Jane Austen is a Hot Button Issue?

Wednesday, February 6, AD 2013

Last week I wrote a post noting the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  I took the opportunity of mentioning that I found Austen boring and noted fairly vituperative criticisms of her by Twain and Emerson.  The reaction on this blog was restrained and got sidetracked into a debate about the Reformation in England and Protestantism and Catholicism.  So far, so normal.

I also put the post up at the American history blog Almost Chosen People that Paul Zummo and I run.  Almost Chosen People is a fairly sedate blog, unlike the raucous The American Catholic, where controversy rarely occurs and on the rare occasions when it does, it is usually about the Civil War.  I was therefore shocked when my light-hearted post aroused what for Almost Chosen People was a firestorm.  Here are the comments:

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail
Continue reading...

19 Responses to Jane Austen is a Hot Button Issue?

  • I have to say I also fine Austen boring. My wife on the other hand loves her.

    I am looking forward to an Arnold Schwarzenegger version of Austen. “Pride and Terminate with Extreme Prejudice.”

  • “Pride and Terminate with Extreme Prejudice.” 🙂

  • Well, Don, birthday or no, your interlocutors are correct and you are wrong.

    😉

    Pride and Prejudice is simply one of the greatest novels ever written. Like Twain (“Every time I read …”), I have read it several times. Unlike Twain, I am not so full of myself that I can’t recognize the brilliance and simple elegance of her prose, and I come away with some new insight each time.

    As for Twain himself, whose genius I recognize (just as I mentioned in commenting on your first post on this subject), I have read many of his works and find only Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer to be the least bit compelling for me personally. The rest I find tedious. Again, just personal opinion.

  • Austen’s prose are simply incredible. Light, lucid, and sharp as a katana. I read P&P this summer and found it was nearly impossible to put down.

    Also, anyone championed by Alasdair MacIntyre as the last great representative of virtue ethics is a-ok in my book.

  • *laughs*

    Oh, dear, I may have to ding your geek creds!

    Jane Austen is a fandom. Of course folks fly off the handle about someone not utterly loving her, let alone disliking her– and since it’s in an area where they haven’t faced the usual geek pressures, they’re over-sensitive.

    I’ll stick with Terry Pratchett.

  • My wife and my sisters read Jane Austen. I’m waiting for the first person shooter video game to come out.

  • “Austen’s prose are simply incredible.”

    I just don’t see it. Of course I enjoy Edward Gibbon’s prose style and realize that quite a few differ with me on that.

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “Gibbon’s style is detestable; but it is not the worst thing about him.”

  • “My wife and my sisters read Jane Austen. I’m waiting for the first person shooter video game to come out” 🙂

    Or the alternate history novel: Jane Austen and the Peninsular War

  • “Jane Austen is a fandom.”

    Yes, I have had similar reactions from Tokien fans when I have indicated that some passages involving Bilbo and Sam on the way to Mordor seemed to be quite tedious.

  • With St. Paddy’s Day acomin’, I need to catch me a Leprechaun, get his pot o’ gold and find me a rainbow. That there will make me happy. And If I catch him napping under a tree while guarding his pot o’ gold, and the rainbow will lead me to him, I will have my Leprechaun. I have always wanted my own Leprechaun.
    The truth be told, I am concerned that the King James version of the bible, which Jane Austen certainly would have used, did not refer to the sovereign Person of God using the pronoun WHO in the Lord’s Prayer, as “Our Father, who are in heaven.”

  • I’ve not read Austen, but I know of her primarily through Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue which appears to have been the reference by JL above.

    If, for nothing else, that MacIntyre includes Austen in a lineage of moral philosophy that includes Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas and holds it against the disaster of the Enlightenment and Nietzsche and the rest of emotivism/moral relativism/modernist philosophy, then I approve of Austen…though I’ll probably never read her. Similar to the best I hope to do with St. Thomas is to read his Shorter Summa…

    To your point, Don…while I do agree that people arguing about taste is somewhat silly, the fact is that “arguing on the internet” often ends in higher emotions than a discussion at, say, a bar. Words in black-and-white carry more force than words spoken…and that amplifies the emotional impact. As an ex-hardcore gamer (former MMO guild leader), I found that the lack of nonverbal cues in forums and IM/in-game chat led to more volatility than I’d experience if I were having the same conversation in person. In fact, this post represents my first foray back into “internet speech” in probably 4 years, despite lurking on this board since about 2010…all because I generally regard comboxes and such to be a one-way ticket to futility. Single-player games and assiduously avoiding the “Comments” sections of news articles has led to a general balance in my life since.

    So, while I have no personal affection for Austen, I respect that others do…including some philosopher I think of highly…and, were someone to say something crass (not a sincere critique, but dismissive) of…say, GK Chesterton or John Henry Cardinal Newman, I might get a tad irrational myself.

    So perhaps, Don, Austen represents an articulation of virtue or an insight into the human condition with which her fans identify…and when someone slights Austen, that is perceived as a slight against not just a mere author but against the fan’s own identity. It’s then made worse by the medium.

    I find it similar to how I feel relative to anti-Catholic rhetoric…it’s taken me a long time to be able to feel charity toward those individuals…and C.S. Lewis has an apparent understanding of how we Catholics feel in regards to Virgin Mary. Maybe that can serve as an analogue for the reaction of some fans of Austen, albeit on a less theological basis:

    ” Some people draw unwarranted conclusions from the fact that I never say more about the Blessed Virgin Mary than is involved in asserting the Virgin Birth of Christ. But surely my reason for not doing so is obvious? To say more would take me at once into highly controversial regions. And there is no controversy between Christians which needs to be so delicately touched as this. The Roman Catholic beliefs on that subject are held not only with the ordinary fervour that attaches to all sincere religious belief, but (very naturally) with the peculiar and, as it were, chivalrous sensibility that a man feels when the honour of his mother or his beloved is at stake.
    ” It is very difficult so to dissent from them that you will not appear to them a cad as well as a heretic. And contrariwise, the opposed Protestant beliefs on this subject call forth feelings which go down to the very roots of all Monotheism whatever. To radical Protestants it seems that the distinction between Creator and creature (however holy) is imperilled: that Polytheism is risen again. Hence it is hard so to dissent from them that you will not appear something worse than a heretic-an idolater, a Pagan. If any topic could be relied upon to wreck a book about “mere” Christianity-if any topic makes utterly unprofitable reading for those who do not yet believe that the Virgin’s son is God-surely this is it.”

    Mere Christianity

  • Wonderful quote. Thanks. From a radical Protestant standpoint devotion to Mary seems very pagan. To the Roman Catholic, the Protestant critique seems unwarranted and wrong.

  • Mary De Voe —

    I find it disturbing that you object to ordinary historical English grammar. 🙂 Seriously, though, you should not make comments like this without going to see what the Our Father looked like in Old English, Middle English, and the original Douay-Rheims.

    “Faeder ure thu the eart on heafonum” doesn’t use “who” either. And the Saxons were good Catholics who never heard of Protestantism. “That art in heaven” was pretty common in Middle English, although some went with “wicche art” instead. It certainly doesn’t make the Our Father less personal; it makes it understandable and grammatical for people of that day.

  • It is funny that the first time I write a response is in defense of Jane Austen. I have always found it very interesting that she was able to capture the nuances of courtship and marriage having never experienced either one. I believe that Ms.Austen lived her whole life in the bosom of her immediate family and never ventured far from her home. What can I say I like her books, the depth of the characters makes them just as believable 200 years later. In the end I think it’s probably a girl thing, and explanations shouldn’t be necessary.

  • It’s not just a girl thing, and I think to limit it as such is to depreciate its inherent worth as a piece of great writing and insightful commentary.

  • While every author has his or her fans, this is certainly not adequate to account for people’s protectiveness of Austen. It has been noted in literary critical circles, for instance, that people who directly criticize Austen are immediately regarded as having done something obviously indecorous and in bad taste and as displaying literary incompetence. It’s not a mere matter of fans being annoyed by criticism of their favorite author; it’s a matter of people coming to regard one as obviously incompetent and gauche, so that you no longer have any credibility on any literary subject for that (at present very large) group of people. This happens with various authors from time to time; it used to be the case with Shakespeare, for instance, and people whose work took them into the vicinity of Samuel Johnson’s occasionally sharp criticism of the Bard had to disassociate themselves from it or risk being taken either as obviously incapable of appreciating the English language, or obviously questionable in moral matters, or (in England) obviously unEnglish. If you thought Shakespeare was overrated, flaunting such universally recognized bad taste was itself taken as undeniable proof of bad taste, and you would only do it if you were deliberately trying to provoke people. And as with Shakespeare, the expectation of deference to Austen will weaken over time.

    But I don’t think anyone can get out of it by saying that it’s all merely a matter of taste, either; it’s an argument about good taste and bad taste, not an argument about mere taste, and the two have never been the same kind of argument. People react not to someone disliking Austen, which will happen as it will happen, but to not admitting the dislike of Austen as a flaw in one’s taste, which is regarded as being deliberate defense of bad taste. And while matters of mere taste are matters of indifference, and everyone recognizes there is at least some slippage in determining good taste, everyone at least sometimes treats matters of good taste in the same way they treat matters of morals: character flaws are human, but deliberately and publicly insisting that what everyone else regards as character flaws are not flaws but virtues makes people angry. It’s a very human way of thinking about good taste; everybody can find a case which they regard as an egregious and unacceptable flaunting of bad taste as good taste. Criticizing Austen just happens to be one that’s widely regarded as such in our day.

    In full disclosure, though, I should say that I am undeniably pro-Austen, and think that this favoritism for Austen is one of the handful of points on which contemporary culture shows good sense.

  • When it comes to battles of literary taste there usually is a great deal of futile sturm und drang. The battle of the books in Seventeenth Century France comes to mind. The simple truth of course is that we humans are fairly cross grained creatures and our likes and dislikes are going to be diverse about quite a few items. What I find most interesting about such battles is, no surprise, their history and how popular opinions about an author changes over time. Winston Churchill, not the English prime minister, was a contemporary American novelist of Sir Winston. His novels were extremely popular in his life time. Sir Winston added his middle intial S. to American editions of his works to cut down on the confusion between works written by him and works written by the American Churchill. The two Churchills exchanged light hearted letters about this. Now of course the American Winston Churchill is almost entirely forgotten, remembered only in biographies of Sir Winston. Does that mean that he was a “bad novelist” or that simply popular literary tastes had changed? Will Jane Austen be a “bad novelist” if here fad subsides and her novels are little read five decades hence? Does a literary work have any intrinsic value if it is read only by specialists or doctoral candidates? Petronius was designated by Nero his “arbiter of taste”. Various individuals and institutions have attempted to play that role throughout history, but none successfully over time.

  • I read the Synoptic Gospels, and their narration is deceptively simple. I can say the same thing about Jane Austen.

    I have watched films based on Jane Austen’s books, and then read the books themselves. I must say that the films are better at fleshing out the story. Austen’s writing is somewhat bare-bones. Scriptwriters are forced to bring the drama to the fore. Nevertheless, Austen’s books are classics.

    Critics of Austen dismiss her work as fluffy and insubstantial. Yet truth be told, few things are as important as finding a good wife or a good husband. As a single man, if I ignore this truth, I do so at my peril. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”