Deborah Yaffe

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Jane Austen, by the book

By Deborah Yaffe, May 23 2013 01:00PM

Last Sunday, the British novelist Hilary Mantel was featured in the New York Times Book Review’s weekly "By the Book" feature, in which writers talk about the books that matter to them.

“I get impatient with love; I want fighting. I don’t like overrefinement, or to dwell in the heads of vaporous ladies with fine sensibilities,” Mantel said. “(Though I love Jane Austen because she’s so shrewdly practical: you can hear the chink of cash in every paragraph.)”


Mantel’s exemplary shout-out got me wondering how many authors have mentioned Jane Austen in their "By the Book" interviews since the feature launched on April 12, 2012. And the answer is. . . (drum roll, please). . .

. . .ten, or 17.2 percent of the fifty-eight authors interviewed. It’s a pretty good result for Our Jane, though other classic and contemporary writers probably did at least as well: I wasn’t keeping score, but I noticed Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dickens, Hemingway and Twain turning up a lot, along with Alice Munro, Edward St. Aubyn and J.K. Rowling.


The Austen mentions weren’t all quite as enthusiastic as Mantel’s, of course. David Mitchell referenced Austen in passing, while talking about a Japanese writer; Jeffrey Eugenides mentioned her only by way of contrast with Henry James. And tough-guy crime writer Lee Child said his wife had been bugging him to read Emma but he wasn’t sure when he’d get to it.


Women writers were more enthusiastic – and not only women who’d written Austen-style domestic novels. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright called Pride and Prejudice the best book she'd read as a student and recalled playing Mr. Bennet in her school play. Suspense writer Mary Higgins Clark had recently reread the same book and understood “why it is, and always will be, a classic.”


Janeites tend to personalize their relationship with Austen, so perhaps it’s no surprise that she turned up in several answers to questions of the what-writer-would-you-most-like-to-meet variety. Emma Thompson, who won an Oscar for her Sense and Sensibility screenplay, considered putting Austen on her guest list for a literary dinner party, but then disinvited her out of concern that “she’d just have a soft-boiled egg and leave early” – which sounds to me an awful lot like the silly Victorian notion of Austen as a sweet old auntie.


“I used to have an elaborate fantasy about getting to be Jane Austen’s tour guide to the modern world,” said graphic novelist Alison Bechdel. “But then I started thinking it through too realistically, and imagined her having a psychotic break, and the whole thing lost its hold on me.” (What is it with these fragile, vaporous Austens?)


Of course it’s not just Austen herself whom Janeites feel close to. Her characters, while technically fictional, often seem realer to us than many of the real people we know. And the authors featured in "By the Book" seem just as susceptible to this illusion as the rest of us are.


Anna Quindlen, who gave a plenary address at last year’s Jane Austen Society of North America conference, paid tribute to Austen’s greatness -- Austen among her favorite novelists, Pride and Prejudice among her favorite books (“because I’m thoroughly satisfied every time I finish”) – and then named Elizabeth Bennet as the literary character she’d most like to meet. “We would be buds for sure, power-walking the grounds of Pemberley,” Quindlen went on, giving voice to a fantasy shared by more than one Janeite. “And I would get to hang out with Darcy.”


But J. K. Rowling went her one better. What literary character would she like to be? “Elizabeth Bennet, naturally,” she replied. Time for one of those transforming potions. . .


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