So we have been called out.
Hot off our opening-night viewing of Avengers: Endgame, we are feeling inspired to be an heroine. DOROTHY! Fetch the Cluebat of Janeite Righteousness!
So what is this all about? An essay by Tanya Gold in UnHerd, a site we’d never heard (get it) of before this article, which may be the point, or at least part of it. From the site’s About page:
Our aim is to appeal to people who instinctively refuse to follow the herd, and we also want to investigate ‘unheard’ ideas, individuals and communities.UnHerd About Page, retrieved on April 27, 2019
Further, the post is part of UnHerd’s “Slaying Dragons” series, in which the writers “face-down fierce vested interests or kill off harmful prevailing orthodoxies.” Just so you know where Ms. Gold is coming from right off the bat.
And she certainly starts off with a bang.
Jane Austen is not a great writer.
Perhaps that is a trifle hasty. Let’s keep reading.
I hate all writers’ cults – imagine gathering to sing a hymn to individualism with one voice – but the Jane-ites are the most deranged. They gather in Bath – a vast, Georgian Cath Kidston emporium – and dress up as Elizabeth Bennett and talk nonsense about bonnets.
There’s a whole lot of fail in those two sentences. Janeites, in general, is spelled without a hyphen, though we suppose there are no real rules about it. And we gather in many places besides Bath (though they are generally not as delightful or as historically important) and talk of many things besides bonnets (though bonnets certainly are a pleasant subject).
Then we come to what we suspect might be the crux of the matter.
I can think of at least five novelists I like better: only two of them are Brontës…
Ohhhhh. One of those.
While we have no objection in general to the works of the Brontë sisters, it seems to us that there is a certain cult, to use the authoress’ word, that considers them to be better than Jane Austen’s work. In fact, it seems as though the authoress is herself echoing Charlotte Brontë’s own words about Jane Austen:
…the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress.
Charlotte wasn’t even the only fellow authoress who was salty about Jane Austen, but one only has to hear from the Great Unwashed that “Jane Austen wrote Jane Eyre, right?” before one gets a bit of an attitude about it. Back to the article.
What did she write about? You already know, because her work has been on every English syllabus since syllabuses existed. But I will remind you. A yearning for marriage among upper-middle class women – a sort of very stylised Napoleonic Cosmopolitan featuring Elizabeth, Emma, Marianne, Catherine, Fanny, Anne and Elinor. You might say there is nothing wrong with that, and there isn’t.
No, there isn’t, but honestly, anyone who thinks that has seen the movies, which tend to foreground the romancey parts, too many times and not read the books carefully or recently. We suspect that might be the authoress’ problem. So then let us slightly misquote a movie–not an adaptation of one of the novels, but one about the author herself, Miss Austen Regrets: If that’s what you think Jane Austen’s novels are about, you should read them again.
The authoress continues:
Want Austen to write about unhappiness, degradation, despair? She wouldn’t. And so she isn’t a great novelist.
Anyone who could write those words hasn’t read Mansfield Park and Fanny Price’s terrible treatment at the hands of Mrs. Norris. No one could have read that and written the above sentences. No one, that is, with a heart.
But then, she writes:
Austen was writing at the end of the Enlightenment. She was educated and informed. Yet her acknowledgment of the existence of slavery, for instance, was to have Sir Thomas Bertram return from his estates in Antigua. Did he have a mistress, did he beat his slaves, was Lady Bertram an opium-eater? These are all good questions, and she doesn’t answer them. She doesn’t even ask them.
No, but curiously enough they are all asked (and unfortunately answered) in the 1999 film adaptation of Mansfield Park, which inserts a lot of drama that is not in the book and is not really needed.
She is basically trolling the Janeites, er, excuse us, the Jane-ites. As Deborah Yaffe pointed out, she may think she is clever, but she’s hardly the first to do so, even within the hallowed digital halls of AustenBlog. Brontë fans dig drama, so why not create some and keep that rivalry going? It’s really not even worthy of swinging the Cluebat.