What’s all that fuss over Jane Austen? I just didn’t get it. Apparently, I needed some persuasion to find out, -he he.
In Madrid, during my high school years, we didn’t have to read Jane Austen. I don’t believe we should force ourselves to read this or that unless it’s a cheerfully and self-imposed dutiful decision. And there’s that reader’s responsibility. Jane Austen is worth some of my reading time. At least one bit, one book.
Somehow, (for the aforementioned reason, -one book, at least, to be able to say, I’ve read Jane Austen, and be done), I read Pride and Prejudice in my twenties, and again in my late thirties, hoping for a different reception. Never happened. This book left me indifferent. The only reaction I got was from the fandom around it, they got painfully under my skin. A good reader must be polite, -I reminded myself. I never admitted to this (or did I?). I’d hear comments such as, “she writes with humor, she criticizes but never slanders, she is so satisfying to read”. Huh. Really?, (those were my incredulous replies.) And the quotes. “Would someone stop the avalanche of quotes, and memes, and tests, please?, we are trying to read something good here!” No.more.janeausten.instagram.pictures.thankyouverymuch.” Ahem.
Rewind. Two years ago, -my first real life book club year, they picked Emma for our November read, and an Emma’s retelling by McCall Smith for December. I listened to Emma. Emma moved slowly, it almost came to a halt. I remember picking up weeds in our small garden, under the Texan (not Tuscan) sun, listening to the book, and thinking that I was, at least, doubling up my duties by doing both not so pleasant tasks at once. I wanted to assault the book at book club day, but revenge wasn’t legit if I didn’t read/listen to it. I wasn’t just going to watch the movie, that’s cheating, and to my impervious personality, being in front of the TV for a couple of hours was an even worse type of torture.
At book club, both, Austen’s Emma, and MacCall’s Emma, were high fun to discuss. The modern retelling highlighted the humor that I had troubles spotting in the original. I’ve talked before about the subject of humor, and what a key component that is to classics. I defend that all the great classics have a tragicomic component, they all possess some form of humor (black humor, satire.) Whether they mock or have a more serious denunciation or criticism, there’s that complicity the author establishes with us, a smirk and a wink done openly or subtly. For Jane Austen, I was tone deaf.
And whenever I wrote a post not loving Emma or Jane Austen in general, I always got the two kind of responses, me either, or I loved it/her. In any case, I felt horrible after criticizing Emma, and I always regretted giving it only 3 stars. I’d change the rating to 3 and a half stars, even after everybody read the original post with mere 3 stars. It was always too late. I was a complete wish.y-wash.y type of Jane Austen’s reader.
A few months after the Emma’s small crisis, I started reading books with Kim. We offered book suggestions, -she always tags along with my choices, and since she hadn’t read any Austen at all, she told me ‘what do you think about reading Northanger Abbey?’ We were still under the spell of Wuthering Heights when we read Northanger, and the fact that it’s said to be a mockery of Gothic style novels, and short, and given that she had not read any Jane Austen before, I couldn’t say no.
Secretly, I wanted to be done. Maybe a modicum, “it was OK” from both of us, and we’ll move on to greener pastures.
It wasn’t like that.
I found the book refreshing, and finally, I found an Austen book funny. At the same time, I didn’t see it as a huge solid meaty type of classic. I heard it described as the title the ‘non Jane Austen fans like the most’, and the ‘big Austen fans like the least’. Yay. That sounded about right. I was ready to close the shutters. (I’m trying to do some good serious reading here, guys, don’t you see?)
But who knew?, to my astonishment, my friend Kim was becoming a die hard fan of Austen, and she kept on reading more of her. She was one of them. (How did this happen?) And her pictures of all her copies of Pride and Prejudice were nice. For real. At this point, I adopted a laissez faire policy. You can be you, and I can be me. My inner rage had subsided. I was a decent (if not proficient), like clicker of occasional Instagram/FB Jane Austen pictures at this stage.
At the beginning of this year, Kim told me she’d like to add Mansfield Park to our together list, (the last of the main six for her). I still don’t know why I said yes to this. Maybe because Northanger Abbey was OK to me. The first two titles left me indifferent, the third, –Northanger, gained her some points, but the fourth, Mansfield Park, won me over.
After reading Mansfield Park, my other reads at the time shrank. I felt the classic devastation that assaults those after turning the last page of a powerful and gripping story. I went back to some sections, and re-read some paragraphs. (I have to clarify this was a strange hodgepodge of a reading. I read parts of it in English, listened to the middle chunk a Saturday morning of frantic cleaning, and finished it in Spanish. I admit I got it more in Spanish. The humor lifted up above the corseted language. My brain was more comfortable in Spanish, and it had spare neurons to grasp that je ne sais quoi, which floats over (or travels under current) of what’s said. I have to add that the British accent audio adds to my understanding and my enjoying of her books. The tone and rhythm in the audio help.
I found out that I’m in good company. Nabokov almost missed the Jane Austen experience himself. A good friend of his, a British English professor, convinced him that Austen was first rate, and Nabokov also gave her another try with Mansfield Park. Reading his essay on this book, only made me admire Jane Austen even more. Nabokov looks at Austen from his own writer perspective, and uncovers for us Austen’s structure and form, her skill, her artistry. He shows us how she invented a language and a universe of her own, a new and different way of writing.
And it also happened that I put Persuasion in my classics spin list. You guessed it. #3 was the spin winner. Persuasion. Right after Mansfield Park, the odds were in Miss Austen’s favor, and I obliged.
Austen’s writing may not show in just one of her titles, it may be that she requires loyalty and persistence. It’s OK if we don’t have it. I understand. I was there. Why do I have to read one more of her books, when the one or two, or three even, I’ve read don’t cut it for me? Trust me. I’ve looked at Austen’s fans, and I too have shaken my head while thinking, there you have them, the frilly, repressed and boring tea party anglophiles, always with memes and tests to find out who in her novels you resemble, which is your favorite; Ranking her books and the heroines in them, in love with the boring mister perfects, with impeccable hair cuts and diction, dressed in tight pants and high boots type of men. Don’t get me started on how many things, blogs, books, clothing, bags, mugs, etc. have Mr. Darcy in/on/around them, arghhh, it’s an invasion! No cure for them.
I still have to read one more of her main six, and I hope to regain some sense and sensibility on this journey. And while I don’t have any disdain for those who watch the many movies and adaptations, and while I’m much more calm now about the Austen paraphernalia, knowing me, I don’t think I’ll end up watching those just because I’m not very keen on watching TV these days. Maybe a bit of that former pride remains, and I’ll always be prejudiced to admit I’m a big fan. I think I’ll keep calling myself a reluctant fan, a late convert.
As for the need to make others join club Austen, much it’s been said about which will be the best first title to be sure the person has a good first impression and keeps reading her books. To me, there’d never be a perfect first title. I believe that’s not until we read 3 or 4 of her books, or until we haven’t discussed them with others, that some appreciation for her will surface, appreciation that could easily turn into admiration once we start to become familiar with what she is doing, and doing so well.
Virginia Woolf wrote this about Jane Austen, and about Persuasion in particular.
But it is not mere cowardice that prompts us to say nothing of the six novels of the new edition. It is impossible to say too much about the novels that Jane Austen did write; but enough attention perhaps has never yet been paid to the novels that Jane Austen did not write. Owing to the peculiar finish and perfection of her art, we tend to forget that she died at 42, at the height of her powers, still subject to all those changes which often make the final period of a writer’s career the most interesting of all.
Six finished novels. Only six. Still missing Sense and Sensibility, but I have also perceived a difference in Persuasion’s tone. The fact that the characters stand out less than in the other books, may be in line with what Virginia Woolf says she would have done had she written more books,
She would have stood further away from her characters, and seen them more as a group, less as individuals.
Rereading Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Mr. Steven’s, the butler who narrates, asks himself and the readers, why is Britain Great? And not only but, what makes a butler great? I add, what makes a writer great? And like that, from Persuasion to The Remains of the Day, I’ve just found the answer to three questions on greatness, and what looked to me Ishiguro’s tribute (conscious or unconscious I don’t know), to Jane Austen, British per excellence.