Sunday, May 9, 2010


My dear friend John Heaton posted the following entry on his facebook wall:

"I am not sure what to make of the Austen culture. It boggles the mind that there is such a huge demand for Austen pastiches. The Republic of Pemberly has a list of more than sixty, which doesn't include any of the forty such books published by Sourcebooks, Inc."

I understand completely why Austen's novels excite such enthusiasm among contemporary readers (including this one!). As I make my points, you'll notice an unfortunate tendency to compare Austen to Victorian writers, which I probably shouldn't do since she died before that period began and she likely had little in common with them from a literary standpoint. I apologize in advance.

First, the rules of the world Austen paints are so different from our own and, importantly, they differ in a way that appeals to us to some extent. In our time etiquette is dead, a promise excites as much cynicism as faith, and many people function with no - or only a self-serving - moral code. Not saying I prefer the social structure of rural England during the late 1700s, but there is a simplicity and decency in the mores and customs Austen depicts that is sadly absent in our own culture. I believe this simplicity and decency appeals to us, no matter how post-modern we imagine ourselves to be.

This leads to my second point which is something the great novelist of the time, Sir Walter Scott, praised about Austen: her realism. Austen's realism was about painting a picture of the world 'as it is' and without an agenda. I believe this is why her books have such a straightforward and approachable tone. They are what they are, and the themes she explores flow naturally from the plot. Moving forward into the Victorian period, the theme started to take on so much importance that it often seemed to dictate plotting and characterization rather than working in tandem with these tools. In the hands of the next generation of British writers (Dickens, Gaskell, Eliot, etc.) realism became a means of pushing social and economic change. Moving into our own time - 'realism' seems to exile the concept of heroes and villains, good and evil. Everyone is a self-doubting, self-absorbed, and/or morally ambiguous/confused 'grey'. This trend strongly colors quite a bit of our literature, comics, movies, and culture, but I'm not sure how 'real' it is. In my opinion, it has become so de rigueur as to be predictable and tedious.

Third, while Austen is firmly entrenched in the 1800s, she has an extraordinarily contemporary wit. She writes her characters as flawed human beings and describes them and the situations they find themselves in with great candor and a sometimes catty sense of humor. In comparison, Dickens, Eliot, and Gaskell take themselves very seriously. Their agendas are laid on in a deadly serious, pedantic tone along with a heavy-handed dose of religion. It's usually very preachy, sometimes condescending, and often a bit 'much'. Austen, on the other hand, is focused on individual people, not masses of people, not social constructs. Her focus appeals to us because it's easier to relate to her characters and what they mean. And it's also a lot more enjoyable to read. The criticism would probably be that Austen's realism ends where her natural optimism begins, and there's some truth to this. However, I would argue that there's nothing inherently wrong with a novel or writer that is optimistic and that there is nothing inherently superior (or more realistic) about a novel that is dark and nihilistic.

Fourth, the pacing of Austen's novels is impeccable. No Victorian writer is so economical as Austen. As an author, her intrusions into the narrative are tasteful and well-woven into the fabric of her story, while writers such as Dickens and Gaskell leap completely out of the story to orate upon some issue or other. This is, in fact, a very bad flaw from a literary perspective. That Austen avoids it far more than her peers immediately makes her novels more readable and - on this point - infinitely superior to other big names from the 1800s. I'm not sure there's another novelist of the century whose proportion of plot and page is as well-balanced as Austen's. That's a massive strength as a writer.

Lastly, one cannot question the dramatic power of her novels or the richness of the characters. They seem like real people we know, despite the temporal issue, and their concerns become ours because we become emotionally involved and just plain like them. In contrast, authors like Dickens many times use characters merely as mouthpieces for specific moral or social positions. These characters can be colorful, but they are actually rather two-dimensional and predictable. Then there is the modern approach used in the movies and novels of today, where we do not relate to the characters and often do not like them. While this is sometimes done purposefully to make a thematic point, it is usually nothing more than emulating the current cultural tone. Regardless of why it is done, the effect is the same; it generally makes the characters and their conflicts less relevant (and sometimes irrelevant) to the reader. We are always watching from behind the glass, safe in the knowledge that we have no real emotional stake in what happens. We are not truly drawn in. Not so in Austen.

These are the points I thought of off the top of my head, and I'm probably not even making them all that well in this quickie blog entry. To be honest, I have only read half of Austen's novels. I still need to tackle Sense & Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. I must admit I have bought into Austenmania (I own several DVDs of BBC and Hollywood productions based on her novels).  I am quite a fan of her work, which is rather surprising since I generally dislike 19th Century British novels, even when I can admire the style or talent of a particular writer. Say what we will about Austen, she has certainly endured. And that is ultimately the key litmus test for great literature.

No comments: