Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Is Jane Austen overrated?

That's a question posed by the title of Ron Rosenbaum's article in Slate, enticingly luring you with the promise of Slate-style contrarianism.  But since the anti-Austen faction (led by notable stalwarts like Charlotte Bronte and V. S. Naipaul) has been so vocal as of late, this isn't the contrarianism you've been expecting: It's the backlash against the backlash.

The answer, according to Rosenbaum, is No, but also kind of: 
Enough! Please! We get it. I’ve written it myself several times. Jane Austen is a serious—and seriously great—figure of seriously great literature. Don’t diminish her work by calling it chick lit! Did I mention she’s a very, very, serious (but brilliantly comic and satiric) author?
But it’s begun to seem like she’s now assumed the role of the designated highbrow writer for light readers. It’s not that she’s overrated. It’s that she’s in dire jeopardy of being overhyped—and dumbed down in the process.

Rosenbaum's argument is close to what I've been telling my senior students for years now: It isn't that Austen is overrated, really, but mis-rated.  Austen is widely loved, but for reasons other than what makes her writing so brilliant and unparalleled.  Yes, the romance between Elizabeth and Darcy is compelling, and it would be nice to live at Pemberley for a little while, but Pride and Prejudice is more than a playground for our own retrograde fantasies.  What makes it, and the rest of her novels so compelling, is the simultaneous sharpness and subtlety of her satire, the fluidity of the narration, and the careful attention to individual character.  In this last facet I don't thinks he has any equals besides Shakespeare, and in the first two none at all.

Rosenbaum does a good job skewering the cottage industry of Austen schlock, though with a measure of glee and unsubtlety that I'm sure he didn't pick up from Austen herself.  (Satirical she was, snarky she was not.)  I agree with his thesis 100%: It is the reduction of her novels, whether to "chick lit," or moralistic pablum, or fodder for Regency dress-up parties, that threatens to overshadow how invaluable they are.

What really fascinated me, though, was his conclusion.  He theorizes that:

...silly as they are, the zombie, sea monster, and horror movie mash-up versions of the Austen novels are, if not deliberate, then unintentional expressions of What’s Missing From the Snow Globe World of Austen. That sense that she is not questioning the moral order of the universe, the horror of unredeemed human suffering, and the meaning of the human presence within it. She doesn’t have to, but let’s not ignore the fact that she doesn’t. She does not venture into the realm of theodicy, the attempt to reconcile the alleged goodness of God with the prevalence of evil—which almost every great novelist and dramatist does.

Rosenbaum may be correct when he says that the mashers-up are responding to the "sense that she is not questioning the moral order of the universe," but I question whether that's true.  Just today in my AP class we did a close reading of Mr. Collins' proposal to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, annotating the ways in which he unknowingly embarrasses himself.  For one, he seems to think it is appropriate for a proposal to reference the inevitable death of both of Elizabeth's parents:

But the fact is, that being, as I am, to inherit this estate after the death of your honoured father (who, however, may live many years longer), I could not satisfy myself without resolving to chuse a wife from among his daughters, that the loss to them might be as little as possible, when the melancholy event takes place -- which, however, as I have already said, may not be for several years... To fortune I am perfectly indifferent, and shall make no demand of that nature on your father, since I am well aware that it could not be complied with; and that one thousand pounds in the four per cents, which will not be yours till after your mother's decease, is all that you may ever be entitled to.

Pride and Prejudice may not have much in the way of metaphysics, but it is not ignorant of death, and because Austen does not "stray into tragedy," as Rosenbaum writes, does not mean that she creates a "Snow Globe World" in which tragedy is non-existent or impossible.  Death looms over Pride and Prejudice; the possibility that Mr. Bennet will die before his wife and daughters are provided for gives Jane and Elizabeth's romances their urgency.  It is very concerned with the way death affects the living, and with the unjust social structures that would amplify the tragedy of death by casting the female Bennets out of their home.

Rosenbaum recoils in disgust as the moralizing vacuity of William Deresiewicz's "self-help" book on Austen, but it's no more fair or accurate to depict them as amoral.  It is possible, and I think not a stretch, to read her heroines as people who have no time for metaphysics because their society has set them to the task of procuring husbands.

Rather, what Rosenbaum interprets as a lack I think is one of Austen's great gifts: a lightness of tone even about the most serious of matters.  Certainly I appreciate it more now that I'm faced with the overblown seriousness and melodrama of Godwin and Wollstonecraft, who were more or less her contemporaries.  It's a rare gift--Wilde inherited it, and if he hadn't gone to prison to produce De Profundis and "Reading Gaol" we might think of him, too, as a talented figure who doesn't quite fit the description of a "great novelist and dramatist."  (I will let the question of how we might think of a James Austen or an Olivia Wilde go unasked.)

Ultimately, the pop-culture remorae that cling to Austen cause Rosenbaum to reassess his appreciation of her.  His conclusion is that she doesn't "plumb the depths" like the greats do, and I leave it to you to decide for yourself how deeply she plumbs, and how important such plumbing is to your conception of greatness.  I will conclude by saying that I think it's her subtlety, her nuance, and her narrative control that keep us coming back to her, the blurriness between her voice and her characters', her inability to be pigeonholed and pinned down.  And as long as we're still wondering what exactly it is her novels are and do, they are as compelling as they ever were.


Brittany said...

I, like most English teachers (particularly of the lady variety), love Austen, but one of the things I dislike about her popularity is how she overshadows other authors who would be more well known if Austen didn't take up such a large chunk of the talking space around female novelists (along with the Brontes).

It wasn't until I started grad school that I discovered Burney and Wharton, and I think that both of them are comparable in talent and subject to Miss Austen.

Also, I know I'm thinking about this more because I'm currently taking a Gender and Lit class, but there is a huge tendency of (male) critics to dismiss work by women as 'lighter' and 'less important' because it centers more on social life, family life, and character development, which makes me suspicious and annoyed when I read a male who says an author doesn't probe "the meaning of the human presence within it"

Christopher said...

I really, really love Edith Wharton, but I think that her talents are very similar to some of her contemporaries (like, say, Henry James). I think Austen's power of irony and narrative control is something that nobody else does, even though people have been trying to do it for two centuries now. For that reason I think she's still in a class of her own.

Never read Burney, though.

Brittany said...

That makes me very much look forward to the next novel on my list: The Portrait of a Lady.

I have these weird gaps in education (which I am now having to fill for my grad school comps) that includes never having read Edith Wharton or Henry James. Coupled with my gender studies class, I am actually starting to feel a little burned out on all the lady issues!

Christopher said...

Oh man, I tried to read The Ambassadors a couple years ago and found it nearly impenetrable. I did enjoy Turn of the Screw, but I haven't had the courage to pick up another James book in a long time. Let me know what you think.