The pleasures of doing Jane Austen wrong

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How many points in misogyny credits do you get for preemptively disliking Jane Austen? Is the patriarchy in me working its evil ways into clouding my judgement or is the anti-patriarchal discourse’s own joke on us all leading me to dismiss Jane Austen as a woman writer, precisely by defining her as a woman? And most importantly, did Nabokov really have a change of heart after reading Mansfield Park , from his previously unflattering views shared so unapologetically? Or was he just being Nabokov by condescendingly including her in his series of lectures at Cornell?

There seem to be so many biased, yet good reasons to flee Jane’s prolific pen that I can’t help but wonder… (yes, SATC reference intended) what if I set out to liking her… for the wrong reasons?

Reading Jane Austen as a mystery novel author for women (whatever those two categories are…)

It’s pretty (straight)forward. The thrill of figuring out who will end up with whom is a perfectly feasible line of reading and not a disappointing one. There are suspense building tricks and false clues scattered here and there, and elaborately crafted first person accounts of the true motives of Mr and Ms so and so to behave the way they did once the true “attachment” comes to light, that work nicely as confessions at the end of the story. Why ‘for women’ ? Well, this was originally meant to be a misogynistic post. All genders aside now, the painstaking level of detail in evaluating every alternative of the potential love triangles and other geometric figures is so exasperating that you do get to the point of wishing someone dies and ends it all. Violently.

The slurs

But then there are the slurs and the idea of stealing from literature to diss someone in style starts to grow on you… This has been done multiple times all over the web. Like here and here. But let me add a couple of faves, both from Persuasion.

How is Mary looking? said Sr Walter, in the height of his good humour. ´The last time I saw her she had a red nose but I hope that may not happen every day´

This one is true Mean Girls stuff:

Morning visits are never fair by women at her time of life, who make themselves up so little. If she would only wear rouge she would not be afraid of being seen (…)

To feel better about yourself

Let’s face it. The text is not old enough to present a challenge to anyone who went to High School and yet it provides just the amount of rupture from everyday English to give you the self-satisfying thrill of feeling like you’re “cracking the Regency Period code” This on a purely linguistic level. Inevitably however, language is pervasive, and so consequences extend to other domains. If you are able to relate to the girlish relationship drama and somehow see your own life through the lens of this embellished language, does this not confer your own emotional real life plots with an air of importance? Does it not romanticize your own day-to-day existence.? This comment falls on the exact dangling point that oscillates between praise and reproach.

To inhabit the elusive border-line territory between the trivial and the transcendent

Maybe it’s a spin-off of the previous point. Maybe it’s the purpose of fiction by definition. You are aware you are reading the everyday comings and goings of the equivalent to middle class deeply uninspired women with very little aspirations in life other than marriage. No one will find an early cure to cancer, and whether the characters manage to find a cure to their own boredom is a matter of discussion. And yet we keep reading. How is reading Jane Austen different from scrolling through your instagram feed and why do we do it? The answer is obscure because it leads straight into the abyss of fiction and why any piece of literary fiction should matter.

Let’s give the question a spin, though. We know reading Tolstoy is different from instagram because the objects being presented as worthy of being narrated are radically different from the ones you’d find in most social media feeds. Unless you are Bono in the 80s. if your feed bears any resemblance to most people’s it’s probably down to a curated collection of wedding photos, newborn babies, and the still ubiquitous about last night hashtag (or its post-millennial equivalent). Tolstoy’s feed sounds like it would be a bit more like #war #suicide #death #pride and #profoundexistentialdespair. From a labovian point of view the nature of the “complicating action” is different. So when you read a Russian novel of the 19th century, you are so distanced from your everyday mental habitat by the subject matter that there is an instant effect of perspective that feels “literary” in its strangeness.

Jane Austen’s language and plots linger right in the middle. The lexicon, imagery and turns of phrase are slightly more baroque than your typical Gilmore Girls episode and yet oddly enough, still relatable to your instagram feed. Jane Austen is highly reassuring of your cultural consumption, and somehow makes you feel smarter than binging on reality TV.

Now the necessary question: is this inherently wrong? No, this is inherently what fiction does: create a substitute for reality just for the sake of play. Whether the subject matter at hand is peace and war or the dating life of an English girl, fiction is just the play of words.

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