Deborah Yaffe

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Friends don't let friends miss out on Jane Austen

By Deborah Yaffe, Apr 22 2013 01:00PM

The other night I was trying, once again, to persuade two of my friends to read Jane Austen. They’re both smart, well-educated native English speakers who enjoy reading novels, but they seem to have a curious psychological resistance to reading one of the all-time greatest of English novelists. One of these friends dropped out of my neighborhood Jane Austen reading group after just a few chapters of Northanger Abbey; the other has had a paperback of Persuasion gathering dust on her shelves since – well, since I gave it to her, four or five years ago.


And, of course, they’re not alone. Although we Janeites like to think that Austen’s greatness is universally acknowledged, the Austen-haters are out there in force. If you doubt me, just Google “hate Jane Austen,” and feast your eyes on, for instance, Modern Day Storyteller, or Last Best Angry Man, or The Gloss, or Abby Rogers.

Sometimes the Austen-haters echo the criticisms of famous anti-Janeites of the past – Charlotte Bronte, say, who complained that Austen’s world was a mannerly English garden, fenced-in and passionless. Sometimes, by contrast, the haters argue that Austen’s novels are too romantic: who cares about all that girly love-and-marriage stuff? Mostly, though, the haters just seem bored. Those books are such a drag! Nothing ever happens!


Readers are entitled to their own tastes, of course. As Austen’s Emma Woodhouse points out, “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” (Myself, I’ve never gotten the whole Dostoevsky thing. And yes – I realize this demonstrates what a shallow person I am.)


Still, I think the reason my friends – and maybe some of yours, too – are avoiding Jane Austen isn’t because they suspect she’s trivial, repressed or boring; it’s because they imagine she’s going to be HARD. Since Austen wrote two hundred years ago, many readers expect her books to feel like homework – lots of long words and convoluted sentences and archaic references that can’t be understood without flipping to the footnotes.


So here's what I tried to tell my friends the other night. It’s true that Austen draws on a nineteenth-century vocabulary: nowadays, we don’t often use words like “countenance,” “disposition,” or “unexceptionable,” or say “in want of” when we mean “need.” But a reasonably literate reader can master that strangeness within a few pages.


And then comes the real revelation about Jane Austen: how contemporary she seems (and, of course, how funny she is). Her stories contain enough family dysfunction, mean-girl competitiveness, callous heartbreaking and sexual tension to fill a season of reality TV – except with really great writing. She’s not homework. She’s home.



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