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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.

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.

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.

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.