Why I Read Jane Austen

I’m sure we’ve all heard it at one time or another: the first response most men reach for when asked whether they’ve read Jane Austen: “No,” they say, with a tinge of smug self-confidence. “Jane Austen is for girls.”

It’s a simplistic and (as it turns out) completely inane statement, but the men in question will undoubtedly act as if they should be applauded for their formidable speech and debate skills. They’ve said all there is to say on the subject. Gavel down. Discussion closed. Talk about something else.

Let me be clear: I enjoy Tom Clancy as much as the next guy (probably more). Guns, swords, tactical operations, futuristic weaponry, secret agents – they all fascinate me a great deal. What I take issue with is the notion that Jane Austen conflicts with these other interests; that reading her work is somehow a less-than-manly pastime.

I believe this idea partially stems from ignorance and over-simplification. There are those who view Austen’s books as “just love stories”: 18th century equivalents of the dime-a-dozen romance novels that litter Barnes & Noble.

Anyone who has actually read Austen knows how silly this assumption really is. One might as well say that The Lord of the Rings is just about magical jewelry. Or that The Pilgrim’s Progress is just about a guy who has strange dreams.

The idea may also stem from the way many girls approach Austen – gushing over the romance and disregarding the irony, satire, and other substantial themes. As Gina Dalfonzo points out,

We Austen readers miss so much when we ignore the religious and moral bedrock of these novels. Sometimes we “use” the books rather than truly reading them… getting only romantic gratification out of them instead of thoughtfully taking in all that they have to offer. I’m not saying we shouldn’t enjoy the romance, but when we enjoy only that, we create an impression that that’s all these books are good for – and that’s an impression that’s hardly appealing to the average male reader.

Hardly appealing, indeed. So, ladies, take heed: don’t give us guys another reason to balk. If we’re convinced that sentimentality and sap are all Austen has to offer, it will only strengthen our reluctance to read her books.

Of course, sometimes men are just plain pig-headed and no amount of reasoning will change our opinion. We think we’ve got books like Pride and Prejudice pegged, and that if we read them, our machismo will shrivel up and die.

This is all wrong, of course. And guys who choose to dismiss Austen as mere “chick lit” unworthy of their “masculine” consideration are actually dismissing one of the smartest, most sophisticated writers in the whole pantheon of English literature. They’re missing out. Big time.

I’m no expert on Austen. Peter Liethart’s Miniatures and Morals addresses this entire subject in far more detail than I can here. But I’ll venture to throw in my two cents anyway. Without further adieu, here are just three of the many reasons why I read Jane Austen.

THE SATIRE
Contrary to what many would have you believe, Jane Austen was about as sentimental as a scalpel. Her writing is laced with irony and wry social commentary, and her insight into human nature is often pointedly accurate. Clever critiques of “follies and nonsense” make us laugh, but they also make us think. And that is exactly what good satire is all about.

Just one example of this satirizing can be found in Sense and Sensibility, where Austen illustrates the foolishness of Romanticism through the character of Marianne. Her feelings reign supreme, and her chief concern is to find a husband worthy of her grandiose expectations. She does meet such a man: he’s handsome, dashing, and “sweeps her off her feet” so to speak. But then his true character is revealed; and the very man who would most appeal Romantic sensibilities turns out to be a scoundrel.

According to Austen, the truly good man isn’t necessarily “interesting” or “attractive” at first glance – but the nobleness of his character will stand further acquaintance and the test of time.

THE MORALS
It can hardly be doubted that Austen herself was a devout Christian. Considering this, it should come as no surprise that her books reflect a strong sense of Christian morality and ethics. Charity. Honesty. Selflessness. Courtesy. Kindness. These are just a few of the profound lessons to be seen in her writing.

Professor Jerram Barrs observes,

In several of the books the main characters have experiences of a profound and permanent transformation, which reads like a conversion or deep repentance, when they “see” their own blindness, moral failure and lack of self-knowledge. This is true of both Elizabeth and Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, and of Emma in Emma; also to a lesser extent of Anne Eliot in Persuasion, Catherine in Northanger Abbey and Edmund in Mansfield Park.

It is the individuals who fail to come to this realization of their own folly (who do not “repent”), whose lives come to ruin and disgrace, or increasing shallowness and perpetual self-indulgence: Wickham and Lydia, Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Collins, in Pride and Prejudice; Lucy Steele, Robert Ferrars, John and Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility; Mrs. Norris, Maria Bertram, Henry and Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park.

And as others have pointed out, part of the success of Austen’s novels is not merely that the people come together, but what sort of people come together: men and women who have been “hammered out a bit,” with faults that have been acknowledged and corrected. Says Dalfonzo,

… the books are not just about love triumphant, but about the formation of good character and good values.

THE HUMOR
Part of what makes Austen such a delight to read is her sense of humor – clever, sharp, often ironic, and always funny. When it comes to drawing a smile or a laugh from her audience, she puts many of today’s so-called “comedians” to shame. The manner in which Pride and Prejudice opens is alone a work of art:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

Brilliant. Just brilliant.

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34 thoughts on “Why I Read Jane Austen”

  1. Very well written Corey! I agree, most of the time girls see Austen’s works, as well as Elizabeth Gaskell and many others, as merely classic romance novels, but there is so much more depth to them. They speak so much about the time and culture, character, virtue, and morality, and relationships both strong and weak. I am glad you find Austen worth reading! I know Curtis just read Pride and Prejudice for school and I’m eager to hear his opinion.

    1. … there is so much more depth to them.

      Exactly, Marissa! The romance is only part of a much bigger story; such a shame so many readers miss it in their quest for mere “romantic gratification.” They can’t see the forest for all the trees.

        1. My dear, dear CG,
          You know only a real MAN would do such a thing!! The day you decide to read Austen, I’ll buy you your first fine hard copy. (Don’t deny me the privilege) And yes, I LOVE Stepping Heavenward, too. I just can’t believe you wouldn’t laugh out loud while reading Northanger Abbey. :) Love you!

          1. That’s true. I think Corey’s pretty brave to venture into the land of what is often thought of as ‘helpless romanticism’. :D And that he came out alive, is impressive.

            Oh, I’m sure I *would* laugh. I’m not dead set against Austen (although all the ‘Darcy is my dream man {swoon}’ girls out there certainly deter me from being attracted), and I can’t say with authority that I agree with the Botkin’s view of the books because I haven’t read them. ;) But I told Corey the other day, I try to stay away from fiction as much as possible. I really have a weakness for it. I could sit and read and read and read and read fiction and never pull my head out long enough to glance at a good edifying book. I get my ‘fiction fix’ once in a while, but I try to read the ‘hard stuff’, which often isn’t as ‘hard’ as it sounds. I have a hard time with fiction, because once I ‘allow’ myself to read one, I can’t stop reading them and I have a hard time going back to the ‘real’ books. If that makes sense. :) I need self control, that’s all…..

            Love you too! ♥

          2. Not to butt in on the conversation, but a dear friend and I have been going back and forth on this for a while, and I just wanted to say, fiction is not necessarily “easy”. Jane Austen for instance is “fiction”, but is definitely not easy reading, and I think you could get as much out of her as out of a “harder” book. And I think that goes for a lot of other fiction books. But anyway. :)

          3. Right. I guess I didn’t really mean ‘easy’, –I’d even classify Dickens as ‘easy’ because it’s a novel. :D I just mean I have a weakness for books that are more entertaining, and I also have a propensity to shun the deep books (or, as my hero calls them, “members of the Fat Book Club”). Not that there isn’t a place for entertaining books…Henty, Ballantyne, Tintin, etc. are definitely books I’d put into the hands of my children. As the saying goes, ‘everything in moderation’. :)

          4. You are imposing a false dilemma upon yourself. According to your statements, you do not think that books can be both entertaining and “deep”. Given the books you’ve listed (which are the only ones I know you are familiar with), I’m not surprised.

            Entertaining as their stories are, Dickens, Henty, etc. wrote primarily to entertain and secondarily to instruct. Henty has certain virtues he seeks to portray. Dickens wants you r heart to bleed over the plight of London’s poor. Neither of these goals is particularly deep.

            However, there are deeper works of fiction. Some are notable for dealing with philosophical issues. Some are notable for dealing with men’s minds (The Brothers Karamazov). Some merely give a very good portrayal of human character and social life – in this category I place Austen’s works. They are valuable not only because of their technical merit and entertainment value, but also as a way to learn about the way these strange creatures called ‘humans’ interact, and about a particular culture that sprang up at a particular time and in a particular place.

            And about those Darcy fangirls? They’re really just Colin Firth fangirls in disguise. :-)

          5. I was going to respond, but Hudson put it so well, that I’ll just nod in agreement with him. :)

            @Hudson: Well said, and I love that last line. :)

  2. Excellent post, Corey! I love your description of “sentimental as a scalpel”, which is spot on IMO. Perhaps the ladies who over-romanticize JA might be basing their opinions more on the film adaptations rather than the novels. If you haven’t read her Juvenalia, I recommend it. Some if it reminds me of Monty Python at their best.

    BTW, real women like Tom Clancy too. :)

    1. I truly don’t understand where people get the idea that Austen is sentimental. It’s ridiculous. Charles Dickens was far more sentimental than Austen ever was. I’ll have to check out her Juvenalia, it sounds like a great read! :)

      As for real women and Tom Clancy… glad to hear it. :D

  3. ….. well, when ya put it that way…… ;) I guess now I’ll have to hunt down my copy of Sense and Sensibility and give Austen a go o_O That was a fabulous, fabulous post Corey. :)

    And I would read Tom Clancy too, but mom said no until I’m…. er, older I guess :P

    1. Thanks, Abby! About Clancy – I just started reading him last year, beginning with The Hunt for Red October. I suggest you take a look at that one; it’s smart, thrilling, and much tamer (in terms of objectionable content) than many of his later books. :)

      1. I’d start with Emma, ’tis very good.

        Excellent post, Corey! I’ve shared it around on Twitter because I feel quite the same way =D Austen has helped me more as a writer than any sort of entertainment value provided (which is still substantial :D)

  4. Very nice analysis — isn’t it too bad that we assume that older literature is stuffy and irrelevant? Jane Austin is highly entertaining and in all the right ways. Thanks for writing such a nice pitch for what is truly good in this world. dc

  5. Thank you for a wonderful post. I recently read a book that called Jane Austen the founder of “chick lit” and I was highly offended by that (though I couldn’t quite verbalize why). Your post certainly clarifies why that statement is not true.

  6. No explanation needed here for your love of Janes Austen Corey – Robert is also a big fan, and he’s a guy who totally gags at “chick flicks”. haha! Plus, we’re both big fans of the Bronte’s and Elizabeth Gaskell, both Austen contemporaries.
    Great post!

  7. Hear! Hear! This post is awesome. It seems like people seem to peg Jane Austen’s work without even really reading it. I once mentioned to a coworker that I enjoyed reading Jane Austen’s books and the man said something like “Yeah, my Mom likes romance novels like that. She really likes those Harlequin books.” I was agast. Seriously? How can a person make that kind of comparison. There is so much more to Austen than meets the eye. Her books are timeless. They cover so many different aspects of social life. They deal with disfunctional families, social blunders, responsibilities, wealth, poverty, death, corruption, power, humor, love, consequences, etc. The books are so tongue in cheek. My favorite of her books is Northanger Abbey, it is hillarious.

    1. I once mentioned to a coworker that I enjoyed reading Jane Austen’s books and the man said something like “Yeah, my Mom likes romance novels like that. She really likes those Harlequin books.”

      I’m glad I wasn’t drinking a soda when I read that… my computer screen would be ruined. :)

  8. Hallo,
    I just found this article and thought, as a “not native english” woman, I could leave a comment. ^^
    I’m 27 and live in Germany. Oh and, of course, I simply LOVE Jane Austen.

    When I was … I don’t know… 14 or something, I read a lot of the so called “Groschenromane”. These are “books” about romance… cheap romance. Well, I grew older and my boyfriend bugged me to listen to english audio books. The moment I gave in was a turningpoint in my life.
    I began to read Jane Austen, Luisa May Alcott, Bronte, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Shakespeare and many others.
    Now, many years later, I tried to read one of the cheap romance books and I was taken aback how stupid they really are. Not only the diction but the hole storyline is trash. I don’t know how I could ever like that.

    greetings
    Anita

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