories that end in marriage forever (Shakespeare comedy, anyone?). And finally, Austen's works, like most quality works, are multidimensional. That is to say, the marriage plot is not the only thing going on in her novels and it is definitely not "the point" of the story. We know before we start reading her novels (as we do before we start reading a comedy by Shakespeare) that the story will end in marriage. So why do we continue to read Austen or Shakespeare instead of just jumping to the end? Because these authors know how to make the journey interesting.
5. Just a reminder that within a historical context Austen's work is even more astounding. She wrote during a time when it was not popular for women to write and it was not a particularly lucrative means of making a living. She also lived in a small home with her mother and sister and had very little privacy or time to write.
6. She wrote some of the most beautifully poetic prose. (What else can I say?)
7. Jane's ability to delve into the depths of her character's innermost thoughts and psyche allows for incredibly intricate and realistic character studies. She had a thorough understanding of people and the way they worked.
8. Finally, the themes and stories Austen wrote about continue to captivate interest of readers and ring true in our modern world. Not an easy task when we think about her writing at a desk with a quill, confined to the small English countryside of her home and compare it to our world of computers, technology, and generally the world at our fingertips.
Mostly, Jane Austen truly inspires me...
An ode to Jane's Emma
Oh, little emma--
in your hypocrisy.
we love to watch you stumble,
beautifully decadent blunders
though the clockwork
of your pretty brain may chase and dance.
we know the steps--
have worn the floor with
we hummed along with
teeth clenched and bated
believing your lies
so you will believe ours.
All in all, though, I can defend her until I'm blue in the face. But really all you need to do is pick up one of her books and let her speak for herself.