Thursday, January 28, 2010

What's up with Jane Austen?


I don't mean I expect y'all to start channeling her or anything ("Yo, Jane, play any grab-ass lately?") I just mean I'm bewildered. The recent craze over her fiction--and, to a lesser extent, the Brontes', probably because their work was darker--has been going on for years, with no sign of letting up.

I had to read a number of Austen's novels when I was in college and, to be honest, they hardly left me all aflutter. In fact, they left me pretty cold. Am I not a romance reader at heart? Or a certain kind of romance reader? Are Hollywood and the BBC (and handsome actors with British accents) responsible for this resurgence of interest? Because, honestly, I don't get it. And "it" is getting on my nerves. I want to start screaming at these devotees to check out . . . [Here's where I could start listing names but won't, 'cause lists always bring out the OCD in me.]

Suffice it to say, I find so many other pre-twentieth-century female authors and characters so much more engaging, even going back as far as the mid 1700s, when the novel was first born. I find the output of some lady poets far more resonant too.

So, if you're an Austen fanatic, please explain the lure. What am I missing? (Not that I'll ever actually believe I'm missing something, but I am curious.)

17 comments:

Jenre said...

I think one reason why Austen (and to some extent the Brontes too) are so popular is that the stories are easy to read and accessible. Austen deals with people and relationships and romantic feelings, whereas some of the other female writers such as Elizabeth Gaskill and George Eliot put lots of pesky politics and *gasp* poor people with desperate problems in their books. People just don't seem as interested in reading about the social conditions of the Victorian era, which is why although Jane Eyre is very popular, books like Shirley and Vilette by Charlotte Bronte get largely ignored.

Chris said...

This one mystifies me, too - but I'm not a fan of historicals, so... To be fair, although I've seen some of the movies, the only book Austen or Bronte book I've read was Wuthering Heights, which was enough to put me off the rest. Miserable lot of people.

Tam said...

Confession. Have NEVER read an Austen book and I'm not interested in doing so. That probably makes me some kind of bad person but, meh, whatever.

I think my friend Michelle's guest post at Craig's is still hugely funny.

K. Z. Snow said...

You're right, Jen.

I do see why modern readers are put off by books of the era that delve too deeply into the shadows or raise too many thorny issues. (Those are precisely the ones I favor, though, along with certain American works like The Scarlet Letter and Kate Chopin's The Awakening and Louisa May Alcott's supernatural fiction.)

What I don't see is why readers are wild about Austen's drawing room romances with all their fluffiness and and flounce, their manners and delicate sensibilities. Their appeal must be grounded in a kind of "false nostalgia." Many modern women must yearn for a return to that time -- when gentlemen were gentlemen, rogues were more appealing than frightening and always redeemable, flirtation was a substitute for sex, and courtship and marriage ruled.

Bleh.

K. Z. Snow said...

Chris, at least Wuthering Heights had some passion to it. Austen's work, clever and amusing as it may be, has always struck me as rather anemic. Maybe dishonest, too.

K. Z. Snow said...

Tam, that post you mentioned really laid out the breadth of the Austen craze. Yikes! But it also shows how people are beginning to chafe beneath it, which is why all the bizarre variations are cropping up.

When all is said and done, we're still modern readers with modern tastes.

Val said...

I'm with you, K.Z., and with Tam. I've never been able to get more than 5 pages into an Austen book, and I've tried repeatedly because I too have wondered about Jane Austen's huge appeal to everyone else on the planet. The books just make me so impatient! Maybe because the subject matter isn't exciting enough to draw me past the inaccessible writing style.

LVLM said...

You are not alone. I read Austin way back and snored through most of it. I had no choice though, I was living in Germany where the only English books available in book stores were classics. So I read what I could get a hold of.

But then again, I didn't get into romance until a few years ago, thinking, le gasp, that romance was for pussies. :D

But the Bronte girls, I love, loved them because of the passion, intensity, and darkness of their stories.

Maybe Austin has a huge appeal because her stories are so generic. People can read what they want in them and they don't polarize people in a drastic way. Those who don't really like her feel more meh than "god I HATE her."

K. Z. Snow said...

Hi, Val and Leah!

I don't hate Austen either, but I just can't connect with her writing (characters, plots, prose style -- all of it). I suspect her most ardent contemporary fans are people who also enjoy Harlequin and similar romances.

Jeanne said...

KZ, you're right. It's all those veddy British film/TV versions of her work and the American versions.
Frankly, with the advent of TV and movies, folks could say "I love JA" without having to read the actual works.
Dating myself here, but when I was growing up there was a thing called "Comics Classics" which were exactly what you think: illustrated versions of books like "The Three Musketeers", "Ivanhoe", "Pride and Prejudice", etc.
And of course, don't forget "Cliffs Notes", the savior of many a college and HS student.
So, I'm watching "Emma" on Masterpiece Theatre" for one reason only: Johnny Lee Miller.
Saw him on an Ovation TV film copped from BBC in a bio of Lord Byron. Remembered him from American TV's "Eli Stone" (which I loved) and find him adorable in "Emma" as Emma's long time friend.
So, we barbaric Americans can swoon over Jane and Charlotte and Emily with our Brit friends.

Word veri: asuped

Italian American way of saying, "A suped, you think I give a flying f** for JA?"

K. Z. Snow said...

Jeanne, there's no doubt in my mind those actors have a lot to do with it! (Aren't we shallow? LOL)

Lea Sinclair said...

Anne Elliot, Elinor Dashwood, and Elizabeth Bennet are women trying to define their position in society-- not allow society to define their positions within it. They are intrepid explorers just like Odysseus,trying to find their rightful home in the world. Darcy and Elizabeth have to move beyond themselves and their social positions and obligations in order to become true and free individuals. Even in the 21st Century women feel enormous pressure to conform and allow society to dictate to them how and what they should be. Austin's novels are some of the earliest writings that expolre and validate the femine perscpective on the world. Besides she makes me laugh.

Lea Sinclair said...

While I adore Pride and Prejudice-- I read it the first time when I was twelve, Persussion is my favorite Austin novel. It has the depth the depth and shadows only hinted at in her earlier works. Anne Elliot's sacrifice is little acknowledged or appreciated by her family-- an experience too common to most women. If women were truly appreciated and cherished as they should be in this world, then there would be little need for romance stories.....

K. Z. Snow said...

Great explanations, Lea, and very impassioned! Thank you.

I do see how Austen's work prefigures contemporary romance fiction, but in a more multilayered and intelligent way. (And, yes, the novels can be amusing.) Maybe I've just become more accustomed to a certain amount of "grittiness" -- or, at least, sexual as well as psycho-emotional exploration.

My favorite pre-modern works centering on female characters seem to be the darker ones -- The Scarlet Letter, Madame Bovary, Sister Carrie, and Kate Chopin's The Awakening, for example. (The last is an often-overlooked classic.) You should look into these if you haven't yet read them.

Lea Sinclair said...

Actually, I love all of those novels-- Kate Chopin is the author of one of the best short stories ever written,"The Story of an Hour." Authors Hawthorne (Scarlet Letter)and Thomas Hardy (Tess of the D'urbervilles)are some of the few male writers that really appreciate women and realize their intrinsic heroic nature. Austin's brilliant heroines speak their minds, which society has never been able to accept-- notice what a hard time has been given to Hillary Clinton by "Faux" News & et al. Traditional society prefers silly and incoherent women like Sarah Palin(aka Carribou Barbie.)

Lea Sinclair said...

KZ-- I confess that I do not like all of the "Mr. Darcy" sequels to Pride and Prejudice. Darcy explains himself very well at the end to Lizzy, so there really isn't much else to say. Plus, I enjoy his brooding and awkward shyness-- it's endearing. But then again,I like self-contained men that don't share every thing. Some distance is very healthy in a relationship. I guess that why I love your Jackson Spey character.

K. Z. Snow said...

How wonderful you're familiar with these authors, Lea. So few contemporary readers are, and it's a damned shame. (Glad you mentioned Hardy's Tess; I'd neglected to include her!)

Thank you again for appreciating Jackson. He'll be returning. ;-)