It is universally acknowledged that women English majors of a certain age always read Jane Austen.

Unless you’re me. Oh, it isn’t that I never tried. It’s just that Austen always seemed a little too foofy for me, a bit too girlie and modern (to a medievalist, anyway). Not to mention that in undergraduate and graduate studies I was constantly trying to distance myself from women writers and feminist readings because everyone always assumed that’s what I was. I wanted to play with the boys and talk about chivalry and brain bashing. I didn’t want to have anything to do with feminist bullcrap.

Yeah. That was pretty stupid of me.

I entirely blame my son for my becoming a total feminist. No, on the surface, I don’t look like much of one. I’m a stay at home mother who loves cooking, knitting, and gardening. But I’ve also got two degrees, and have been writing novels for the better part of my life. That my son makes me happy–that being his mother is exactly What I Want to Be When I Grow Up is a different approach to feminism, you might think. But to me, it’s not. To me it’s no different than another woman deciding she wants to be a CEO or a barista or a truck driver or a journalist. It’s about choice and agency–being able to make that choice.

Anyway, most of what I’m reading these days is by women authors. And when I visited my great-aunt, she gave me a beautiful edition of Pride and Prejudice which I had never had occasion to read. Of course, I’d seen various televised and movie versions, and we both noted Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy as the absolute dreamiest. That an 80 year old woman and 27 year old could agree is a little amusing to say the least.little too foofy for me, a bit too girlie and modern (to a medievalist, anyway). Not to mention that in undergraduate and graduate studies I was constantly trying to

On the ride home, after having decimated Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks on my way there, I picked up Austen, likely for the fifth time. I just never could get past the first few pages before. But this time, it worked.

No, Austen is not for everyone. But what is so remarkable to me is how flawlessly her novels are structured. As I read I kept glancing at the progress throughout he book–physically–with where the plot is moving. She weaves and winds, pulls tight some strings, and lets others dangle, while always maintaining remarkable control.

I think about Austen, as a woman, very often. And reading her works give me a window into a world of a woman who, born in a time as restrictive as hers, gave a voice to her struggle with wit, humor, and poignancy. Though she was not the first woman writer, as some critics often treat her (there are quite a few of those in the Middle Ages) she is no less remarkable.

It’s strange, as in many college courses, they teach classes like “English Before 1800″. You lump together almost two milennia of writing, you miss the nuances, and the changes. And in the view of all those years, Austen is absolutely radical.

I’ve heard that Persuasion, her last work, is arguably her best. And I look forward to reading it. For me, her characterization is just so endearing and, dare I say, effective. No, there is no brain bashing in Austen (unless you’re talking about the zombie flick they’re doing)–but what she accomplishes in dialogue and detail is really, truly, not to be missed.

  • tintri

    When I started reading this post, I wanted to tell you that I have always been the same way and that I personally believe feminism has to do with choice rather than the attempt to totally avoid men in every manner. But then, you said it!

    My sister, who is the same age as me, has three children and loves staying at home with her kids more than anything else. She weirdly gets a lot of grief from people, and I’ve had to tell her several times that these people bothering her are not feminists just because they say they are and they hate “holly homemakers”, because she has made the CHOICE to be home as often as possible and focus on the home and her children. The women of past generations fought for our CHOICE, not for our total separation from man. That’s just silly. Equality does not mean uniform, it just means equal! She then thanks me for being crazy and feels much better, and she should.

    In any case, I used to stay away from female authors, too, and I still have problems with “womens studies” as a required course in college. Why do I care that they’re women? Unless it has something directly to do with a civil rights movement wherein women were the civil group with no rights, or something similar, I don’t care if they were a woman. I care only that they were a writer.

    What I’m trying to say, with my drug-addled brain, is that good on you for being happy. Yes. Oh, and Austen is definitely an author you must be in the mood for, no matter her sex.

    • http://www.aldersgatecycle.com Natania

      @tintri I think of it like this: every time I pick up my pen, I’m indebted to the women writers who came before me. Because, even fifty years ago, women had a much more difficult time saying “I want to be a writer” or writing at all. What’s intriguing to me is how much of what I write has to do with concepts of feminism and gender issues, even though it’s not as conscious as that. It’s just become a very big part of what and who I am.

      The problem with reading all women as only writers comes in to play with pre-20th century writing (and art, music, drama…). Because many women didn’t have access to the kind of education seen among men, most of what they wrote is not considered “as good as” men in the canon. What happens is that professors and teachers decide to read Keats and Wordsworth over Charlotte Smith because, technically, they were “better”. However, to gloss over someone like Smith would mean that many people reading Romantic poetry would believe there were no female contributions, which is false, of course. :) Sometimes it is important to read a woman’s work because she is a woman.

  • qorvus

    Oddly enough I’ve read the book, and seen the movie a few too many times, for which fact I blame my sister. She used to watch it all the time and so I saw it by osmosis. Strangely I kind of came to not mind it after all that…

    Ah yes, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The movie is based on the book – which isn’t out yet. Jane Austen is public domain now, no longer subject to copyright, and someone decided to rewrite it but with zombies in it. Obviously one of those types who believe anything can be improved if they put zombies in it. :) Some movie exec heard about it and obviously thought it’d be a good idea for a movie. I made a post about it a while back when I first heard about it. Could be worth seeing.

  • tintri

    You’re right, sometimes it’s important to read a woman’s work because she was a woman in a particular time where women weren’t supposed to be able to do that sort of thing. I think that was in my “or something similar” idea. Nyquil should be a controlled substance.