8/4/14 – THE JANE AUSTEN PERSUASION
When I told my adult daughters and son-in-law I’d be reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion for book club, all three pulled disgust faces. “Why?” groaned my older daughter, a Harvard graduate. “I couldn’t even finish Pride and Prejudice,” said my son-in-law, who had reveled in Plato and Cervantes and the rest of St. John’s Great Books curriculum. My younger daughter, another product of a Great Books curriculum, recalled that Harold Bloom had a reputation for droning on about Persuasion for reasons she was unable to fathom.
But Jane Austen is wonderful, I sputtered. Her subtle insight into human foibles and self-delusion, her wit, her irony – brilliant! It might appear that her subject is girlish crushes, love, and marriage, but clearly they could see that she is actually targeting human nature, behavior, and society. Didn’t they appreciate her observations about money and class, or her portrayals of strong, intelligent women caught in a world that channeled these qualities so narrowly? And didn’t they recall having tea at the bed and breakfast in Hyde Park, VT where devotees gather for “Jane Austen Weekends” to re-create Regency England? Clearly many others appreciated these things.
My kids looked at me like I was nuts. Is it really so profound and original to show how snobby, hypocritical, and unreflective people are? Don’t we all already know that?
These reactions made me approach Persuasion skeptically, and perhaps contributed to an occasional sense that I was reading a teenybopper romance (albeit one about a “spinsterish” 27-year-old). The plot seemed, well, plotted, and the social observations vaguely witty but, often, aimed at straw men. I cared about the heroine Anne Eliot, and wanted to see things come out right for her, but I couldn’t help but feel that my sentiments were hardly literary.
Then I started re-thinking the whole Jane Austen industry. The movies, the TV series, even the “Jane Austen” weekends – could these things just play on people’s love/hate relationship with English country living or a desire for socially-sanctioned sniping (and snobbery)? Perhaps Jane Austen has the greatest appeal to those who weren’t allowed to be acerbic and critical. My kids take societal hypocrisy for granted. We speak our minds and routinely argue at the dinner table. Subversion is the family trade.
I wondered if it might be a secret pleasure for those not allowed to critique to have it put before them in so refined a manner. I also started wondering how much of my young love for Jane Austen had come from a kind of female Revenge of the Nerds: the bookish misfit always winning the bona fide prince who values brains and character over superficiality? Was there anything more? Persuasion certainly didn’t persuade me that there was.
Of course, despite being held up by several critics as Austen’s best, this posthumously published book is arguably incomplete, skeletal, and perhaps unfinished work. I saw less insight, less sympathy, less subtlety here that I recalled in earlier novels. I “got” that Anne was brainier and more virtuous than the other characters, as was her object of desire, Captain Wentworth. But that was a premise of the book I was told to accept, and once, accepted, everything fell into place as hoped and expected in a seemingly contrived way, as though Austen was simply sketching out a book, not telling an engrossing story. And, try as I might, I couldn’t help but see Harold Bloom’s view of Anne as the ultimate author’s stand-in, the all-seeing observer, as a stretch.
I wondered if this was how my children had read Jane Austen. Is it the deadpan humor – too dry and subtle for modern readers, especially younger ones? Do they miss the acid wit or the pithy observations? Is the moralism completely out-of-sync with the modern sensibility? Are they just devoid of sentimentality and immune to romance? And yet none of these possibilities can be true of their entire generation. Many of their peers still obsess over Jane Austen.
Clearly, though, Jane Austen does not speak to many people, and not just younger ones. In fact, when I typed “What’s so great about Jane Austen?” into Google, the top results were “Honestly, what’s so great about Jane Austen?,” “Why the F*ck Do People Love Jane Austen So Much?,” and “Why is Jane Austen so Popular?”
These aren’t new questions. People have wondered before, and have reflected on both Austen’s dual highbrow/lowbrow appeal. Many people see Jane Austen as silly, trivial, girly. They dismiss her appeal as an infatuation with British society, nostalgia, or an excuse to indulge in love stories. Although it is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen ranks at or near the top of any standard list of great writers, the very fact that many people feel the need to defend the value of Jane Austen is a sign of a problem.
Complicating matters is the multitude of reasons people give for loving Jane Austen, including her gifts as a stylist; her wit and wisdom; her subtle criticism of women’s role; and her elevation of the private as a subject worthy of literary attention. Naysayers argue that regardless of these virtues, for many readers Austen simply appeals to nostalgia for chivalry, graciousness, and dignity. Many Jane Austen fans may simply like the stories the way they like Downton Abbey or Upstairs Downstairs and thus see no difference between the book and the film version – the lure of uppercrust English society and culture, Anglophilia, and romance are the draw rather than the the subtle and acerbic wit, pithy characterizations, and conversational agility. Many people adore Austen just because they love the clothes, the moralizing, the happy endings. But why does this make for great literature, second only, some say, to Shakespeare?
I agree that Austen’s dual lowbrow and highbrow appeal may indeed partly explain the rift between her lovers and haters. But what I still don’t grasp is why so many ostensibly bright people can’t seem to see the highbow part at all. Do you need the lowbrow part (e.g., get caught up in the love story) to see the rest? And, minus the appeal of the romance, nostalgia, etc., could a lack of novelty in socially sanctioned subversion keep readers from appreciating the more subtle virtues? Or do some readers simply lack of ability to sense those virtues at all? To me these are still largely unexplored questions.
It turns out that the debate on the value of Jane Austen can be traced back as far as 1863, when the Atlantic ran a story on the sharp division between Austen lovers and haters. Its conclusion, alas, still seem true today: some people, and not just my children, will just never “get” Jane Austen. And those of us that do may never agree on what makes her great. That in itself may be part of the appeal.