Deborah Yaffe

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Intro to Austen

By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 19 2015 01:00PM

If Jane Austen’s genius must be reduced to a listicle, you could probably do worse than this bouncy seven-minute animation from the School of Life, the eclectic adult-education institution co-founded by the Swiss-British philosopher Alain de Botton.


The School of Life aims to expose ordinary people to the humanities, and especially to the insights the humanities offer into relationships, morality and life choices. Its YouTube channel features bite-size videos on writers, artists and thinkers, from the Buddha to Virginia Woolf, and on historical movements and ideas, from capitalism to romanticism.


Although the Austen offering at first glance bears an unfortunate resemblance to those omnipresent online features on Life Lessons from Jane Austen (“#2: We Shouldn’t Stop Judging People; But We Have To Judge More Carefully”), overall it’s a decent articulation of one traditional view of Austen – Austen as a guide to ethical living.


With the exception of a couple of howlers – mixing up Mansfield Park’s Bertram sisters, and describing Austen as a “a guide to fashionable life in the Regency period,” when she mostly wrote about the relatively unfashionable rural middle class – there’s not much here to offend a committed Janeite.


Still, I can’t help having some reservations. Despite the cheery tone of the piece -- it's illustrated with pleasant cutouts and moves briskly through a summary of Austen’s attitudes toward love, money and class -- a novice might be forgiven for coming away with the impression that Jane Austen’s novels are pretty heavy going, rather than the comic tours de force that they are.


Austen was “an ambitious and stern moralist” who “might have written sermons [but] wrote novels instead,” the video’s narrator explains. A passing reference to the books’ humor and compelling storylines barely dents the overwhelming impression that Jane Austen is homework, and pretty tedious homework at that.


Ultimately, this version of Austen feels rather like literature as read by philosophers: “Sadly, the moral ambition of the novel has largely disappeared in the modern world, yet it’s really the best thing that any novel can do,” the video’s narrator concludes.


The best thing that any novel can do? Now there’s a sweeping and arguable claim. I think it would take more than seven minutes to settle that one.


2 comments
Oct 20 2015 05:46PM by Monica Descalzi

"I am quite honoured by your thinking me capable of drawing such a clergyman as you gave the sketch of... But I assure you I am not. The comic part of the character I might be equal to, but not the good, the enthusiastic, the literary. Such a man's conversation must be on subjects of science and philosophy, of which I know nothing; or must occasionally be abundant in allusions and quotations which a woman who, like me, knows only her mother tongue, and has read very little in that, would be totally without the power of giving. A classical education, or at any rate a very extensive acquaintance with English literature, ancient and modern, appears to me quite indispensable for the person who would do justice to your clergyman; and I think I may boast myself to be, with all possible vanity, the most unlearned and ill-informed female who ever dared to be an authoress." So much for writing sermons :)
And then there's the tedious subject of life lessons. Shouldn't they be drawn from fact rather than fiction? Of course JA takes a stance on several ethical and social issues, but it doesn't look as if she set out to teach, or preach - least of all "reform humanity" :(

Oct 20 2015 06:04PM by dyaffe

Yeah, this isn't my favorite way of reading literature, either -- and when I read fiction writers talking about their process, they seldom describe beginning with a Life Lesson they want to impart. They usually talk about beginning with characters -- imaginary people whose lives and choices they want to explore. But philosopher types -- not to mention the authors of on-line listicles -- seem to conceptualize the whole enterprise entirely differently. . .

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