The Jane Austen Problem
Originally Published October 2017
I discovered Jane Austen during my sophomore year of high school, but not because of assigned readings in English class. In high school I had a crush on Hugh Grant and was excited to see him interviewed on a morning news show. He was promoting Sense & Sensibility. I had never heard of the book or author, so I went to the library after school and checked it out. At the time, it was the best book I had ever read. After that, I wanted to read every Jane Austen book I could find.
Aside from film productions, it was probably another ten years before I saw Jane Austen discussed in anything but an academic setting. And I miss those academic discussions. The way most people talk about Jane Austen is why I’m reluctant to admit that she’s my favorite author.
When I asked my husband, Brett, what he thinks of people who say that they love to read Jane Austen, his response was, “Hopeless romantic.” He pictures women who fantasize about romantic relationships they themselves don’t have. I believe this is why he has never read her books. When he was single, he felt like he could never live up to this ideal.
There is a tendency to focus on the love stories in Austen’s books while ignoring everything else. I suspect this way of thinking is heavily influenced by the films, which remove chunks and pieces of the story out of necessity. I confess that I used to sometimes read the books this way myself, but I have learned from that mistake. Now when I read the books, it isn’t for the love stories.
Jane Austen had a great understanding of human nature and a satirical way of interpreting the rules of society. Romantic relationships were only some of the relationships explored in her novels. She also wrote about relationships within families and relationships between classes of society. Austen wrote in an intelligent, readable voice that you don’t often see with her contemporaries. I don’t read Jane Austen to fantasize about a romance I won’t ever have, but to learn about people who are very much like the people I interact with today. I could easily write my impressions of each book and what I learn from them, but that would make this post longer than I want it to be. I think it would be better to write about each of them individually in upcoming posts.
Another thing that bothers me is how often Jane Austen’s fans refer to her as simply “Jane.” I see these readers as modern-day Mrs. Eltons and wonder if they have read and understood Emma. (“’Jane!’—repeated Frank Churchill, with a look of surprise and displeasure.”[Vol. III, Chpt. ii]) Jane Austen lived too long ago for anyone alive now to be her close relative or friend. As much as I wish I personally knew her, all I will ever really know are the stories she wrote and a few facts about her life gathered from a fraction of her letters and the research of biographers. She deserves the same respect as other authors and should be referred to the same way we would refer to Charles Dickens or Elizabeth Gaskell. Brett and I both agree that in order for an author to be considered our favorite author, we have to read or want to read all of their books. I have read all of Jane Austen’s books, plus she is the author I can reread over and over again. This is why, if I had to choose one favorite, it would be Jane Austen.