Responses to “Should Jane Austen have written about more ‘important’ things?” Part 1

Hi friends!

If you know me, you know I’m a huge Jane Austen nut—if you really know me, you know my boyfriend is an even bigger Jane Austen nut than I am. Both of us have written responses to the prompt I posted a few days ago, and I’m posting mine today and his tomorrow (they’re both reasonably long, plus he’s a much better writer than I am, so I didn’t want my review to follow his!). You might notice that we’ve both seemed to take the question rather personally, so don’t mind our, erm, zeal.

Edit: I’m going to include the prompt because the title doesn’t really do it justice and might make things confusing.

Readers who don’t like Austen’s novels complain about the narrowness of her themes. They sometimes accuse her of ignoring the world outside her narrow society and of forsaking broader, historical—and more “important”—themes for a relatively small set of preoccupations and concerns. How would you respond to such a critic?

Anyway, here’s my opinion:

First of all, I would imagine wartime life in eighteenth/nineteenth century England to be much like it is today: most people, unless they have a family member in the military, are likely not worrying about the war (whether it’s the Iraq War or the Napoleonic Wars) on a daily basis. Fanny Price had her brother William to worry about; Anne Elliot had Captain Wentworth. To a lesser extent, Lydia Bennet had Wickham, and both she and Kitty had their whole obsession with the military—but it was more because of the mere fact that they were soldiers and sailors rather than the fact that they were fighting a war. I think Austen captures very well the craze about soldiers and sailors even if she doesn’t exactly go into details about the wars. How much could these people have been expected to know about the war, anyway? Jane Austen paints a picture of a very insular society with very particular concerns: Emma Woodhouse has never even been to the sea, despite not living very far away. Very much like our own society, everyone is caught up in their own concerns, and this is what Austen experienced and wrote about.

Think about it this way: would you criticize Stephen King or Danielle Steel (or any modern novelists) for not writing about the Iraq War, or the death of Osama bin Laden? Just because Jane Austen’s novels are classics today doesn’t mean they were necessarily seen like that in her time, just as King’s or Steel’s works may be seen as classics 100 years from now without currently having that designation. And it would be just as ridiculous for the literary critics of the 22nd or 23rd century to criticize King and Steel for their choice of subject matter as it is for current literary critics to criticize Austen for her choices.

Second of all, who do these critics think they are that they can go around and say Jane Austen didn’t write about enough “important” stuff? What does that even mean? I just think it’s a little ridiculous that people think they have the right to say what someone should have written about. Sure, there are books that I have disliked because I wasn’t interested in the subject matter, but far be it from me to say, “Well, they really should have written about this instead.” Who am I—who is anyone—to demand that writers cater to our preferences? There are plenty of authors who already do that and who I enjoy reading. There are others who don’t, and I generally stay away from them. For example, I always hated Dickens—I hated the way he wrote, I hated what he wrote about, and I hated having to read his books. But I’m not going to say, “You know, Dickens, you really should have written about ‘abc’ rather than ‘xyz,’ then I would have liked you better.” I’m not saying everyone should like Jane Austen; I’m just saying everyone should respect authors for what they do rather than trying to change it, or insulting them because what they write isn’t exactly to one person or another’s personal taste.

Finally, I have always been supremely frustrated with people (i.e. literary critics) who can’t just let a story be a story. I don’t know why they always have to force symbolism and everything on works that would be much more enjoyable if we could just read and discuss them. (This is why I hated high school English, despite my love of reading and writing.) There are some books, like Lord of the Flies, which rely very heavily on allegory and symbolism, and I willingly admit that it definitely helps to have an idea of what symbolizes what and so forth, if you want to have an in-depth understanding of the book. But I don’t think not knowing that Lord of the Flies is a psychological allegory about the savagery that lives in all of us would diminish someone’s enjoyment of it as a story. Like I said, having this additional level of knowledge makes it more enjoyable, but not having it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy it.

That last paragraph is basically how I felt the whole time in that Jane Austen class this semester. Sigh. Anyway, stay tuned for Andrew’s post tomorrow, but in the meantime feel free to share your opinions about mine in the comments. 🙂

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3 thoughts on “Responses to “Should Jane Austen have written about more ‘important’ things?” Part 1

  1. Meh, I only kind of agree with you. Writers can write whatever the hell they want, but I don’t think they can all be judged the same way, then. While I have only read Pride and Prejudice (and found it supremely boring), I DON’T think what she was writing about was all that important, and I don’t think her books should be at the top of my priority list when I’m reading for substance. And if I’m not reading for substance, I’m probably reading Harry Potter or something, which is much more enjoyable than stuffy old Victorian writers. I also have no desire to read King, and I don’t even know who the other person is you mentioned. And now I’m going in the shower. That one was for you. 😉

    • Hmmm. I mean, I would agree that Austen does sort of write “fluffy” books – but what’s wrong with fluffy? I like fluffy things. It doesn’t make them less important as literature. I think that’s the argument that a lot of people try to make: that, because Jane Austen didn’t write about “historically important” events, her work is therefore less important. But I think her books us a great snapshot into her life.

      I know you don’t like Jane Austen, and I’m not saying everyone should; it’s not everyone’s style. My point was just that just because you don’t like something means you get to say it’s less important as literature. 🙂

      P.S. Danielle Steel writes romance novels. The publish-two-or-three-a-year type that are basically all the same. Or at least that’s the vibe I get from her, I’ve never actually read them. 😉

  2. What is “important”… it probably depends on who you are. For Jane, relationships and marriage and social status were all probably fairly important for a single woman with a minimal fortune.

    I would only criticise a writer based on my enjoyment of the book… though I have often wished that they had of written MORE books!

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