Reporter's Notebook

Let’s Talk About Jane Austen
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July 18 marks 200 years since the beloved novelist’s death—or, as some of our staff superfans like to say, since Austen achieved immortality. In her honor, we’re hosting a bi-Austen-tennial celebration of essays and reader discussion. Come back every day this week for more questions and responses, and check out the rest of our Austen coverage here.

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Why My Dad Reads Jane Austen

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.

Photos.com / Getty

This week at The Atlantic we’re marking the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death with a celebration of her life and legacy. Our cofounder Ralph Waldo Emerson might have been less than enthused about these digital festivities; as Lee Siegel reported in our January 1998 issue:

Austen irritated Emerson: he found her novels “vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society.” All that her characters cared about was “marriageableness.” “Suicide,” the great Transcendentalist proposed, "is more respectable.”

Emerson wasn’t alone in his distaste for Austen. Readers—whether they be other well-known writers, academics, or everyday consumers of literature—have long been divided in their opinions of the author. Some love her. Some hate her. Some hold her up as a literary icon, while others dismiss her as a chick-lit writer who concerned herself too much with marriage and not enough with pressing world affairs. Some admire the gentility and romance of the late-18th-century British society she portrayed, even as others praise her for satirizing and subverting the values of the same society.

Discussing what makes the author feel relevant even now, 200 years after her death, Nicholas Dames writes in our upcoming September 2017 issue:

As Austen’s own Emma Woodhouse put it to her querulous father, “one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” … in the case of Austen, that misunderstanding seems to have an urgency that isn’t attached to any other canonized, pre-20th-century literary figure.

Put simply, as Siegel observed, “No one, it seems, has ever been neutral or aloof about Jane Austen.”

In our own pages, contributors have expressed a consistently positive opinion of Austen over the past 154 years. Mrs. R.C. Waterston complimented her in our February 1863 issue on her “rare intuition” and “peculiar genius,” while Ferris Greenslet, writing nearly 40 years later, called her “after Sappho the most unquestioned genius of her sex” and praised her wit, her sensibility, and her “chief literary virtue, her unique and never adequately to be praised power of imaginative realization.”

In 1998, Siegel had similarly laudatory words. “No other author,” he wrote,

goes with such casual intimacy as she, for all her delicate soundings of formal social relations, into the vulnerable spot where society touches the root of self. And few authors are at the same time so quietly fearsome and so intensely consoling. …

Austen’s style is one of English literature’s marvels. Her repartee is sometimes as dazzling as anything in Sheridan, and is one reason that her perpetual hope of seeing exciting theater was disappointed whenever she went. …

She had a flawless ear for moral counterpoint, for the hidden chords of how things ought to be and really were. She pitched her delicately endangered sentences, her psychology, her dialogue and drama, to some invisible key way at the back of her language, just as Mozart pitched his compositions to a frequency beyond human range, way at the back of his music.

And Dames is just as complimentary of her style, writing:

Her sentences can leave readers in a swoon, with their controlled wit, their many-edged irony, their evident pleasure in their own mastery—and in the masterful way they negotiate or transform less graceful realities.

“Austen,” he asserts, “has firmly joined Shakespeare not just as a canonical figure but as a symbol of Literature itself, the hazel-eyed woman in the mobcap as iconic now as the balding man in the doublet.”

But the debate over Austen’s literary prowess has nevertheless cropped up beside this stream of praise in the archives, as our admiring contributors have collected the opinions of other readers, some of whom were recognizable literary figures themselves.

In the early winter of 2006, I was living with my soon-to-be ex-boyfriend. We’d recently moved into a beautifully renovated Brooklyn brownstone that we called the “Penthouse” because it was on the top floor of a four-story walk up. Despite this new beginning, our love had grown stale—it felt like we had less and less in common. I preferred to spend an evening at home than go out with him and his friends.

One night I stayed in, curled on the sofa with the cats, and pulled up our cable on-demand menu. The Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen version of Pride and Prejudice caught my eye. I’d read the book years ago, but connected more with the brooding loneliness of Jane Eyre than any of Austen’s wealthy and silly single girls.

I was hooked almost immediately, but the scene that crushed my nearly broken heart happens about 25 minutes in, when the elder Bennet daughters are escorted out of Mr. Bingley’s house after Jane’s illness turns it into an impromptu infirmary. In a discreet, barely noticeable gesture, Darcy sticks out his hand to support Elizabeth as she gets in her family’s carriage. The scene is all giggling girls and polite chaos—then, silence. The camera focuses on the touch, and then, a few moments later, you see the close-up of Darcy extending his own fingers, likely quite thrilled at the forbidden physical contact. On my first, say, 10 viewings, I felt the tingling in my own hands.

At a time when I was rapidly falling out of love, that fleeting moment served as a visceral reminder of the spark of new romance. And just a few months after that breakup, I met the man who would end up being my husband. We were more like Bridget Jones and Mark Darcy, running into each other over the years, but finallyroughly five years after I first watched that electric touchhe kissed me.

J. Ratcliffe / Reuters

Among the many readers who answered our call for Jane Austen introduction stories, we heard from some whose early encounters with the novelist’s work had blossomed into careers. Take Linda Troost, an academic who acquired her first Austen book by chance in 1972:

I fished a late–19th-century copy of Pride and Prejudice bound with Northanger Abbey out of a billiard table. I was at a National Trust (USA) book sale at the Woodrow Wilson House and the book cost $1. I originally bought it just for the nice binding.

I’ve ended up making an academic career from the study of Austen, especially adaptations, and I’ve done it in collaboration with my academic husband. It doesn’t get better than that.

Check out one of Linda’s books, Jane Austen in Hollywood, here.

Lauren in Chicago is technically Team Brontë on the literary podcast she co-hosts—but her love for Austen helped lead her to start it:

Pride and Prejudice was required summer reading for me during middle school.  I instantly fell in love and carried it around with me all summer long. I had to buy a second copy before the school year started because I took my original copy to the pool where it met with an unfortunate ending.

Jane Austen is responsible for so many of my friendships.  My best friend Hannah and I spend an inordinate amount of time arguing over who is the best Austen heroine.  Obviously it’s Lizzy Bennet, but Hannah insists that it’s Anne Elliot, which is nonsense.  

We argue about it so much we started a podcast about Jane Austen and we get to now argue with other Janeites all over the world. It’s called Austen vs. Bronte: Bonnets at Dawn.  I spend my days researching and talking Austen in preparation for an upcoming book based on the podcast.

More on that book:

Katie Martin / The Atlantic

Last week we asked readers to share: What’s your favorite Jane Austen-related adaptation? Or, if you prefer: What’s your least favorite? What film versions of the novels fill you with joy, or wonder, or ire? What TV shows or web series do you find compelling and true to Austen’s insights?

And: You all came through! We got several votes of enthusiasm for books like Amanda Grange’s novel Mr. Darcy’s Diary and Jo Baker’s novel Longbourn, movies like Austenland, TV shows like Lost in Austen, and web series like Jane Austen’s Fight Club (for the simple but important reason that, as Lynn Gray, of Harstene Island, Washington, explains, “it’s outrageously funny”).  

We also got many, many votes for Clueless, Amy Heckerling’s 1995 adaptation of Emma. Which, as Cassie Myers of Stanford, California, explained, “captures the emotions and wit of the books, the actors are fantastic, and it reminds me why her stories are so universal.”

Or, as Tana, from Denver, put it in explaining her enthusiasm for the story of Cher Horowitz, Beverly Hills resident:

I’m not a Jane Austen fan at all—I found her novels tiring and the endless obsession with class and marriage boring (admittedly, this was as a teen. I haven’t yet revisited, and have a sneaking suspicion I’d find Pride and Prejudice tolerable today). All of that said, Clueless is fun! It was released when I was 10, and was bright and shiny enough to enthrall those of us not yet in the race for soulmates. Cher and Dionne’s “Whatever” (and Amber’s associated hand gesture) didn’t just pass through our vocabulary but entrenched itself. We wanted their closets and their cell phones.

As I got older, it’s retained that charm and added new layers, as we look back at the early careers of some of our current favorite actors. Jeremy Sisto is awful and perfect as Elton, and I can’t think of or hear The Cranberries without thinking of him. Paul Rudd is every guy you meet at a liberal arts college. Breckin Meyer!! And Brittany Murphy, beautiful, charming, hummingbird Brittany Murphy, whose Tai is so resonant and so funny that every time she’s on screen I’m laughing and crying—because she reminds me of what we lost when Murphy died. Donald Faison is luminescent. And Alicia Silverstone got Cher.

I remember the movie being marketed as the zany adventures of a ditzy blonde and her narcissistic rich LA friends—and it’s definitely that but it’s so much more. There is a wellspring of good laughs and good vibes—and some of the finest men collected in one place onscreen. Altogether, I think this is my favorite because it doesn’t feel like Austen—it isn’t taxing or laborious, but its moral and vision are strong.

The Bollywood actress Aishwarya Rai dances with fellow cast members on the set of Bride and Prejudice. Sherwin Crasto / Reuters

When we asked our readers to tell us how they first encountered Austen, we got responses from all over the world—Greece, Australia, Ireland, Portugal, South Africa. One reader, Sümeyye Ceren Özkan, described reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time in a Turkish translation; several others, including Silvia from Italy, said that Austen’s novels were among the first books they read in English. But a notable pattern emerged among some Indian and Pakistani readers who said Austen’s work illuminated social strictures in their own communities. Here’s Amrit, writing from New York City:

Throughout my life I was encouraged by female relatives and the local Indian community to act, dress, and look pretty and put enormous attention into my outward appearance and reputation, as this would guarantee me successful male suitors. The same goes for my fellow Indian female friends, whose aim it was to marry and have children before 30. To them, marrying and keeping up with appearances was important.

It wasn’t until I saw the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie version with Keira Knightley that I felt inspired to begin re-reading the book at a mature age in my life (late twenties). I related to Lizzy Bennet’s character and found it baffling how many things haven’t changed in Indian society and societal norms for ladies. Lizzy comes to my mind each time I attend a social gathering and control myself from making a witty remark.

But I know that I am not alone in these experiences. I was a loner when my thoughts and actions weren’t in agreement with my female friends or society, but I felt a sense of belonging while reading Jane Austen. In a sense, her writing gave me a shield of confidence to tackle the world as an independent female and to not let anything get in the way of my individuality.

Similarly, Soniah Kamal, a Pakistani writer who now lives in Georgia, got hooked on Austenian sarcasm at 14, when she received Pride and Prejudice as a gift from her aunt:

I was a sarcastic teenager myself, much to my mother’s shame—who will marry you?—and I fell in love with Austen’s sauciness and irony. Being a girl from Pakistan, I knew marriage was my sole reason for having been born as far as society was concerned, and it wasn’t long before Jane Austen had turned into my clever Jane Khala, an honorary Pakistani Aunty, the one who had chosen to remain single against the odds. And Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins and Elizabeth and Charlotte, everyone, went from being characters in a beloved novel to everyday Pakistanis all around me. (I affectionately call my mother Mrs. Bennet; she used to be most un-amused but then I got married and had children and everything suddenly became very funny.)

When it came time for me to choose a spouse, I turned to Austen.