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.