• Deborah Yaffe

Love means never having to say you're sorry

When I was growing up in 1970s and -80s heartland America, my taste for classic literature, including Jane Austen, made me . . . well, I liked to think it made me special. Unique, even. Defiantly superior to all those kids who scorned me for my nerdiness.


Today, it seems, I’d be so ordinary as to verge on cliché. Or so I concluded after happening across a recent newspaper interview with Miranda Cowley Heller, a former TV executive who wrote the 2021 novel The Paper Palace, a bestselling, high-class beach read about adultery and family secrets.


Asked one of those questions you find in every novelist Q&A – “Who is your favorite author?” – Heller replied, “Jane Austen, I’m afraid. Very typical, but there you have it.”


Jane Austen, I’m afraid? Has it come to that? We have to apologize for adoring Jane Austen, presumably because by now she’s so universally beloved that she’s a dull, obvious choice? Sheesh.


I suppose I should be thrilled that Austen’s excellence is now a truth universally acknowledged. And I am. Really, I am.


But even a semi-joking apology like Heller’s, which implies that a female writer of domestic fiction would obviously love Austen (how typical!) comes perilously close to an earlier era's patronizing attitude. That’s the once-prevalent line of criticism arguing that, yes, Austen is awfully good -- for her type – but after all, her canvas is small (two inches of ivory – she said it herself!), and she doesn’t write about the Really Important Boy Things like war, politics, and death. Charming, yes, but narrow. Limited. Girly.


As today’s scholars excavate Austen’s attitudes toward Really Important Boy Things like race, slavery, and colonialism, you don’t hear this kind of thing much anymore, at least when it comes to the novels themselves.


But this mode of discourse still influences popular attitudes toward Austen fans, too often portrayed as groupies without a thought in their bonneted heads who spend all their time swooning over on-screen Darcys. Maybe I’m oversensitive, but please – no apologies for our Austen fandom, OK?

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