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.”