Editor’s note: Today’s post by Kevin Smokler (@weegee) is part of an online companion to our Fall 2012 issue on The Female Conscience. Click here to review all blog entries related to our fall issue.
Here’s what happens in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice if you don’t know. The Bennett family has five unmarried daughters. The parents must pair them off to suitable husbands to secure financial well-being, as was the custom at the time. Middle-child Elizabeth spots handsome Mr. Darcy at a ball, where Darcy acts like a jerk. The two run into each other at various social functions, and romantic bobbing and weaving ensues. Other Bennett sisters have their own mating dances on the plot’s periphery. Elizabeth takes up with a more handsome soldier for a time but comes around to Mr. Darcy’s tight-lipped charm, and during a long, soulful walk, they confess their mutual love and agree to marry. The end.
If that sounds like just your kind of story, (a) you’re probably a woman and (b) you’ve probably read it already. If it sounds like any form of entertainment with the word “chick” in front of its title, there’s a reason for that too: Jane Austen is the godmother of the form. Her six novels of men and women tossed—often gently, sometimes with great force—by the whims of the human heart are the DNA of Waiting to Exhale, Steel Magnolias, Sex and the City, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Clueless, Twilight and just about every article in Seventeen and every third movie on Lifetime. But all this came many decades after Austen’s death. It’s the aftershock of her work, possibly the biggest in the history of Western literature, that best explains why Austen’s novels are primarily read by women but shouldn’t only be.
Jane Austen never published under her own name while she was alive. Each of her books simply had the byline “A Lady,” owing perhaps to both her standing as a daughter of a respected church official and the limited freedom of her gender itself. Jane Austen died at 41, never having married (or left England), and calling her also-unmarried sister her closest friend. She wasn’t destined to see the world and didn’t seem all that interested in it. (Austen scholars are fond of reporting that she wrote while England was fighting for its life during the Napoleonic Wars and Austen’s novels never mention them.) And yet Austen’s family insisted her mind and work travel much farther than her person. She received the same classical education as her male siblings, and when she began writing, her older brother James acted as her business manager and literary agent.
It would be her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s Memoir of Jane Austen that began the aftershock fifty years after her death, and literary scholars A.C. Bradley and Lionel Trilling who fanned the flames in the early twentieth century. In 1924, Rudyard Kipling published “The Janeites,” a short story about World War I soldiers crazy about Austen’s novels. Sir Walter Scott, E.M. Forster and Lionel Trilling—men hardly known for their enlightened attitudes towards women writers—loved Austen and her work. The Jane Austen Society of North America was founded in 1979. Two of the three founders were men.
Where are we now? That same Jane Austen Society of North America now has exactly one man on its seventeen-member editorial board. Karen Joy Fowler’s 2004 novel The Jane Austen Book Club contains five women and one man, whose admittance is contested as several characters want the club to be “girls only.” And the BBC’s 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy emerging damp-shirted from a lake is to a generation of women what Phoebe Cates was emerging from a swimming pool to a generation of men. It surprises no one that Mr. Darcy, whom Firth played, was voted in 2003 as the fictional character English readers would most like to take on a first date.
Somewhere Jane Austen lost her male readers. These days, Austen scholars tend to be women, their students tend to be women, and the devoted are drawn to annual celebratory tea parties. And I, as a newcomer to Austen’s work, a fan-in-training, wonder how she herself would have felt. I like to imagine she would have shrugged. But more likely she would have been amused, in an arched-eyebrow kind of way. Because it’s right there in the novels. Jane Austen wrote about love and marriage from a woman’s point of view. But she is not the giggling bestie you share gossip with during a slumber party. The arched-eyebrow mode of viewing the world—which she maybe didn’t invent but perfected— doesn’t allow for that intimacy.
Jane Austen did not scoff at or condescend the romantic travails of her characters (romantic travails were pretty much all she wrote about), but she does stand a good few paces apart from it. Her prose does not nod approvingly when you ask it, “Do you think he likes me?” Instead it is calm, knowing, and a bit sly, with ironic asides dropping like the intentional accidents of a lady’s handkerchief. Even more than Shakespeare, Jane Austen is the Model T of British wit: dry, sardonic, and amused, but as gentle as the coming of afternoon fog.
She loves her Elizabaeth Bennetts, Emma Woodhouses, and Henry Tilneys, but does not root for their success. Instead she finds what troubles their hearts a bit ridiculous. To Jane Austen we are all fools in matters of love, but she forgives us because it’s also what makes us actors in the grand comedy of our species.
That’s usually what I like to tell men. Look past the frilly dresses, blue-and-white china, and all that “Will they finally kiss?” nonsense. Jane Austen herself was working with what she knew, and didn’t much give a hang who kissed who. Instead, focus on how her books are filled with good people trying to be right and proper and failing because they find other good people kinda sexy. Then remember the struggle to maintain one’s dignity in situations that don’t warrant it is the basis of all great comedy, and Austen knew this in her bones. Heck, she does it better than just about anyone. So go ahead and blame her for the whiny Bridget Jones. But then give her credit for the straight line we can draw between her novels and Charlie Chaplin, Monty Python, Peter Sellers, Douglas Adams and Mr. Bean. Or their children in the colonies like The Kids in the Hall, Saturday Night Live, The Office, or the films of Judd Apatow.
Go into Austen’s work with an eye toward comedy and the framework of it that she created. While many fans argue that Emma is the most accessible Austen novel, and the best place to begin, I say why screw around? Grab Pride and Prejudice, her most popular, and jump in with both feet. P&P is the most “Austen” of Austen books, so you’ll be able to hold a conversation if that’s as far as you wish to go. Its several film adaptations also provide ample cheat sheets (the 2005 2008 version starring Keira Knightly is more than adequate and two hours instead of six), as does the loony 2007 book adaptation Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Bear in mind that Jane Austen writes to amuse her readers as much as herself, so Pride and Prejudice would best accompany you in moments of intentional rather than needed relaxation—weekends instead of lunch breaks, a hammock over a moment in a bathroom stall. And consider food pairings as fans have done for decades. A 2003 BBC poll named Pride and Prejudice England’s second favorite novel behind Lord of the Rings, so a fair trade with your partner might be Austen for Tolkien and then crumpets downed with a tankard of Elvish wine.
Kevin Smokler (@weegee) is the author of the essay collection Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books you Haven’t Touched Since High School, forthcoming from Prometheus in 2013.