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What He Said

May 26, 2008

Why has it taken so long for the press to figure this out?

Both in the film Becoming Jane and the TV movie Miss Austen Regrets, Austen was depicted as a waspish cynical tomboy, clever with words if not so clever with men: a sort of Regency Sue Perkins. In the TV movie, there was a greater stab at complexity, as the character grew bitter with age – an Elizabeth Bennett who never nabs Mr Darcy – but in both there was, I would hazard, an incipient underlying sexism, based on the notion that Austen’s work was underpinned by her own failures in love.

Because here’s the thing about Jane Austen. She was a very great genius. She is possibly the greatest genius in the history of English literature, arguably greater than Shakespeare. And her achievement is not that much to do with love, although that was her subject matter. It’s to do with technique. Before her there are three strands in English fiction: the somewhat mental, directly-reader-addressing semi-oral romps of Nashe and Sterne and Fielding; the sensationalist Gothic work of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe; and the romances of Eliza Haywood and Fanny Burney.

However great these writers are, none could be read now and considered modern. When Austen gets into her stride, which she does very quickly with Sense and Sensibility, suddenly, you have all the key modern realist devices: ironic narration; controlled point of view; structural unity; transparency of focus; ensemble characterisation; fixed arenas of time and place; and, most importantly, the giving-up of the fantastical in favour of a notion that art should represent life as it is actually lived in all its wonderful ordinariness. She is the first person, as John Updike put it: “to give the mundane its beautiful due”, and her work leads to Updike as much as it does to George Eliot.

I have no idea how a mainly home-educated rector’s daughter came by all that, but I know that imagining her as a kind of acerbic spinster flattens out this genius. It becomes all about the subject matter and not at all about the huge creative advance her work represents.

*stands and applauds*

Go read the whole thing, it’s quite brilliant and we don’t want to violate copyright anymore outrageously than we already have by copying it all. :-)

And hasn’t Dr. Who visited Jane Austen at some point? Not the current incarnation, but we seem to recall hearing something to that effect about one of the former Doctors.

Leave a Comment
  1. Edward Sisson permalink
    May 26, 2008 11:04 pm

    Yes, excellent article, fine catch by Mags.

  2. Marcia permalink
    May 26, 2008 11:14 pm

    …”I’m 900 years old, I’ve got a brain the size of a planet, and I’ve still no idea how you single-handedly created the modern English novel”.

    Yes please, I would like some more please, in a forthcoming Dr Who episode for the education of the masses please…

  3. May 26, 2008 11:22 pm

    I don’t think the Doctor has ever met Jane Austen. But I’ve got the beginnings of a fanfic where he and Martha do. It’s 1813, though, not 1815. :P I really must finish that soon.

  4. May 26, 2008 11:26 pm

    I’m standing and applauding with you, Mags. Thanks for this post.

  5. May 27, 2008 1:26 am

    As a fan of both Austen and Doctor Who, it would be fabulous to have such a meeting realized on screen. I think the current incarnation would gush at her the way the previous one did with Dickens. I would even take the scenario the article’s author describes at the end, as disturbing as that would seem…

    There is a CD, Frostfire, in which a companion of the First Doctor recalls their run-in with Miss Austen, sometime between the publications of Pride and Prejudice and Emma.

  6. May 27, 2008 3:50 am

    This is brilliant (so brilliant I think it will shortly be appearing on Historical Romance UK!)
    As for the Doctor and Jane Austen, I don’t remember a meeting, but if there was one then I imagine the Doctor would turn out to be the inspiration for Darcy. I can just picture the scene – the Doctor leaves in his tardis, Jane turns to her writing table and inscribes the immortal words, Pride and Prejudice.

  7. Allison T. permalink
    May 27, 2008 7:45 am

    I agree that this is great insight. We should get it printed up on little laminated cards and when at parties we mention our favorite author and people say, oh, yeah, the romance writer, we whip out the card and force them to read it.

  8. Luciana permalink
    May 27, 2008 7:56 am

    Finally someone who does understand Austen, and why we love her works.

  9. Mags permalink
    May 27, 2008 10:33 am

    Rick–that’s what I was thinking of; someone wrote to tell me about the Frostfire CD. I knew I’d heard the Doctor met Jane at some point.

  10. Kathleen permalink
    May 27, 2008 12:46 pm

    This is a great article. It reminds me of a piece about Emma in Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why. He also discusses Austen’s genius and considers her contribution to literature and her ability as similar to Shakespeare.

    I wonder, does the emphasis on Austen’s love life diminish her or is it the result of the assumption (stereotype?) that women are Austen’s biggest fans, women are interested in relationships, therefore this is what we want to see in a film about her?

  11. Sue permalink
    May 27, 2008 3:53 pm

    “I have no idea how a mainly home-educated rector’s daughter came by all that, but I know that imagining her as a kind of acerbic spinster flattens out this genius. It becomes all about the subject matter and not at all about the huge creative advance her work represents.”
    Interesting that whole academic worlds are devoted to who could possibly have actually written Shakespeare’s works, but no one questions Jane’s authorship of her little stories. I hope this article is reprinted widely.

  12. May 27, 2008 4:22 pm

    Sterne is commonly “read now” and “considered modern”. The sense in which “Joseph Andrews” is any more “semi-oral” than Austen confounds me, and in general this seems like a strange way to dismiss the first person narrator, which can be as sophisticated a device as the third person. And Defoe, Richardson, and Swift are chopped liver?

    And doesn’t her contemporary Walter Scott share the exact same characteristics listed here? Transparency of focus, fixed arenas of time and place, and so on, although I’m not sure what any of that really means.

    Jane Austen’s work is part of a tradition. I don’t think it detracts from her genius to say that.

  13. May 27, 2008 6:07 pm

    I liked the main thrust of the article but I would also like to know what “transparency of focus” means.

  14. May 27, 2008 7:03 pm

    Amateur Reader @12:

    Walter Scott didn’t exactly write about ordinary life, though. As he wrote himself, “Read again, for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s finely written novel of ‘Pride And Prejudice’. That young Lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early!”

    Besides, the point of the article that has us all so militantly happy is that the recent films (and I would add books) that insist upon thrusting a romance upon Jane Austen because otherwise she wouldn’t have had a truly happy life and/or wouldn’t have been able to write her nice little romances is so much twaddle. I would agree with the author most vociferously (and have been saying so on this blog for some time) that her novels were, from a technical standpoint, a step beyond the work of her contemporaries, and THAT is what is important about them, not whether or not she knew twoo wub. We’re still reading her books 200 years later, and I would bet my Brock illustrated editions that if you could ask Jane Austen, she would be happier about that than she was sad over “not meeting her own Mr. Darcy.” Ugh, I just threw up a little in my mouth as I typed that. ;-)

  15. Elaina permalink
    May 27, 2008 10:04 pm

    This article makes me feel better after being told by a fellow (male) college student that the characters in P&P were “so one-dimensional.” My head has been kept from being banged against a wall now.

  16. Kathleen permalink
    May 28, 2008 12:33 pm

    Did Jane Austen particularly favor Mr. Darcy as a character? Is it mentioned in any of her letters? I am just wondering if there is any factual basis for believing she would want someone like him in her life as a romantic interest. I agree with Mags that the endurance of her work would be much more meaningful to her.

  17. May 28, 2008 5:05 pm

    Great post. I haven’t seen a Jane Austen Dr. Who but I enjoyed the Marie Antoinette episode.

  18. Cinthia permalink
    May 28, 2008 6:45 pm

    Kathleen, you have made an excelent point, there seems to be no evidence about JA’s preference for Darcy. IIRC, it is said that Mr. Knigthley and (strangely for me at least) the Major of Wankerville (aka Edmund Bertram) were her favourites, but I cannot find a reference about it in the Memoir, and of course she may have only said before Persuasion, thus we cannot know how high was her regard for Captain Wentworth.

    Kipling assigned the Captain for her, whereas Audrey Hawkridge has said Mr. Knightley was JA’s ideal match, though he prefers an open temper, which IMHO she was not. Then we have to consider that in the Myers-Briggs typology, both JA’s and Darcy’s personalities have been categorized as INTJ (Introversion, iNtuition, Thinking, Judging) which make them so equal to be incompatible.

  19. Cinthia permalink
    May 28, 2008 6:51 pm

    PS – Then perhaps she required the masculine equivalent of Lizzy, therefore then she required Da Man. What does our dear Editrix and High Priestess of the Cult think of this possibility? >:)

  20. Chantel permalink
    May 28, 2008 9:12 pm

    The Doctor and Donna recently visited Agatha Christie (it was fun!!), but I haven’t heard of JA. It’d be great if the current Doctor would meet Jane, cuz he is just hilarious, and he and Jane would just hit it off!

  21. May 28, 2008 10:20 pm

    Ha ha, Cinthia, I always say I’m Darcy and that’s why I’m (mostly) immune to his charms. (Except for “dearest, loveliest Elizabeth,” of course.) And I’m an INTJ, so there you go. But if it is to be guess-work, let us all guess for ourselves. ;-)

    The brilliance of Darcy as a creation is that he and Elizabeth are so wonderfully complementary as a couple. They are better together than separately.

    I found this in the Memoir, which I think is what you were thinking of:

    Her own relations never recognised any individual in her characters; and I can call to mind several of her acquaintance whose peculiarities were very tempting and easy to be caricatured of whom there are no traces in her pages. She herself, when questioned on the subject by a friend, expressed a dread of what she called such an ‘invasion of social proprieties.’ She said that she thought it quite fair to note peculiarities and weaknesses, but that it was her desire to create, not to reproduce; ‘besides,’ she added, ‘I am too proud of my gentlemen to admit that they were only Mr. A. or Colonel B.’ She did not, however, suppose that her imaginary characters were of a higher order than are to be found in nature; for she said, when speaking of two of her great favourites, Edmund Bertram and Mr. Knightley: ‘They are very far from being what I know English gentlemen often are.’

    Reading that over, it almost makes it sound like she thinks they English gentlemen often are BETTER than Edmund and Mr. Knightley!

    And yes, he’s not saying that Edmund and Mr. Knightley were her favorites–just that they were favorites with her.

  22. Tina B. permalink
    May 29, 2008 9:03 am

    Is there a website that talks about the Myers-Briggs on other Jane Austen characters? I’d be interesting in reading more about that.

    As to her saying that English gentlemen are often better than Edmund and Mr. Knightley, it does look like that is what she is saying. I’ve been used to thinking of Mr. Knightley as perfect, but, now that I think about it, I can see some flaws in him: the lecturing, etc.

  23. Edward Sisson permalink
    May 29, 2008 9:27 am

    Speaking of flaws, I have to say I question just how compatible Darcy and Lizzie really are — I suppose this has been explored in numerous follow-on novels by fans, but is it really likely that Darcy will ever “love to laugh” or get really interested in the foibles of neighbors and relatives? And if he won’t, isn’t it likely that Lizzy will tire of him? It seems to me that Lizzy’s real soul-mate is Henry Tilney.

    On the main subject of this post — the portrayal of Jane Austen and her own hypothetical love-life — I think she must have been a person who carefully studied others, and enjoyed doing so, and took bits and pieces to help construct her own characters; and who then enjoyed figuring out how to reveal their characters through unusual interactions — like the letter scene near the end of Persuasion, or the Lady Catherine confrontation at Longbourne in P&P. Imagining different encounters, trying them, rejecting them, revising them, going back to revise the characters at earlier stages in the book so that it is more plausible they will do what they do later in the book — a mind filled with such things is likely not pining away over lost loves with men more dull to be with than she is alone with herself and her imaginings. A mind able to imagine so much as she was able is unlikely to find the mind of any man sufficiently interesting or stimulating so as to want to devote to him the time he would require if she married him.

  24. Elizabeth Burke permalink
    May 29, 2008 11:22 am

    Kathleen — Darcy is indeed referred to in Austen’s letters, rather famously: “I can only imagine Mr Darcy prizes any picture of [his wife] too much to like it should be exposed to the public eye. I can imagine he would have that sort of feeling — that mixture of pride, love and delicacy.”

    Edward — IMO Henry is Elizabeth’s doppelganger, not her soulmate. She certainly shows no signs of wanting someone just like herself, or of tiring of the all but humourless and certainly less intelligent Jane; only difference of principle distances her from cool, detached, analytic Charlotte. Darcy, for his part, shows himself in the early chapters to be as snark-happy as anyone, and while he may not laugh, he smiles more than anyone but Elizabeth herself. I suspect the married Darcys will live in a world which seems expressly designed for their amusement.

  25. May 29, 2008 1:09 pm

    For what it’s worth, I completely agree with the bizarre diminution of Jane Austen in recent movies – the business with “Tom Jones” in “Becoming Jane” is a particularly embarrassing example.

    But this article has some statements about literary history that are simply incorrect.

  26. Kathleen permalink
    May 29, 2008 2:48 pm

    Thanks so much Cinthia, Mags, and Elizabeth for your information about Austen’s opinion of Darcy. I have been wondering about that for quite awhile, especially since Becoming Jane. By the way, that Tom Jones scene was beyond endurance.

    In Harold Bloom’s piece on Emma he said something about Emma being favored by Austen. I am not sure if that was true, but it might help explain a preference for Mr. Knightley. IMO it seems she would have felt differently after creating Colonel Wentworth’s character.

  27. Mags permalink
    May 29, 2008 3:17 pm

    Elizabeth Burke @24 said:
    I suspect the married Darcys will live in a world which seems expressly designed for their amusement.


    Edward, I think the Darcys being compatible doesn’t mean they will morph into each other. Darcy finds Elizabeth amusing, which is an excellent start. Remember he was first attracted to her “lively mind.” And if anyone can teach him to be laughed at, it is Lizzy.

    As far as sequels go, IMO the most successful make the drama in the Darcys’ lives come from outside their marriage. Lady Catherine showing up and being annoying works well. Darcy all of a sudden turning into Rochester, not so much.

  28. Maria L. permalink
    May 29, 2008 7:56 pm

    Darcy provides the ballast–and Elizabeth puts a little wind in his sails (he needs it!).

    I think the married Darcys will be even more interesting together than they are each as individuals. And I agree with Elizabeth Burke that Lizzy wouldn’t be interested in someone just like herself. Where’s the challenge in that?

  29. Cinthia permalink
    May 29, 2008 8:05 pm

    Thanks for finding the quote, Mags :). Of course we can speculate only, but still it seems that our guesses can be more solid than the fiction that Becoming Jane is, and to a less degree Miss Austen Regrets.

    Kathleen, perhaps Bloom’s idea was taken from what JA allegedly said (“I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”), but IRRC the source of that quote is still unknown. We have her opinion of Lizzy and what many of us think it was of Anne in her letters, and of Fanny in MP itself. But no more.

  30. Kira permalink
    May 30, 2008 2:26 am

    My books are packed away now, but I’m sure someone can find the quote in Austen’s letters where she writes about Elizabeth being one of the most delightful characters in literature (or something like that), and as for someone else reading P&P, if they liked Elizabeth and Darcy it was enough, even if they hated the rest of the characters.

  31. Kosh permalink
    May 30, 2008 4:40 pm

    I would never have taken David Baddiel for an Austen admirer!

    Quote: “Jane Austen’s work is part of a tradition. I don’t think it detracts from her genius to say that.”

    For an interpretation of Jane Austen’s technical contribution to the art of the novel I recommend “A Reading of Jane Austen” by Barbara Hardy, 1975. Arguably she created the modern form of the novel.

  32. Sion permalink
    May 30, 2008 6:11 pm

    Could I suppose that the original quote here had the wrong interpretation?

    “She did not, however, suppose that her imaginary characters were of a higher order than are to be found in nature; for she said, when speaking of two of her great favourites, Edmund Bertram and Mr. Knightley: ‘They are very far from being what I know English gentlemen often are.’”

    Or is it just me being cynical when I think that Edmund and Mr Knightley are actually better that the “gentlemen” that Jane knew, and that a man could see in these characters a lesson in how they themselves should behave towards a woman, with John Thorpe being the obvious lesson in how not to behave.

    Just a thought :)

  33. Maria L. permalink
    May 30, 2008 8:07 pm

    Hmmm….I can buy that interpretation with respect to Mr. Knightley who does seem in many ways to be a model gentleman, but Edmund Bertram? His infatuation with Mary Crawford forces Fanny to constantly play the all-too-faithful confidante, without regard to Fanny’s true desires or feelings. She’s like his beloved and loyal pet. It’s only at the very end after he gets burned by Mary, that Edmund has his “epiphany” and Fanny gets the love she deserves–and I think Edmund actually gets much more than he deserves! I am not at all sure that he is a model for how a gentleman should behave.

    Honestly, I can’t make up my mind what Jane was thinking when she lumps Knightley and Edmund in the favourites category! I myself like Mr. Knightley very much, Edmund, not at all.

  34. Tina B. permalink
    May 30, 2008 10:59 pm

    Maybe liking them as their creator is different from liking them as a reader. Maybe she felt that she really captured something with certain characters, and was proud of them for that reason.

  35. Edward Sisson permalink
    May 31, 2008 6:53 am

    Tina B. has it right.

  36. Sion permalink
    June 1, 2008 6:55 pm

    Some good points there from Maria and Tina :)

  37. Zoe permalink
    June 5, 2008 2:22 pm

    Allison T at comment 7, I love your idea! I have just sent this article on to my husband so he can memorize the anti-Jane rebuttal as well. :-)

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