I Might Try My Damnedest to Enjoy Jane Austen

But so far I can’t do it. She does nothing for me. There’s no connection.
Mark Twain has described pretty much the same struggle:

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… He would be certain to curl his lip, as those ultra-good Presbyterians went self-complacently along. Because he considered himself better than they? Not at all. They would not be to his taste—that is all.

He would not want to associate with them; he would not like their gait, their style, their ways…yet he would be secretly ashamed of himself, secretly angry that this was so. Why? Because barkeepers are like everybody else—it humiliates them that there are fine things, great things, admirable things, which others perceive and they can’t.

Throughout college I was given to acknowledge the sanctity of Jane Austen by so many female English majors (particularly the one to whom I’m now engaged). What exactly are they perceiving that I’m not? Is it in fact a matter of taste?

It could be: in high school I disliked Pride and Prejudice and was happy to leave it at that. Two readings later by a hopefully more well-rounded me, and not much has changed.

This is the point where someone says to me, “Well, you’re just a guy.”

And see, I’m not satisfied with that explanation.

It’s not my disinterest in the subject matter. Granted, an author has to pull off a stupendous feat to make me care about wealthy English girls who have little to do besides sit in drawing rooms and get themselves married. But I’m even less excited at the thought of reading about prairie girls. In turn-of-the-century Nebraska. Yet I love Willa Cather’s novels like you don’t even know. I have no brief explanation for this except to say that she’s just a wonderful writer.

Still, Jane Austen could be one of those things of apparent merit that almost no male actually enjoys, like Dexter. But, more than merit, it could just has no-miss appeal toward a particular audience.

So is it a gender thing? In some respects, maybe. A dude who says he likes Austen is most likely trying to get into your English-major pants, ladies, but exceptions exist.

The girl who seriously enjoys Hemingway is likewise a unicorn—one that you may find on a certain midnight of the pagan year if you wait in a thicket, where you might discover her cantering to a moonlit pond and then craning her neck to drink from it, saying, “Give us this nada our daily nada.”

(In fact, I’d hold up Austen-Hemingway comparison as a fairly airtight one if you want to discuss apparent gender appeal among authors.)

Anyway, I ought to stop here. Kiersten said if I want to have a valid opinion on an author I’m going to have to read more than just one of her works (and reading the same work multiple times doesn’t count). I guess she’s right. So I’ve agreed to take up Emma–Kiersten’s favorite Austen–in the near future.

But some time before they come out with “Emma and Extra-Terrestrials.”

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3 thoughts on “I Might Try My Damnedest to Enjoy Jane Austen

  1. It’s definitely a female thing. I’ve never been able to get into her books, even as I’ve watched and enjoyed–to a degree–the movie/miniseries adaptations of her work. I don’t know of a single male friend (that actually reads) who’s gotten into her but all of my female friends love her.

    Funny you pointed out Dexter. I was just having a (heated) discussion with two female friends who love that show, but I just can’t bother with, no matter how much I’ve tried to get into it, since I’m all about serial killers.

  2. I could go into an explanation as to how I, a stranger, found your blog — or I could just get to the point of why I’m writing to you in the first place, and it’s this:

    You should give Jane Austen a second try.

    Jane Austen is mean. She’s mean in the way your favorite bitchy aunt is mean around the holidays, whispering into your ear about which cousin is back off the wagon and what a mess your brother made of his second marriage — by which I mean, she’s mostly awesome.

    Jane Austen isn’t as concerned with romance as she is concerned about human beings. And that kind of concern should be cross-genderal (if you allow “genderal” to be a word; and I’ve seen the way most people type on the Internet and this shouldn’t be a problem). You know, either intimately or peripherally, all of the people Austen is writing about: the priggish girl who never tires of flaunting her priggishness in quietly passive aggressive ways (Fanny Price — who is also awesome, though it takes a couple of reads of Mansfield Park to get that. You’ll be hard-pressed to find someone in the Austen canon — or any canon, really — with as much strength of will as Fanny has); the rakish guy who values himself by his ride rather than by anything of actual value (John Thorpe — who would have been a better match for Northanger Abbey‘s Catherine Morland; or, at least, he needs Catherine more than Catherine needs the fabric-loving Henry Tilney); the woman left behind by love, dealing quietly with heartache (Persuasion‘s Anne Elliot).

    You may end up not liking the novels anyway. There’s no accounting for taste, nor should you be bullied into loving something just because all the smart, cool, hot kids do. But you should at least try Austen. If you’re a careful reader, and if you consider yourself bitchy, and if you want to both hold the world tight and slap it, then you’ll probably like Austen just fine.

    Don’t start with Pride and Prejudice; it’s like looking at the Mona Lisa in that it can feel like you’ve already read it too much because everyone else has read it too much. Emma is a nice start; Northanger Abbey, too. (Plus, Northanger Abbey is short.) But if you think you’ve got the cajones for it, and if you feel you’re up for a challenge, and if you want something not overtly romantic, while also sort of achingly sexy, then I think you might be the kind of reader who should read Mansfield Park. Fanny Price will teach you about moral fortitude; Mary Crawford will let you feel her up behind the rectory.

    But do read Austen. Because she’s concerned with people, not romance. Because from what I’ve read about you on your blog, you’re concerned with people, too. Mark Twain is funny; but he’s wrong about Jane Austen. And Jane Austen would very much have liked Mark Twain. So I’ll say one last time: do read her. She’ll repay the attention.

  3. You might have discovered my blog as I imagine most people do: running a Google search on “Bam Thwok” by the Pixies and ending up here instead. But hey, any way works for me.

    I appreciate they thoughtful feedback on this. I’ve heard before (from my fiancee, in fact) that P&P is an inadequate introduction to the author’s work much like I feel Romeo and Juliet is to Shakespeare’s. I’d elaborate more on my thoughts on that novel, but I’m resolved to shut my trap until I’ve read another Austen, which’ll be in the not-too-distant future.

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