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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

On this day in 1798. . .

Eighteenth in an occasional series of excerpts from Jane Austen's letters.

Reading has its hierarchies. We prefer acquaintances to catch us absorbed in, say, a collection of Plato’s dialogues or a paperback of Hamlet than deep into the second volume of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. (That’s the one with the mask on the cover. I mean -- so I’ve heard.)

And this privileging of certain kinds of literature over others goes back a long way – arguably, back to Plato (who famously banned poets from his ideal Republic), and certainly back to Jane Austen’s era. That’s obvious in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, that Austen sent exactly two hundred and eighteen years ago today (#14 in Deirdre Le Faye’s standard edition of Austen’s correspondence).

“I have received a very civil note from Mrs Martin requesting my name as Subscriber to her Library which opens the 14th of January,” the twenty-three-year-old Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra, who was on one of her frequent visits to the family of their older brother Edward, in Kent. “As an inducement to subscribe Mrs Martin tells us that her Collection is not to consist only of Novels, but of every kind of Literature &c &c—She might have spared this pretension to our family, who are great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so;--but it was necessary I suppose to the self-consequence of half her Subscribers.”

In other words, the shamefaced attitude that many of us bring to our preferred form of trashy reading -- whether it be erotic romance, violent thriller, cheesy sci-fi or gossipy celebrity bio – was the attitude many readers in Austen’s time took toward novels of all kinds. The English novel was arguably barely a century old, and the genre’s status was low relative to that of more venerable literary forms like poetry, history or philosophy.

It didn’t help that middle-class women, confined at home, with long hours available for socializing and leisure activities, were often seen as the novel’s main audience. How good could those books be if only girls read them?

Raised in a family of voracious novel-readers, and acutely aware of the time and craft it took to write one, Austen, of course, thought this snobbery absurd. “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid,” she has Northanger Abbey’s hero, Henry Tilney, tell his heroine, Catherine Morland, after she assumes, “You never read novels, I dare say?. . . . gentlemen read better books.”

And of course it’s also in Northanger Abbey that Austen uncharacteristically lapses into lecture mode to describe the novel as “work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.”

OK, maybe not every novel. Jane Austen surely knew that not all novels are created equal: Henry Tilney lauds the good ones, after all. Fifty Shades hardly deserves Austen’s praise for wit, insight and linguistic virtuosity. (I mean -- so I’ve heard.) What annoyed her was the blanket generalization, the failure to distinguish between the work of Burney and Edgeworth, on the one hand, and the work of eighteenth-century E.L. Jameses, on the other.

Today it’s romance, more than any other fictional genre, that labors under an indiscriminate stigma like that suffered by the novel in Austen’s time. And it’s not accidental, I’d argue, that once again, most of the readers of the maligned genre are female. How good could those books be if only girls read them?


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