Jane Austen (dis)content
Because she is famous and popular, Jane Austen has become a handy peg on which to hang just about anything, from advice for the dateless to rah-rah feminist listicles to bizarre fashion spreads. From time to time, one of these efforts seems particularly tone-deaf, and today’s exhibit announces itself from its very headline: “Why content marketing is like a Jane Austen novel.” The thesis, such as it is, is pretty straightforward: “Content marketing is like a romance from a Jane Austen novel. It’s a long old-fashioned courtship full of subtlety, passion, dedication and consistency.” And also: “A heroine receives love letters to show that she’s at least in the game. You’ll receive analytics.” Plus this: “Content marketing is a slow burn. Its real value is only seen when it accumulates. It’s your Mr Darcy.” Pass the spoon. I need it for gagging.
OK, I admit that my hackles immediately rise at the use of the word “content,” which I believe now signifies what used to be called “writing.” It’s deeply depressing for those of us in the writing business – oh, sorry: the content business – to have our work relabeled in the dumbed-down language of advertising. But let me leave my writerly pique at the door, the better to concentrate on my Janeite pique. Because it seems to me that you could hardly imagine a better way to miss Austen’s point than to equate her courtship narratives with efforts to sell stuff. Not that Austen thinks courtship and sales are unrelated – far from it. All sorts of Austen marriages, intended or completed, are clearly commercial transactions. When Mr. Collins comes courting a Bennet daughter (really, any of them will do); or when Mrs. Ferrars schemes to marry off a son – really, either of them will do – to the Honorable Miss Morton’s thirty thousand pounds; or when Mr. Elton wins Augusta Hawkins and her “independent fortune, of so many thousands as would always be called ten,” there’s little doubt that everyone involved has an eye firmly fixed on the bottom line, calculating the proper exchange rate for beauty, security, rank and fortune. But these people are not the heroes and heroines of the books, and one big reason they’re not is their willingness to barter the most intimate of human relationships. Mr. Darcy’s intrinsic value isn’t the equivalent of a bunch of Google click-throughs; it’s a timeless moral and spiritual treasure that can’t be measured in any currency. Figuring that out is the point of the novel -- of all the novels, in one way or another. I’m tempted to quote those old MasterCard commercials – “Marriage to Mr. Darcy: priceless” -- but I have just enough sense of irony to refrain. (Or maybe not.) None of this matters, of course. Austen’s novels are in the public domain, which means that we’re all free to misinterpret them at will. But I can’t help dying inside, just a teeny bit, when I read the latest crass travesty of Austen’s writing. By which I definitely do not mean Austen’s content.