These days, Jane Austen enthusiasts are often typecast as college girls swooning over Matthew Macfadyen, or middle-aged women dressing up in bonnets, or cat-loving spinsters sipping cups of tea. Above all: female.
That hasn’t always been the case, as reception histories by the likes of Claire Harman, Claudia Johnson, and Devoney Looser have shown: For much of the last two centuries, Austen-appreciation was considered a thoroughly masculine pursuit. Sometimes Austen was trivialized as a sentimental little woman, but just as often her rapier wit and ruthless moral clarity earned her Honorary Man status in the literary boys’ club.
I’d like to think we’ll eventually realize that an author as great as Austen offers something for everyone, whatever their gender. Two recent tidbits that came my way suggest reasons for optimism:
* Federico Moccia, the Italian romance novelist whose book inspired the craze for attaching padlocks to scenic bridges as a token of unbreakable love, is apparently an Austen fan. Moccia’s internationally bestselling Rome trilogy has just been translated into English, and in an interview with the online entertainment site Nerd Daily, Moccia recommended more than a dozen books with critical reputations both stellar (Fitzgerald, Murakami) and, um, less so (Nicholas Sparks). Among his bullet-proof choices: Persuasion.
* British writer/actor/comedian Robert Webb cops to a lifelong Austen habit, in an interview with the UK website inews. “She was basically my teenage crush,” Webb says. “Her books made me laugh and made me feel smart. I was also very ready at that age for stories that featured true love and happy endings.”
Which is altogether lovely, and may suggest that teenage girls and teenage boys – not to mention adults of any gender -- are not necessarily members of different species.