Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Stereotype Busters: Jane Austen (Part I)

So most of you probably guessed what I was going to talk about first.  ;)  I thought I was going to do one post, and then realized that there are many different paths I can take with this one, because Jane Austen has SO many stereotypes.  And then I was like, hey, why do one post when I can stretch it out and make more posts for my blog? (Well... it's only the truth. :P)

So let's start with two of the most common misconceptions about Jane Austen.


I have to say, covers like that are very deceptive.  I almost feel sorry for the person who was attracted to the book because of that cover... what a shock they'd be in for!  I bet they wouldn't make it past the first two pages.  "A couple old married people talking... ?! Who cares??"

And then of course, things like P&P05 can be deceptive, too.  Very.  


Well, Janeites, when people say this to you, just take a deep breath.  Give them the benefit of the doubt.  It might not be their fault they think that Jane Austen's books are romance novels.  They could have heard it from someone.  And you get the delightful task of straightening them out!

I usually start out with the words of the lady herself.

"I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other."
I would love to memorize that entire quote so I can reel it off to anybody and everybody.  It's just... so Jane, haha.  A person whose relaxation is found in laughing at herself and other people, is not going to write a real "romance" unless it was a parody.

The delicious thing about Jane Austen's novels is that her characters are so real.  You read her books, and you just know... Jane Austen knew about people.  She never traveled the world, never met a bunch of important people, was never in a realm of high society... but she didn't need any of that to observe.  I feel like this is the trademark of every really good author-- when you read their books and think "I know someone just like this," and you can laugh about it.

In the same way that Jane Austen writes about real people, she writes about real romances.  They're not all fake and glittery and mushy or disgusting.  They're about two people who were meant to be together, and how they found it out.  Mr. Darcy didn't fall in love with Elizabeth because she was pretty.  He noticed her personality.  Mr. Knightley loved Emma for years before he even realized it, and for much of the book he's a family friend she's known all her life.

Look, all you people who think that Jane Austen writes romance stories... I have heard countless girls complain that her books aren't romantic enough.  "They hardly even ever have the PROPOSAL scene!"

Let's take an in-depth look at some of Jane Austen's most romantic moments.  Starting with the most famous, Pride & Prejudice.

So, take a look at Mr. Darcy's first proposal.
"In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.'' 
Elizabeth's astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her immediately followed. He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority -- of its being a degradation -- of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.
Well, it starts out pretty good, but... wow, dude.  Way to express tender emotion there.  How could any girl refuse something so romantic?

Let's see if the second proposal is any better.
"If you will thank me," he replied, "let it be for yourself alone. That the wish of giving happiness to you might add force to the other inducements which led me on, I shall not attempt to deny. But your family owe me nothing. Much as I respect them, I believe I thought only of you." 
Elizabeth was too much embarrassed to say a word. After a short pause, her companion added, "You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever."
Elizabeth, feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eye, she might have seen how well the expression of heartfelt delight, diffused over his face, became him; but, though she could not look, she could listen, and he told her of feelings, which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable.
Much to some people's chagrin, she totally avoided writing what Elizabeth said in reply.  And the narrative, although expressive, can hardly be called cringe-worthy.

Let's look at the last of romantic quotes from that scene...
Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased."
No kissing was mentioned, by the way.  No physical contact was mentioned in the least.  Readers can really imagine whatever they choose-- and, believe me, most of them stick a kiss in there somewhere.  I prefer it to be after the wedding like in the 1995 miniseries.

Now, onto Emma.  I absolutely adore the proposal in Emma, so this will be a joy. 

"As a friend!"—repeated Mr. Knightley.—"Emma, that I fear is a word—No, I have no wish—Stay, yes, why should I hesitate?—I have gone too far already for concealment.—Emma, I accept your offer—Extraordinary as it may seem, I accept it, and refer myself to you as a friend.—Tell me, then, have I no chance of ever succeeding?" 
He stopped in his earnestness to look the question, and the expression of his eyes overpowered her.
"My dearest Emma," said he, "for dearest you will always be, whatever the event of this hour's conversation, my dearest, most beloved Emma—tell me at once. Say 'No,' if it is to be said."—She could really say nothing.—"You are silent," he cried, with great animation; "absolutely silent! at present I ask no more."
Emma was almost ready to sink under the agitation of this moment. The dread of being awakened from the happiest dream, was perhaps the most prominent feeling. 
"I cannot make speeches, Emma:"—he soon resumed; and in a tone of such sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness as was tolerably convincing.—"If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am.—You hear nothing but truth from me.—I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.—Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them. The manner, perhaps, may have as little to recommend them. God knows, I have been a very indifferent lover.—But you understand me.—Yes, you see, you understand my feelings—and will return them if you can. At present, I ask only to hear, once to hear your voice."
And now for Emma's response...
What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.
And now, for the culmination of Jane Austen's most romantic speeches-- read Captain Wentworth's letter.  This is the bit where all the hopeless romantics sigh with pleasure, and those who prefer the mushy kept to a minimum might roll their eyes a bit.  

But that right there is the most in all six of Jane Austen's novels that is anywhere even near a romance. 

And in the other three, the proposal scene is brushed over, with Mansfield Park being a prime example of what the hopeless romantics DON'T like about Jane Austen. 

Scarcely had he done regretting Mary Crawford, and observing to Fanny how impossible it was that he should ever meet with such another woman, before it began to strike him whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well, or a great deal better: whether Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all her smiles and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had ever been; and whether it might not be a possible, an hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love. 
I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. I only entreat everybody to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny as Fanny herself could desire.
So if you're looking for a romantic, mushy, light read, Jane Austen is not where you want to go.  However, if you're looking for unique wit, keen observation of the way People Are, snark that hides if you're not paying attention but jumps out at you if you are, memorable characters, and actually have a brain that can focus long enough to read things more complicated than Dick and Jane...

...okay I'm stopping now. :P 

Anyways, Jane Austen's books are what I would call "romantic comedies," and not in the silly-chick-flick way.  Just that, yes, they center around a woman who ends up getting married at the end.  But a lot of other stuff happens too, and so much of it is FUNNY.  

And yes, some of Jane Austen's heroes do have a bunch of female admirers.  That's because they're actually good guys, gentlemen, and if they're rich and handsome on top of that, well, that's just an added bonus.  They're all so different, though.  A girl whose favorite is Mr. Darcy will give you completely different reasons than a girl whose favorite is Henry Tilney. 

They are timeless romantic stories, but she managed to create this mastery-of-love without an ounce of silliness.  That's because she wrote about the real stuff. 

Incidentally, Jane Austen was never married.  Some cynical people might therefore say that she didn't know enough about love to write about it.  On the contrary, I think she knew more.  And that's why she never married.  Why would she settle for a less perfect-for-her match than her heroines did?  They weren't going to marry for convenience, and she had to set them the correct example.


Okay, let's start out with a quote from what of JA's guys.
"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." ~Henry Tilney, Northanger Abbey.

As far as I'm concerned, Jane Austen's books are the very definition of "a good novel," and anybody who thinks they won't like them is biased, be it man or woman.  They've heard the stereotypes.  Or they just assume.

As explained in #1, her stories have so much in them.  They aren't adventure books where people go gallivanting around the world, so if that's what you're looking for, then yeah, don't bother.  But if you actually have a mind that appreciates true humor, rather than the newest Coors Light commercial, or the joke your football buddy told, or the time you shot a deer, there's actually a chance you might like it.

I myself have watched Jane Austen movies with three different fellows, and they all enjoyed them.  (Yep, they were all related to me.)  So far I haven't personally been acquainted with any who will actually read the entirety of a book, but I do know OF those people, and to me, if they do, it is a definite mark of a superior male mind.

The fact is, sometimes Jane Austen is just too much awesomeness for guys to be able to handle.  Cowards. :P

Well, as Jane Austen quoted... ""I do not write for such dull Elves as have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves."

And if you think sitting down to a Jane Austen movie is like watching a chick flick... well, then, Finding Nemo is an action-packed adventure movie. :P  (With the exceptions of two or three not-so-good versions, coughcoughP&P05cough, GwynethPaltrowEmmacough.)

That's all I have for now. Stay tuned for more!


jessica prescott said...

Wow, you don't like P&P 05? I thought it was a great adaptation of the novel--actually, I liked it better than P&P 95.

Moving on, though . . . I do agree with you that it's pretty silly to call Jane Austen's books "romance novels," especially if by "romance novel" you mean that TRASH they sell in the bookstore. *shudders* Her stuff is very romantic in the best sense, but it definitely ain't "heart-throb fiction for the masses," as Bertie Wooster would say.

Although, I will say, when it comes to the movie adaptations, I was quite disappointed in the P&P 95 proposal scene, NOT because it wasn't romantic enough, but because it didn't follow the book closely enough. In the book, after Darcy says his "you are too generous to trifle with me" thing and Elizabeth gives him her answer, Austen THEN says he goes off and makes a long romantic speech, which she doesn't give specifics of. Okay, that's fine. But in the movie, they totally skipped that and went directly to their conversation about Lady Catherine. I'm pretty sure that conversation wasn't what Austen had in mind when she talked about Darcy expressing himself "as sensibly and warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do." So . . . I was disappointed. If I were the person in charge of that scene, I would have made him say SOMETHING. Something like "I shall love you until the day I die," etc, etc, etc.

Miss Dashwood said...

This post has bewitched me, body and soul, and I LOVE it.
....Jay kay.
No, seriously, I do love it, but jk about the P&P05 quote. :D

This was excellent, m'dear. Real men do indeed read Jane Austen-- and the ones who care for no more than the newest Coors Light commercial are simply inferiorly minded. :P (Inferior-minded? ...IDK. They have inferior minds. haha.)

Anyways. I howled quite a bit while reading this. Which is always a good thing. :D Unless FakeP&P is involved of course. (Gross.) :P

Sarah said...

It probably has something to do with the fact that I've never read a straight-up romance novel in my entire life, but I find those proposal scenes to be incredibly romantic. With the great writing that makes us involved in the fate of the characters how can it not be? Even what she says about Edmund and Fanny is so sweet. Wentworth's letter is obviously very romantic, but I love the more realistic and awkward ones at least just as well. And I love how Austen tactfully doesn't include the entire scene -- it make it very effective and to-the-point. :)Great post!

The Gibson Girl said...

What a SPLENDID post! Brava! I heartily concur-- far too many misconceptions are formed about poor Miss Austen. I can't wait to read Part Two! Are you going to cover such topics as "Jane Austen wrote in the 18th century"? That one always annoys me!

Melody said...

Nope, I really don't! I would call it an interpretation of the novel rather than an adaptation. ;)
I do see where you're coming from with the proposal scene in P&P95! But honestly, I would rather have someone still leave that to the imagination (like JA pretty much did) rather than making up such lines ad "you have bewitched me body and soul and I love, I love, I love you." Sorry, but I think that's just ew. :P
Also, we don't know what Jane Austen considered a sensible man would say when he's violently in love, since she didn't tell us.

I'm awfully glad that it made you howl, in a good way. Boo-yeah.

You know what, I actually do too! To my personal tastes I would definitely call JA's stories "romantic"-- but it's just the kind that I like. Not the gross kind. It's sweet and real-feeling. When people call them "romance novels," though, I just have a feeling they are grouping them in their minds with the wrong kinds of books!

Gibson Girl,
Thank you. *curtsies* Ahh, but I shall not tell you which topics I am to cover next. You'll have to wait and see! ;)

jessica prescott said...

Ah, yes. Quite. But I still like it better than P&P 1995 because it fits better with MY interpretation of the novel :)

Well, you see, I don't mind them making up lines too much because, the way I look at it, they have to make up SOMETHING. Since Jane Austen explicitly tells us she skipped over some dialogue.

Oh! When she said, "sensible," I automatically assumed she meant "sensitive," because I think that was the more common meaning in the early 1800s, and she uses the word a lot that way in other places in her novels . . . But she also could've meant "sensible" as in "sensible and practical," the way we define it today. I don't really know.

Miss Dashwood said...

If I may hop in with an opinion on the word "sensible"-- when used in the context of "a sensible man," Jane Austen almost assuredly meant "practical" as we would today. Case in point-- Lizzy asks her father if Mr. Collins can be a sensible man (and he most definitely is not).

"Can he be a sensible man, sir?"
"No, my dear; I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse."
-chapter 13

When the word is used to mean sensitivity (or sensibility as it would be more commonly known-- as in Marianne Dashwood :D) it is generally used as "sensibility" and not merely "sensible." However, she might have used it to indicate feeling in a sentence such as, "I am sensible of the very great honor this must convey." (That seems like a JA quote but I can't remember what it's from. haha. At any rate, it's just an example.)

*steps off pedantic word nerd soapbox*

jessica prescott said...

Okay, ladies.

*steps ONTO pedantic word nerd soapbox*

I was curious, so I went and looked up "sensible" in the Oxford English Dictionary online, which basically shows you the evolution of a word through the ages. That is, they show you all the definitions that word has ever had and give you actual quotes, with dates, for examples.

What I've found is that, by the late 1700s and early 1800s, the word "sensible" could have meant EITHER "sensitive" OR "sensible" as we understand it today. For example:

1760--"St. Peter certainly was of a warm and sensible nature."
1792--"These titles should be properly placed, you know, because monarchs are very sensible [that is, touchy] on that subject."
1822--"The gum is often extremely sensible [sensitive]."

(I'm giving you these example sentences because, unfortunately, you can't access the OED online for free; my university library has a subscription and that's how I got to see these.)

But, even moving on from that, even if she meant "sensible" as in "practical," I don't think the "you have bewitched me, body and soul," line was so very off-base. Remember, Jane Austen specifically used the word "bewitched" HERSELF, earlier in the book, to describe Darcy's feelings for Elizabeth: ". . . Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her." (ch. 10) And moreover, what Darcy says is in the '05 movie is not, IMHO, any more "gushing" or "mushy" than what dear old Captain Wentworth says in that famous letter of his at the end of Persuasion. "You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope." Ahem. Just sayin'.

Lois Johnson said...

I love this post and I must follow your blog now!!!!
I'm a huge P&P fan and I grew up watching the '95 version and the '05 version I consider an abomination. I am forever telling people that Jane Austen's novels aren't romance. I love that quote from Austen too! I should definitely memorize it.
Also, both my Dad and my older brother read Austen and love her books. In fact, my Dad ranks Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility in his top ten books. Neither of them are ridiculous romantics either, they just appreciate a good story. :)

Miss March said...

Excellent post, Melody. I agree, Jane Austen's books are so much more than silly romance novels. (I can't believe that cover of P&P. Was that for real? That just doesn't make any sense!) It's funny, though. Jane Austen's books wouldn't technically be considered "romance," and yet the romance in her stories is ten times better than anything you will find in a book that is totally devoted to that theme! I guess it's better sometimes not to have the romance be the one and only focus of the book!

Oh my! Yes! Boys can definitely enjoy Jane Austen. I have brothers. I should know! :) That's what's so nice about her books. They're not mushy and swoony and ridiculous. They're just real people interacting with real people. And yes, they are very funny!

(By the way, I'm with you on P&P '05 and that other Emma...they were so not right.)

Excellent idea for a blog series. I'm looking forward to reading more. :)

~Miss March

Melody said...

Jessica P.,
Interesting stuff! Although Amy's points still stand, haha. :)
Jane Austen saying "bewitched" in the context of Darcy being bewitched by her, is very different from the character HIMSELF actually saying "you have bewitched me, body and soul" to her face. (Also, body and soul is just not a historically accurate phrase. Especially body. :P)
And I think Captain Wentworth's line is more poignant, haha. Also, that's Captain Wentworth, not Mr. Darcy. I don't feel like Mr. Darcy would write a letter quite like that one, either.
Anyway, I *am* the co-founder of The P&P95Forever Club, sooo... I've pretty much heard and said it all already. ;)

Hi! It's great to meet you! And I'm very proud of your dad and older brother! :) I'll add them to my weapon list! Haha.

Miss March,
I KNOW!!! It's just because Jane Austen knew how to do it the RIGHT way, that's all. ;)
Yay for your brothers too! This is comforting news indeed.
Anyway, it's nice meeting you too. :)

jessica prescott said...

Mmmmmm. Maybe I oughta start a corresponding "P&P05 Forever" club. Might not be such a bad idea, at that ;)

Yeah. I don't think we're ever going to agree on the Pride and Prejudice movies--you have your opinions and I have mine and that's just the way it is. I think that basically, what happens is because we, the readers, are all unique, we each have our own special interpretation of what Jane Austen (or any other author) says. Even though we're all reading the same words, they just MEAN different things to different people. And there's nothing wrong with that, really. That being the case, it's a good thing there ARE two different movie versions to suit both "camps" of P&P fans.

Yay! I'm not a robot!

Mr. Darcy said...

As the first gentleman to comment upon this intriguing post, I feel it my duty to provide a bit of... remark to those of you who feel inclined to believe that the world is in great lack of men of "sensibility". The fact is this: this world is indeed lacking men of sensibility in both the practical and sensitive natures.

Now please don't misunderstand me. I don't mean to totally desert my kind (although I find myself wishing I could do so more often than I'd like to admit). It's just that most men are too uneducated, too cowardly, too uninteresting, and frankly too idiotic to even comprehend a good novel.

Pride and Prejudice is perhaps my favorite novel of all time. Yes, it's true. When I say this, I mean not to simply imply that I solely find the plot to be one that suits my fancy. There are plenty of acceptable and even interesting plot-lines available (take nearly any contemporary attempt at prose, for example. Okay, scratch that. Take only a very small few from sixty years ago.). No. Where Miss Austen truly shines is in her technique. Her expression. Her subtle humor. Her characters. Her wordage. Her sentence structure. Her style. It's simply art.

Of course, she is not the only novelist I find to possess such qualities. There are several examples of excellent authors (Charles Dickens being yet another in this category of authoritative wordsmiths) . Nonetheless, Miss Austen stands alone.

Take, for a very brief example, this short section from none other than P&P: "The Bennets were speedily pronounced to be the luckiest family in the world, though only a few weeks before, when Lydia had first run way, they had been generally proved to be marked out for misfortune".

Who else could so concisely and artfully craft such snark, such hilarity, and such irony. No one but Jane Austen.

Yes, I hope that one day, my fellow kind may grow brains large enough to know how to crawl from under bridges. Yet hope is not lost. After all, I cannot be the only Mr. Darcy still left on this planet...

Would you rather hear the story...

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