Many readers operate under the misconception that Jane Austen’s work is “just for girls.”** By allowing this gender stereotype to dictate their reading choices, men (and women who avoid so-called “girly” books) have missed out on great literature.
Recently, the acknowledgments in Diana Peterfreund’s For Darkness Shows the Stars, a re-telling of Austen’s Persuasion, reminded me of the pervasiveness of these stereotypes. Peterfreund writes:
…to my husband, who got all excited at the thought of me finally writing sci-fi (and less so when I clarified that it would be a Jane Austen sci-fi)… Most of all: thank you Jane Austen… for giving generations of mothers and daughters endless topics of conversation…
My husband might have been similarly lukewarm about a sci-fi Austen adaptation, before I encouraged him to give Jane Austen’s original works a chance. He finished Sense and Sensibility, enjoyed it, and has written the following review for this blog (see below).
Here’s to hoping that Austen’s books will give generations of mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons endless topics of conversation.
Mr. A.M.B’s Thoughts on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility:
I have a list of books I want to read about a mile high and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Jane Austen’s works were not at the top of it. It’s not that I didn’t respect her work or that I thought it was strictly for girls — surely the word of Chief Justice John Marshall is enough to end that notion — but I didn’t think it would appeal to me. I’m more inclined to read a space opera or a biography than an early 19th century romance. On a whim, after watching The Jane Austen Book Club with Amal (A.M.B.), I vowed to read them all. She recommended I start with Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s first published work.
I’m about 200 years late to the Austen Admiration Society, but I do want to highlight a couple virtues of the work that resonated with me, and thus might resonate with other readers more at home with The Road and Fight Club than any book where the protagonist regularly wears a lace bonnet.
(1) Jane’s Quill Was Sharp As An Arrow
Sense and Sensibility includes some of the most wicked insults in the English language. Whenever Jane’s not slicing up characters — “However dissimilar in temper and outward behavior, they strongly resembled each other in that total want of talent and taste,” begins a few short lines that thoroughly summarize and then obliterate the Middletons — she’s laying waste to the whole of humanity: “She was not a woman of many words; for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas.” If the English language was a hammer for Hemingway, it is a Masamune samurai sword for Austen.
(2) Jane’s Characters Are Living, Breathing Humans
Yet, Jane’s characters are not mere targets for witticisms, nor props to move a plot along, but vivid, tangible, and fascinating characters. Sir John Middleton, for example, makes up for his “want of talent and taste” with a caring and loyal personality. For his faithful support — like his principled refusal, despite his gregarious and forgiving nature, to even speak to Willoughby after his mistreatment of Marianne — Jane bestows on him the power to “vex [Willoughby] horridly.” He is the one who “could not resist the temptation” to bluntly tell Willoughby that Marianne is “dying of a putrid fever,” which visibly reduces Willoughby to a shock, which again causes Sir John Middleton to “soften” considerably, as well it should. It is the very sort of assault, regret, and compassion we would expect of a loyal friend who is angry but not, at heart, malicious.
(3) The Themes Are Deeper And More Satisfying Than Simple Romance
The above exchange between Middleton and Willoughby is but one short example, one found in a much larger context of Elinor issuing a judgment over Willoughby made all the more damning by the restrained manner in which it is delivered. Austen has a singular ability to put into words the ineffable parts of life, for example: the mixture of anxiety and euphoria of love that is not yet confirmed to be reciprocal; the slow and typically ineffective process by which people try to talk themselves out of their feelings and then come to terms with them; the tension between adherence to social expectation and being true to one’s self; and, the process by which we learn that “one’s self” is partly discovered and partly developed over time. There is depth, but there is also levity: the characters take ample time to laugh at themselves and their foibles, as should we all.
There are times when I must admit I was lost in some of the social minutiae, but I don’t doubt that it had meaning and relevance if I had stopped to more fully consider it. Either way, I’m looking forward to the next work to read, whatever it is that my wife recommends.
***Don’t forget to enter the “Good book and a Cup of Tea” giveaway (A chance to win gift cards to Amazon.com and Teavana). See here for details.