At the Back Fence #123Dabney2017-06-23T08:29:57-04:00
At the Back Fence Issue #123
August 15, 2001
Some time ago, I interviewed mystery/vampire fiction author Charlaine Harris and discovered that her favorite author is Jane Austen. She seemed surprised to discover that Austen is considered the first “classic” romance writer among readers of romance novels. If Jane Austen is the favorite author of writers such as Charlaine Harris, perhaps it was time to more fully explore her influence and pay homage to her as an early branch of our romance family tree.
Earlier issues of ATBF devoted to our concept of the romance family tree discussed the bodice ripper, the gothic novel, the historical novel, and the influence of Georgette Heyer. This time we’re going to go back nearly two hundred years and explore the legacy of 19th century author Jane Austen. Authors Charlaine Harris, Diane Farr, Carla Kelly, Elizabeth Mansfield, and Deborah Simmons shared their ideas and memories of Austens writing. We also heard from faithful Janeites, including AAR readers, and from Myretta Robens, who is involved on a daily basis in the running of Pemberley.com, a veritable shrine to Jane Austen and a haven for her fans.
Austen can count among AAR staff a number of hard-core fans; indeed, one of my favorite DIK reviews was co-written by Teresa Galloway and Blythe Barnhill last year. Maria K, one of AAR’s European reviewers, agreed to put together this column, and Robin Uncapher and myself, two additional unabashed Austen fans, couldn’t help but put our fingerprints on the article as well. My fingerprint ends here. Before I left on my recent trip to the UK, I forwarded Maria’s excellent column to my co-ATBF columnist, Robin Uncapher, for final edits. The very last “sight” I “saw” in England, where Austen is suitably lauded, was her grave in Winchester Cathedral. Coming home to the final edit of this column made the timing perfect.
— Laurie Likes Books
Irreverent, romantic, unromantic, practical, witty, clever, classic, a writer of genius, timely, timeless – who is the writer about whom all these descriptions may be applied? Critics, romance readers and college students (not to mention readers on the Internet) have been arguing about Jane Austen for years. Feminists point out that she wrote quietly rebellious works that illustrate the powerlessness of women. No less a conservative spokesman that William F. Buckley Jr. has noted her sparkling wit. College professors often claim she is the anti-romance writer because her heroines are practical about money. And yet romance readers recognize a kindred spirit in the voice that wrote Mr. Darcys stirring proposal to Elizabeth Bennet.
Who was she, this amazing writer who still fascinates us nearly two hundred years after her death? Here is a quick recap:
Jane Austen was born December 16th, 1775 at Steventon, Hampshire, England. The seventh of the eight children of the Rev. George Austen and his wife Cassandra, Jane had little education outside the family. Nevertheless she read a lot, and at the age of twelve, begun writing humorous parodies for the amusement of her family.
Jane Austens struggle to be published was as difficult as any writer you can name. She must have loved doing it because that is the only thing that explains such tenacity. Jane began writing the early versions of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey in the late 1790’s. Pride and Prejudice (originally titled First Impressions) was first offered to a publisher in 1797. Unfortunately the publisher flatly refused to even look at it!
In a nutshell here is how the rest of her books were published. Jane sold Northanger Abbey to a publisher in 1803 but its publication was delayed by fourteen years. Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811 anonymously. Pride and Prejudice was finally published in 1813, Mansfield Park in 1814, and Emma in 1815. Jane died in the summer of 1817, possibly of Addison’s disease. Only after her death did she receive any credit for her work. Her brother Henry arranged the posthumous publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and had them printed over her name. She left two novels unfinished – The Watsons and Sanditon.
Jane is buried in Winchester Cathedral, which also houses the remains of many of the first kings of England. The epitaph on her gravestone says:
In memory of Jane Austen, youngest daughter of Rev. George Austen, formerly Rector of Steventon in this County. She departed this Life on the 18th of July 1817, aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian. The benevolence of her beauty, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind obtained the regard of all who knew her, and the warmest love of her intimate connections.
Their grief is in proportion to their affection – they know their loss to be irreparable, but in their deepest affliction they are consoled by a firm though humble hope that her charity, devotion, faith and purity have rendered her soul acceptable in the sight of her redeemer.
What is heard over and over again about the writing of Jane Austen is that it is fresh. There are those who read her books over and over again, only waiting long enough until they have forgotten enough to go back for another round of reading. How did she develop such an original and fresh style?
Diane Farr, one of the brightest new names in the Regency Romance sub-genre, points out that Jane Austen was a pioneer of a newly invented, fast developing art form. It was a huge challenge, but may explain the fresh quality of Austen’s writing.
“I think the most amazing thing about Jane Austen is that she was working without a net (as the saying goes). In fact, her work became the net. Every writer leans, to some extent, on the vast body of work that came before him/her. When Jane Austen was writing, there was no vast body of work. The novel was a new art form – which is why it was called novel. (Duh.) 200 years ago, women were writing novels because the form had not yet acquired the big male stamp on it that other, older, forms of literature had. A woman who wrote a play or an epic poem or, heaven forbid, a book of sermons or philosophy or science – well, you can imagine how difficult it would be to sell. And how seriously her work would be taken. (Not.) The novel wasn’t considered a serious literary form yet, so women were “allowed” to write them. This is obviously a huge simplification, but the few female novelists who came before her had attempted, for the most part, to sound like men. Jane Austen ignored the fact that she had no literary role model, as it were, and invented a particularly graceful and (dare I say it?) feminine style of prose, elegant, witty and wry, that had not been seen before. She thus became the inspiration to countless other lady novelists, none of whom did it as consistently well as she.”
Despite the fact that she had few examples on which to model her writing Jane Austens novels do not have that underdeveloped feel of a work still in progress. She tread in uncharted waters, but her works continue to be paragons of perfection today. After two centuries her works still touch people’s hearts in a way few authors from her time are able to do, and numerous authors claim her as a major influence. Her novels continue to be translated into popular movies, and the stories are recycled in contemporary novels. She’s paid direct homage by best-selling authors such as Helen Fielding’s whose Bridget Jones’s Diary is loosely based on Pride And Prejudice while Amy Heckerling has talked often about creating the movie Clueless because of her love for Emma. Some authors have attempted to write sequels, with varying success, and on the Internet, Austen, her books, and the movie adaptations of them are discussed with much zeal.
One site many of our staff frequent is Pemberley.com, where there are individual message boards devoted to each of Austen’s books, and where her characters live on in fan fiction. Myretta Robens, who is involved in the day-to-day administration of Pemberley.com, says that, “The Republic of Pemberley was born of a desire to talk about Jane Austens novels, the film adaptations and the era in which they took place. Although Jane Austen is not strictly speaking a romance writer, her work has certainly been a path to Romance from many readers and writers.” We hope you’ll click here and read Myretta’s article on Austen’s influence, as well as what her site offers.
Being compared to Austen is very nearly the highest of praise an author receive, but readers don’t take kindly if such an honor is bestowed lightly. Recently there was discussion on one of AAR’s message boards about whether Jill Barnett’s cover quote comparing Julia Quinn to Jane Austen was justified, and most participants seemed to feel it was not. The problem was not that they did not enjoy Julia Quinn’s books, but that Jane Austen’s satirical wit and enchanting stories have raised her to such an exalted status that few other authors, no matter how well-loved, get even close. As for me, before nominating the Jane Austen of our time, I suggest that we wait for 200 years to see which current authors are still read as widely and admired as much as Jane Austen is today.
So where does Jane Austens appeal lie? We asked AAR readers that question, and they came up with a variety of answers.
Sidney shares that she started reading Austen in 9th grade, on her mother’s recommendation. Within a month of picking up Pride and Prejudice for a book report she had devoured the rest of Austen’s works, except Persuasion which she still has not been able to finish. Since then she’s reread them more times than she can count, although she admits that she can’t really warm up to Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.
(Neither can I.)
Sidney believes that Austens work has withstood the test of time because of its universal appeal. She points out that the books appeal not only to those with a more literary bent but also to those in the mainstream public. She adds that those in the literary circle can have a field day dissecting the social mores and attitudes reflected within an Austen novel including the deft characterizations and elegant but old-fashioned writing, while those of us with a less literary bent can as easily get lost in the plots and romance surrounding the characters we’ve come to love. Whoever said that classic literature has to be boring?
Sidney rightly mentions that whenever Austen’s works are mentioned, Pride and Prejudice invariably gets top billing and suggests a possible reason for this is the appeal of its heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, the kind of heroine with whom a modern woman can readily identify. For the same reason that many of us like to read traditional regencies featuring bluestocking heroines, we love Elizabeth for her wit and her spirit rather than her beauty.” She went on to say that, “We also come to love Mr. Darcy for being able to love her for herself. Though she is the product of a time and society in which a woman is valued for her ability to attract wealthy husbands, Elizabeth resembles her modern counterparts in both attitude and behavior. Sidney points out that this is more true of Elizabeth than it is of any of Austen’s other heroines, concluding that it gave her “immense satisfaction” when she read that the “most intelligent sister caught the most eligible husband.”
I fell in love with Pride and Prejudice when I was twelve or so, and I still remember the awestruck feeling I had at Darcy’s first proposal, the shock caused by Lydia’s elopement and the gloominess brought on by the thought of an eternal separation. I also remember the thrill of the happy ending, which was so much greater because it was gained after such difficulty. I’ve been looking for that thrill in romance novels ever since.
Some might argue that Austen didn’t write romance, and they would be right. Austen was not part of the romantic movement, as she valued reason and realism in her characters over emotion and sentimentality. Nevertheless when the word romance is used in the modern sense, Jane Austens stories almost define “romantic” to me, and her stories have been responsible for introducing many other readers to the romance genre.
Chris Y is one of them. She admits to being a Janeite (are there any other authors who have such a word coined to mean their fans, I wonder?)
“I am a Janeite. You know the type: someone who considers Jane as the ultimate author of comfort reads, the goddess of an alternate reality (Regency England) that is infinitely more intriguing than the modern world. “At age 10, I was given a copy of Pride & Prejudice by my father, who loves literature but has known Austen by name only. Truth be told, I doubted I could derive much pleasure from a classic by a great writer (as my father told me) – after all, weren’t classics supposed to be boring and sad? Boy, was I wrong!
“I took to the story immediately. True, the world inhabited by Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy is far removed from my own. I was a lass who didnt have a clue as to why Lady Catherine de Bourgh was in shock when she learned that all the Bennet girls were “out,” nor did I understand (or fully appreciate) the subtle nuances in the language. Still, I knew a good story when I saw one.
“What makes Austen’s novels so engaging are the great ensemble of characters, humor, irony, plots that contain intricate undercurrents, and complications to suck the reader in.
“But mostly what kept me turning the pages eagerly was the interaction and relationship between Darcy and Elizabeth. I was dying to know what was to become of these two. I remembered that when, near the end, Darcy and Elizabeth were separated for a long period of time, I became afraid that they would wind up going their separate ways. Imagine how elated I was when our kind Jane gave the two a happy ending! This was long before I learned to appreciate her elegant writing style, beautiful language, and her ability to satirize the social institutions then of her time. Austen’s light – but definitely not frothy – plot guaranteed with a happy ending is what I think draws me to her works time and again.
“I read romance novels for the same reason. They are what I need when I want to take a break from the reality. I didn’t use the word ‘escape’ for it seems to imply that the world we romance readers are so eager to ‘escape into’ every time we pick up a romance is some mythical, silly utopia which is so ‘out-there’ that whoever finds this world fascinating must be faring less splendidly (if you know what I mean) in this reality than others who don’t need trashy, pick-me-up books that are called romance novels – why else would we want to ‘escape’ from this world, right?
“I must beg to differ. The world created in romance novels is not much different from the real world. It may be populated by lords and ladies, rakes and scoundrels, or by otherworldly handsome Navy SEALs, or by attractive pro-football players who also have a brain (no offense), but it is not an alternate universe where the characters deal with issues, experience emotions that are completely foreign to readers. Take the world created by Jane Austen (I hesitate to classify her novels as romance, though): The Bennet girls and we modern readers may be living in vastly different milieus and have different social values and customs, but aren’t we confronted with similar problems, e.g., how to make of the less-than-stellar example of marriage between your parents, and experience similar feelings?”
AAR reader Deborah comments on the increasing role of the aristocracy in the modern romance. She writes, “One thread I’ve noticed changing as you move from Austen through Heyer to today’s (traditional) Regencies and Regency-era romances is the progressively greater reliance on the nobility and extremely wealthy as characters.” It’s true that Austen had very few major characters who were part of the nobility. Georgette Heyer does utilize the nobility to a larger degree, but most modern traditional Regencies do feature titled characters. According to Deborah, “There are more Dukes than mere Misters even within any given author’s universe of novels. When it comes to wealth, Mr. Darcy would be begging on a street corner with his fortune next to any romance hero in today’s Regencies and Regency-era historicals. I think some writers use wealth and titles almost as crutches or a form of fairy-tale shorthand to make their heroes attractive to the reader. Austen didn’t feel the need to do this.”
Austen also differs from a typical romance writer in that her true heroes are not dangerous rakes, pirates, gamblers or seducers. Rather they are reliable, moral, ordinary men. She often glosses over proposals and other potentially sentimental love scenes, and there are no physical shows of affection. There is a definite shortage of wooing and private encounters on secluded balconies and the kind of suspense subplots that so many authors feel obliged to introduce, perhaps to fill the pages when the characters’ interaction stops being interesting.
The developing romantic relationship in a Jane Austen novel, is but one aspect of the heroine’s life. Austen often gives the spotlight to the minor characters, laughing at their flaws and follies. This is not to say that the supporting characters merely fill the pages or take the spotlight away from the love story. Austen seldom introduces minor characters who don’t have some significance for the main couple’s relationship. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, the actions of the Bennets affect the developing relationship.
Modern romance authors use slightly different devices, but the heroine’s growth, to the point when she is rewarded with a happy marriage, is an important element in many good romances. Also the thrill of the happy ending has not changed. Writing this article, I have realized that Jane Austen is very much responsible for shaping my ideas of good romance writing, the golden standard to which I subconsciously compare most books. (I blame Jane, as Pemberleians would say.) In Austen’s novels, love is often the consequence or reward of the heroine’s growth; the darker the problem, the sweeter the happiness tastes. Many great romance novels work on this premise, (although mediocre romance novels seem to throw in a separation or some other dark point near the end, just to fill pages out).
And Austen’s plots have it all. Have you noticed that Pride and Prejudice is the ultimate Big Misunderstanding story in which the heroine starts out hating the hero for something he did not do? It’s also a kind of Cinderella story, with a heroine whose less worthy siblings outshine her in her mother’s affection, and a wealthy man comes to take her away from a home where she doesn’t feel comfortable. We could even say that it’s a story about taming the proud, socially offending Darcy who is transformed by his affection for Elizabeth. In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen dealt with the hero who was honor-bound to another, and included a scenario where a safe, older hero takes care of the heroine burnt by love in the past.. Mansfield Park has the trusted old poor relative plot, Northanger Abbey is a pastiche on Gothic romances, and Persuasion is Jane’s take on the second-chance romances. Haven’t we seen them all time after time in modern romance novels?
Pride and Prejudice was AAR reader Deborah’s first Jane Austen novel, and it remains her favorite. She has reread it several times at different ages and it always delights her. As a teenager, she did not enjoy Emma very much but she finally ‘got’ it as an adult. The character of Emma Woodhouse did not appeal to her nearly as much as Elizabeth Bennet, and she says that the “romance” in Emma didn’t fit her teenage ideal. As an adult, she learned to appreciate the wit, characterization, and overall writing, and she thinks that Heyer’s The Grand Sophy (on my own shelf of keepers) was a great homage to Emma.
AAR managing editor Blythe Barnhill is another P&P lover. She read Austen years before reading genre romance and Austen has been a major influence on her taste and her love for romance. She loves the different world Austen transports her to, and is held in thrall as well by the language .
“Although the thoughts and feelings of Austen’s characters had a familiar ring (ie, embarrassment over a sibling, pining for an old flame), what I really loved about Austen’s books was that the world was completely different. People walk everywhere, and the walk itself is entertainment. Maybe it’s even a chance to talk to someone privately. People even ‘take a turn’ around a room. I remember being fascinated when Caroline Bingley and Elizabeth Bennet took a turn around the room in P&P – and completely amazed when Mr. Darcy expressed the belief that they were doing it to show their figures to the best advantage. Lucy and Elinor also take a turn around the room in Sense and Sensibility, but that’s to share a secret. No one I know takes a turn around a room, or walks to town, or goes on a visit and stays for three months. Few people are capable of executing intricate dance steps, or playing and singing at a public gathering (with little notice!). No one writes long letters when they can e-mail or call. I didn’t have a great deal of knowledge about history when I first started reading Austen, but I knew I loved that world…and wanted to come back in my next life as Elizabeth Bennet. “It’s not just what her characters say, it’s how they say it. Just like none of my friends know how to dance Mr. Beveridge’s Maggot, none of them would begin a proposal with the words ‘In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.’ The formality of Darcy’s language continues right through to the end. When Elizabeth tells him he is the last man on earth she could ever marry, he replies,’You have said quite enough Madam. I perfectly comprehend your feelings, and have now only to be ashamed of what my own have been. Forgive me for having taken up so much of your time, and accept my best wishes for your health and happiness.’ Can you imagine a rejected suitor today leaving with a parting shot like that? I have already ruminated elsewhere about why I love this proposal and why I find it romantic. Mr. Darcy is really a complete jerk in this scene, but I find it completely romantic because he is absolutely compelled to propose, and because the words themselves are romantic to me. My husband and I have a running argument about it for this very reason. Every time I read it or watch it, it’s all I can do to avoid sighing aloud for the romance of it all. My pragmatic DH insists that Darcy is motivated entirely by lust. Little he knows.
“The point is that Austen has it all – conversation, atmosphere, romance, and unforgettable characters. Many of the conventions of the romance genre have their genesis right in Austen’s pages. I’ve gone on to read many, many romances, but none of them quite compare to Austen’s work. She’s truly in a class by herself.”
AAR reader Angela confesses to being late to the Jane Austen party. She was introduced to Austen’s world by the movies. After falling in love with Emma Thompson’s version of Sense and Sensibility she got the Masterpiece Theater version and liked it as well. And when she saw Emma and Clueless, she decided she “really should find out who this Jane Austen is.”
Angela, like Blythe, fell in love with the language and how she felt “transported in time.” She adds that the characters are so real they could be “used for a case study” in human behavior. Although she had enjoyed other great works of 19th century literature, she didn’t find characters in those other books as real, and wasn’t able to “identify and understand” them as readily. S&S is her favorite Austen, and her husband is not only reading it, he’s enjoying it. She couldn’t fathom how he could enjoy the book because he “wants to slap the stupid girls” for their naïveté, but when he responded that the language was so beautiful, she totally understood.
One thing I’ve noticed in preparing for this article is that there is both a fluid and sophisticated quality associated with Austen’s works. Many first loved one Austen read, then realized another title had become their favorite. Still others relayed that perhaps they had not fully understood or “gotten” a certain Austen book, but that, with subsequent reads, they “got it” better. This is indeed one of Austen’s strength; her books have so many layers that it’s possible to value different things in different ages or different stages of life. Pride and Prejudice is not any more the same book as it was for me when I was twelve.
Chris Y, to whom you were introduced earlier, mentioned that P&P had long been her Austen favorite. Lately, however, and much to her surprise, Persuasion has gotten under her skin. She says, “As I get older, I’ve gradually learned to appreciate the ‘autumnal quality’ that seems to characterize Persuasion. It has a poignant premise and from the get-go the story proceeds with a sense of quietness and serenity which, come to think of it, may account for my initial dismissal of it as not being as witty as P&P or as lively as Emma.”
I like the way Chris describes Persuasion as autumnal. It has never before occurred to me to think of it that way, but now I have to agree. It’s amazing how Austen manages to create mood in her books. There are few earth-shattering events, few great tragedies, little action or suspense, and yet they keep the readers in thrall with the mood.
W. Somerset Maugham once said:
“Nothing very much happens in her books and yet, when you come to the bottom of a page, you eagerly turn it to learn what will happen next. Nothing very much does and again you eagerly turn the page. The novelist who has the power to achieve this has the most precious gift a novelist can possess.”
Regency Romance author Carla Kelly emphatically agrees, although her attraction to Austen was not of the instant kind.
“Austen had the remarkable ability to take ordinary people’s ordinary challenges and breathe life into them. Nothing earth-shattering ever happens in an Austen novel, but my word, I keep turning the pages. Finding a husband (or wife) is still important. Betrayal still hurts (Sense & Sensibility). Forgiveness takes maturity (Persuasion). And so on. “Pride and Prejudice, without any literary analysis (something I have little skill in), is just a crackling good story. That it’s a classic is the maraschino on top of the marshmallow crème. I tried to read it when I was in high school for no particular reason, except that I was reading classics. (I have Scots relatives a generation or two removed from Kirkcudbrightshire, and we still operate on the “It’s good for you” premise as a truism needing no explanation.)
“I say I tried, because it didn’t work. Couldn’t get into the story at all. I just wasn’t ready. About two years later, when I was a freshman at BYU, I got a 35 cent paperback copy in the spring, and tried a second time. Again, there was no reason to read it; I was never an English major.
“Something clicked that time, and I owe Austen and P&P a real debt: After I finished the book, I understood what a classic was. I relaxed and let go, letting the stately language, the clever conversation, the mood and tone carry me along. Mostly, I came to see in the Bennets people I knew: the flighty mother, the remote father, the frivolous sister, the hypocritical clergyman, the sister who is almost a little too noble, the clear-eyed, surprisingly cynical spinster friend. These people had traits I recognized in my friends, relatives, neighbors, acquaintances, and most of all, myself. The story is as true now as it was then. Bridget Jones is after the same things, and she’s as contemporary as today’s movie list. A classic is a story that lasts, because it tells us something about ourselves.”
Austen doesn’t just tell a story about random characters. She is so keen-sighted that her stories tell us a lot about human nature. In a recent interview, the award-winning SF (and three-time DIK-reviewed) author Connie Willis said that Austen did not concentrate on changing the world, rather she was an observer at heart. “Her characters aren’t out there pitching so much as observing. Their observation and insight is how they fight the world.” I’m sure these powers of observation are one reason that Austen has become such an enduring classic.
Carla Kelly says that Austen has been a subconscious influence on her own writing. She says, “In the odd moments when I manage a witty bit of dialogue or tweak a plot until it begs for mercy, I can wink and think to myself, ‘Thanks, Jane.'” As with many held in Austen’s thrall, the history surrounding the Regency period is a draw in and of itself. Kelly adds that though she’s lately been interested in English life on the edge of the Industrial Revolution when great change was coming, she “invariably comes back to that country village…and that tightly knit society. They are the world of great fiction. I think Jane Austen knew instinctively that less is always more. This I choose to emulate.”
While one of Austen’s most charming qualities is the way she makes the most commonplace events in a small community seem larger than life, she has sometimes been criticized for the limited settings of her novels. It’s true that she doesn’t elaborate on the political or military aspects of the age she lived in, and she describes mainly people who belong to her own social class. Neither the nobility nor the poorest people have significant roles in her novels, as she concentrated on the people in the world she knew, but I tend to see it as a strength instead of a weakness. Her characters become true to life, and it’s easy to identify with them.
Charlaine Harris, mentioned at the outset as the impetus for this column, is the author of the Aurora Teagarden mystery series, the Lily Bard series and the wonderful Dead Until Dark, which she characterizes as a vampire/romance/mystery novel. Charlaine admires Jane Austen’s portrayal of strong, intelligent heroines who are flawed but able to learn and grow.
“I find it very interesting that she should be mentioned in the ‘roots’ of romance writing. I had never thought of Jane that way, and she is my absolute favorite. “What I love most about Jane is the fact that her heroines are generally intelligent and willing to learn. Whatever character flaws they have (and they always have them) these women are willing to recognize their own mistakes, and to give men the credit for being willing to do the same. Though Jane portrays many foolish women, the women at the center of her books are always intelligent – with the exception of Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey. (Even Catherine has learned a thing or two by the end of the book.)
“Jane’s heroines are not only intelligent, they are strong – and in several cases, they are the quiet backbone of their families. Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility and Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), Jane’s two most famous portrayals, are the true bedrocks of their families, their own parents included. Witty, observant, and capable, Elinor and Elizabeth are fantastic role models; these are two women who will never wear their hearts on their sleeves, who have abundant good sense, and who are morally above reproach; and yet they’re not dull. Elinor and Elizabeth are complex women with many interests and skills, and above all, a true zest for life. They are loving, loyal, and trustworthy.
“These two women are the pattern for many a romantic heroine. While few writers can reach the excellence of plot and wit that Jane Austen achieves, her conception of a woman who is flawed, but aware of it; morally sound, but not cold; loyal to family, while conscious of its faults; and witty, but not cruel . . . this model is the basis for most notable women in the romance field.
“While Jane Austen could be scathing about the foolishness and folly of both men and women – check out Mary and Lydia Bennet, and their mother, to say nothing of Mrs. Dashwood – she never makes fun of love. The progress of true love is just as fascinating to Jane Austen as it is to any other writer, and the fact that such love exists is beyond question. Even the poor relation, Fanny Price (Mansfield Park), finds love, though economics has a great deal to do with the fact that she does not find it sooner. And Emma Woodhouse (Emma), the most materially blessed of Jane Austen’s heroines, almost does not recognize love in time – perhaps because of that abundance of riches and admiration which has been hers since birth. In this era of democracy, we are unwilling to admit that such economic considerations can have an effect on the course of true love. But Jane Austen was right all along. All too often, it’s impossible to separate the two.
“You’ll have to excuse me. After all this discussion, I think I want to curl up with Mansfield Park. And maybe after that, Sense and Sensibility. It’s never to late to learn from the master.”
Author Deborah Simmons says that most writers who set their books during the Regency period owe a debt to Austen and she acknowledges hers quite willingly. Those who have read her paean to the gothic novel, The Devil Earl, might easily guess that her favorite Austen read is Northanger Abbey.
Simmons’ choice is clearly out of the norm, and she explains why she prefers Northanger Abbey to the more famous Pride and Prejudice.
“I love to turn stories upside down, and in Northanger, Austen upends the conventions of the day. From the very first line, ‘No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be a heroine,’ she takes gentle aim at the gothic novels so popular at the time. And those who have read such classics as The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Castle of Otranto know that they pose an inviting target. Austen does it so well, making plain in a few choice sentences just why Catherine is not destined to be a heroine (having suffered none of the travails common to those ladies) that the first page is a writing lesson in how to set up a situation. Her dry wit is delightful, yet while teasing her characters, she never disparages them. We can all see how Catherine might be drawn into a mystery of her own making – without dismissing her as too stupid too live. “For any devotee of Georgian (Northanger Abbey was first sold in 1803) or Regency England, Austen’s work also is a primer in the manners and mores of the era. She is an astute observer of the period and of humankind. Northanger Abbey includes wonderfully realistic characters who transcend their time. People were not that different in the 1800s from what they are today. Young women ignored or chased young men. Older women bragged incessantly about their children. Friendships were held dear, and hearts were broken and mended.
“Those who would deny the continued efficacy of her works need only to read the following excerpt from Northanger Abbey, substituting ‘romance’ for the all-encompassing ‘novel’ to realize how little things have changed.
Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers; and while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens, there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. . . .”‘I am no novel-reader,’ ‘I seldom look into novels,’ ‘Do not imagine that I often read novels,’ ‘It is really very well for a novel.’ Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda” or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”
“How very true, as much today as when Jane Austen wrote it nearly 200 years ago.”
I’m so glad Deborah Simmons admitted sharing my penchant for Northanger Abbey, for she spared me from writing a long and less eloquent eulogy for the novel, which I believe to be Austen’s funniest. I’ll only say this: I did not really understand the point when I first read it as a teenager, but lately I’ve grown to appreciate the book’s irony more and more. The characters are delightful caricatures, and I love Henry Tilney. While some, such as Regency Romance author Elizabeth Mansfield (more on that later) think that he’s cruel because he makes fun of the follies of people around him, I don’t see him like that. He doesn’t intend to hurt and seems quite good-natured to me – even Darcy can get very sarcastic at times. Can Henry help it those around him give him plenty to laugh at? I used to think that no one could hold a candle to the intense, awe-inspiring Darcy, but since becoming more familiar with the male of the species I’ve realized that there is something to be said for a less dramatic man. Who would be easier to live with: a proud and taciturn man who has to be taught to laugh at himself and magnifies your embarrassment whenever one of your relatives does something stupid (I can almost guarantee they do), or a laid-back, kind-hearted soul who makes you see the humor in everyday situations?
Everyone has a favorite Austen hero. Each has a certain something that makes them desirable. Elizabeth Mansfield has considered the reasons for this and has devised a number of fundamental qualities a good man and hero should have. She formed her first – and lasting – standards for the “ideal man” on the basis of Jane Austen’s books. Darcy, Knightley, and Wentworth were her particular favorites. The first and probably most important quality which distinguishes heroes from scoundrelly charmers is honor. Heroes should not be deceitful, they’re honest and straightforward. Secondly, they have a superior intellect which has its basis firmly rooted in common sense. Thirdly, heroes are gentlemanly and refined, modest, temperate, and never vulgar. Dashing they may not be, but dash isn’t always a virtue in the long run. The fourth requirement for a true Austen hero is sensitivity toward and respect for the mind and spirit of the woman he loves. He doesn’t want beautiful subordination but a woman with whom he can match wits. The fifth element which makes a hero is humor and wit. However, their wit should be tempered with kindness. And finally, their emotions are under rational control and they don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves.
The qualities summarized above are detailed in an article Elizabeth Mansfield sent to AAR for this column. In addition to elaborating on the qualities of heroes, she also describes her reading roots and provides some interesting books for those looking to delve more deeply into everything Austen. You can link to her article by clicking here.
I wanted to finish this column with a neat summary of the reasons for Jane Austen’s appeal and an analysis of things she has taught modern romance authors, but unfortunately I can’t. Are her books still so well loved because of her gentlemanly heroes? Her strong heroines? The process of growth she describes? Is it because the characters and feelings ring true, today? Or, is the root of her popularity the exotic world of times past which she describes? Do we love Jane Austen mainly for the irony, wit and humor for which she is renowned? Or is it the serious side and her insight into human nature? How about strong plotting and delightful language? Do we love her for the multi-layered writing which keeps the novels feeling fresh and exciting, even on the 17th re-read, or are we simply fascinated with her descriptions of falling in love in an age when marriages were regulated by society customs and family expectations?
I still don’t know what the most important reason for Austen’s durable appeal is, and preparing this column got me thinking that maybe there are as many reasons as there are fans. I did not hear from anyone who said she did not like Austen. Is there something for everyone? (If you don’t enjoy Austen’s writing, please join the discussion on the message board) At the end of this long and rather rambling collection of praise for Austen, I want to leave you with the real thing: a Jane Austen quote to savor. It’s a “review” of Pride and Prejudice, written in a letter to her sister Cassandra, immediately after its publication. She tenderly criticizes her own work and simultaneously recognizes its merits in a tender, tongue-in-cheek manner.
“The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story: an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté, or anything that would form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and general epigrammatism of the general style.”
Time to Post to the Message Board
Here are the questions we’d like to have you consider this time:
Jane Austen, Romance Writer? – Charlaine Harris wasn’t the first person to be taken aback when we talked about Jane Austen being an early branch of the romance family tree. What are your thoughts and ideas when tracing the evolution of the modern genre romance and our inclusion of Jane Austen on the romance family tree?
The Writing of Jane Austen – Are you a reader of Jane Austen’s works? Are you a lover of her writing? What is your favorite Austen work?
Jane Austen: Adaptations and Homages – There’s no doubt that Jane Austen influenced generations of readers and writers, and within the last ten years, we’ve seen many a book and film that pays homage to her or is a straight adaptation of her work. Which books and/or films worked best for you, and why? Which didn’t work for you, and why?
Seen, not Read – Many of today’s Janeites came to her books via the movie adaptations of her work. If you’ve seen one or more of those movies and enjoyed them, but haven’t yet read any of her books, what’s holding you back?
“What I Love about Jane…” – What is it about Austen that you most enjoy? Is it the language, the wit, the freshness of the writing, the characterizations, the romance, or some combination?
Realism versus Romance – While many readers find Austen’s work incredibly romantic, others have called her a writer of the “anti-romance.” How can this be?
Heroes and Heroines – Which of Austen’s heroes and/or heroines do you enjoy best, and why?
The Best and The Rest – It seems most people most love Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. An informal poll would place Mansfield Park as the least-loved Austen work. Rank Austen’s work for us, and tell us how you came up with your ranking.
Long-Lived Influence – Where do you see evidence of Austen’s influence in today’s genre romance? What do you suppose Jane would make of some of the more modern genre romance “classics?”
— Maria K
In conjunction with Diane Farr, Myretta Robens, Blythe Barnhill, Carla Kelly,
Charlaine Harris, Deborah Simmons, Elizabeth Mansfield, and AAR’s readers
Check out our Jane Austen “convenience store” of amazon links to her books and film adaptations
Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board
Read Myretta Robens’ article Words of a “Janeite”
Read Regency Romance author Elizabeth Mansfield’s article My First Loves – A Trio (Or Maybe a Quartet) Of Austen Men