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A feisty new look at Jane Austen, plus the comedy of manners lives!

March 25, 2010

The only known image of Jane Austen, drawn by her sister Cassandra

In a way it’s a pity this new literary mash-up craze got started with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Of all the classic writers I can think of, Jane Austen needs the help least of all. She’s already hugely popular with modern readers — which contrasts dramatically with the small success she enjoyed in her lifetime.

Over at NPR, I’ve found a couple of pieces to excite not only the insatiable Janeite, but also anyone who enjoys either a witty and perceptive critical reassessment, or a cracking good comedy of manners.

Maureen Corrigan, NPR’s resident book reviewer, praises Claire Harman’s “shrewd study,” Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World, for “brimming with Brit wit” that “freshens up our impression of Austen.”

Scantly more is known of Austen’s life than Shakespeare’s, Corrigan says.  But Harman’s aim is not to elucidate the author’s shadowy life, but “to tackle the great literary mystery of how this parson’s daughter ‘who was happy to limit her scope to “3 or 4 Families in a Country Village” [came to] conquer the world.'”

Harman counters the cliched understanding of Austen as a “mousy” spinster in a modest family at the lower rungs of landed gentry. Far from scratching her novels out quietly, “without regard to fame or fortune,” writes Corrigan, Austen was “a literary workhorse” who coveted “big sales.”  I love that image, don’t you? Corrigan, drawing on Harman’s book, backs it up:

“After Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 and the secret of its author’s identity began to leak out, Austen wrote to her sailor brother, Frank: ‘[T]he secret has spread so far as to be scarcely the Shadow of a secret now — & … I believe whenever the 3rd [novel] appears … I shall … try to make all the Money [rather] than all the Mystery I can of it. People shall pay for their Knowledge if I can make them.'”

That wasn’t to be, although Austen did have literary admirers during her lifetime. After her death, the books languished – at one point going out of print for 12 years. Austen began her rise with the publication of a nephew’s 1869 biographical sketch, “Aunt Jane.”

Austen had her literary detractors, notably Mark Twain, who said many clever and nasty things about her novels, including, “Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.” But early Janeites included Rudyard Kipling and the Bloomsbury set, notes Corrigan, and by the 1940s Austen was generally accepted in the highest ranks of English literature.

In addition to Harman’s book, which sounds both erudite and delightful, Helen Simonson, another NPR correspondent, suggests three novels Janeites might like. Only six Austen novels exist, leaving devoted fans longing for more and giving rise to a never-ending industry of pastiches: sequels and prequels to Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility; novels in the manner of Austen that include her as a character and so tiresomely on.

Simonson, though, suggests three novels with literary bona fides that happen to be, like Austen’s books, comedies of manners: The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton; Cakes and Ale, by W. Somerset Maughum; Mapp & Lucia, by E.F. Benson.

I suspect most Janeites have no more interest in literary quality than the average zombie aficianado. It’s brains and blood for the latter, Regency romance for the former.

If you think I’m wrong, then be so good as to prove it by sharing a few of your non-Jane favorites, with emphasis on the comedy of manners. Also, share your love of Jane, in any way you choose. As a blog comment, I mean. Please, no bricks through my living room window.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. alexis permalink
    March 25, 2010 10:18 am

    It’s funny, I have loved the three or four Jane Austin books I have read, but I don’t feel the need to go out and find similar books by other authors. I am not a big fan of the genre (not that I dislike it), I just enjoy her writing.

    And man, Twain was really really mean to her.

  2. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 25, 2010 11:29 am

    Twain was in the business of being opinionated and funny (among other things). He was just as hard on James Fenimore Cooper, devoting an entire essay to the awfulness of Cooper’s writing.

    Yes, Jane does have a beguiling style. But she’s not the only one. I imagine Wharton and company are stylistic and funny, too.

  3. Tommy Smart permalink
    March 25, 2010 11:31 am

    My favorite Austen has to be Northanger Abbey. Pride never hooked up with Prejudice and Sense never got it on with Sensibility, but Catherine and Henry lived happily ever after. Sort of.

    A little known comedy of manners is Margery Sharp’s “Cluny Brown”. While not a great book, Cluny Brown gives a the genre a twist in that the main character isn’t part of the gentry, instead young Cluny is the maid.

    I have always enjoyed and could relate to the over-active imaginations, and the trouble these mindtrips caused for everyone in Austen’s main characters.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 25, 2010 1:08 pm

      For the record, my favorite Austen is Persuasian, but I love them all. I’ve heard good things about Cluny Brown, but never had the chance to, you know, read it. Thanks for the rec.

  4. rebekah permalink
    March 25, 2010 11:59 am

    I really enjoyed Austen in high school, and wrote my senior thesis on her. The big draw for me was that she did write characters with unusually proto-feminist ideals, even if they did eventually get married and conform to societal norms. Of course everything wraps up nice and romantically, but I think that was kind of required to sell “women’s books.” As I recall there weren’t a whole lot of “out” women writers at the time, and histories and romances were kind of their only options. As for comedies of manners, I could mostly give a crap about the genre, but I admit to having read a lot of them because I made a point to read a lot of women writers in my formative years. It is my opinion that a growing girl can only bear so much Homer and Mellville and Conrad and dudes, dudes, dudes.
    It should be noted that as much as Twain talked crap about Austen, he RE-READ her work regularly. If I really hate something, I can’t get through it at all. (See Twilight, which made me suspect that the Stephanie Meyer was actually a sub-literate third-grader. I could not trudge through more than three agonizing chapters of that garbage.) I will give Twain a thumbs up on one thing: Fanny Price sucks. Just sucks, and I want her to die a gruesome and painful death. (I feel the same way about Pip in Great Expectations too.)

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 25, 2010 1:22 pm

      Poor Pip! Yes, I know he grew up to be a sop, but as a boy he’s a great character, and the first third of Great Expectations is one of my favorite bits. The Dickens character I want to see run down by a carriage is Oliver “Butter Won’t Melt in My Mouth” Twist. Except for Oliver, the very paragon of unrealistic boy goodness, OT is a great novel, with its realistic depiction of street life, child abuse, crime and so forth. And Bill Sikes is one of the great villains of all time. God, that man had some juice.

      I am in complete sympathy with your lack of patience with all the dudes in classical fiction. Aside from the many underappreciated female authors — Kate Chopin, H.D., Karen Blixen, Frances Trollope, Madame du Barry and many more — some few of the boys manage decent female characters: Henry James, William Makepeace Thackaray, E.M. Forster, Stendhal, etc. Dickens, too, come to think.

      Reading backward into classical fiction, I myself see a great number of writers, both genders, who probably should have been “out.”

  5. rachel permalink
    March 25, 2010 1:10 pm

    I really like Jane Austen, and I have to admit that part of that is the irresistible romance, but it’s also the comedy and the satire and the making fun of itself that is so appealing to me. I love that style of writing, but I don’t feel the need to go out and find people that are just like Austen. No, I’d prefer to just read other works that are written in the same language and explore other tones and subjects rather than trying to find Austen replacements. And I kind of like that there are only six. It makes them seem special. When if there were 15 or 20 it might start to seem slightly tiresome.

    Twain was really mean. But really funny. Sitting at my desk at work, I laughed out loud to that.

    I really like finding old books on manners in used bookstores. They are comedies in themselves. And very interesting too!

    I think that there is more interest in Austen now than ever before. Especially in movies, which is kind of disgusting. I think they kind of miss the point. They just make it all mush and romantic comedy. They over simplify it and I do not approve.

    • alexis permalink
      March 25, 2010 1:41 pm

      Rachel, that is a great point about how there only being six is a good thing! You are right, if there were 20 it would be oh so tiresome.

  6. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 25, 2010 1:28 pm

    Jane Austen, like virtue, needs no defense but is her own reward. No matter how she may be abused (wittily, by Twain) or perverted (in movies and pastiche novels) or misunderstood (by some of her most fervent admirers), she remains in the writing (and the reading) her sublime, perceptive, funny self. She always stands ready, awaiting discovery by each new reader. The romance and happy endings are not only a way to please the reader. Indeed, I think that their lesser function. More, these enforced happy endings underscore the political subtext of Austen’s novels, which is that in her time women had so few rights, so little power, the only way to any kind of social or financial security was by way of a propitious marriage. It is to be noted, however, that Jane herself turned down her one and only marriage proposal, to a lumbering lout who was also quite rich, and advised a relative in a private letter to marry only for “fondness.”

  7. Connie permalink
    March 25, 2010 2:16 pm

    I’m with Rebekah on Fanny Price – ugh. Still, a small price to pay for Anne Eliot and Elizabeth Bennet.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 25, 2010 3:43 pm

      Hey, girls, come one: How bad could Fanny Price be?!? She was played by Billie Piper in the most recent Brit adaptation…

  8. Candice permalink
    March 25, 2010 2:22 pm

    I do enjoy reading Austen, though not book after book, one right after another. I will have to think long and hard about similar writers producing similar works. But right now, nothing comes to mind.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 25, 2010 9:49 pm

      Yeah, I wouldn’t read them one after another, either. All that Regency merriment starts to run together, in the absence of some more modern palate-cleanser.

  9. Monica permalink
    March 25, 2010 8:50 pm

    Well, I discovered Jane Austen in my twenties and loved her wit and word usage. I devoured everything she had written. I have since reread some of her novels through the years and I greatly appreciate the suggestions made about similar authors and styles.

  10. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    March 25, 2010 9:50 pm

    While Jane may be peerless, that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of worthy comedies of manners by other writers. Monica, I commend you!

  11. March 29, 2010 10:57 am

    My advice to JA fans is don’t stop with the novels of manners, enjoyable though they are. Jane Austen had an insight into the human heart that to me is rivaled among writers only by Shakespeare and Tolstoy. Unfortunately she led a much less eventful life than either of those gentlemen. I like to imagine what Jane Austen would have written if she could have left the drawing room and gone out into the world a bit. Here are two modern works to my mind really channel Jane Austen in the best possible sense of the term:

    If Jane Austen had been born a man and had gone into the Navy and become a sea captain, as two of her brothers did, I think she would have written stories like Patrick O’Brian. These are series of novels — the first is Master and Commander — about a sea captain named Jack Aubrey, who is in the British Navy at the time of the Napoleonic wars, who sails the world and has many adventures, at sea and at home in England between voyages. It is also the story of the friendship of Aubrey and his ship’s surgeon, Maturin, an Irish-Catalan naturalist-physician-opium-eater-spy, who is just as complicated as his many hyphens suggest. The 20 novels (yes! 20 of them, and at the end you only wish there were 20 more) are witty and humane and full of life itself. They completely transport the reader to that era.

    Susanna Clarke’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell,” about English magicians, is also set in the Jane Austen era of the Napoleonic Wars. It is suffused with the spirit and wit of Jane Austen while, like Patrick O’Brian, telling a very different and completely engaging story: This one about magic, faeirie and the danger of going too deep into dangerous subject areas. It is no book that any Austen fan should miss. Forget the zombies and the derivative Regency romances. This is amazing, the real thing.

  12. May 25, 2010 9:43 pm

    Check out my blog for an alternative view of Jane Austen’s “shadow stories”

    Arnie Perlstein
    Weston, Florida

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