In which I enter the trenches yet again to save Saint Jane from overly pat readings of her work and life.
For the past few months, the Jane Austen blogosphere has been buzzing a bit about a new book called “The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After.” It’s a dating guide based on the wit and wisdom of Jane Austen. As a self-avowed Janeite, I’d heard about the book, but I didn’t pay much attention because I tend to believe that anyone who tries to distill Austen into easily-digestible advice errs.
Austen’s works are far more descriptive than prescriptive, and so layered—and I’d venture even sly at times—that even after multiple reads, it’s hard to definitively pin down any moral stands. Her most loathsome characters speak truths and her most lovable characters make poor decisions. Her creations espouse good manners but they also flaunt convention, get their petticoats six inches deep in mud, and go careening about the countryside with unsuitable cads (oh how much fun Austen had writing her cads). In fact, one of her characters lives in London, unmarried, for days, with a seducer, and her sisters nonetheless make good matches and allow the despoiled brat to visit them. That’s morally complex, no?
So I greeted the book with a “meh.”
But this was before I read the interview which the author, Elizabeth Kantor did with ultra-conservative Kathryn Jean Lopez of the National Review Online. Lopez might be described as a veritable modern day Mr. Collins; she is constantly handwringing over contraception and the Kids These Days who do the sex and Destroy Families and so forth. And she gets Kantor to say the most rage-inducing things about Saint Jane, things that make me want to scream and pace about the house, Darcy-like.
But after a little Googling, I’m not surprised. Kantor, it turns out, isn’t just an ordinary Janeite but also a true believing conservative who seems to have whitewashed her book-related online persona to put her movement credentials in soft focus: case in point, instead of revealing that she’s the editor of the “Conservative Book Club” she says she used to run a book club. (Compare this to this.)
WHAT WOULD JANE SAY? “She had been used before to feel that [s]he could not be always quite sincere, but now she saw insincerity in every thing.”
There are logical fallacies that snake through the entire inteview. The first is the absurd direct equation of sexual mores from Regency England with those of today. Circumstances existed in Austen’s day that doesn’t exist in ours, thank heavens: women who lost their virginity before marriage (in polite society) lost their status. Also, women couldn’t inherit property. Thanks to feminism and the sexual revolution, we don’t have to worry about that stuff anymore. That’s a good thing! In our society, poor Colonel Brandon’s ward Eliza would get a second chance at love instead of being locked up in the countryside for the rest of her life, for instance, just for having a baby. Yay?
Austen is responding to her time. In Austen’s stories, many of her heroines actually do compromise themselves right up to the edge of that cliff by flirting with the wrong sort of men, having their names coupled with them and so on. They usually learn from experience and choose more wisely a second time. I’m convinced that if these books took place today, Austen would respond to our lives: Lizzy would sleep with Wickham, Marianne with Willoughby, Anne with Wentworth the first time around. Fanny Price might even get to second base with Henry Crawford. Then they’d be like, “oops, he sucks. Can I date my cousin instead?” Err, anyway. The point is: Austen is an advocate of learning from mistakes. In her day, those mistakes were deeply sublimated and bursting with sexual tension. In ours, they’d be more explicit.
But here’s the kicker from the interview. Women are more interested in the Romance than they are Work, says Kantor:
And okay, there may be some tiny percentage of women out there who really are completely fulfilled by designing rockets or doing brain surgery, or whatever, and just aren’t that interested in love, or relationships, or family. Human nature is full of variety. But how many of those women have you actually met?
That’s funny, because one of those work-oriented, work-fulfilled women—Jane Austen, who spent her whole life writing and never got married—is the SUBJECT OF YOUR DAMN BOOK. Yes, she was a family girl, but she also didn’t let her family stop her from writing.
Austen wasn’t a rage-against-the machine type like Charlotte Bronte. She was just a total genius. As a result, like Shakespeare, she is someone whom everyone will seek to claim for their team. But they can’t, and they should stop trying. Her writing can’t be reduced to a set of rules, because human life can’t. She’s neither on Team Feminist nor Team Conservative. We’re all just on Team Jane.
Ps, like I said earlier, Austen would have been cool with Fifty Shades of Grey.