Let me preface this by saying that I really like Jane Austen. I have enormous affection for many of her characters and I respect her for being a clever, shrewd lady novelist at a time when being a smart girl probably wasn’t the best thing to be.
Having said that, I do sometimes get the feeling that Jane Austen would be the friend on a night out who insists you switch to water after 1am. I feel like she’d say something like “we have toast at home” if you tried to buy a kebab on the way back from said excursion. Basically, I feel like Jane Austen is trying to make me behave, and I don’t like it.
You can enjoy things without agreeing with the ‘moral of the story’, of course, and personal actions had much different social and cultural ramifications then than they do to the modern reader, which I acknowledge probably goes some way to explaining why I find her work so annoying sometimes.
As briefly explored in my recent short post about watching Sense and Sensibility with my friend Chen, Watching Austen with a Real Person, I am not sensible. I’m not as reckless as I have been (I was a nightmare teen), but I am impulsive and difficult and only capable of feeling one very strong emotion at one time, to the exclusion of all others, like Tinkerbell. My favourite novel is Wuthering Heights, which might explain my quarrel with Austen a bit, as going from one to the other straight away is like going from a rave to afternoon tea.
In this post, I’ll trot through a few of Austen’s significant works and try and get to the bottom of what really gets to me about each of them:
Pride and Prejudice
Mr Darcy is a boring bastard, for one. Even Bingley, probably the only entirely good man in the novel, is basically a Hufflepuff (nice but dim)*. I feel like we have only been presented with one man who is actually exciting – handsome, funny, smart, a bit challenging – and that’s Wickham. I love-hate Wickham, in the way that I love-hate Willoughby. Rakes are just my thing. Which is why I feel so passionate in my defence of one Lydia Bennet, a character generally portrayed as utterly brainless and stupid.
Let’s please remember that Lydia is fifteen years of age, and that she was also canonically neglected by her father (more on him later). Her greatest crime in Lizzie’s eyes is that she’s “vain…and uncontrolled” which is hardly surprising given her mother’s overindulgence and the complete lack of interest in raising her properly shown by Mr Bennet. She’s also the best humoured and most high-spirited of the girls.
So Lydia is lively, a bit vain, undisciplined and impulsive. She’s also a child. I do feel like a lot of imaginings of her in adaptations cast her older so that it’s easier to make fun of her, and also downplay her father’s neglect, so she can be blamed entirely for her own personality flaws. When Lydia runs away with Wickham, the only exciting man in the whole piece, it’s seen as being a selfish and reckless act, not only by the cast of the novel but by the modern reader too. But how? Lydia is the youngest child of a family with no prospects. Her father thinks she’s an idiot and doesn’t bother to hide it, and she’s a passionate teenager with no outlet for her buoyant personality – her greatest strength, her enthusiasm for life, is treated as a failing by those closest to her. I think it’s very unfair to blame her or judge her too harshly for the events of the novel.
To take Austen’s part, I do understand that Lydia’s actions put her whole family in danger by risking scandal and social exclusion. I get that Lydia bringing shame upon the Bennets would all but destroy any chance of marrying at all, let alone well. But I wish that people would consider more frequently that Lydia is stifled by her life, by a family that looks down on her as silly and mistakes passion for foolishness. She is fifteen years old and very ignorant as to the ways of the world. Blaming a fifteen year old girl for having a fairly normal teenage personality, and for being seduced by a much older adult man, just sits really badly with me. I’m very surprised literary feminists haven’t raised this point more often in recent reevaluations of the work (although if anyone has, please direct me to it in the comments!).
Mr Bennet is another character that is popularly seen in a way that makes me uncomfortable. We’re invited to sympathise with Mr Bennet, who is overwhelmed with daughters and a silly wife and just wants to read in peace. We laugh as he openly favours Lizzie because she’s cleverer (in his estimation) than her sisters. Mr Bennet is an absolute cock.
Frankly, if you make the daughters, you have to look after them. That’s just how it is. You can’t choose the one you believe is worthy of your love and then bestow it solely upon her. That’s how you get Lydias. It also seems hugely unfair that Mrs Bennet, embarrassing and lacking in social grace as she is, is so disliked by her own husband. She is nervous and stressed a lot, mostly about the fact that when Mr Bennet passes away she and all her daughters will become homeless, as the house will go to confirmed snotbag Mr Collins. She’s worried that her daughters will have nothing, and will be unhappy, and this is seen as some kind of stupid womanly obsession with marriage and social status, some kind of fussiness on her part. I’m sorry, but no. Mr Bennet should be worried about this too, and a bit more kindness towards the women in his life wouldn’t go amiss. I would love to see this version of the Bennets explored in media more – in an adaptation, most of which have so far been extremely soft on Mr Bennet.
Northanger Abbey is literally a novel about how reading novels is bad for you. Even though it was written before the Brontë’s works emerged, it feels like sly digs at their whole schtick.
Catherine reads a lot of gothic novels, and as such sees intrigue wherever she goes. This results in social disgrace when she accuses a widower of murdering his late wife, all high on the conventions of gothic drama. I’m a huge fan of the gothic, so I feel like Jane Austen making fun of its tropes is a bit much coming from someone who essentially wrote the same novel six times with differently named characters**.
I have a lot less to complain about in Northanger – I like the conversations it gives rise to about the function of fiction, I like that it resulted in possibly the most charming scene in the movie The Jane Austen Book Club (not the novel, which is, for once, inferior to the adaptation).
I think the problem is that it’s a bad point, expressed well. It’s a really enjoyable tale, but the central thesis seems to be: too much gothic fiction will overheat your brain, so it’s much better to be sensible and unimaginative. This is something I can’t bear, and a horrible lesson to want young women to learn.
Plus, if a man’s wife died several years earlier, and he now keeps a mysteriously locked set of rooms and refuses to speak on it, and lives in a place called Northanger Abbey, I’m certain that the suspicion that perhaps he killed his wife would occur to anyone. Maybe not for as long as it lasted for Catherine, and maybe not with the same level of conviction, but I’ve suspected people of worse for less.
Also, the flirty, lively female character turns out to be a bad guy. Jane Austen really has it in for women like this, which I know is a product of 19th century values, but still annoys me. If Austen wrote Wuthering Heights, it would have been about Isabella Linton.
Sense and Sensibility
This one’s the doozy. The title, as I’m sure you already know and feel incredibly patronised to be told, refers to ‘Sensibility‘ as in emotion and passion, being ruled by the heart, and ‘Sense‘ as in practicality and good judgement.
I would argue that all of Austen’s work deals with head vs heart as a central dilemma, with head invariably winning, but this is the novel that really foregrounds this conflict. Elinor respresents sense, and Marianne sensibility – I think this novel, however, is also the one of Austen’s that is least judgmental to the heart characters, who usually come off pretty badly.
The aspect of this novel that disappoints me is Marianne’s arc. I love her, the way I love all impulsive, passionate women in literature – a touch of narcissism there perhaps? And for all his faults I love Willoughby.
The problem with this novel is that Willoughby is too appealing. Unlike Wickham, who is exciting but not necessarily somebody to fall in love with, Willoughby is a physically beautiful, dashing man who rescues Marianne after an accident. He cares deeply about art and poetry, he’s revolutionary and unconventional and rebellious and exactly who you would fall in love with. One chat about Byron and I’m done.
And no, he isn’t great. He’s a rake – he seduces and impregnates a young woman, who he promptly leaves. That’s never good. And she’s young, fifteen, which would be illegal now and was still pushing it then. (Incidentally, here is where you get to make a choice – either blame Willoughby for seducing an innocent teenager, or blame Lydia for being seduced as one, but you can’t have both. Girls don’t only deserve sympathy when they’re offscreen, just as they don’t only ‘know what they’re doing’ if they’re flirty and loud.)
Willoughby ends up married to a rich woman, a financial transaction, which makes him unhappy. And when he visits Marianne (only to be barred from seeing her by Elinor) he makes it clear that he genuinely does love her, that his feelings were genuine, but he chose money over them. I have some sympathy for Willoughby, who has made bad choices and hurt the people in his careless wake, but who is suffering for them in his heart.
Marianne realises after this that she couldn’t have been happy with someone as wild and impulsive as he, which is maybe true but just isn’t something I want to hear. I don’t want sensible love and I have no interest in it. Marianne now, having resolved to be like Elinor, decides to marry boring old dude Brandon, who is several decades her senior and probably doesn’t read Byron. Everyone decides to be calm and rational and to marry appropriate partners. The end.
I understand the point of this socially. In Jane’s day, encouraging girls to make sensible matches based on kindness and financial security was probably a good move, and I can appreciate that to an extent. But the idea of being presented with passionate, uncertain, overwhelming love, and then settling for cosy, comfortable, well-thought-out love makes me want to cry. It just seems like the moral of the story is to accept that passionate romantic love isn’t the best option, and it makes me sad.
All of the books I’ve thought about here seem to have a unifying theme: be sensible at all times. Don’t be lively and silly. Don’t read too much fiction. Don’t be taken in by romance. Austen’s central moral orientation is antithetical to me as a person, and feels like someone better than me is telling me off. I worry an awful lot about my status as a ‘proper person’ – whether I’ll ever be one, whether I can ever learn to control my feelings and moods, if being sensible can be learned. Whether I would even want to if it could.
So I guess my quarrel with Austen is that she’s trying to teach me a lesson I don’t want to learn. Funnily enough, Wuthering Heights is sort of trying to teach the same lesson, but it’s easier to ignore in there. Of course, this is all extremely subjective – we all relate to and interpret literature differently, and just as the Marianne’s and Lydias of the world will agree with me, there will be Elinors and Lyzzies shaking their heads at how stupid and immature I sound.
If you (dis)agree with me, feel free to leave a comment below, or find me on twitter – talking about books (or rather, talking about myself disguised as talking about books) is my favourite thing.
**This is deeply unfair and almost definitely untrue.