Saturday, August 4, 2007

Jane Austen is laughing at you from the afterworld

You know, I've been irritated by the "USA Today-ification" of America since at least, let's see...1985. That's the earliest rant on the subject that I actually committed to paper. This morning I strayed onto the MSN homepage, and it's obviously still going strong. Probably I've learned to block it out, because a person gets older, and just can't be completely full of venom all the time. Believe me, I've tried!

This is the headline that set me off: "Why are we so obsessed with Jane Austen's love life?" My immediate response was: "I'm not." But I decided to click on it and see where they were going with this. First line of article: "Why does Jane Austen's spinsterhood bug us so much?" Response: "It doesn't." And it concludes, "we have to imagine Austen as Elizabeth Bennet and grant her a Darcy of her own—even if in the end we take him away again. We can't bear to think that her wisdom was not based on experience."


Speak for yourself. Learn from Jane's example how to use an objective third person narrator: which is why her tone is so often cool and ironic, entertaining but not revealing too much about herself. Maybe that's why she's apparently so mysterious to some modern folks, because she wasn't sticking herself in where she doesn't belong. Of course, I'm wildly guilty of that myself, also being a pushy modern American, but at least I try to be aware of it and not pass off the personal as the general. It's fair to jump in and talk about how Pride and Prejudice means so much to you. Saying that P&P is "everybody's favorite Jane Austen novel" (a sentiment I know I've heard many times) is quite another.

Okay, it's not quite the besetting sin of the 80s USA Today, which still lives on in headlines polls and studies: America is doing this! America is doing that! Like America is this one single hive-mind, and if you have a difference of opinion, then you're not really an American. To bad: we're here, we're weird, get used to it.

For the record, my favorites are Persuasion and, duh, Northanger Abbey. And my theory about Jane is that she was too aware of the risks and problems of marriage as it existed in her day. Taking into account the dangers of childbirth, the iffy legal status of women and their economic dependency, etc. If a single woman, through luck, had any kind of income as a single woman, then marriage would take control of it out of her hands, and she'd be again at the mercy of luck and whim. And Jane seemes to see the situation with a clear eye throughout her work. It's almost as if her heroines and their heroes are representing what it ought to be like, while surrounded by a whole cast of the people having more miserable, realistic lives.

Or maybe she just never met a guy worth upheaving her whole life for. It's a fluke that I did, so I can see how it could work out that way.

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