One of the most useful sentences Jane Austen ever wrote is surely this one: “Pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked.” (It’s from a March 1817 letter to her niece Fanny Knight -- #155 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence.)
I think of this line when I come across portrayals of Austen as a purveyor of upbeat, light-hearted escapism, rather than what I take to be her more nuanced and shadowed, albeit still comic, version of reality. So my heart sank a couple of weeks ago when the newsletter of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England, turned its attention to a newly popular literary genre that publishers have christened “Up Lit,” because it features “uplifting stories about kindness and community.”
“As we were finding out about this new genre,” the newsletter chirped, “we couldn’t help but feel that a good number of its defining aspects – kindness, compassion, unlikely friendships, broken people who become fixed – are all features of Jane’s novels that we particularly enjoy.”
I’ve got nothing against kindness and compassion – some of my favorite books, not to mention people, endorse these qualities -- but my entire being revolts against the suggestion that Austen’s novels feature a set of saccharine thematics invented by a marketing department. You might even say that this characterization makes me sick. Also wicked.
At the very least, it sets me combing my memory for all the aspects of Austen’s novels that don’t amount to easy uplift. Like, for example, the way that scheming Lucy Ferrars ends up with more money than steadfast Elinor Dashwood. Or the way that misbehaving men from George Wickham to General Tilney to Mr. Elliot face essentially no repercussions for their misbehavior. Or the way that sexually transgressive women (the two Elizas, Maria Rushworth) are tossed aside like worn-out socks.
Of course it’s true that the central characters in Austen’s novels grow morally and emotionally and end up with the people they love (or, like Marianne Dashwood, learn to love the people they end up with). But these wish-fulfilling denouements occur against a social backdrop that is, when you think about it, kind of awful: socially and economically stratified, rife with sexual double standards, and unforgiving to those who go astray. Not, in other words, all that uplifting.
To be fair, the newsletter points out that Up Lit is “not all sweetness and light,” quoting an author saying, of her own bestselling novel, “It’s about facing devastation, cruelty, hardship and loneliness and then saying: ‘But there is still this.’ ”
Perhaps, then, it’s all a matter of emphasis: Looked at one way, Austen’s novels – or, more accurately, the movie versions of Austen’s novels -- could perhaps be crammed into the Up Lit template. But these pictures of perfection don’t resemble the Austen I love.