Deborah Yaffe

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By Deborah Yaffe, Oct 22 2015 01:00PM

The popular, movie-inflected view of Jane Austen is so thoroughly imbued with stereotypical, romanticized girliness – fair maidens, dainty bonnets, china teacups, tremulous marriage proposals – that it’s easy to forget the hard-headed realism at the heart of her novels.


Last week brought a salient reminder of that fact from Jamaican writer Marlon James, who won the Man Booker Prize on October 13 for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings. Turns out that Jane Austen is one of the influences on James’ epic seven-hundred-page tale of sadistic violence, drug trafficking and political assassination.


In an interview two days later with Australian TV (starting at 10:42 on the recording), James explained that Austen taught him how to make even unsympathetic characters complex and fully rounded by giving them insights denied to more sympathetic figures. “A lot of people admire her, but I don't think they realize how sly she is,” he said.


“Everybody thinks Mrs. Bennet is this shrill, hysterical creature, but at the same time, she's the only person who realizes that when Mr. Collins takes over her house, he has no obligation to take care of those women. They can starve in the street and nobody would condemn him,” James said. “She's fighting against time, and she's the only one in the novel with a clue.”


James made similar remarks during an October 2014 appearance at Washington D.C.’s Politics & Prose bookstore. Austen’s “most unsavory characters have the realest world view,” he said then. “So Elizabeth’s best friend marries Mr. Collins, who nobody wants, but Elizabeth’s best friend knows what time it is. If she don’t get married, she’s going to end up in a poorhouse destitute somewhere. She knows what time it is.”


With his dreadlocks, West Indian lilt and virtuosic way with descriptions of murderous mayhem, James hardly fits the stereotype of an Austen fan – as he wryly acknowledged when he told the Washington audience that Austen’s was probably “the last name I bet you expect to hear today.”


But his appreciation for Austen is just further proof, were any necessary, that it’s the girly stereotype of Austen that should puzzle us – not the fact that a fellow artist can understand and learn from her genius.


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