Thursday, May 15, 2008

Why I Hate Jane Austen

To the author of Jane Eyre, the author of Emma seems essentially superficial.

“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..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.”

~page 76, from “The Place of Love in Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights” by Mark Kinkead-Weekes

*

Life is about what "throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through..." The trick is to reveal that passion via the mundane and ordinary means of our everyday lives, which we do, but Jane Austen does not like to, in most of her works. If the genteel demeanor hid what was dark, fascinating, furious and compelling, then that would be a type of brilliance, but it does not. Even Elizabeth's passion is a shallow mimicry in comparison to that of an Anna Karenina...

25 comments:

Tobie said...

I used to hate Jane Austen, precisely because her characters were all so proper and shallow and genteel. And then one day I read Northanger Abbey, and suddenly, my eyes were opened to the fact that she is mocking both her society and her own writing style, to a degree. Her later parodies (I think Northanger Abbey was her first book) are more subtle and more chick-lit-like, but there is enough hard-packed, genteelly phrased cynicism in any one of them to last a lifetime. She's not the one to read if you want to hear the true passions of the suffering heart, but she's the perfect person to read to hear the passions slyly mocked as melodramatic twaddle.

Erachet said...

GROAN.

Noooooooo.

Don't get me wrong, Wuthering Heights is by far one of my favorite books ever ever ever.

The thing with Austen is - she's not trying to write about passion. That's just the thing. There already are tons of books about passion already when Jane Austen is writing. Think about all that we've read in Gothic Novel and how ridiculously certain characters behave in, say, Romance of the Forest.

If she wanted, I'm positive Jane Austen could have added to that genre, but why should she? She found her time much more useful putting people in check and reminding them that while all that passion stuff is important, it's also important to be realistic.

We love books like Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, but how much of that is actually realistic? How much of that can we expect - and do we want - to happen in our own lives? Not really a lot of it. :)

Chances are extremely slim that we'll ever come across and have a romantic relationship with a Mr. Rochester or, even more so, a Heathcliff. Chances are pretty high that we'll end up in some sort of Jane Austen situation, even centuries later.

Austen and the Brontes are trying to do two completely different things with their books. The Brontes are not concerning themselves with being true to reality and Austen is not concerning herself with writing a book about passion (though that isn't to say there isn't passion in her books. There is).

Anyway, that's what I think.

Erachet said...

The Brontes are not concerning themselves with being true to reality and Austen is not concerning herself with writing a book about passion

I have a feeling this says what I don't really mean, but I'm also running on about two hours of sleep. But, uh, I hope my point makes sense anyway. I mean, there are things in the Bronte books that are about real life, I think, but not the same way that there are in Jane Austen books. And Austen writes about passion for sure (Elizabeth and Darcy, Anne Eliot and Wentworth) but it's not the same as the way the Brontes do it.

Okay. I'm gonna stop babbling now and go to class. And then go back to sleep.

G said...

OR

There might be more to life & literature than simply what "throbs fast and full".

Just a thought.

G said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chana said...

erachet,
Romance of the Forest is an exercise in maudlin stupidity, not passion. More importantly, there is no reason to trade in what is authentic and true (as I think any literature which focuses upon what causes people to act- i.e. what matters to them- is) for what is shallow and false, even if that shallowness is realistic. Yes, I enjoy the fact that Austen is critiquing her society, but I do not comprehend the fandom she has created; her books are simply not that compelling. I know, I know...blasphemy. Ah well.

g,

Certainly. The rest is commentary.

Erachet said...

More importantly, there is no reason to trade in what is authentic and true (as I think any literature which focuses upon what causes people to act- i.e. what matters to them- is) for what is shallow and false, even if that shallowness is realistic. Yes, I enjoy the fact that Austen is critiquing her society, but I do not comprehend the fandom she has created; her books are simply not that compelling.

True, her books are not as exciting and gripping as the Brontes', but that does not make them "shallow" or "false." Quite the contrary, Austen's books deal with extremely real and true emotions, insecurities. Most people are not as passionate as Catherine Earnshaw, Heathcliff, Jane, Rochester. Elizabeth Bennet is an extremely realistic person who many, many people relate to. Emma is an incredibly rich character who suffers from a blindness by her own ideas of the world. Jane Austen's world is a rich, complex one and even though it is not an overflowing cup of passion, it still does contain passion and it definitely is an extremely realistic, true to life group of stories - all about emotion, growing up, maturing, seeing the world, learning to read others, etc. It may not evoke the same emotion as a Bronte novel, it may not appeal to our senses in quite the same way, but that does not make it any less real. Austen does different things with her novels than the Brontes do. Austen is a satirist. The Brontes write Gothic, somewhat sensational novels. They're just different - one isn't better or worse.

NoFreeLunch said...

Don't you think there's passion in Persuasion?

lm said...

"The Brontes are not concerning themselves with being true to reality and Austen is not concerning herself with writing a book about passion (though that isn't to say there isn't passion in her books. There is)."

I'm not sure I see more realism in Austen than in Bronte. Jane Eyre may contain high passions, but the ending is very anti-fairy tale, focusing instead on real human happiness. Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, seems to wrap up everything all nicely and cleanly, just like it always works out in happy storybooks. Just my two cents.

sara said...

as i write my last jane austen paper for the semester, all i can say is this: chana, i take this very personally! :)

Erachet said...

I'm not sure I see more realism in Austen than in Bronte. Jane Eyre may contain high passions, but the ending is very anti-fairy tale, focusing instead on real human happiness. Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, seems to wrap up everything all nicely and cleanly, just like it always works out in happy storybooks. Just my two cents.

Right. That's why I said after I'm not sure that statement says what I want it to mean. It's not that everything in each of the stories is realistic or not. It's that Austen definitely focuses on realistic people with realistic emotions. She is in no way "false" or "shallow." Just because she doesn't get melodramatic and just because she uses satire doesn't make her stories any less rich, realistic, or true. They speak about true human experience. The fact that Austen rewards her heroines at the end is a separate issue, but doesn't detract from all the trials her heroines initially have to go through.

With the Brontes, yes, they also focus on real emotions, but they take it to the extreme. They focus on passion and extremes more than on mundane life. Both types of stories are real and true and good, but they're different. I think it's a misreading of Austen to say she is shallow just because she doesn't focus on the heights of passion in her characters.

Also, Darcy and Elizabeth - there is definitely passion there. Persuasion - tons of passion. It's subtle. Austen is much more subtle than the Brontes. But that's okay.

Aaron from YU said...

Chana,
I just read the news about your new role in The Observer starting next Fall. This is AMAZING NEWS ! Will be looking forward to each and every issue. Ah,will you still continue to write stories here?
Much luck and have a good shabbos!

Chana said...

hey aaron,

any chance you could email me? I'd like to talk to you, but not in this forum. thank you! shabbat shalom!

Aaron from YU said...

Chana,
I'll try.
Good luck on your finals!

Liz said...

I apologize for wandering into conversations about a week late (err, and hello, my name is Liz, I meandered over here courtesy of erachet).

Interesting take on Austen. I mean, Charlotte Bronte's stories are not real. They're the fairy tale versions of her own life, retold with a heroine who she wishes she could be. (Jane Eyre, Vilette - they're the love story that Charlotte didn't get. So while I love her books, I don't get the same realistic feel or even depth of emotion from them. When Jane gets emotional, it is powerful, but not half as powerful as the quiet, suppressed emotions of Darcy or Anne Elliot. Austen portrays the characters from the view of the outside observer, leaving just enough for us to extrapolate their feelings. Bronte makes her characters clearly display every single emotion that wells up in the depths of the human heart. And while it does make for a powerful fairy tale, it still isn't real.

Thomasd said...

Certainly Jane Austen is passable in these areas, but as you touched on, to truly see motives and passions, thoughts and feelings, true pride and prejudices....give me my beloved Tolstoy.

I enjoy your writing.

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