Hampshire, England, 1775
Hampshire, England, 1817
Literary, satire, romance
Place of writing
This lady writer's not for beating
Mark Twain famously defined the ideal library as one with no Jane Austen books. He seemed to enjoy ridiculing Austen's work, reading of which made him "feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven".
At least some of his outlandish detestation of Austen may have been an act, but I see his point.
Really, how much could a lowlife of Twain's time—or ours—take of the machinations of pretentious women of the landed gentry seeking husbands of proper social standing in provincial Georgian England?
There are times reading Austen when one gets lost in the ever-so-fine discriminations in her heroine's mind. Which is to say, one becomes bored stiff.
You may not share Twain's expressed urge to dig up the author of Pride and Prejudice "and beat her over the the skull with her own shin-bone". But you may vent less savagely: "Do I really care whether Elizabeth (or Emma or Elinor or Anne...) has correctly discerned the fleeting attraction of one personage for another at the dining table or in the drawing room? Does it really matter whether so-and-so's manners are consistent with parochial rules of morality in early nineteenth-century England?"
You can read Austen without coming across the tiniest mention of larger events in the world during her novels' convulsive period of wars and revolutions. Nor do any social or political issues affecting all of Britain at the time dare intrude into the province of Austen's self-absorbed social circles.
Moreover, there is not to be found any awareness of—not to mention, sympathy for—the lower classes, the vast majority of folks in the countryside, working the farms, acting as servants, providing trade services—in short, scraping by (or not) to make the indolent lives of the affluent butterflies possible. A great deal is made of the prospects of the poor ingénue among the gentry who has only two or three thousand pounds settled on her—without an ounce of concern for the ninety-five percent of the population for whom that would be an unimaginable fortune.
The only exception to the insularity of Austen's preferred social setting is found, to a very small degree, in her third novel Mansfield Park (1814) and that book, while very popular in its time, is problematic for modern readers, for it brings out rather traditionalist views.
Some later authors were also turned off by Austen's parochial world of mild manners. Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot were among female writers who found it too confined and who themselves took literature out into the larger world.
Yet, Austen refuses to be written off. Her works of genteel realism remain widely read today when other, more muscular and imaginative writers of her era, like Walter Scott and Ann Radcliffe, have faded.
The four novels she published to little acclaim from 1811 to 1815, plus two posthumous novels, have been continually in print ever since being rediscovered in the latter 1800s and have been continually adapted for films and television over the past century.
More than that. It's not just her writing that persists. Jane Austen herself survives as an iconic figure for readers.
In the twenty-first century we have Jane Austen book clubs, Jane Austen societies, festivals that recreate scenes from Jane Austen novels, Jane Austen parodies involving zombies, and movies that lift plots and characters from Jane Austen's two-hundred-year-old works in completely modern contexts to speak to young audiences.
It seems that Austen and her writing affect people today more than ever. For, however fussy, fine and, yes, feminine Austen's prose seems on the surface, her writing has a great, enduring strength. Her observations have a sharp, incisive quality—a clear-eyed understanding of character—that other writers shy away from.
This is not to say her lead characters necessarily display this insight. Her heroines are often smugly deluded. But in those cases the author presents this insight through them without their awareness. The most egregious example of this is in the maddening Emma (1815), in which the titular character fancies herself a gifted matchmaker but in fact gets everything wrong, including the ways of her own heart. Austen's most enduring work, Pride and Prejudice (1813), features a protagonist who passes through similar reversals, though we are perhaps more empathetic with her well-intentioned, and only partly mistaken, views.
Austen also has a caustic humour, so dry at times that her detractors may miss it altogether. However fine and righteous her social paragons appear to some (think of Twain's quip about the "Kingdom of Heaven"), she undercuts them to bring them down to mundane levels.
This is the author who rebelled against literary depictions of pure nobility, declaring, "Pictures of perfection...make me sick and wicked." In another quote from her letters, she said of real social encounters, "I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal"—which would not be out of place in a collection of Mark Twain causticisms.
It helps that the misled young ladies of her novels get everything sorted in the end. In this way, the novels can be read almost as mysteries, or at least as problem-solving morality tales. In Austen's first published work, Sense and Sensibility (1811), two eligible daughters each exhibit one of the two qualities indicated in the title and act out the dilemma between choosing a life partner based on rational assessment of qualities and letting romantic emotion hold sway—and the issue is resolved by finding an appropriate (though unsatisfactory, some say) balance of the two.
Pride and Prejudice uses a larger cast of five sisters to up the stakes in the love-versus-status struggle. But it complicates the game by asking how we judge each other, how we discover the true natures of those we are drawn to. Austen's brilliant plotting keeps us turning pages as we follow events unfolding mainly from the perspective of the engaging, clever Elizabeth Bennet, watching her sisters choose wisely and foolishly, and learning as she does how misguided her own judgment is (the "prejudice" of the title) regarding the prideful Mr. Darcy.
These are themes that must appeal to people of all times and cultures, having no exclusive connection with the social practice of Austen's own narrow class and period. So, when Austen's work is called (and often derided as) "novels of manners", that classification seems a bit of a prejudice itself—a judgment based on superficialities.
Of course, Austen's plots and settings are drawn from the milieu she is familiar with. And, of course, her characters act out their intercourse by the mores of Austen's own social circles. But she presents it with a critical eye and a satirical tone to raise the larger questions about romantic relationships that are still with us and will be for years to come.
Now, if you are a person who cannot abide direct talk of "relationships" and certainly doesn't want to read about them, you likely have a problem with Jane Austen. There's a lot of rumination about relationships in her novels. You may prefer—and I admit I do—the kind of writing in which feelings are inferred from the behaviour and dialogue of the characters. As in Mark Twain's work, for that matter, or in that of countless more recent writers. No effete protagonist sitting around the country home pondering why a certain gentleman grimaced at dinner last night when a young lady lifted her eye to a neighbouring squire's son and what this indicates about the gentleman's character and his suitability as a match for oneself and what this sensation one is having in countenancing such an outcome could possibly signify....
But enough people in this age of understatement are hungry for what Austen offers. Not so much for the social minutiae of her novels, but for the explicit emotional and relationship issues. Austen is not wallowing in them, as so-called romance novels often do, but exposing them critically.
And if you give her a chance—if you read past those passages of manners, cut her lead characters a bit of slack, bearing in mind they are trapped in their own peculiar social environment as much as any of us are, watch for those little hints that Austen is aware of this and is satirizing it, look for the humour, and ask whether you have ever had similar relationships you've made a mess of in your own place and time—you might find yourself absorbed into her world as millions of others have been.
I would bet Mark Twain was secretly one of them.
— Eric McMillan