Reading prejudice

Dear Reader:

I often shy away from the popular, which occasionally means missing out on the great. A surfeit of hype clouds the original and layers it with expectation. However, I have tried to make a habit of tackling literary classics—in spite of the dreary image that this moniker and their popularity promote in my mind. You will not be surprised at my discovery that, indeed, George Eliot is a great writer and John Keats a great poet.

I lay out this scenario to create empathy with certain among you who, I have come to learn, display a certain literary resistance. You should take my subsequent thoughts as those of a dear friend who wishes only to lead you back to a garden, which appears formal and conventional, its artifice alienating. But given time and further consideration, the artifice reveals its code and it is the formality itself that begins to fascinate.

Yes, dear reader, it’s time to read Jane Austen. Again. We cannot permit our friends to miss out on the sharpest pen in English literature.

But let me share with you my own troubled introduction to Jane. At the tender age of 17, my sweetheart gifted a copy of Sense and Sensibility. I was bewildered. The novel was a love story, yet it lacked the passion of the Brontës or the tragic depths of Hardy.

A few years on, I was living in France with a scarcity of English books. In desperation, I turned to Pride and Prejudice…and this time, the garden opened its arms. The romance seemed to have been replaced by biting wit and sharp prose.

So, let us frame Jane, for even our greatest literary experts can approach her from the wrong angle.

1. Not aah, but ouch!
Think satire not romance. We sloppily place her alongside the Brontës, but Jane is not a romantic. She has compassion for her characters, but is a social satirist. You should be amused by every chapter.

2. Marry money.
Jane’s world is one of middle class confinement in which women express, measure, and advance themselves through marriage and family fortune alone. Thus marriage is the central character, playing out the tension between power and romance.

3. She’s English.
You knew that already. But shrink down your world from this expansive continent to one of a tiny island in which 18th/19th century society spent most of its lives within a few square agricultural miles, with only the occasional trip to Bath or London. And then, add in a strict propriety and a propensity to judge. Yes, it’s claustrophobic and painful, but oh, so delicious.

4. St—rike!
My big American revelation came during the 2004 MLB playoffs when I got sucked into the Yankee/BoSox series. Baseball had seemed uneventful, but then I discovered the drama was in the pitching. In Jane’s universe, the drama is the tension between the inner life and the public action that is played out in minute social interactions—a game of cards, a walk in the garden—you can hear a pin drop. And watch out for any large social interaction—a picnic marks high drama.

5. Stick to the text.
Avoid all movies and dramatizations until you’ve read everything. Then, you are permitted to watch only the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle. And don’t even think about that Keira Knightly movie.

So, where should the reluctant reader start?

This is tough, but I’m going to say…Persuasion. It’s hard not to like or at least respect our heroine, the pensive, mature Anne Elliott. Her age may make her more palatable than the frisky Elinors and Mariannes. And we still have all the wonderful elements of Jane Austen’s world—the comical snobbery, fashionable seaside towns, naval officers, sudden illness, and despicable siblings.

I hope you can give Jane another chance. She is so rewarding. And remember, there is really just one problem in life:

But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them.

Mansfield Park

19 responses to “Reading prejudice”

  1. Dave says:

    This makes me want to read more Jane Austen! I’ve only read Pride and Prejudice, in high school. Loved it and was the only person in my class who thought it was funny; since then, though, I just haven’t made Austen a priority. I just started Tristram Shandy, though, and that could take a while.

  2. Dave says:

    Aaaaand, the Friday comments ghost is back.

  3. cynthia says:

    I love Jane Austin, and sense and sensibility is my favorite

  4. julie the pingpongqueen says:

    I think it is sad that artists like Austin were not recognized as influential in her lifetime. I think it was Sense and Sensibility that she published at her own expense.
    She’s pretty kick ass.

  5. Tim Wager says:

    Stella, thank you for making such a great case for one of my favorite authors!

    I don’t know, though, if I agree with you on recommending Persuasion as the first one to read. It seems to me so deeply textured and subtle that in order to understand much of what’s going on a reader would already have to be trained in “what to look for in JA” by some of the other novels. I do agree that it’s wonderful, a neglected book in comparison to P&P and S&S.

    S&S would be my vote for the first book for those resistant to Austen. It’s got the classic tension pairing unmarried sisters who look to each other for guidance through the forest of potential suitors who might save them from the threat of penury, but it’s written a bit more broadly than P&P, so that it’s easier for the 21st-c. reader to understand. From there, to either Emma,P&P, or Persuasion, I’d say, but Mansfield Park and, especially, Northanger Abbey are to be left for last. The pleasures are fewer and the social satire not so finely woven as in the other four, so anyone who picks up either of them without having read some of the others will be hard-pressed to see how JA was the finest novelist of the early 19th c.

    The 1995 adaptation of Persuasion with Amanda Root is my favorite Austen movie, hands down. I think it gets everything — tone, pacing, language — just right. I really enjoyed the Colin Firth P&P, too, but of all the adaptations of that book, I’m most partial to the 1980 BBC production, perhaps because it was the first one I saw, even before reading any of the books.

    I’ve avoided the Keira Knightley one entirely. She’s hot and everything, but part of the point is that Elizabeth Bennet is not really a looker. Casting a great beauty in that role plays to the box office, but does the book a great disservice.

  6. WW says:

    Might have to agree with Tim on where to start in Austenland — “Persuasion” might mean more after a romp through P+P or S+S. Though other than S+S you could start with “Emma” — it’s a good intro. And then if you’re all excited, you can get Daniel Pool’s book “What Jane Austen Ate and what Charles Dickens Knew” — a fun a”clarification manual” on the Church of England, sex, dinner parties and country house living — for example, a plum in plum pudding is a raisin. Deeply exciting. For me, really.

  7. Beth W says:

    Great post Stella! I love Austen and especially Persuasion. I agree with Tim’s recommendations as well. I believe that when I read Austen I read them all in chronological order by date of publication. A little compulsive I know but it turned out to be a good way to ease in and end with the best, Persuasion. They do all have similar plots, misunderstandings and deceptive men being common themes among them. However, they are appealingly more realistic than some of Austen’s contemporaries.

  8. Stella says:

    I’m going to pushback on Persuasion. For the reader who loves Jane first time, yes, starting with P&P, S&S etc. makes perfect sense. But I’m proposing Persuasion for those who didn’t like Jane first time round. I think its complexity and maturity might be more appealing than the youthful buoyancy of the others…but I could be wrong.

    And I totally agree – Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey are not representative, but great in their own worlds.

    Btw, aficionados, I recently read Lady Susan and Sanditon for the first time. Very hard to read and enjoy and know that it will end a couple of chapters in. Sanditon would have been a great novel.

    Dave – I spent half the day thinking I killed the blog.

    Tim – I really meant stay away from that Becoming Jane movie…although I’d be interested to know if anyone saw it. I can’t bear to as it would then become my image of Jane and I’m sure it’s awful and sappy.

  9. Beth W says:

    I saw the movie Becoming Jane. I went in with a touch of skepticism and full knowledge that the story was fictional and I enjoyed it. One might say it was sappy but it was also bittersweet and sad. More than the romance, the element that resonated with me was how independent Jane was. Very “you go girl.”

  10. Tim Wager says:

    Oh, I railed against the very idea of Becoming Jane well before it was out, so haven’t had even the tiniest inkling of desire to see it. Creating almost wholecloth a romance out of two brief mentions of a guy from her letters? Gah!

    Bravo for your pushback, Stella. You very well may be right; I was looking at it from the perspective of someone who already loves Austen. (Haven’t done Sanditon or Lady Susan, so I guess that makes me an interloper as an aficionado.)

  11. LP says:

    #10: He railed against Becoming Jane back when it was on vinyl! When he was 13!

  12. speaking of adolescent tastes, i have to say i just love northanger abbey. i like watching the others as movies, and i certainly appreciate the whole idea of austen, and i even like reading austen criticism (especially claudia johnson’s), but i find austen’s prose to be a little dense. give me the stripped-down 1790s any day! gothic all the way!

    i like stella more than jane, though. stella is my favorite british writer.

  13. ooh. and i love amy heckerling’s clueless. that’s how we introduced our kids to jane.

  14. Tim Wager says:

    I forgot to say that I think Clueless is the best adaptation of Emma I’ve seen. That Paltrow movie is entertaining enough, but the slapstick it adds just doesn’t work.

  15. woo-hoo! dave’s a genius!

  16. Dave says:

    I do what I can.

  17. kevin says:

    since I found this post by being a huge fan of the band and googling them a ton as I do.

    love your write up, I think you might even be a bigger fan than I.

    you know what you should really do?
    Their wikipedia page is seriously lacking, and each member doesn’t have their own page

    I’m clearly not enough of a fan to do it myself , but it seems you are both articulate and perhaps motivated. I was frustrated with lack of info about the band which led me to keep clicking around, luckily I found out more from you!


  18. Beth W says:

    Starting next year, Masterpiece Theatre is going to show adaptations of all of Jane Austen. The preview doesn’t show clips from all of them and from the pictures it looks like Pride and Prejudice will be the Colin Firth version. Very exciting anyway. Watch the preview here.