Talk to Me Like I’m Stupid: Jane Austen Edition


Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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101 Responses

  1. Avatar zic says:

    the plot depends upon the notion that the success (or failure) of a woman is entirely attached to the status of the husband she can catch.

    This. Women lived in this world, too; this very much defined their lives. And they didn’t have voice to say, “This is how it is.”

    Austen said it. Those burdens and expectations on women are only now, starting with my generation, shifting. Austen defined were we were so that we could envision where we were going.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 says:

      It’s very similar to discussing early abolitionists. My today’s standards, they were racist as all get out. But then and there — they were speaking out against a customary, accepted abuse and status quo.

      Austen’s work highlights the “way it used to be” for women — and she was writing to highlight that, the way society expected women to work and think and be.

      That her idea of progressive is pretty retrograde today doesn’t really change her context, and I suspect as a feminist, reading or watching those attitudes of a century or two back is…a good reminder of how far we’ve come in some ways, and how little we’ve moved in others.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Actually, what always stuns me is how much of what Austen describes is still the status quo, in so many thousands of subtle ways.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 says:

        Well, yeah. 🙂 Which is part of the draw I’d imagine for feminists.

        “See here’s a woman writing about the stifling attitude towards women 200 years ago, and look how much is STILL true. How much of it society and men still demand — or if they don’t demand, miss”.

        Reminds me of 50s nostalgia. It’s mostly white men. Strange how seldom minorities or women wish for a return to the 50s.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        a better article might consider how much women of today miss the past.
        The backlash against feminism is only beginning.
        (which is not to say that feminism doesn’t occasionally have good points.
        But, oh dear, the pretzels and ego).Report

      • Avatar Will H. says:

        I don’t believe it to be particularly noteworthy for a woman to “be able to say” what is patently obvious; not any more than I see it as particularly noteworthy that Hardy was saying the same thing in a much more convoluted and tenuously strained manner.

        Dogs sh!t in the grass.

        Doesn’t take much to figure that one out.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Hi @will-h, nice to see you.

        Can you find me some earlier instances, widely read, of a woman describing women’s lives; the way those ‘obvious’ things sort of stacked the deck against them? You’ll find plenty of writing by men about men’s lives; lots of writing by men about women’s lives. Some of it dating back an eon.

        But women, writing about women’s lives? Not so much.Report

  2. Avatar Chris says:

    Austen’s relationship to feminism is a question that’s been asked for some time now.

  3. Avatar LeeEsq says:

    Considering when Jane Austen wrote and who her original audience consisted of, its not surprising that her work does not break the class or gender stereotypes of the time. What made Jane Austen a revolutionary back then was that she was a woman author that wrote about women and their lives even if we find her work dated in the present. What drives Jane Austen’s popularity these days is that she is a relatively approachable literary author for people not really suited for literary fiction. There might be other much more legitimately feminist authors like Virginia Wolf but the average person is going to struggle with the text more.Report

  4. Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

    Oh. My. God. It looks like I will have to write that Austen post that has brewing for sometime.

    In short: there is no getting around the classist issues in Emma. She sometimes reverses course from earlier stances: Pride and Prejudice ridicules classism to a certain limited degree. Other than this ginormous flaw, Emma is the best book ever written.

    Lee is right that if she’s a feminist, she is not a modern feminist. However, she: a) wrote about women’s everyday lives and concerns, which was simply unprecedented, b) she had complex female characters, c) she clearly believed that the moral lives of women were crucial, and did not limit her concept of female morality to mere prudishness or lack of sexuality (one of the most famous criticism of Emma was Trilling’s slightly disgusted comment that Emma has a moral life like a man’s moral life – concerned with self-actualization and very secondarily concerned with marriage, d) she acknowledged female sexual desire (and not simply critically), e) she considered women the rational and moral equals of men (even though she did not have particularly radical views about what they should do with their lives).

    I don’t take Jane Austen to be a feminist hero, as such. Her insights are not largely gender-focused. She is one of the best moral philosophers there is, full stop. That is not to say she didn’t make glaring errors (most notably in Persuasion and Emma).Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      “Emma is the best book ever written.”

      Better than Go Dog Go???Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      Emma is the best book ever written? Thats a highly contentious opinion. Emma doesn’t even have Jews in it and I can’t see how a book without Jews qualifies as the best book ever written.Report

    • Avatar KatherineMW says:

      d) she acknowledged female sexual desire (and not simply critically)

      I have trouble thinking of any example of this from Austen’s works, and I’ve read all of them. Jane Eyre, sure, but not Austen. Could you elaborate?Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

        Well, Lydia comes in for the criticism. Interesting that Brandon’s former love and her daughter are objects of pity, not derision. Definitely Marianne Dashwood is sexually driven. Willoughby was a cad, but I don’t think Austen meant to criticize the attraction as such.

        I read E. Bennet as duped by Wickham because she had the hots for him (all these references to his countenance, bearing, manner, appearance), and later Darcy (not duped, but into him). E is a sexual being; I remember Martin Amis had a comment: “Let us begin by pinpointing the moment at which love blooms–for Mr. Darcy, and for every male reader on earth. It blooms on page 33 of my edition (the Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen, 1923). We have had the Meryton assembly, the straitlaced dansant, at which the local community thrills to the entrance of the eligible gents and their entourage; and we have protectively endured Mr. Darcy’s audible humiliation of our heroine: “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me. . . .” Soon afterward Jane Bennet–meek, sweet, uncomplicated–is invited to dine with the fashionable newcomers. “Can I have the carriage?” she asks her mother. “No, my dear, you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night.” Jane rides, it rains, she falls ill–and cannot be moved. Elizabeth’s anxiety is one we can easily share: experienced in the ways of nineteenth-century fiction, we know that these frail beauties can fall apart more or less overnight. So, the next morning, impelled by sibling love, Elizabeth strides off through the November mud to Netherfield, that fortress of fashion, privilege, and disdain. She arrives unannounced, and scandalously unaccompanied, ‘with weary ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.’ By now the male reader’s heart is secure (indeed, he is down on one knee).”

        Emma’s love for Knightley seems like a sexual awakening. There’s the way Anne gets overcome when Wentworth touches her – helping her into the carriage. Certainly not explicit, but not bloodless as Charlotte Bronte accused her of being.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        In Pride and Prejudice the younger daughters, much aided and abetted by Mrs. Bennett, are what I would call ‘boy crazy,’ that would seem part of it.

        Also, there’s Georgiana; ready to elope with Wickham.

        It seems to me that Austen puts a great deal of effort into identifying the balance between sexual attraction and economic attraction; pointing out the potential pitfalls of both extremes.Report

  5. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    100 years later, Edith Wharton could not only portray the fact that an upper-class woman’s sole chance in life is to find a rich husband, but actually be angry about it. But Jane Austen was one of the first steps on that path.Report

    • Avatar Will H. says:

      Wharton is certainly more revered among the more widely-read; but I still like the whole Scheherazade thing.
      Not only is this an instance where the greatest acknowledged story-teller of all time was a woman, but she is Persian, whom we of the West prefer to see as being reprehensibly subversive toward the rights of women. Nothing not to like about Scheherazade.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        I have a very cursory knowledge of the Arabian Nights. (Pretty much Sinbad, Ali Baba, and Aladdin.) Is there a translation you’d recommend for further reading?Report

  6. Avatar dhex says:

    it seems most of y’all are answering the “why revere her” but not the “why still enjoy her”. i don’t get part 2 as well, to the wife’s consternation.


    “There might be other much more legitimately feminist authors like Virginia Wolf but the average person is going to struggle with the text more.”

    i gotta throw a flag on this one. woolf is a lot more readable for a modern audience.Report

    • Avatar Morat20 says:

      Tastes differ. Why does anyone enjoy a classic? Why would anyone read Victor Hugo unabridged? (Masochists, the lot of them). What makes Dickens objectively better than, say, Stephen King? It’s not like “populist sell-out writing pap for the masses” was invented for modern authors. 🙂

      Classics are just modern books that are old enough for most of the crap ones to be forgotten. They’re the ones that have endured, because they’re good or because they ended up on school curricula or simply because they became some touchstone of a time or place, even though there might have been better books then and there.

      But tastes differ.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        but the weird part (i don’t ultimately think it’s that weird, but bear with me) is that people above are pointing out “she shows you a nightmare state for women” and those same folk (presumably?) also enjoy – often enthusiastically – explorations of said nightmare state. which is kinda weird. or at least difficult to parse from outside the austegemon.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

        I emphasize to my students with whom I read Austen that in her books women are not in a nightmare state, that they have a lot of freedom of expression and some degree of self-determination. They do have economic strictures (some of them – not Emma, not Lady Catherine de Bourgh, they have power and economic freedom) and the marriage market is the main way to live. It is not the only way – Austen herself decided not to marry a wealthy man she liked but did not love, and instead decided to stretch a small income.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Les Miserables is long, but it’s awesome. Why not take a hundred-page detour to discuss the battle of Waterloo before the story proper even gets going? People are so impatient these days.

        And if you read an abridged Count of Monte Cristo, at the end of the book you might still remember that Fernand was introduced as a poor Spanish fisherman, and there’s no way he could have become the nobleman and general he winds up as.Report

      • Avatar LeeEsq says:

        A lot of academics actually view Dickens as a 19th century equivalent of Steven King rather than as a great and experimental literary author. Dickens is seen as a middle-brow rather than a low or high brow author. However, if I have to argue that if there is one thing that makes Dickens better than King is that if Dickens had some rather questionable fantasies he kept them to himself. King puts some rather icky stuff in his work.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @leeesq I think the descriptions in Bleak House of spontaneous combustion, and the two or three pages describing the ash and fat that coated Parliament as a result, ranks right up there in the icky-fantasy factor.Report

      • Avatar KatherineMW says:

        Why would anyone read Victor Hugo unabridged? (Masochists, the lot of them).

        I love, love, love his writing style (which is a funny thing to say about someone I’ve only read in translation, but I’m extremely picky about what translation of Les Mis I read). I love what he writes about. I love his social consciousness. I love the complexity of his characters, both major and minor.

        On re-reads I usually skip over his history of Waterloo and thoughts on convents and on the July Monarchy and on the Paris sewer system, but you lose a lot by just reading an abridged version (including a wonderful chapter on the bishop). I’m glad that I read the whole thing through at least once.Report

      • Avatar Morat20 says:

        Hugo was paid by the word and needed an editor.

        As for King — goodness, literary tastes change. Genres come and go. King’s gory? Have you read the nightmare fuel of Lovecraft? Horror novels have always been around, and if the ones from centuries ago aren’t as…imagery intense…it’s due to censorship, not what people wanted.

        Read the Canturbury Tales? Racey stuff there. Very racey, and Shakespeare’s no better. It’s just most people can read King and go “Yep, he’s getting really graphic about sex or goer there” because it’s written in modern English, whereas only English majors and people with decent English teacher’s read Chaucer and realize it’s filthy, filthy stuff in places.

        King pushes disturbing mental imagery on you. So did Lovecraft and Poe. King’s just more approachable because he’s contemporary.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:

        I don’t know if Dicken is worse than King, but that’s because I don’t read King.

        A lot of Dicken’s work is *extremely* padded and nearly impossible to get through because of that. Now, granted, back then, people read at a higher reading level (Those who could read) so things were long, but he’s just completely absurd. I mean, take a Tale of Two Cities:

        The first section, 1000 words, exists mainly to say ‘France and England, where this story is set, were in turmoil, beset with violence’. But we can maybe allow that verbaige, it is setting the scene.

        But the next two section…Christ. 2000 words total. The plot of those 2000 words:

        A coach is stuck in the mud with a single important character. (We get no indication of who this is, or even their name, until later) A messenger shows up and gives him a message. He gives his reply, which other people speculate on.

        Paragraphs and paragraphs describing a coach, which is not important, stuck in the mud, which is not important, with coachmen, who are not important, talking to guards, who are not important, about messengers, who are not important.

        The next 700 words of the *next* section are concerned with this unimportant messenger taking that reply to the bank, and the rest of that section are about the guy who got the message *having a dream*.

        By the end of all this, we’re 3000 words into the book, and the plot so far can be best summarized as “In a lawless England, a man gets an urgent message, to which he replies with the mysterious answer of ‘Recalled to life’, something he has been waiting, even dreaming, about being able to say for 18 years.”

        That’s pretty much *all* we know about the plot. We don’t even have the names of any characters. And there’s not even any point in being coy about who the man getting the message’s reply is. We’re just straight up told his name in the next section, along with what those mysterious words means. (Along with the excitement of him…checking into a hotel! And then a meeting with the people he sent the reply too.)

        What’s even worse, *this message is not important*. I mean, what they’re talking about is important, but the actual message being sent? Not so much. It could have trivially been sent off-screen, or not mentioned at all. If a group of people send someone to another country to do something, and he gets back into the country, of course they’ll ask him if he succeeded, and of course he’ll reply! That’s not some sort of important plot point that we need to see, considering he’s meeting with them *in the next section* and everything is explained there. The entire thing is idiotic, leaving us with no idea of what’s actually going on, but no actual mystery!

        Although, if we feel like it, we can describe what is under the seat of a completely random coach in England (A chest), and what that chest contains (few smith’s tools, a couple of torches, and a tinder-box). If only, you know, that had *ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE STORY AT ALL*.

        Seriously, how the hell is this good writing? It’s like the result of the obfuscated C contest. ‘Can you write several sections which have no plot at all before the actual story?’

        And, hell, I’m just focusing on the start because it’s so easy to explain how it has no bearing on the story. The book is *full* of parts like this.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        @davidtc – Dickens padded because he was paid by the installment; not by the word, though IMO the net effect is very similar – you see something similar in TV series where the writers have a finale they need to get to, but not for X more episodes, so the middle of the season just sort of treads water – if you ask me, Sopranos did this for nearly an entire season (5) when they pushed the series end date out.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:


        Yeah, but at least they pad the story out with *more story*. They invent another pointless plot and stick it in there, and at the end we’re back where we started, but at least it’s a *plot*.

        They don’t randomly add ten minutes of someone’s car struck in a ditch to the start of an episode, and him talking on his cell phone with some cryptic comments to people we don’t know, and then, lo and behold, he drives to a hotel, checks, and meets those people tomorrow and the plot starts. No one would think that’s a good idea.

        Well, possibly the director of Manos: The Hands of Fate would.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        Classics are actually often pretty bad writing. Hugo’s digression (at the beginning, no less!) into 200-year-old architecture and Notre Dame in particular would be unforgivable today.

        GRRM starts slow, and builds even slower — but at least he puts characters into the novel from the first page!

        The craft of writing has gotten much, much, much better.

        I think one can gauge good pulp by how fast the pages turn, and how involved the reader is in it. Dickens or Martin, they’re both writing pulp fiction.

        I think my problem with Austen is that she only bothers to show one part of English
        life… The Victorians were tupping their neighbors wives constantly… and to leave
        that out seems a bit of a shame (must note: if I am wrong that she left this out, I apologize).

        hmm. Yes, people were worse at writing novels back then. At least when Faulkner has “boring, pointless things” they are actions that actually mean “life is pointless and then you die.”

        Simpsons (because animation) was known to pad things out without story. A man hits himself in the head with a rake. Ten times in a row. It’s not that much funnier on the tenth time than the third. But it does fill time nicely. (Simpsons also cut intro as needed for longer eps).Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        oh, it’s Joyce’s fantasies that he should have damn well kept to himself. King’s aren’t that awful.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      @dhex do you think part of this might be that Austen is chick literature? And if you read chick lit and dig it, you might, I dunno, throw like a girl? Would you read Oliver Twist with the same, “I don’t get it,” feeling?

      One of the things I noticed with kids is that girls are happy to have a story with a boy as protagonist, but boys pretty much never wanted to hear a story with a girl as protagonist. So is there a possibility your not getting it is actually rooted in that culturalization?Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        i’d rather get trepanned than read dickens, but i’m assuming my bias is that i don’t start enjoying literature until the modernist period. hence my mention of woolf, who i think is incredibly readable even today (in both tone and language use).Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @dhex I get it.

        /and I wasn’t really trying to accuse you of not wanting to throw like a girl.

        I never liked Woolf all that much; but I haven’t tried to read her since I was in my early 20’s, either; so I should probably try again.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        I think this is changing in small ways. At least plenty of boys will read Hunger Games or Tamora Pierce’s stuff. Which is progress I suppose.

        For myself, even as a young didn’t-know-she-was-trans kid, the first “girl-character” books I read were Anne Mccaffrey’s Harper Hall stuff, which were this small set of books that were a companion series to her main Dragon Rider series. Thing was, I liked those books much more than the main series. I liked the character, Menolly, way more than the dudes in the main series. I liked her a lot, totally identified with her in every way.

        Should’ve been a clue. 🙂Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        Myself, I find the idea that Woolf is accessible to be preposterous. Not that I don’t like her. I do, very much — when I’m in the mood.

        What a lark! What a plunge!

        But what she produces is a kaleidoscope of images, seldom with a clear point of view — by which I mean figuring out which character’s eyes you are seeing through can be a complete puzzle. Which can be fun. But there is a high cognitive load.

        (Plus the times when you are seeing through no character’s eyes, such as that long section in the middle of To the Lighthouse where you seem to be seeing things from the house’s point of view.

        About which, why not! It’s a lovely house, by the beach with the rain on the shutters.)

        Then the family comes back and you find out it’s like a ton of years later and half the characters you liked are now dead and everyone is sad and the novel goes on for a while for some reason that I’m sure has a point.

        So, yeah.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:


        “I never liked Woolf all that much; but I haven’t tried to read her since I was in my early 20?s, either; so I should probably try again.”

        mrs. dalloway is a good place to start. it’s a bit sad though. to the lighthouse is a bit more meandery, but still good. orlando is a remarkable book for its time, still very readable, and a rather moving (and barely disguised) love letter.

        the joycean influences in the last are the heaviest, though her relationship to his work was fairly love/hate. ulysses cast a shadow over everyone in that circle for better or worse.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:


        “Myself, I find the idea that Woolf is accessible to be preposterous.”

        but today’s popular books are all about like, archery and wizards and multiple character points of view (or so i’m told).

        compared to the rather lengthy digressions of 19th century literature, woolf would be an easier sale, even if she’s a wee bit avant at times in her approach.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        @zic — Give Mrs. Dalloway a spin. It’s short-ish, by Woolf standards, so it’s not a huge investment of time. And the language is really very — well — I could try to write about how well she writes, but that would just be silly. Since, you know…

        But anyway, I like to take those books as they come, just a wash of language and images. And there is a cool puzzle aspect, trying to fit it all together.

        But unlike Joyce it’s actually good.

        (There! I said it!)Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @dhex and @veronica-dire

        I do have a recommendation: Harrowing the Dragon by Patricia McKillip. She’s a fantasy writer; and writes from a decidedly female point of view. Her use of language astonishes. This particular book is a collection of short stories. It has gems of the same story told in different ways; stories told from unusual perspectives (the fires, the pots, the whisks in a kitchen tell one.)

        I saddens me that her work is not more widely read, studied, and admired; it struggles under the burden of genre.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        I didn’t care for her so much. Maybe if she was named “M’nolly”.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        @zic — I’ll give it a shot. Although I don’t know when; these days I’m in this obsessive read math books mode.

        For instance, right now I’m reading Ruszczynski’s Nonlinear Optimization and like loving every word.

        (It’s funny but the overlap between the categories of “trans woman” and “raging math geek” is much larger than you might suppose.)

        @mike-schilling — smh


      • Avatar Kim says:

        Boys like The Blue Sword, boys Like Arya. Boys like action people doing action things.
        Heck, I don’t remember a damn person complaining about Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.

        Even A Bridge to Terabithia didn’t get people bitching massively.

        It’s when everything’s about love, and kissy kissy — and talking, oh the talking, that the boys start getting antsy.

        (That said, most guys Love a good Love Story, they just want some action too).Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq says:

      Despite the fact that Woolf’s English is probably much closer to what modern audience’s understand than Austen’s English, Austen still has a much larger modern audience. The ideas in Woolf’s literature are very challenging to a lot of people even though its been decades since her death and nearly a century since her career as a writer begun. You can’t really give Woolf a superficial reading. Austen is different in that you can read her on a shallow level and interpret her works as literary romance novels. She is probably one of the most approachable of the literary authors for many people.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:


        “You can’t really give Woolf a superficial reading. ”

        of course you can.

        mrs. dalloway – a fancy dinner party! also that one guy is crazy, let’s keep walking.

        to the lighthouse – family spends a lot of time at a lighthouse. there’s also a painting!

        orlando – gender bending time travel! a sea captain! eww poems!

        join me next week for “ulysses: why is that guy jacking off on the beach?”Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        orlando – gender bending time travel! a sea captain! eww poems!

        That settles it. I’d tried Mrs. Dalloway, and should have tried Orlando, I’m a sucker for time travel stories, gender bender stories, and eww, poems.Report

      • Avatar Maribou says:

        @zic Oh, DO, it’s one of my very most favorites (even though I have yet to read any of her other books). I’ve read it 2.5 times. The movie is also pretty rad, mostly because of Tilda Swinton.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @maribou I just ordered it.

        Earlier today, I’d checked the local used-book store; they had an old copy for $20; despite my love of old and used books, this one was too crusty for me. So I ordered a new one.Report

      • Avatar dhex says:

        “The movie is also pretty rad, mostly because of Tilda Swinton.”

        truth. the movie is otherwise kind of a mess. not a bad mess by any standards, an entertaining mess, but a very 90s, filled with billy zane mess, quentin crisp is the queen of england, etc etc. the art and filming is great, however.

        the book is a lot better.Report

  7. Avatar KatherineMW says:

    I don’t know if I would call Austen a feminist, even within the context of her time – she’s certainly no Mary Wollestonecraft, nor even on a level with the Brontës.

    I enjoy her work because her writing style appeals to me; there’s a lot of dry wit, and her books are social satires at least as much as they are romances. Sometimes this gets to the point of being annoying – I dislike every single character in Sense and Sensibility except for Elinor and Brandon. She skewers every different kind of silliness and meanness and hypocritical behaviour, and she does so very effectively.

    Female success equates to marriage in her book because, for the vast majority of middle-class/gentry women at her time, it did. The extent of her ‘feminism’ is the clear belief, throughout her books, that men and women should marry people whom they respect and care about rather than looking simply at class, wealth, beauty, or charm. However, she’s still quite conventional/practical – her books also caution against marrying for love without regard for whether your partnership will be economically sustainable. It’s almost equivalent, for her time, to someone today encouraging people to pursue a career that means something to them while still considering that going into debt to gain a BA in poetry may not be wise.

    Regarding Emma – I hate the title character, but I got the opposite message from the book that you did. Emma is wrong because she is classist, because she disregards – and teaches Harriet to disregard – a good, intelligent young man of strong character because he is not one of the gentry. She is also wrong, and foolish, because she persists in deceiving herself: she does’t pair Harriet with Mr. Elton because she thinks class doesn’t matter, but because she convinces herself that a young woman of unknown parentage actually is someone with a class and background equivalent to Mr. Elton, and she moreover convinces herself that he has feelings for Harriet. She thinks she’s an excellent analyst of behaviour, but she’s actually terrible at it and only sees what she has decided in advance to see. She has poor judgement (also seen in her dismissal of Jane Fairfax, the most meritorious character in the book). And most of the book is the text laughing at her for that.

    Austen has her faults – she’s poor at developing characters in her initial works (Edward Ferrars scarcely has a personality in Sense and Sensibility), she recycles plots and characters (Willoughby is Wickham is Harry Crawford), and she’s certainly very conventional about her attitude to class and far from being a radical in any way. She’s nonetheless an impressive and (to me) enjoyable author.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

      I agree re: Willoughby and Wickham and poor nebbishy Edward Ferrars. Brandon is a bit of a dull weight, also. I like Mrs. Jennings, but clearly S and S is the book that could most be dispensed with. The best thing about it is that her realism to character trumps the morality tale she set out to tell.

      But I do have a fondness for Henry Crawford. I like how he finds good morals aesthetically appealing, but not morally appealing. That’s a subtlety you don’t see in her other male schmucks. But good God, Fanny. Jesus, she’s a nightmare. I can’t blame Edmund for barely bringing himself to marry her.

      I do very much like Emma the character, but I have a different take on her than most people. I read her as having independence, but also something of a caregiver trapped by her father’s disabilities. Obviously, I have a tendency to read things that way. But her father would qualify as having mild intellectual disability and/or high-functioning autism. She can barely leave her house because of him (there’s a bit where she says she never leaves the house for more than 2 hours at a time and has never seen the sea). I see her as creating where she can.

      But there is a classist bit when Harriet falls for Mr. Knightley and Emma realizes she’s created a monster because she can’t believe Harriet would set her sights so high.

      Jane Austen’s wit expresses a psychological acuity that’s probably not matched except for George Eliot. And I like humor. And I like stories where people fall in love.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

      Oh, and I meant to say that for her marriage is clearly a major factor in character development. I mean that in the sense of Aristotelian development of virtues, not the development of fictional characters. Again and again in her books (as with Aristotle, and most virtue ethicists) part of your behavior and character is determined by those with whom you choose to associate. Marriage, of course, is the closest association there is. Marriages that are ill-thought-out: the Bennet parents, John Dashwood, Maria Rushworth – all are detrimental to the people in them. Marriage is not just an economic instrument, or an instrument of love. It is the most important moral education there is, for both partners. Marriage can help you realize your best self, or keep you from achieving your best.Report

  8. Avatar mike shupp says:

    Not a definitive answer, of course. . . but Austin is readible at different levels.

    If you’re very young or not especially sophisticated, you can read the books just for the sake of the story, seeing what the plot turns up, rejoycing that the Good People are made happy at the end of the books, just as we all wish. If you’re an older reader or more accustomed to novel reading, you can appreciate Austen’s works as particularly fine Regency Romances. If you’ve had your fill of romances, you can appreciate Austen’s characterization and her humorous remarks. One step up from that, you notice that that the “humorous remarks” are often rather sharp in tone, and that some of the characterizations might be less pictures of individuals than of common psychological types — that the books are laced with sarcasm, satire, and social commentary (this gets you to the College Professor reading level. And above that, at the Vladimir Nabokov level, you can appreciate Austen’s techniques — writing paragraphs which do not really quote a character’s speech, for instance, but which paraphrase it, larded with awkward sentences which mimic the structure of the character’s speech. And for the true specialist, there’s the pleasure of peering at Lady Susan, to watch Auatwn’s talents emerging, or perusing The Waltons or Sanditon and wondering what might have become of them in a happier world.

    So there’s material in Austen for just about everyone, and there’s no requirement that we read Austen at only one level. We can appreciate Nabokov’s observations, for example, and still return to S&S or Emma with the comfort of visiting old friends and chatting with them about old familiar subjects. We can have our childish and our adult pleasures simultaneously. I(Let’s note, to be honest, that Nabokov viewed Jane Austen’s talents as pretty scant compared to Charles Dickens’.)

    Austen’s not unique in being accessible at different levels, of course, but she’s readible at a fairly unsophisticated level, which means a lot of readers encounter her at a youngish age and never escape those early impressions.Report

    • Avatar veronica dire says:

      Then there is this, the greatest sentence in literature (I say hyperbolically):

      Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a School — not of a seminary, or an
      establishment, or any thing which professed, in long sentences of
      refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality,
      upon new principles and new systems — and where young ladies for enormous
      pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity — but a real,
      honest, old-fashioned Boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of
      accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might
      be sent to be out of the way, and scramble themselves into a little
      education, without any danger of coming back prodigies.


      • Avatar Kim says:

        By the end, I’ve half forgotten the beginning!
        Altogether, it’s a well put sentiment, but the editor in me craves a period or two — not many, certainly it’s not to be shredded as Hemmingway would, — with harsh periods jerking the flow all out of alignment. But, one or two!Report

  9. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    Do feminists like Austen as feminists, or do they like Austen as women? Because most feminists are women, and women really seem to like Jane Austen.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      Why do they need to choose, are not both possible, to one degree or another, amongst each individual reader?

      Austen wrote about women who were fully formed within the strictures of their time. That was novel; and so feminist. But her characters were also women; and even not knowing that this was a first-step in literature, women can enjoy them and relate to them because they seem real and fully formed, if somewhat limited by their society.Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg says:

        They can, sure. But Tod asked why feminists in particular like Jane Austen. If they’re not more likely to enjoy Jane Austen’s works than nonfeminist women of similar SES, then there’s nothing to explain.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        Thanks for asking Brandon; I did something I’ve never done before, and actually looked up the meaning of the word, “feminist.” From Merriam-Webster I get this:

        1. the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes
        2 organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests

        So it’s an interesting question; which meaning applies to @tod-kelly’s original question — are feminist people who subscribe to the theory of political, economic, and social equality of the sexes or are they people who active organize activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests?

        That distinction might matter in the responses, or so it would seem to me.Report

  10. Avatar NewDealer says:

    I am going to go with what Lee and Rose said. Also Jane Austen can be “chick lit” without the guilt because of the age and prose. Though I can’t say that I have noticed her as a feminist iconReport

  11. Avatar DavidTC says:

    I tried to read Pride and Prejudice for the first time a few years ago, and couldn’t stand the characters.

    Not the women. Yes, they were overly-concerned with marrying correctly, but, at that time and place, that literally was *all* they could do with their entire life. It was the single sole decision that existed, and decided the outcome of their entire life. So after a bit of consideration, I was okay with them and their focus.

    No, it was the men that were completely worthless. Apparently, all of them existed by just being given large amounts of money each month. None of them actually did a single thing, none of them appears to have any goals, none of them were even slightly useful as human beings. They were human parasites…and they were the *victory prize*.

    There are works of fiction I can’t stand because I can’t stand the *setting*. I never thought I’d run across one of those that *actually existed*.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

      NOT to defend the class system, or a society that thought that work was demeaning but: while Bingley just lives off investment income, many of the rich men had a job. They were landlords and managed an estate. They were, basically, large-scale business farmers and real-estate managers. They could be good or bad at it, they could be jerks or kind-hearted. They could run it into the ground or see it thrive. A lot of people were in their employ in one way or another.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:

        They were, basically, large-scale business farmers and real-estate managers.

        And by ‘real-estate manager’, you mean ‘the superich who owned a bunch of land and had people in their employ farm the land, and probably hired an actual manager to run the finances’.

        Some of them may technically been living off investments, and some of them may technically have been living off rent off managed property, and some of them may technically have owned a ‘business farm’ that they had inherited and did absolutely nothing with except stand there and let the money pour in.

        And all of them were complete wastes of space that contributed nothing at all to society, except, of course, by ‘creating jobs’ by hiring servants.

        ‘Landlord of an estate’ is the *opposite* of a job.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

        It’s certainly not a way of life I want to defend, and it’s good that it has bitten the dust. Yet I’m not Marxist enough to say that being a landlord/farm manager is the opposite of a job. So we may have to agree to disagree on that point. It took up time and could be done well or badly. This is not to say that this is the best way of life, or that it is defensible that these people looked down on others who made a living in other ways. But it is, actually, a job.

        And yes, of course they hired people to oversee the day-to-day operations. Large-scale business owners usually do. Some people were more hands-on (Mr. Knightley, for example, is depicted as being very hands on, others less so). If an estate were poorly managed, as many were, lots of people suffered. Which, again, is not an ideal system. But it’s not like Darcy did not have a job.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        if they’re hiring people and not doing things themselves, then it’s not their job, it’s someone else’s.

        A ceo isn’t generally a full time job, unless it involves brokering deals and negotiations a goodly part of the time. A friend of mine makes businesses, but he’s not a CEO, despite founding a goodly number.Report

  12. Avatar zic says:

    I’m going to approach this question of why feminist love Austen from a different perspective,
    my beloved Ta-Nehisi Coates.

    He’s talking about Jordan Davis’ interrupted life; and the justice of Dunn’s lack of a conviction for ending that life. In the closing, he balances justice and legacy:

    When Michael Dunn killed Jordan Davis, he obliterated a time-stream, devastated an open range of changes. And somewhere on that American jury, someone thought this was justice, someone believed in the voodoo of shotguns and teleportation. Michael Dunn killed a boy, and too robbed a man of his chance to be.

    And this will happen again, must happen again, because our policy is color-blind, but our heritage isn’t. An American court-room claiming it can be colorblind denies it’s rightful inheritance. An American court-room claiming it can be color-blind is a drug addict claiming he can walk away after just one more hit. Law and legacy are at war. Legacy is winning. Legacy will always win. And our legacy is to die in this land where time is unequal, and deeded days are unequal, and blessed is the black man who lives to learn other ways, who lives to see other worlds, who lives to bear witness before the changes.

    Perhaps I err to compare Austen to Coates, but I see the same essential weight to their work — establishing the humanity and right to, in Coates words, a chance to be, limited and robbed by the legacies of society. Defining the limits we place on specific classes of people is the essential effort of civil rights activists (including feminists). For without understanding the legacy, we cannot remake it into a more civil legacy. Heritage is a weighty thing; and for women, there is a legacy of century upon century of limitation. Conversations about women’s intellectual capacity were common in movies produced when I was a child. Until this very year, women were not allowed to compete in ski jumping (and still cannot on the long jump) in the Olympics because of fears their bodies could not handle it; and participating in marathons isn’t far behind. I don’t have to dig very far into archives to find serious questions about wether or not women have orgasms; their basic sexuality in question (trust me, they do). And it’s only recently that they’ve mapped the nerve bundle that is the clitoris. We still have congressmen questioning if marital rape is possible. These are the legacies.

    Jane Austen was amongst the first to begin mapping the legacies that trap women, a required first step into creating better legacies for our sons and daughters. And she did it in such a charming way; often using back-handed compliments and satire, so as not to too offend the sensibilities of men who mostly didn’t see any need for change.Report

    • Avatar veronica dire says:

      @zic — +1

      In fact, +Aleph_1Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      This is excellent, zic, and of all the comments I’ve read so far helps me to (I think) understand.Report

      • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

        Though if I’m being honest, I am still having a wee problem shaking the feeling that there is at least some “having your cake and eating it too” going on with Austen fans.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        You mean enjoying the romance while being appalled by the oppression?

        There are certainly feminists who find Austen’s work objectionable on those grounds; there was I time I would have considered myself one.

        But I’ve long since concluded that women (and men) have the right to embrace those traditional tropes and roles; but choice is key. I chose to be a stay-at-home mother, and in great part, because I knew it was not expected of me. I had agency in the choice.

        And I don’t see any reason why anyone should object to people finding love.

        The problem is when the roles are imposed and not freely chosen.Report

      • Avatar veronica dire says:

        I’ve always had a problem with Darcy. I mean, just no.

        Knightly seems on the whole a standup fellow.Report

      • Avatar Kim says:

        it’s not the feminists who read Twilight. But the fact that so many girls are reading
        Twilight is an indication that our society is sick. But perhaps not in the way most
        would think.Report

  13. Avatar Rhonda says:

    Tod, you write: “The supposed folly of Emma’s matchmaking aside, the plot depends upon the notion that the success (or failure) of a woman is entirely attached to the status of the husband she can catch. Indeed, the climax of the story isn’t when Emma “learns” that slightly poorer people are people too, but when she herself catches her metaphorical Prince.”

    Several people have pointed this out or alluded to this, but let me repeat it. A gentlewoman’s status during the Regency period depended upon first, her father, and second, the man she married. It was the society-approved goal for families to attain gentle status, and thusly, a woman with gentle or genteel status held on that as a valuable commodity. Marrying beneath herself without some economic compensation would have been seen as foolish.

    Take the homely and aging Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice, who marries a man she knows to be stupid and who spends the marriage attempting to avoid him. Her alternatives as a gentlewoman would have been to stay in her father’s home a spinster, and to hope that the woman her brother would eventually marry would not object to his taking care of her. She could also have become a governess for a wealthier family, and that would put her at the risks all servants face. So, Charlotte marries a man she can barely abide.

    In Emma, the titular character has decided that she has money and plenty of status from her father in the town where they live, she is perfectly at ease to stay unmarried herself. But she amuses herself by attempting match make others, and it is her blithe lack of awareness of how others view status that makes much of the novel savagely funny. She thinks she is above the young man whom she set her eyes upon for her friend while he is astounded that she thinks he would ever stoop to her friend.

    In my view, with the novel Emma, Austen does not celebrate rank and status but, rather, she forces readers to question their own assumptions. The book continues to be popular because societies continue to have divisions of rank and tiers of power. We continue to ask ourselves, where do we stand? Can I date the hunky supermarket clerk who has no plans to do anything more or should I stick with the lawyer or stockbroker? Or, I have just become engaged. Is my ring enough of a declaration of my fiance’s love for me and his superior ability to provide? We do not ask these questions aloud if we are polite. It’s so declasse to be classist, so uncool to be racist or any of the other ist’s.

    The specific issues that informed Austen’s novels have changed but people continue to behave in similar fashions around different sets of issues. This is a part, although not all, of her appeal.Report

  14. Avatar DRS says:

    One of the best things about the Paltrow Emma is how much of the dialogue was taken directly from the novel. Especially the scene where Knightley is tearing her a new one for being rude to Miss Bates. Austen, had she lived today, would be a very high-paid screenwriter. But to watch the movies is not to appreciate the real Austen.

    Of course classism rules the books; she was writing in the 18th century. That’s a pretty lame criticism. What really makes Austen stand out is the fearless way she sets out what limitations women had and doesn’t prettify them up. That half-page in Sense and Sensibility where the half-brother who’s inherited his father’s property manages to talk himself out of helping his younger half-sisters and stepmother because they don’t really need the money is magnificent and gets across more about women’s position in English gentry society that most other writers could accomplish in a whole chapter. Austen rocks the planet.Report

  15. Avatar Rose Woodhouse says:

    In the post I plan on writing on Jane Austen one day, describing how she should be considered a philosopher, one of the things that I plan to focus on was her description of all sorts of psychological phenomena that are widely accepted today, but unheard of in her time. For example, Locke specifically denies the idea of non-conscious thoughts and behaviors, and Hume does implicitly. She describes them readily (even using the phrase “unconscious”), and FAR more accurately than, say, Freud. She describes confirmation bias, rationalization, memory as creation (rather than recording). She also has great insight into how little introspective access we have into our own motivations (unless we are really willing to LOOK). The scene DRS mentions above hits on all of those, especially how people rationalize. It’s a good example of how she gets at certain psychological truths and behaviors. It’s more broadly comic and less subtle than some of her other stuff, but you can see how she depicts John Dashwood letting himself rationalize his behavior.

    Forgive me for quoting the scene, but I think it’s worth it to see what Austen was so good at. Context: John Dashwood is the son of the first marriage of his father. After his mother’s death, his father married again, but was unable to make adequate provisions in his will for his second wife and their daughters. On his deathbed, John’s father asks him to take care of his stepmother and half-sisters, but doesn’t get specific. I will quote below to give you an idea (note: his initial idea of leaving his sisters a thousand pounds apiece is supposed to be humorously woefully inadequate – it would give them each an investment income of about 50 pounds a year, which was the average salary for a factory worker at the time):

    [John Dashwood] was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed: but he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties. Had he married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable than he was; he might even have been made amiable himself; for he was very young when he married, and very fond of his wife. But Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself; more narrow-minded and selfish.

    When he gave his promise to his father, he meditated within himself to increase the fortunes of his sisters by the present of a thousand pounds a-piece. He then really thought himself equal to it. The prospect of four thousand a-year, in addition to his present income, besides the remaining half of his own mother’s fortune, warmed his heart and made him feel capable of generosity. “Yes, he would give them three thousand pounds: it would be liberal and handsome! It would be enough to make them completely easy. Three thousand pounds! he could spare so considerable a sum with little inconvenience.” He thought of it all day long, and for many days successively, and he did not repent…

    Mrs. John Dashwood did not at all approve of what her husband intended to do for his sisters. To take three thousand pounds from the fortune of their dear little boy, would be impoverishing him to the most dreadful degree. She begged him to think again on the subject. How could he answer it to himself to rob his child, and his only child too, of so large a sum? And what possible claim could the Miss Dashwoods, who were related to him only by half blood, which she considered as no relationship at all, have on his generosity to so large an amount? It was very well known that no affection was ever supposed to exist between the children of any man by different marriages; and why was he to ruin himself, and their poor little Harry, by giving away all his money to his half sisters?

    “It was my father’s last request to me,” replied her husband, “that I should assist his widow and daughters.”

    “He did not know what he was talking of, I dare say; ten to one but he was light-headed at the time. Had he been in his right senses, he could not have thought of such a thing as begging you to give away half your fortune from your own child.”

    “He did not stipulate for any particular sum, my dear Fanny; he only requested me, in general terms, to assist them, and make their situation more comfortable than it was in his power to do. Perhaps it would have been as well if he had left it wholly to myself. He could hardly suppose I should neglect them. But as he required the promise, I could not do less than give it: at least I thought so at the time. The promise, therefore, was given, and must be performed. Something must be done for them whenever they leave Norland and settle in a new home.”

    “Well, then, let something be done for them; but that something need not be three thousand pounds. Consider,” she added, “that when the money is once parted with, it never can return. Your sisters will marry, and it will be gone for ever. If, indeed, it could ever be restored to our little boy….”

    “Why, to be sure,” said her husband, very gravely, “that would make a great difference. The time may come when Harry will regret that so large a sum was parted with. If he should have a numerous family, for instance, it would be a very convenient addition.”

    “To be sure it would.”

    “Perhaps, then, it would be better for all parties if the sum were diminished one half. Five hundred pounds would be a prodigious increase to their fortunes!”

    “Oh! beyond anything great! What brother on earth would do half so much for his sisters, even if really his sisters! And as it is — only half blood! — But you have such a generous spirit!”

    “I would not wish to do anything mean,” he replied. “One had rather, on such occasions, do too much than too little. No one, at least, can think I have not done enough for them: even themselves, they can hardly expect more.”

    “There is no knowing what they may expect,” said the lady, “but we are not to think of their expectations: the question is, what you can afford to do.”

    “Certainly, and I think I may afford to give them five hundred pounds a-piece. As it is, without any addition of mine, they will each have above three thousand pounds on their mother’s death a very comfortable fortune for any young woman.”

    “To be sure it is: and, indeed, it strikes me that they can want no addition at all. They will have ten thousand pounds divided amongst them. If they marry, they will be sure of doing well; and if they do not, they may all live very comfortably together on the interest of ten thousand pounds.”

    “That is very true, and, therefore, I do not know whether, upon the whole, it would not be more advisable to do something for their mother while she lives rather than for them; something of the annuity kind I mean. My sisters would feel the good effects of it as well as herself. A hundred a year would make them all perfectly comfortable.”

    His wife hesitated a little, however, in giving her consent to this plan.

    “To be sure,” said she, “it is better than parting with fifteen hundred pounds at once. But then if Mrs. Dashwood should live fifteen years, we shall be completely taken in.”

    “Fifteen years! my dear Fanny; her life cannot be worth half that purchase.”

    “Certainly not; but if you observe, people always live for ever when there is any annuity to be paid them; and she is very stout and healthy, and hardly forty. An annuity is a very serious business; it comes over and over every year, and there is no getting rid of it. You are not aware of what you are doing. I have known a great deal of the trouble of annuities; for my mother was clogged with the payment of three to old superannuated servants by my father’s will, and it is amazing how disagreeable she found it. Twice every year, these annuities were to be paid; and then there was the trouble of getting it to them; and then one of them was said to have died, and afterwards it turned out to be no such thing. My mother was quite sick of it. Her income was not her own, she said, with such perpetual claims on it; and it was the more unkind in my father, because, otherwise, the money would have been entirely at my mother’s disposal, without any restriction whatever. It has given me such an abhorrence of annuities, that I am sure I would not pin myself down to the payment of one for all the world.”

    “It is certainly an unpleasant thing,” replied Mr. Dashwood, “to have those kind of yearly drains on one’s income. One’s fortune, as your mother justly says, is not one’s own. To be tied down to the regular payment of such a sum, on every rent day, is by no means desirable: it takes away one’s independence.”

    “Undoubtedly; and, after all, you have no thanks for it. They think themselves secure, you do no more than what is expected, and it raises no gratitude at all. If I were you, whatever I did should be done at my own discretion entirely. I would not bind myself to allow them anything yearly. It may be very inconvenient some years to spare a hundred, or even fifty pounds from our own expences.”

    “I believe you are right, my love; it will be better that there should be no annuity in the case; whatever I may give them occasionally will be of far greater assistance than a yearly allowance, because they would only enlarge their style of living if they felt sure of a larger income, and would not be sixpence the richer for it at the end of the year. It will certainly be much the best way. A present of fifty pounds, now and then, will prevent their ever being distressed for money, and will, I think be amply discharging my promise to my father.”

    “To be sure it will. Indeed, to say the truth, I am convinced within myself that your father had no idea of your giving them any money at all. The assistance he thought of, I dare say, was only such as might be reasonably expected of you; for instance, such as looking out for a comfortable small house for them, helping them to move their things, and sending them presents of fish and game, and so forth, whenever they are in season. I’ll lay my life that he meant nothing farther; indeed, it would be very strange and unreasonable if he did. Do but consider, my dear Mr. Dashwood, how excessively comfortable your mother-in-law and her daughters may live on the interest of seven thousand pounds, besides the thousand pounds belonging to each of the girls, which brings them in fifty pounds a-year a-piece, and, of course, they will pay their mother for their board out of it. Altogether, they will have five hundred a-year amongst them, and what on earth can four women want for more than that? They will live so cheap! Their housekeeping will be nothing at all. They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expences of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be! Five hundred a-year! I am sure I cannot imagine how they will spend half of it; and as to your giving them more, it is quite absurd to think of it. They will be much more able to give you something.”

    “Upon my word,” said Mr. Dashwood, “I believe you are perfectly right. My father certainly could mean nothing more by his request to me than what you say. I clearly understand it now, and I will strictly fulfil my engagement by such acts of assistance and kindness to them as you have described. When my mother removes into another house my services shall be readily given to accommodate her as far as I can. Some little present of furniture, too, may be acceptable then.”

    “Certainly,” returned Mrs. John Dashwood. “But, however, one thing must be considered. When your father and mother moved to Norland, though the furniture of Stanhill was sold, all the china, plate, and linen was saved, and is now left to your mother. Her house will therefore be almost completely fitted up as soon as she takes it.”

    “That is a material consideration undoubtedly. A valuable legacy indeed! And yet some of the plate would have been a very pleasant addition to our own stock here.”

    “Yes; and the set of breakfast china is twice as handsome as what belongs to this house. A great deal too handsome, in my opinion, for any place they can ever afford to live in. But, however, so it is. Your father thought only of them . And I must say this: that you owe no particular gratitude to him, nor attention to his wishes, for we very well know that if he could, he would have left almost everything in the world to them .”

    This argument was irresistible. It gave to his intentions whatever of decision was wanting before; and he finally resolved, that it would be absolutely unnecessary, if not highly indecorous, to do more for the widow and children of his father, than such kind of neighbourly acts as his own wife pointed out.Report

  16. Avatar pen says:

    Because she’s the greatest English-language wit between Shakespeare and Wilde.Report

    • Avatar Maribou says:

      This is more or less my answer. Austen at her best (and I must admit that I haven’t read Emma – but I have read P&P and Persuasion and Mansfield Park and even some of the little history book she wrote with her sister which resides in the British Library) is one of my favorite wry comics. I think a lot (not all) of what I like in Stephen Fry comes down through the same lineage, actually.

      She’s one of very few classic authors who can make me snort.

      And yes, there are plenty and plenty of problematic things in her writing – but honestly the further away from my time an author is, the less I am bothered by their ‘isms.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      Thanks, @pen and @maribouReport

  17. Avatar pen says:

    Of course there are problematic isms, but I’m sure that in one or two hundred years people will read what we consider progressive writing now and be horrified by our isms.Report

  18. Avatar Maribou says:

    I can’t speak to The Feminist Canon – and I’m just sort of thinking out loud here, and might be repeating / echoing some of what’s said above in different words…

    But for me there is also a power / agency / meaningful solidity in just the albeit-often-arch truthtellingness of Austen. I have read many many narratives (or been lectured about them in prose or voice) that were written by Anglophone and Francophone authors between the years of 1600 and 1900, or so. They are often brilliant – I grew up on them, and I’m sure they are in my bones. But Austen was really the only hint I had, as these other canonical writers were being drubbed into me, that some women had the option even “back then” of being point-of-view characters – she was a bridge between the modern feminist writers I loved as a young teenager, and the dusty old classics I cut my teeth on – even though I didn’t read her, just heard about her all the time.

    When I came to actually *reading* Austen, as an adult, I felt less alienated from my cultural heritage of old dusty British people than I had in years – because her women (unlike those of Swift, and Milton, and even Shakespeare – or, expanding to other European countries, Hugo and Goethe and Cervantes) were every last inch as much people as her men were, with just as much subjectiveness allotted to their characters. I never felt, reading her, like she thought women were less real than men were.

    I never have to wall myself off from my woman-ness while enjoying Austen – and that is a rare thing for me in books as old as hers are. She’s narrowly experienced, yes, and classist, yes, and sometimes offensively blithe about things like people owning plantations in the new world – and those things do grate, do shame – but I can imagine, reading her, that should she be magically transported to THIS day and age, she would apply that philosopher’s mind that Rose describes so well above – she would adapt and learn and grow. I don’t feel that way about many of her male peers.

    She makes the past real to me in a way they never quite could.Report

  19. Avatar pen says:

    @kim I’m not sure why it won’t let me respond to your comment directly, but a few things, first Austen isn’t Victorian, she’s Regency (different mores, so it’s an important distinction), while she writes an omniscient narrator she does it mostly from POVs of her heroines who are unmarried women and would be sheltered from things like affairs, and I think it was an acceptable thing for men to do anyway. However, there are still sexual shenanigans, but some of them may be too subtle for modern readers; in Pride & Prejudice Wickham seduces Lydia and they live together, having sex, unmarried in London until Darcy finds them. In Northanger Abbey Captain Tilney has sex with Isabel Thorpe with no intention of marrying her. In Sense & Sensibility Willoughby seduces Col. Brandon’s ward Eliza who was the child of Eliza (same name mother and daughter) and Col. Brandon’s brother (whom she was forced to marry). In Persuasion William Elliot was trying to get Anne Elliot to marry him while having an affair with a widow Mrs Clay who was trying to seduce Sir Walter Elliot. In Mansfield Park, Maria is divorced by her husband Mr Rushworth because she had an affair with Henry Crawford, Mrs Bertram is a drug addict and Tom (the heir) lives a “dissolute” lifestyle in London, which I take to mean sex, drugs and rock & roll. In Emma Harriet Smith is a bastard and does not know who her parents are. Finally Lady Susan seduces many men (married and single) through the course of the novella, a bit like les liaisons dangereuses.Report