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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Jane the dragon

Tanya Gold hates Jane Austen. She told us so earlier this week, in a piece published on the media platform UnHerd, whose goal is “to challenge groupthink.” Gold’s piece is part of a series in which writers mark April 23, the feast day of St. George, England’s dragon-slaying patron saint, by choosing “the contemporary tyranny they would put to the sword.”

“Jane Austen is not a great writer,” Gold begins, and the indictment proceeds from there: Austen ignores “the great themes” – slavery, opium-eating, unhappiness, despair -- and instead gives tidy happy endings to marriage-hunting young women. She is devoid of energy, safely mainstream, and allergic to strong emotion. And to top it all off, “she actually makes her readers stupider” – by giving them a yen to escape from modern life into a world of big houses and rich Mr. Darcys.

Obviously, I don’t agree, but who cares? No author works for every reader, not even an author as great (yes, she really is) as Jane Austen. Gold doesn’t seem to have noticed that Austen is a comic writer, but that’s fine: maybe comedy isn’t her thing. Recent manifestations of Austen fandom are not to Gold’s taste, and though it seems a tad unfair to blame a long-dead writer for the contemporary cosplay and commodification committed in her name, Gold is entitled to her contempt.

No, it’s not Gold’s opinions that I find bemusing. It’s her apparent belief that those opinions make her a lonely iconoclast, rather than the latest in a long, long line of Austen-haters.

Every one of Gold’s criticisms of Austen – that she’s limited, insular, passion-free, snobbish, and dull – echoes generations of critics and fellow writers who have ignored, dismissed, disliked, or condescended to her and her admirers. (Tanya Gold, meet Mark Twain. And Ralph Waldo Emerson. And D.H. Lawrence. And Giles Coren.) Even Gold’s shock-value intro – “There’s as good an argument for putting Jilly Cooper or Joanna Trollope on our £10 note” – sounds like a retread of the tired claim that Austen is nothing but a writer of glorified chick lit.

Criticizing a female author for writing about the dull, everyday stuff of family life, instead of the really important and exciting stuff of politics? That doesn’t strike me as fearless dragon-slaying. It’s something quite a bit more conventional.


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