• Mon, Jul 26 2010

I Hate Jane Austen

I hate Jane Austen novels.

Now, generally I lie about this. People come up to me in droves (in the supermarket, on the subway, freaking everywhere) talking to me about how, of course, I must love Lizzy Bennett. “Sure” I say, because saying otherwise seems like saying “I only read US weekly, and I’m going to go watch You’re Cut Off now, okay, thanks, bye.” And then I’m stuck talking about her sparkling dark eyes or how Mr. Darcy is all dreamy or something.

All while thinking “hell no, I don’t love Lizzy Bennett”. Finishing Pride and Prejudice, finishing every Jane Austen book (oversharing alert: I went to college) felt like it required the same energy I’d put into chopping down a mighty oak using only a spoon. Blindfolded. With my teeth.

And I’m not alone. Lots of cool people don’t like Jane Austen. People like Mark Twain, who said “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin bone.” Let’s all take a minute to think about how much fun it would have been to be friends with Mark Twain.

Done? Okay. But I have been trying to examine my own dislike of Austen. Is it because her novels feature too many big words and too few zombies? Yes. But this is true of many books, and I’m able to get over say, my grudging distress that “The Beautiful and the Damned” was not about the undead, but the struggles of upper-class of Americans. And I do love Flaubert and Tolstoy, both of whom came only a little while after Jane Austen.

But then, their heroines seemed to exhibit a great deal of passion and defiance of convention. Madame Bovary found herself trapped in a dull marriage in a small town so she went on wild shopping sprees, had affairs, read romance novels and eventually (spoiler!) drank poison. Anna Karenina fled her family to be with her dashing lover only to throw herself under a train. These aren’t happy endings, but they do seem to indicate that the characters are too full of passion to ever accept a provincial life.

Jane Austen’s characters? I can never help feeling that the provincial life is all they have. The provincial life, and a huge dollop of middle class restraint. They have feelings. They have a lot of trouble articulating them. They are very polite. They have to be because otherwise all the other characters seem to be desperately looking for insults where none are intended. When they find those insults, they can respond by being really cold and not saying why. For an entire book. Maybe exciting things are going on inside the character’s souls, but Jane Austen manages to obscure them to such an extent that I have no idea if they are or not.

And I know that’s what many people love about the novels.  I know they’re supposed to be a welcome contrast to modern life where we share everything, and this whole idea of holding back all of your feelings is very appealing except… it’s dull. The only Jane Austen character I ever felt I really liked was Lydia, Lizzie Bennett’s younger sister who ran away with her soldier lover (she was brought back and married him, so was not ruined). Now she had the potential to have a really interesting story, there. If only Jane Austen had followed her!

And my girl Charlotte Bronte has my back on this. ‘Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works,’ wrote Brontë. ‘All such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as ”outré ”or extravagant.” Meanwhile, Ralph Waldo Emerson remarked “Her characters live in such a wretchedly narrow view of life that suicide would be more respectable.”

And I feel like even in the instances where the characters have a chance to have some passion, they’re denied. Remind me why Marianne in Sense and Sensibility has to marry staid, sedate Colonel Brandon and not Willoughby, who was young and handsome and made her feel things? Or why Emma ends up with someone who sees her as a sister figure? Or, for that matter, why Fanny of Mansfield Park, who can’t marry her actual brother, ends up married, again, to someone who she views as a brother? Doesn’t it all feel a bit, if not creepy and incestuous (and I don’t think Jane means it to feel that way) rather dry and sexless?

Maybe we are too apt to equate lust with true love in the modern age, but I just can’t equate happiness with “being married and having a large estate” as invariably seems to be the best ending for any Jane Austen character. I suppose it simply comes down to the fact that I can’t shake the sensation that none of the characters would be very much fun to hang out with for very long. Our new imaginary friend, Mark Twain, seemed to concur when he wrote:

“Whenever I take up “Pride and Prejudice” or “Sense and Sensibility,” I feel like a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven. I mean, I feel as he would probably feel, would almost certainly feel. I am quite sure I know what his sensations would be—and his private comments. He would be certain to curl his lip, as those ultra-good Presbyterians went filing self-complacently along. Be- cause he considered himself better than they? Not at all. They would not be to his taste—that is all.”

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  • Amy

    I’d rather be with Colonel Brandon, who is kind and loving, rather than Willoughby, who seems only to want to toy with a girl’s heart, and create an “understanding” between them which he then promptly drops. I’d ALSO rather end up with Mr. Darcy, who, yes, IS a bit proud and stuffy, than I would with Mr. Wickham, who cares only about himself and his station in life. I’d rather end up with a man whom others perceive as boring, than with a man who duped me, broke my heart, and–were we married–would (most likely) spend the rest of his life cheating on me.

    • Jennifer Wright

      But what about the banter? The excitement? Willoughby was going to take her across the world and they were going to have adventures, and instead she’s going to be trapped with a man twice her age running a house. Jane Austen even writes, “Instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion,she found herself submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, the patroness of a village.’ She relinquishes an irresistable passion! But at least she gets some pretty window treatments and reliable servants out of the deal.

    • Passionate Reader

      But you must think about what Marriane went through. She desperately fell in love with a man who eventually broke her heart. She stood by him even when he wasn’t with her and he just let her down. And why did he leave her? His Aunt decided to not give any inheritance and he was thrown into horrible debt. So he married a rich, jealous girl who he had no feelings for. He picked Miss Grey (I believe that was her name) to satisfy his own material gains instead of following love. And don’t forget that he left Eliza on her own while she was pregnant (which was horrible because not only was she 15, but they had sex before marriage which was taboo at the time. And when asked Iif he would marry her, he said no, presumably because she was poor). After Marriane realised the mistake she made in trusting Willoughby, she changed drastically (for the better). She loked back and saw that Williughby was not good for her. He was exactly like her. They both had huge passion. But they both were selfish and absorbed by eachother in an unhealthy way. Marriane also realised how unkind she was to Mrs. Jennings and every one else who was extremly kind to her. She changed to be more reasonable.
      I’m not saying passion was bad. If Willoughby was as good as he seemed in the begining and not the scoundrel that he turned out to be, he would have been perfect. But that didn’t happen. Colnel Brandon was perfect for her because he was steady in his regard for her and only wished to see her happy. He did all he couod for her while watching from the sidlines gaining nothing. He was even fine to see her with Willoughby if he turned out to do well by her. Brandon is a bit undervalued as a romatic hero in that people focus more on him being boring and old than realizing what he actually did and went through for Marrianne (though him being twice her age is a bit creepy).
      In the end, it was quite sad that Marriane lost her passion, but such a thing as losing who she thought was her true love is what changed her. She changed, maybe not into something better, but into a person as equally as impressive.
      I wish people would not hate Marriane, or really any old love story character, for “losing passion” or “picking the boring/safe way”. Just because they are not like love stories now where people have to jump off cliffs to prove their love doesn’t mean they aren’t good love story chatacters. They are just more level headed and realistic. Not every love story needs a burning passion that almost kills one of the characters. And frankly, it sometimes sems way out of proportion and over dramatic a lot of the time.

  • porkchop

    Mark Twain hated Jane Austen?? Oh, yay! When I was in high school, I wrote a highly critical paper about Jane Austen, backed with quotes by Mark Twain WHICH I MADE UP. I’m so happy to learn that he actually hated her. I feel so much less dishonest now.

    I actually loved Pride and Prejudice the second time I read it–not that I’m suggesting you didn’t try hard enough. Some people just aren’t turned on by restraint :D. Also, Lydia is the best. I mean, isn’t that what Bridget Jones is about? Lydia (us) landing the hot rich guy?

    • Stella

      Jane Eyre had restraint. Elizabeth Bennett had a stick up her butt.

    • Cloderic The Parasite

      That is genius and the best review of Pride and Prej ever, even greater than one on Amazon that says “it’s just people going to each others houses.”

    • PolkaStripe

      Bridget Jones’s Diary is the modern day re-telling of Pride and Prejudice. Bridget is Lizzie Bennet. Mark Darcy is, of course, Mr. Darcy, and Daniel Cleaver is Mr. Wickham. Mark and Daniel have a falling out after being boyhood chums; Bridget is informed of said falling out by Daniel, also dishonestly. She then holds a grudge against Mark because of Daniel’s tale. She falls for Mark because he keeps swooping in to save the day, but doesn’t realize her affections as she’s distracted by her entanglement with Daniel. Mark is relentlessly followed by the scheming Natasha (Ms. Bingley) who attempts to discredit Bridget at every turn. Bridget’s mother is a simpering idiot who has ridiculous emotional outbursts and her father is sarcastic, anti-social, and ineffectual. There is more, but I tire of typing it. If you don’t want to re-read the books, then watch the movies back to back.

      Also, for giggles, Clueless is the modern day re-telling of Emma, if you’d like to see some more Austen at work.

  • Dana

    I completely agree. I’ve never liked Jane Austen and one of my biggest criticism of her novels is that all of her characters, particularly her heroines, are all alike. Take a look at Elizabeth, Emma and the others, there’s barely any difference in their personalities. I admit that her novels are witty but wit alone can’t make a good novel. Not only that her heroines are always superior to every other female in her books. They’re always prettier, smarter, wittier, or rasher (in a perfectly acceptable way of course) than any other of her written females. I’d take Becky Sharp, Lily Bart, Scarlette O’Hara or Josephine Perry any day over Austen’s perfect dolls.

  • Camila

    altough i love pride and prejudice, i’m not going to trow you in a shark tank
    I get that you’re not turned on by the stories jane austen tells, and i have to agree that everything you said in the post is true..
    all her heroins are restrained, and none of them show their true emotions, and when they do, they’re seen as vulgar.. and yes, the storylines are long, and they’re not passionate (not in a desperate and rushed way anyway).. but thats exactly why i love jane austen..
    the stories are a portray of her time’s society, and i do think they’re timeless, in a way
    i totally disagree on you when you say today people say what they think and what they feel.. i think today’s society falls right in jane austen long speeches
    there, i say it.. feels good.. lol

  • Mary

    I always find it irritating when people are so apt to “hate” authors. You don’t hate Jane Austen. You don’t know her. What you hate are her books, or her writing style, or her settings, etc. Unless you happen to think that Austen was a terrible person deserving of hate, learn to separate writers from their works.

    That said, your critique is valid. The reason some find Austen’s works so appealing is the same reason others find it so boring (my husband attests to this). But I will respectfully disagree that the characters are dull or boring.

    There are people in the world who don’t speak well, don’t share their feelings well, are misrepresented by society, etc. Austen’s novels provide some respite for those weary souls looking for others with whom to commiserate. For me, I don’t speak my feelings. All too often I feel so much, words fail to express my emotion. My favorite Austen quotation highlights the depth of her characters’ feelings:

    “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

    • Mary

      Huh, well color me stupid, because I totally missed the first line of article that says very clearly, “I hate Jane Austen novels.”

      I was misled by the article’s title and apologize.

  • Eileen

    I guess it’s what attracts you. I enjoy Jane Austen – she’s not my favorite, but I do like Elizabeth Bennet and was hopelessly embarrassed by Lydia. And I never liked Mark Twain, so there you go.

    But I’ve also always been more attracted to stability than adventure (hey, I was the only girl in my class who totally thought Kristin Lavransdatter should have just gone with the guy her parents picked rather than chasing passion with Erlend), so Jane Austen appeals to me. I also think that Jane Austen does a good job of displaying how we really are constrained by the expectations of our society. But hey. Not everyone has to love her.

  • Heather

    If you’re turned off by the ever-present polite behavior in JA books, you’ll probably still be entertained by Jane Austen Fight Club.

  • Devi

    I think the problem might be that you’re not reading Jane Austen in the correct spirit. I do love Pride and Prejudice. It’s one of my favorite books. However, I see it as a subtle piece of vulgar comedy. It reminds me of Married with Children. Think of Lydia as Kelly, Mr. Bennett as Al, Mrs. Bennett as Peg, etc, etc. It works. The Bennetts are a vulgar, trashy family, so just imagine how the rest of society sees them.

    I’ll admit, I just noticed this a couple of years ago after reading the novel for the perhaps the 14th time. Still, try it. Makes it much more enjoyable.

  • sally

    comparing Eliza.B with Mme.B and Anna K is comparing fish and eggs. They are equally products of their environments and it is a bit light to say she lacks passion.

  • Janet Baker

    I’m not too fond of her either. Her world is so contracted. But that’s what England was left with, after they destroyed Catholicism there. Yes yes, I hear you saying, ‘WTF??’ but no less a historian than British Anglican scholar John Bossy points out that women enjoyed more privileges under the Old Faith, and were not faced with divorce, either, which Anglicanism had to accept, given its origins. Protestant women had no authority (like a sympathetic parish priest, and behind him a whole library of formal canon law with her protection in mind, should her husband act the ass). Protestant men are the popes of their own private religions, and the king of their own homes. There is no other law. Furthermore, protestants had no women’s religious orders, having abolished them in order to seize their land, which had given many an ambitious young Catholic woman an out prior to the Reformation, with a career and a living away from home. There were no outs for the Jane Austens. Marriage became a quid pro quo, a financial deal, not the romantic union of the old religion. It made a pretty good spring board for feminism.

  • marciano guerrero

    Mark Twain, Stephenie Meyer, Stephen King, and many others surely will be forgotten 200 years from, but Chaucer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Stendahl, and Jane Austen will still be around guiding the moral lives of worthy people. Not only do we learn by reading about heroes and heroines, but also from villains such as Iago, Claggart, Willoughby, Mr. Wickam–and Vronsky.
    http://writersrepublic.com

    • Tom Gould

      Twain forgotten? I’m afraid you have overstepped there. I agree Austen will be long-beloved by readers. Yet there need not be a diametric here. Twain and Austen live comfortably on the same shelf in my library.

  • marciano guerrero

    Often I read articles, comments, literary criticism, and blogs about Jane Austen’s novels. Not long ago, one blogger lamented that Jane Austen was boring because of her long convoluted sentences; one other complained that her themes were trivial and that had to do with boring manners; still another dismissed her works as chick lit, writing novel tips, in which every woman is looking for a husband with a good income.
    I cite these examples just to give an idea and perhaps explain that the general perception of Jane Austen novels is superficial. Serious readers of her works will find something loftier.
    By no means do I intend to make her into a philosophical writer, or sociological scribbler, or much less a political writers. Not at all. I only wish to observe that her work has a depth that it is seldom commented on, even by those who read and re-read her novels.
    To get at the heart of human nature
    Through her depiction of manners and the catalogue of human emotions that Jane Austen deals with in her novels, she wants to get at the roots of human behavior; that is, though their daily activities as bane as they may seem to today’s readers. And through human behavior then explore the heart of human nature. Not an easy enterprise, but that’s what tried to do.
    http://writersrepublic.com

  • Ash

    Jane Austen is a realistic writer. You are a romantic reader. Done.

    • John Engleton

      @Ash
      Realistic- There is, sir or madam, nothing realistic about a dull and picturesque world of the comfortable, lifeless, and one-dimensional burgeois fritting their time away with worry over how to get the most money out of their marriage, and scorning each other in that passive-agressive way that only exist in her ‘reality’. Every one of her character, even those we were meant to sympathise with, have nothing more than a wholehearted and unadultered greed for a character. The love protrayed is so completely unrealistic, one would’ve thought it was written by a lonely spinster and a literary hack who lived life as a Grub-Street Writer, who compromise her art for profit.

      @marciano guerrero
      Mark Twain captured the soul of the nation in his writing, one cannot understand the American Character without Twain. He was fearless with pen in hand, and dared speak out- against all popular opinion- for what he thought was right. I am quite upset that you must defend your idol, that tuppenny-hack, may the vengence of the Almighty be with her eternally, by baseless attack on her opponet. The writer raise charges against Ms Austen, and a true fan would refute instead of diverting it all away by making petty attack on one of the greatest American writer of all time.

    • John Engleton

      George Eliot, on the otherhand, even from the same Burgeois upbringing of Austen, create flesh and blood with passion. Where Austen’s work is insipid, populated with nothing but the worst and most vapid of humanity and dealing primarily with the twin subject of marriage and money, Eliot creates humans, some we can sympathise more than other, with each character their own world of thought beneath their surface.

  • Marcellino D’Ambrosio

    Seriously, Jennifer. She relinquishes passion completely! How SAD is that? I wrote an essay on this very subject. “Edward Ferrars was not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address. He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart. His understanding was good, and his education had given it solid improvement. But he was neither fitted by abilities nor disposition to answer the wishes of his mother and sister, who longed to see him distinguished-as-they hardly knew what. They wanted him to make a fine figure in the world in some manner or other. His mother wished to interest him in political concerns, to get him into parliament, or to see him connected with some of the great men of the day… but all his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life.”

    What a bitch right? What women could possibly be attracted to that?
    http://www.squidoo.com/why-jane-austen-sucks

  • Nim

    This is from forever ago, but I’m bored and feel like contributing

    I understand feeling like Austen is constrained to the world she knew, but it’s just that — the world she knew. If you look at Austen’s work as a young girl, such as the satire Love and Freindship (sic), you actually see a little drollery directed at the idea of the “cult of sensibility” of the time. “Run mad as often as you choose — but do not faint.” In fact, the very first line of Pride and Prejudice drips with Twain-esque sarcasm: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” If people take this as Elizabeth being literal, as they seem to be, it’s no wonder the underlying point of the novel is consistently missed.

    She describes her world of marriages for comfort rather than love, and a world where gentlemen’s daughters who didn’t get married could really only become governesses (becoming an Old Maid meant you were usually a drain on your brothers)… it’s a world Elizabeth wants nothing to do with, even if she really has no choice in the matter. In fact, it’s a world Austen herself felt trapped by — for instance one of her beaux in youth, Tom Lefroy, was sent away by his extended family because marriage would have been “impractical” for them. Austen began Pride and Prejudice the year Tom Lefroy left, and in the end never married.

    Finally, I don’t feel Austen is particularly well understood compared contemporary male writers, except perhaps Dickens, her direct successor. He’s closest to her in style of language and characterization. They both paint realistic-ish scenarios filled with absolute caricatures plus a couple “straight-man” characters. However for the CONTENT of her books, she’s even better understood by reading the socio-political writing of her direct predecessor Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley’s mum), titled “A Vindication of the Rights of Women”. Wollstonecraft essentially rips apart the Cult of Domesticity — the idea that women had to conform to four cardinal virtues, piety, purity, submission, and domesticity. Jane Austen followed in Wollstonecraft’s proto-feminist footsteps, almost certainly, albeit quietly. After all, Wollstonecraft was made an example of — after her well known pre-marital relationships, including with Mary Shelley’s father, her works were removed from the public eye and her name was surrounded in shame for the next hundred years, until a little after the beginning of the modern feminist revolution.

    Sorry for the digression there, I just love the tragedy of Wollstonecraft’s life — it ITSELF is worth a novel… but it also illustrates partially why someone like Austen would be what I would call a “constrained critic”. She successfully makes jabs at the society in which she lives, while surrounding it in enough light-hearted fluffery to successfully go unchallenged (plus… I loves me some light-hearted fluffery). Someone mentioned George Eliot earlier — they would do well to keep in mind there was a good reason Mary Anne Evans wrote under that name and is consequently more well known by her male pen name than her actual name.

    All that being said, I can understand simply not LIKING or ENJOYING the books. People like what they like and I understand that… I love Tolkien, but his endless descriptions aren’t for everyone (hehe). My comment/rant is more directed at overall conversation the post started, which brings up arguments I feel are misunderstandings of either the language Austen uses, or ignorance of the constraints English women were under during the Romantic and Victorian periods.

    • Nim

      “Austen began Pride and Prejudice the year Tom Lefroy left, and in the end never married.” Sorry this should read that she began “First Impressions” the year Tom left, which eventually was re-written into Pride and Prejudice.

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  • Someone

    Once I’ve finished studying Pride and Cannabis as I like to call it, and get at least an A for my GCSE, then I will literally shout and scream at my English teacher and chuck this rubbish at her. I then intend to storm out of school with the same feeling as Harry Potter had when Voldemort was dead. Forget 1813, because 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011 (and maybe 2012?) is where happiness and knowledge is at! Go and rot in your Gravestone, Jane Austen (I feel sorry for the soil and life around her grave), and let J.K. Rowling laugh at you!

  • Valerie Laws

    if you hate Lizzie and co you might enjoy LYDIA BENNET’S BLOG by Valerie Laws, my timeslip comedy on kindle which gives Lydia’s scandalous story and disses Lizzie and Darcy pretty drastically!

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  • Will

    Every Jane Austen book I started, I couldn’t finish. It’s terrible.

  • BradleyHart

    Jane Austen is nothing but a nineteenth century version of Stephanie Meyers and her fans just as clueless.