Is Jane Austen Overrated?

Ron Rosenbaum has an article on Slate today about why he might be reevaluating his position on Jane Austen’s literary merit. The impetus for this arose with the publishing of an Austen-based self-help book titled A Jane Austen EducationHow Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter. Below is one of my favorite paragraphs from the article:

The idea that literature should be mined for morality lessons does it a disservice. The hallmark of great literature is that it makes one question—without offering simplistic answers—the foundations of one’s beliefs about the nature of human nature, the structure of moral strictures, and the meaning and purpose of human existence. The idea that literature as a whole and Austen in particular should chiefly be read for rules of behavior rather than, say, for the unique intensity of aesthetic pleasure that a beautifully crafted sentence can offer, the idea that literature is somehow simplistically about how to behave—that literature has a single unified view of morality, of the self (and thus self-help)—is ludicrously retrograde, antiquarian, and frankly anti-literary. (Read the full article here.)

But if Jane Austen’s novels can indeed be boiled down to a series of “teachable moments”—if her only intrinsic value lies in demonstrating “proper values”—then how could she possibly be considered literature?

He ends up deciding, and I agree, that even though Austen doesn’t “plumb the depths that Conrad, Faulkner, Nabokov, Melville, and Hawthorne do,” she is still invaluable for her insights into human nature: she was able to see, “with a jeweler’s eye, the microcosm and the macrocosm, the human organism and the social organism, and the comedy and cruelty they reflect and refract.”

This is something I’ve struggled with myself, especially in college. I took a class my senior year called “Jane Austen and Her Contemporaries,” thinking it would be an easy class and a convenient excuse to reread all six Austen novels, which I had read for the first time the summer before. However, much of the discussion seemed to be centered around the fact that the “issues” Austen wrote about weren’t “important” enough.

“Why didn’t she write about the wars going on?” cried my professor. “Why didn’t she espouse more principles of feminism? Why did she advocate for marriage and [what they saw as] boredom?” demanded my ultra-feminist classmates. UGH.

First of all, although the war and slavery are not exactly a main topic or even explicitly mentioned in most of her novels, they do come into play in Mansfield Park. And in terms of feminism, give her a break! It was the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. The very fact that Elizabeth turns down Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudicedespite the fact that he would be a “safe” match, is pretty feminist for those days, no? The idea of marrying for love rather than for convenience or security or to climb the social ladder seems like it would be a pretty radical idea back then.

And it seems to me, in my limited literary studies, that these types of questions are restricted to female writers. Would you ever ask why Shakespeare wasted his time writing about star-crossed lovers when he could have been writing treatises on the common rights of men? Why is the onus on women—particularly women who we don’t actually have any control over because they’re long dead—to write about “important” things?

If anything, these questions posed in class led me to believe that Jane Austen is underrated, in a way. Certainly not by the public at large, which is mostly a good thing (I only say “mostly” because I’m a bit of a hipster at heart and sometimes want the things I love all to myself). But she can be underrated by literary communities such as the one I found myself in two years ago. For my professor and many of the other students in my class, she was something to be dissected, pulled apart, wondered at for writing so within her sphere rather than venturing without. Her ascerbic wit, her intuitive understanding of the vagaries of human nature, and her ability to craft some of the most beautiful sentences I’ve ever read seemed to be lost on them, and I think it’s fair to say that because of this, they underrated her.

Bottom line: I truly think that Jane Austen deserves every bit of popularity she has. She does not deserve the term “chick-lit,” the horrible adaptation of Mansfield Park we had to watch in that same class mentioned above, or being turned into a self-help book. But you know what? If that self-help book gets more people to read Jane Austen, my hope is that they realize what William Deresiewicz, the writer of the book, missed: that Austen’s value lies not in her ability to teach us how to behave, but in her ability to understand why people behave the way they do.

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