Why My Dad Reads Jane Austen

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Elinor Dashwood sits sewing in an 1899 illustration
Elinor, in an 1899 illustration (Chris Hammond)

If you took Elinor Dashwood, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and turned her into a male software engineer in his sixties, you’d get my dad. Seriously: He’s kind, smart, moral, sometimes stoic in the extreme. He can be reserved, even about things that he enjoys, which is the only explanation I have for why I’ve never talked to him about our shared enthusiasm for Jane Austen. She has the distinction of being one of two novelists (the other is J.R.R. Tolkien) that break up his almost-entirely-nonfiction reading diet, but I’ve never asked him why. It’s possible that we were too busy marathoning the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice on the couch together.

A few days ago, we talked about what he loves about Austen, and what it’s like to be a male reader in a very female-dominated fandom. I had to start with why his yellowing paperback copy of Sense and Sensibility appears on his nightstand every few years next to his usual science and history books:

Jane Austen writes of a world that has a very clear system of rules and morals, which she believes in. There’s a certainty about how things are supposed to work that is kind of comforting in a way. And the other thing is that she has such a wonderfully clear and lucid style. Some 19th-century writing is hard to read, but her sentence structures are both elegant and straightforward in kind of the same way that Mozart’s music is.

She has a devastating way about her, especially when she’s dealing with the foibles of her characters. I’m thinking about how she deals with Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, and how she deals with Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion. Our introduction to him is that “vanity was the beginning and the end of his character.” Just like that!

When I asked him about whether he’d ever paused to consider that Jane Austen’s protagonists and fans are women, and if that had influenced his reading experience, his answer was: “No, not really. I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it much. And if I did, it probably would have been a point of pride. I like to be creatively maladjusted.” Furthermore:

I don’t have any trouble empathizing with the main characters that she has, who are appealing people who face dilemmas that are interesting. So it’s looking at them in the context of a system of social rules that we no longer have, but were certainly very well understood.

I certainly see the world we have now as kind of in the early phases of trying to reach a more just and fair arrangement between the sexes. We’ve still got an awful lot of work to do, and I’m not sure we yet fully understand what [equality] would really look like. I guess you’d have to say that Jane Austen is presenting, pretty faithfully, the social system that she knew. She’s valid evidence of where we came from.

The thing about it is, even the good male characters in Austen’s novels are not the primary characters, so you don’t learn as much about them. She never writes with the voice of the author explaining what was going through their heads or anything like that. So I don’t think you can really identify with any of the male characters in these books. It’s about the ladies.

Now that I think about it, I probably identify most with Elinor in Sense and Sensibility. She displays a remarkable maturity of character that you don’t find in most nineteen-year-olds. She holds it together despite all kinds of really bad stuff that comes to her that she is honor-bound not to talk about with anybody. She’s solid, she’s reliable. Those are features that I admire. The competition is pretty stiff, but I’m going to go with Elinor, I think.

Given that some of the most important—and the most imperfect—relationships in the Austen novels are between fathers and their daughters, I asked my dad if he’d read any of these relationships differently since he became my father.

Oh, let’s see. There’s Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth, which is an example of a father and daughter who see eye to eye a lot, or then there’s Sir Walter and Anne Elliot, who do not see eye to eye one little bit.

Do I look at them differently since I became your father? I’m not really sure I do. But it’s true that there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since I started reading about them.

We ended with the toughest question of all: Persuasion or Sense and Sensibility?

It depends on which day of the week it is.