Tuesday, September 4, 2007

“It was not accomplished; it was ironic.”

My biggest pet peeve: categorizing Jane Austen as “Chic Lit.” When people describe Jane Austen’s work as Chic Lit, I seriously question their understanding of her work. The associated error is equivalent to lumping together a popular pop song with the creative genius of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. While a pop song might be vastly entertaining, moving, and meaningful, it will never have musical influence and effect of a staggering work of musical masterpiece. I do not mean to demean either form--both have their time and place. However, let us learn to call a spade a spade, shall we?

Yes, Jane Austen’s work follows a predictable pattern: a single young woman of talent and beauty makes the most incredibly advantageous of matches and lives happily ever after in complete felicity. Jane Austen is a woman after my own heart-a heart that yearns for a happy ending. Like Jane, my life is a composite of inconsequential nothings. I, like most everyone, understand the bitterness of disappointment and the despondency of despair. Do I really want to re-visit that in novels? No. I want a sense of a hope. I want to believe that life can be happy ever after. Millions of authors have understood this truth and have capitalized on it. Does that make them Jane’s equivalent? Not even close. Because Jane captures the ironies of life in her work more than any author I have ever read. She fleshes out her novels with very biting, hilarious social commentary; a timeless commentary that has application today--300 years later.

I am currently re-reading Sense and Sensibility, a novel I have only read once before (gasp!). Only nine chapters in to it, and I can find more hilarious lines than in entire books combined.

Of Mr. John Dashwood: “he was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold-hearted, and rather selfish is to be ill-disposed.”

Of Mrs. John Dashwood: “Mrs. John Dashwood had never been a favourite with any of her husband’s family: but she had had no opportunity till the present, of showing them with how little attention to the comfort of other people she could act when occasion required it.”

Marianne: “I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both.”

Of Colonel Brandon: Colonel Brandon alone, of all the party, heard her with being in raptures. He paid her only the compliment of attention….His pleasure in music, though it mounted not to that ecstatic delight which alone could sympathize with her own, was estimable when contrasted against the horrible insensibility of the others; and she was reasonable enough to allow that a man of five-and-thirty might well have outlived all the acuteness of feeling and every exquisite power of enjoyment. She was perfectly disposed to make every allowance for the colonel’s advanced state of life which humanity required.”

Oh, the irony! The irony! With what skill it is delivered! Yet, so many people don’t get it. Perhaps like humor it bestowed upon some people and not on others. Even great authors by their own right didn’t quite understand the genius that is Jane Austen. One famous example is that of Charlotte Bronte:

“Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré or extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well. There is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy, in the painting. She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood ... What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death--this Miss Austen ignores....Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete and rather insensible (not senseless woman), if this is heresy--I cannot help it.”

And again a critique by Mark Twain:

“To me his prose is unreadable--like Jane Austen's [sic]. No there is a difference. I could read his prose on salary, but not Jane's. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”

To be extremely anachronistic, I will quote Mr. T: “I pity the fool!” To not be able to appreciate the emotion of her writing and the beauty of her language? T’would be like being tone deaf.

1 comment:

yola said...

I must applaud you for quoting Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Mark Twain, AND Mr. T all in one post. Lovely.

While I'm not quite the Janeite you are, I must say that what I do love about Jane Austen's writing is her ability to be biting and optimistic at the same time. She at times verges on snark, which seems like such a modern sensibility, and is probably one of the reasons why people still love her.

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