A blogger and author has declared that Jane Austen’s books should not be “forced upon” students studying English literature.
We are not going to jump all over this author, or even beat her into a virtually bloody pulp with the Cluebat of Janeite Righteousness. Perhaps a few love taps, but not a beating. We do not expect everyone to love Jane Austen’s novels. However, we do want to refute a few points in this particular blog post, and point out why it is indeed important to study Jane Austen’s novels as part of an English literature curriculum.
Teachers teach Jane Austen because she is easy to teach, familiar, and non-controversial.
There is probably a note of truth in that. Jane Austen’s books do not usually appear on banned books lists. However, there is a very good historical reason to study Austen in an overview of Western literature. In our high-school AP English class back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, we studied everything from Greek tragedies to 20th-century dystopian novels, and the progression of the development of literature–when well-taught–is as fascinating as the literature itself. This development is more from a technical point of view. You see a progression from the Greek chorus and deus ex machina through the epistolary novels of Richardson through the dark Victorian melodrama of Joyce and Eliot through the experimentation of Faulkner and spare language of Hemingway and social commentary of Fitzgerald and Orwell–the progression and development of literature, each generation building on the other, is easy to see.*
So where does Jane Austen fit into this? She fits into the slot between the 18th-century novelists–Richardson, Burney, Radcliffe–and the Victorians–Eliot, James. That’s a fairly large jump. Plainly stated, the development of modern conventions of plotting and narration and characterization and the general construction of what we think of as a novel were pioneered in the novels of Jane Austen. She was heavily influenced by the novels she read–we know Austen was a big fan of Richardson and Burney, and she could not have written such an affectionately perfect parody of Radcliffe as Northanger Abbey unless she enjoyed The Mysteries of Udolpho–and yet she improved upon them. Our book group just last week met to discuss Burney’s Evelina, which we all enjoyed immensely, and yet we all noticed that there were all these minor characters and subplots that, while hilarious, did nothing to move the plot along–something that a modern author would be told to remove from her manuscript. Jane Austen built hilarious minor characters into her books, and even a few funny subplots, but they all serve to move the main plot. This is a technical improvement that is crucial to the development of the novel, and is certainly worthy of the attention even of a modern teenager who has important texting to tend to before deigning to read a book.
But generation after generation of high schoolers are left with the impression that Austen’s novels are what writing should be, and it’s poisoning them. Long descriptions, endless parlor scenes, pace that drags across empty weeks and months.
Maybe she should have just left blank pages with months written on them to show the passage of time. We hear that a popular modern author that the kids like to read finds that a workable proposition.
It’s not beautiful language and astonishingly complex human relationships, as Shakespeare is.
Wait, what? Did she read the same Austen novels we did? The syntax is gorgeous and the characterizations are complex and nuanced. The latter at least is not very apparent in Austen’s predecessors. Because novels were considered something that young people should not read, heroes and heroines tended to be annoyingly and boringly perfect. (Read the first chapter of Northanger Abbey to understand how the normal teenager Catherine Morland is so very unlike a typical heroine of her time.) Austen made it okay to have a flawed hero–or heroine!–in a novel. Part of the interest of Austen’s heroes and villains is that the villains appear, at first, to be heroes, if one is accustomed to the novels of her time period: they have excellent address, they are handsome, they are everything a hero should appear to be; and the heroes have personality defects, such as snobbish pride or shyness or a compulsion to make fun of everything that amuses him; but when push comes to shove, the real hero shows his true worth. And so it is in real life. That sort of thing is normal now, but that’s because the writers learned it from…Jane Austen.
It’s ploddingly dysfunctional and does not help young writers learn their craft or young anybody learn how to communicate.
The dysfunctionality is kind of the point. In Jane Austen’s time, people could not communicate because of social restrictions. It isn’t until the happy couple becomes engaged at the end that they can communicate freely. In Austen’s society, an unbetrothed couple simply can’t communicate. There was no Dr. Phil or Oprah or Savage Love to get them in touch with their feelings. They had to suffer in silence and hope that something happened to push things along. However, people did meet and marry and learn to talk, otherwise the race would not have propagated. Plots can be built around such things, just as they can be built around modern conventions such as serial killers and police procedurals and supernatural creatures who walk among us. 😉
We find it ironic that anyone who professes herself an author can discount Jane Austen’s work so cavalierly. We’re not saying they will necessarily be everyone’s cup of tea, but Austen’s novels are an important part of the development of Western literature, and without her books, you might not be writing at all–or writing very differently.
We would love it if those who teach English literature at both the high-school and university level would weigh in on this topic. Why do you teach Jane Austen, and what do you expect your students to take away from it?
*Unfortunately in our class we skipped over the 18th century and half of the 19th entirely. Yes, we did not study Jane Austen. Yet in our education we were forced to read Wuthering Heights TWICE. (We joke. Studying Wuthering Heights is very important to developing novelists. If the story is unpleasant, the language and technical details are crucial to the development of literature.)