Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Reading Jane Austen with my husband

 “When Darcy, in finally confessing his faults, says ‘I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice though not in theory,’ he gets nearer to a complete confession of the intelligent male than ever was even hinted by the Byronic lapses of the Brontes’ heroes or the elaborate exculpations of George Eliot’s.”  - G.K. Chesterton

My husband just finished reading all of Jane Austen's novels. I'm impressed that he had the discernment to see past the uber-feminine stereotypes of Jane Austen's work that are common in our culture and really enjoy the novels for what they are: well-crafted works of art that are popular because they are insightful, funny, balanced and human.

He's in good company. Along with C.S. Lewis, Rudyard Kipling, Henry James, Anthony Trollope, Sir Walter Scott, G.K. Chesterton, and many others, he is now A Man Who Likes Jane Austen. (Theologian Peter Leithart has attempted to lead Uni students in chants of "Real Men Read Austen" - a quick google search reveals mugs and t-shirts with this mantra, just in case you're interested.)

Let me back track. At the time when I met my husband, his immediate off-the-cuff comment about Austen was something like this: "Oh, yes - women sitting around in nightgowns."

I thought he was referring to all those candlelit scenes in the films where the characters brush their hair and speculate about what so-and-so is really thinking (which happens much less frequently in the novels). It took me about a year to realise he thought all Regency dresses looked like nightgowns. They kind of do.

However, while we were engaged, he started with Emma. I don't remember him having an epiphany about it, but after our marriage we settled into a rather nice habit of me reading to him while he does after-dinner cleanup (his idea, I promise!), and somehow, we selected Mansfield Park

"What should we read next?" I asked, when we finished it. 

His reply? "Let's just read another Austen because we haven't enjoyed anything else as much."

Peirce's ranking (though he says "they're all great"):

  1. Mansfield Park
  2. Emma
  3. Sense & Sensibility
  4. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey
  5. Pride & Prejudice

Reading through the whole Austen body-of-work (excepting Emma) over a year or so was such a delight - though sometimes I felt a bit like a glutton. Seeing her world through the eyes of my husband was great fun and really surprising. For instance:

  • He didn't understand why Darcy fell in love with Elizabeth and to this day maintains its unlikelihood. (What! Did I give Lizzie a silly voice in my read-aloud?!)
  • He absolutely refuses to see why people don't like Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram.
  • He thought Edward Ferrars should just get a job (he's right).
  • He nearly went batty listening to Willoughby's big explanation scene and wanted to excise it from the novel.

One of the delights of great literature is the way it grows with you - how you can enjoy different aspects of it at different stages in your life. I used to think that Austen's novels were all about courtship, each one ending with a wedding, but now I realise how much they are about marriages, and how surprisingly little weddings themselves actually feature at all.

But getting back to the subject of this post... Just in case you didn't buy my opening paragraph, I thought I'd leave you with a few quotes from some of Jane Austen's more famous male admirers (and some of my other favourite authors): Trollope, Chesterton, and Lewis.

"The faults of some [of Austen's characters] are the anvils on which the virtues of others are hammered till they are bright as steel." - Anthony Trollope

"The Novel of the nineteenth century was female; as fully as the novel of the eighteenth century was male. ... The strength and subtlety of woman had certainly sunk deep into English letters when George Eliot began to write. Her originals and even her contemporaries had shown the feminine power in fiction as well or better than she. Charlotte Bronte, understood along her own instincts, was as great; Jane Austen was greater. The latter comes into our present consideration only as that most exasperating thing, an ideal unachieved. It is like leaving an unconquered fortress in the rear. No woman later has captured the complete common sense of Jane Austen. She could keep her head, while all the after women went looking for their brains. She could describe a man coolly; which neither George Eliot nor Charlotte Bronte could do. She knew what she knew, like a sound dogmatist: she did not know what she did not know--like a sound agnostic. But she belongs to a vanished world before the great progressive age of which I write. ..."Jane Austen was born before those bonds which (we are told) protected women from truth, were burst by the Brontes or elaborately untied by George Eliot. Yet the fact remains that Jane Austen knew more about men than either of them. - G.K. Chesterton
"It is perhaps worth emphasizing what may be called the hardness - at least the firmness - of Jane Austen's thought exhibited in all these undeceptions. The great abstract nouns of the classical English Moralists are unblushingly and uncompromisingly used; good sense, courage, contentment, fortitude, 'some duty neglected, some failing indulged', impropriety, indelicacy, generous candor, blamable trust, just humiliation, vanity, folly, ignorance, reason. These are the concepts by which Jane Austen grasps the world. ... All is hard, clear, definable; by some modern standards, even naively so. The hardness is, of course, for oneself, not for one's neighbors. ... Contrasted with the world of modern fiction, Jane Austen's is at once less soft and less cruel. ... It remains to defend what I have been saying against a possible charge. Have I been treating the novels as though I had forgotten that they are, after all, comedies? I trust not. The hard core of morality and even of religion seems to me to be just what makes good comedy possible. 'Principles' or 'seriousness' are essential to Jane Austen's art. Where there is no norm, nothing can be ridiculous, except for a brief moment of unbalanced provincialism in which we may laugh at the merely unfamiliar. Unless there is something about which the author is never ironical, there can be no true irony in the work. 'Total irony' - irony about everything - frustrates itself and becomes insipid. ... If charity is the poetry of conduct and honor the rhetoric of conduct, then Jane Austen's 'principles' might be described as the grammar of conduct." - C.S. Lewis