Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Yep, I Still Can't Stand Jane Austen

Last year (at least, I think it was last year; the past two years has kind of been a blur), I wrote an article for Feminspire on my distaste for the author, Jane Austen. It raised quite a bit of anger from her fans, particularly for my comparison of her to that of Stephenie Meyer. Now, this was an opinion piece, and I'll admit it was incredibly broad in its scope. It wasn't necessarily the best example of my writing, and I remember that I wrote it after trying to get through one of her books that I'd checked out from the library - it was Mansfield Park, by the way. I managed to force myself to read the first chapter before I angrily threw it against the wall. It was just so. tedious. Now that I've had more time to think about Jane Austen and her novels - and I haven't been irritated to the point of human-on-book violence - I figure I can address some of the more common arguments that were brought up after the article was published.

First of all, Stephenie Meyer. I understand academically that what Austen was trying to do was satirize the societal structures of the time, and I'm sure that the people who lived in the Regency and Victorian eras were able to pick up on her subtle critique that she offered. Obviously, those who study Austen and her contemporaries (Bronte sisters, Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Radcliffe, and plenty others) can and do appreciate her approach. However, as a modern - and I don't mean this in a derogatory way, just simply that I have no connection due to the large stretch of time between her writings and my ability to read them - reader, I find her inaccessible. Like I said in the original article, her attempts at making her culture appear ludicrous is not very clear and makes her sound like she is supporting the restrictions that were placed on women.
"The talkative and awkward spinster Ms. Bates (Emma), the vivacious Lydia Bennet (Pride and Prejudice), and the lovesick Maria Bertram (Mansfield Park) are forced to live condemned existences for 'breaking the rules,' while Marianne Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility), Harriet Smith (Emma), and Jane Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) live comfortably since they followed the more accepted path, never daring to buck the restrictions placed upon them."
I stand firmly by this point. Even if she is trying to portray this as satire, she doesn't do a very good job of it, although she improved in this area by the time that Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published. It would be incredibly easy to see similarities between Austen's earlier works and Meyer's Twilight series. Both should know better, despite the fact that Austen lived in a much different time, without the internet and easy access to opposing views. However, I have always had a hard time accepting the idea that people are simply the products of their times. There have always been dissidents to popular attitudes, such as abolitionists in the pre-Civil War U.S., and to excuse that is essentially claiming that we, the modern human, are more advanced than those of the past. Yes, we have technologies that make our lives easier, but people were not dumber two hundred years ago. This is such an incredibly arrogant perspective. Things were just different.

The comparison with Meyer, however, isn't so much a punch to Austen as it is to people who read Austen's novels as romances. And, yes, I know that scholars have a different idea on the themes in what she writes, but look at all of the recent film adaptations of her stuff. For example, 2005's Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightly and Matthew Macfadyan (Lizzy Bennet and Mr. Darcy, respectively), and 1995's Sense and Sensibility, starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet (Elinor Dashwood and Marianne Dashwood, respectively) are both portrayed as rom-coms (with more of an emphasis on the romantic elements). This is not to say that I don't enjoy both of these movies - because I totally do - but all sense of satire is lost. We are the ones that are doing that. At least in Amy Heckerling's Clueless, an adaptation of Emma, does not remove the satire and is a profoundly feminist movie. The young women don't harp on each other's sexual lives (except when Tai barbs Cher with the famous quote, "You're a virgin who can't drive," but that's more of a commentary on how Tai has changed because of Cher's influence more so than anything else), and the notion of social stature (Travis being a stoned skateboarder and therefore not worthy of Tai's affections) is torn down by the end of the movie, when Cher realizes how much they care for each other. In contrast to Heckerling, Meyer, very much a victim to this idealization of traditional female roles - which is another topic for another time, although not on this blog - takes Austen's influence and runs with it, giving us the "gift" of Bella Swan and Edward Cullen.

Second, I was accused of not ever reading Austen (or not reading enough of her) or not being aware of other women writers from her time period. Being an English minor in college had me forced to read classic books that I detest (Scarlet Letter and anything by Charles Dickens, for example, so yes, I trudged through all of Austen's novels, except for Mansfield Park, which I tried to rectify later on. Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre is probably one of my favorite books, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman is in my top ten writers of all time (if you haven't read her short story, "The Yellow Wallpaper," stop what you're doing now and go read it). While it is true that that era's manner of writing isn't my cup of tea, as I indicated above, there are so many more women writers who succeeded in ways that Austen did not.

Continuing on that thread, in an incredibly amusing comment ... you know what? I'm just going to post it here:
"Wow! You're so cool! You don't like Jane Austen and you're comparing her with Meyer, probably because you're so 'into' these [sic] pulp fiction that you can't think of another name to make the comparison. I wonder what you think of the Bronte sisters, Ann Radcliffe, Aphra Behn etc. Oh! probably you haven't even heard of them or you must have tried to read them but couldn't go 'through' the entire book. Duh! These old hags couldn't even include one sex scene in their books or vampires, werewolves, witches and aliens....that is so not cool."
I have no idea where this person got that I only read books with sex, vampires, werewolves, witches and aliens, but okay, then. I'm not even going to offer up what my preferred genres are, but there's a sense of elitism in this comment. I understand that it's more of an anger-fueled response to a most-likely avid reader of Jane Austen, but basically, I am being told that Austen is better reading than Meyer or Gail Carriger or Charlain Harris or countless other female authors that do include those elements into their work. My lovely friend, Elizabeth Thurmond, wrote an amazing article regarding the Culture of "Should," in reference to adults reading YA fiction, but it applies here. My possible reading tastes were ridiculed, as was my intelligence and exposure to other forms of literature. (On a more positive note, I was reminded that I do indeed need to read Aphra Behn, so there's that.) I try not to look down upon a person that enjoys reading a certain type of whatever, be it romances, horror, comics, etc., because personal preference is just that: personal. It says so very little about that person that it barely deserves any mention, since there are positive aspects to every single form of art.

Third, I got a lot of flak for using Mark Twain quotes, expressing his distaste for Austen:
"Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.*"
"Why, I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book." 
Twain has been considered a misogynist by scholars based upon several things, mainly his portrayal of women in his novels and in his supposedly changing opinions of the suffrage movement. Now, I love Mark Twain as an author; he's just so incredibly witty that I wish I could go back in time and talk with him. That being said, I feel like I might have to dress up like a man and engage him. Like my good friend Chuck Dickens, his characterization of women is relegated to stereotypes and are, more often than not, simply objects through which the main male characters learn who they are, if they are even given that much of a role. Miss Watson from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is described as a spinster and is very much a typical understanding of what a "spinster" was during that time: lonely, dependent, haggardly, and just plain mean, even if she does end up freeing Jim (her slave) in her will. Her sister, Widow Douglas, on the other hand, is the motherly, kind type, obviously not embittered by a lifetime without a man and therefore plenty of sexual encounters. They are both caricatures. And that doesn't change in any of his further books.

As far as his disagreement with allowing women the ability to vote, I'm a bit more conflicted here. It seems like he's initially against it, particularly when he writes the following bits to the St. Louis Missouri Democrat in 1867:
"I think I could write a pretty strong argument in favor of female suffrage, but I do not want to do it. I never want to see the women voting, and gabbing about politics, and electioneering. There is something revolting in the thought." 
"Women, go your ways! Seek not to beguile us of our imperial privileges. Content yourself with your little feminine trifles - your babies, your benevolent societies and your knitting - and let your natural bosses do the voting. Stand back - you will be wanting to go to war next. We will let you teach school as much as you want to, and we will pay you half wages for it, too, but beware! we don't want you to crowd us too much."
As a frequent viewer of The Colbert Report, I can't help but notice what could be considered Twain's trademark sarcasm in the second quote. The first quote, on the other hand, seems - if you take it separately from the second one - quite indicative of his disapproval. However, by 1909, he seems to be an avid supporter of the idea, as an interview in the Chicago Daily Tribune would indicate:
"I not only advocate it now, but have advocated it earnestly for the last fifty years. As to the militant suffragettes, I have noted that many women believe in militant methods You might advocate one way of securing the rights and I might advocate another. They both might hep to bring about the result desired. To win freedom always involves hard fighting. I believe in women doing what they deem necessary to secure their rights."
This does not excuse his limited portrayal of women in his novels, so his sexism was most likely an underlying symptom of his own deep-seated misogyny** that he didn't fully examine. Or perhaps he was attempting - and failing, like Austen - to accurately satirize a topic that seems to be such an openly discussed one now. Again, the time frame is a factor here. If he did, indeed, support the suffrage movement for fifty years, then it was his responsibility to flesh out his female characters, to create them as people instead of writing them to the expected type. He didn't do that, and shame on him.

Ultimately, I don't necessarily disagree with my previous article regarding Jane Austen, although I shudder at the lack of nuance. It was more of an immediate, highly emotive diatribe than it was a thoughtful response; I apologize for that, but it still rings true. For me. And that's what beautiful about literature, about all of art: each person is affected differently, depending on their outlooks, backgrounds, upbringing, interests. Once a creator lets something go into the universe, it is no longer theirs, but they can hope that it starts a positive discourse, a greater understanding of what it means to be human. So I suppose I have to give mad props to Jane Austen for forcing me to look at things like situational ideology and cultural isms, things that are so mutable that it amuses me that we can get into fights about them. I can only hope that, someday, my stories and artwork can do the same.

Wait, do I like Jane Austen now? Dammit.

* I have uttered similar things about one Dan Brown. I can't read anything he writes without having tiny bugs of irritation crawling all over my body, and I have refused to buy a single thing he has written (thanks, public libraries!). And yes, I have expressed a desire to smack the man.
** I'll probably do a post on racism in Twain's work later on, because I think that goes hand in hand with the misogyny of this time period. I've always had a problem with people excusing Twain's use of the n-word to describe Jim, since, as I explained above, that is never a good reason to be a shithead.
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