Why I Don't Like Jane Austen

1:19 AM Marcellino DAmbrosio 7 Comments

I was assigned to write on the two endings of Persuasion, but I couldn't bring myself to write a single page. Why? Because *gasp* I don't like Jane Austen.

To be honest, that's not entirely true. If Jane Austen was alive today, I would probably fall head over heals in love with her simply because of her wit. I then would find that she had me pinned from the beginning and that I was never good enough for her.... and before you know it I would be laying on my couch at four in the mourning eating cookie dough from a carton and sobbing hysterically while "Sleepless in Seattle" plays in the background.

"I'll never" *sob* "be" *sob* good enough for her!" *sniffle*

Ok. So maybe its best if she stays in the Victorian England. Ether way, I'm about to do something that I've never, ever, ever done before. I'm about to disagree with Clive Staples Lewis. I never thought it would happen, but it did. Here we go.

Bigness in Jane Austen
Marcellino D'Ambrosio
Dr. Curtright

"Miss Austen understood the smallness of life to perfection.”
–Lord Alfred Tennyson

            Austen may understand the smallness of life to perfection, but she does not perfectly capture life, because for her, life has no bigness at all. For Austen, life is wholly and purposefully absent of the extraordinary. C.S Lewis writes in his “A Note on Austen” that “She is no Utopian.” I find this claim to be a radical understatement. Austen moves and breaths in a nineteenth century English universe that is at once morally and socially rigid. Austen, who follows Johnson, has far more in common with her deistic and empirical contemporaries than with any Christian writer. Johnson and Austen’s god is a distant one, who creates a depraved human being and leaves him to his own devices in a boorish, mundane world. Austen’s novels are not simply “not Utopian,” they are truly pessimistic accounts of small minds with even smaller lives—the smallest of whom are her heroes.
            Johnson begins his Rambler No. 4 with the following quotation: “The works of fiction… are such as exhibit life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world, and influenced by passions and qualities which are really to be found in conversing with mankind.[i] For Johnson, the novel is concerned with the mimesis of reality, and thus selects for its subject matter the daily occurrences and conversations of every day life. Johnson continues, condemning the fairy tale and “heroic romance” as artificial entertainment meant to excite the idle mind. He writes: “it is therefore precluded from the machines and expedients of the heroic romance, and can neither employ giants to snatch away a lady from the nuptial rites, nor knights to bring her back from captivity; it can neither bewilder its personages in deserts, nor lodge them in imaginary castles” (155). The task of the author is to provide a moral education through the “normal.”  Austen takes this advice to heart, and selects the most normal of people for her subject matter, and places them only in the most normal of circumstances. She does this so that the “normal,” “small,” “average,” fellow might recognize his own life contained in between the pages of her novels.
            To be sure, Austen masterfully captures these characters as they interact with each other. She does so with simplicity, subtlety, and a supreme wit that cannot be replicated. There is something admirable in packing a particular moment in life with power and meaning. Austen indeed does this well in her scene where Mr. Nightly meets Jane Fairfax on her way to mail a letter. Their conversation is the surface to a sea of depth. Only Austen can capture such a moment with such subtlety. I take issue not with “the small” as her proper subject matter, but with Austen’s use, and not only use of, but limit to, the “normal.”   
            Austen limits herself to the normal, or the ordinary, and in doing so, eliminates all possibility for the extraordinary. When Austen removes the nights and castles and giants of the fairy tale from her works, I say: “fair enough Ms. Austin, fair enough;” far be it from me to tell an author what she can and cannot select to mimetically represent in her fiction. Fairy tale castles and 19th century estates can be just as effective, as long as she honestly captures the human experience. Austen, however, does not stop with throwing out the nights and castles and giants. C.S Lewis writes of Austen’s world: “Elinor felt sure that if Marianne’s new composure were based on ‘serious reflection’ it ‘must eventually lead her to contentment and cheerfulness’. That it might lead instead to a hair-shirt or a hermitage or a pillar in the Thebaid is not in Jane Austen’s mind.”[ii] To be sure, more often than not, the ordinary person would not end up on a pillar in the Thebaid. The issue is that there are people who would. As I said previously, it is not necessary for an author to write about those people that are extraordinary. I do not accuse Austen of simply poor choice in subject matter. The problem is that she purposely excludes the possibility of the extraordinary from characters and circumstances both. The process goes like this: “Why doesn’t Marianne run off, go on a journey of the soul that leads her halfway across the world? Well, obviously because normal people don’t do that, that’s too much like a fairy tale. She should be perfectly content to stay and marry Colonel Brandon.” But normal people, when placed in extraordinary circumstances, sometimes do extraordinary things, and so become extraordinary. That possibility is entirely cut off from Austen’s characters in order to preserve “normality.”
             I would venture to make the claim—however outrageous it may seem—that most “normal” human beings, whatever the age, do not live meaningful lives—or meaningful stories for that matter. That is where the term “extraordinary” gets its positive connotations. Most human beings themselves are dull, so when an author limits himself to “normal” people and “normal” circumstances, he must not be surprised when he finds himself steeped in the insipid.
            That is precisely my quarrel with Austen. For all her dynamic narration and characterization, she limits her world to dull and insipid characters and disallows for any possibility of extraordinary change. Her hero’s demonstrate this insipidity magnificently. Edward Ferrars and Mr. Darcy are very week characters, and as real men in a real world, would garner little respect from anyone around them. They are hardly the type of men whose grandchildren will still be telling stories about them ten years after their epithets have been inscribed on their grave stones. In short, they would be all but ignored. For instance, Edward Ferrars, as a character is hailed for his dutiful and loyal nature. He refuses to break off an old engagement to Lucy Steele, even with complete knowledge of what a manipulative man hunter she is. Dogs, however, are loyal and dutiful. Men are leaders. When Austen describes Edward Ferrars, she does little to justify why any woman would find him attractive. She writes:
“Edward Ferrars was not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address. He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing. He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open, affectionate heart. His understanding was good, and his education had given it solid improvement. But he was neither fitted by abilities nor disposition to answer the wishes of his mother and sister, who longed to see him distinguished—as—they hardly knew what. They wanted him to make a fine figure in the world in some manner or other. His mother wished to interest him in political concerns, to get him into parliament, or to see him connected with some of the great men of the day. Mrs. John Dashwood wished it likewise; but in the mean while, till one of these superior blessings could be attained, it would have quieted her ambition to see him driving a barouche. But Edward had no turn for great men or barouches. All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life.” (italics added).

Edward is the preeminent domesticated man. Granted, his mothers wishes to see him “distinguished” are sardonically superficial. But is the public realm itself superficial? Only if there is no work to be done. If all problems in the world have been solved, or if they are beyond solving, public action has no worth. But at the time that Edward Ferrars is seeking the quiet of a “private life,” Napoleon is conquering half the known world and bringing with him the ideals of the French revolution. The real world outside of Austen’s quiet domestic universe is falling to pieces, but Edward wants no part of that, all he wants is “domestic comfort.” “Where is his sense of duty to humanity” I ask, “Where is his loyalty to England and posterity?” There is no force, no thumos, or manly vigor, to his character at all. The only construct that holds him together and keeps him from running through our fingers like so much water is “duty,” as dictated by 19th century English society.
            It is not the selection of Edward as a character that I quarrel with. I just cannot believe that any woman would desire him as a husband. He is set up as someone worthy of imitation, as if it is a good thing that Edward has no passion or zeal for the world. That is a mimetic problem as well as an aesthetical one. Austen hardly captures the really real in that character. Yet, he is held up as almost the best that “normal” can give. The very best of normal is found in Mr. Darcy.
            None of Austen’s heroes have any vocational calling or public aspiration outside of the heroin’s respective social circle, not even the illustrious Mr. Darcy. At the start of Pride and Prejudice, Darcy is well satisfied with himself and his own status. He lives as any member of the wealthy class could afford to live. He reads in his well stocked library, goes riding on the countryside, and detests dancing with such rabble as Lizzy Bennet. [iii] Thankfully, by the end of the novel, Lizzie has cured him of his distaste for dancing. However, I cannot yet find a reason for her to marry him other than the fact that he is the best that the narration has to offer. Of course, when compared with Bingly, Collins, and Wickham, Darcy is the spitting image of manly virtue and learning, but the world he inhabits is so very, very small. Surly there are other men in England that would marry Lizzy who are at once wealthy, intelligent, and have all the dreams and desires and spirit that make the human being so dynamic and interesting? That option is not left open for Lizzy. For her, Darcy is the only intelligent male in a six man world of imbeciles. Simply put, it is Austen’s narrative ability that makes Mr. Darcy and Edward Ferrars attractive, and only by comparison to the absolute dregs of boorishness. The attraction over Austen’s readership does not spring forth from any energy within them selves, Edward least of all. Yet, it is true, men such as this often do marry, just as it is true that women often settle for such men.
            Lewis writes of this very subject that “In real life, no doubt, we continue to respect interesting women despite the preposterous men they sometimes marry. But in fiction it is usually fatal” (Lewis.182). Of course we may still love a woman who marries a preposterous ignoramus the same way we may love a friend who borrowed your car and returned it without a front bumper. Mistakes may be forgiven. Lewis recognizes that in fiction, however, the failure to select a worthy spouse is a death sentence. For Austen, too it seems selecting a spouse is at once a moral and human imperative. Poor selection is indicative of a failure in character analysis. Mr. Bennet remarks of Charlotte Lucas’ dubious choice in Mr. Collins: “it gratified him, he said, to discover that Charlotte Lucas, whom he had been used to think tolerably sensible, was as foolish as his wife, and more foolish than his daughter!” (Pride and Prejudice.23). I level the same accusation against Elizabeth. A truly sensible and witty woman would not be easily attracted to a man as docile as Edward or as priggish as Darcy, and a marriage to such a one would seem like a failure in judgement.
             Mr. Bennet’s own marriage to the endlessly prattling Mrs. Bennet is the marriage of two unequal minds, which are mixed with disastrous result. Austen narrates in Pride and Prejudice: “To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement” (195). Mr. Bennet’s marriage is not a happy one due to the inquality of mind. Lizzy and Darcy my be equal in their  reasoning capacities, but they are not in any way equal in character. One could hardly see Mr. Darcy walking miles through the mud, jumping in puddles and rejoicing in creation, as Elizabeth might. Nor would he playfully scorn an indignant blue blooded lady for his own amusement, as Elizabeth might. To be quite honest, one could hardly see Mr. Darcy playing at anything at all (for it would hardly be “becoming" of a 19th century man to do so). Elizabeth is a creature of wit, not simply of reason, and Darcy in no way measures up to her playful spirit.
            Yet Darcy’s marriage to Elizabeth is the paragon of “attatchment” for Austen. If any of her characters was extraordinary, it was Lizzy, and yet she settles for a man who is just a mind with a checkbook. Whats more, that match is glorified. That is not mimesis of reality. It might happen in reality, but the truth of the matter is that there very well could have been another hero that would have suited Lizzy better, and reality is much, much bigger than Netherfield Park. Darcy is only a hero, then, in that he is the man the heroin selects to be her mate, and that is no true measure for a hero.
            No, a true hero is great, in real life as well as in prose.  It is true that Darcy is charitable, in a way. After all, he does pay off Wickham so that he will marry Lydia and spare the Bennet family the shame of such an elopement (269). But it is a relatively small sacrifice that Darcy makes, and will not affect his lifestyle. However, good stories as well as good lives are forged of great and total sacrifices as well as from small ones. Lewis writes that Austen “could almost have said with Johnson, ‘Nothing is too little for so little a creature as man’. If she envisages few great sacrifices, she also envisages no grandiose schemes of joy” (186). He calls this “cheerful moderation.” I call it boring; as boring as the mediocre life of the modern man.
            Lewis himself recognizes the limits of Austen’s world as he affirms her in limiting it: “There is just a hint in Persuasion that total sacrifice may be demanded of sailors on active service; as there is also a hint of women who must love when life or when hope is gone. But we are then at the frontier of Jane Austen’s world” (186). The slightest hint of total sacrifice is the very “frontier” of Austen’s world! Tragic struggle, heroic self gift, and magnificent joy, all elements of the Christian life are eliminated, thrown out along with the castles, knights and dragons, as if they are similarly impossible. These are impossibilities only to an author who does not believe in a God that acts within creation. Greatness is no vain desire with the presence of grace, and nether is the miraculous. Only the pessimist recoils in fear at the slightest human passion. Only the pessimist cries out (only as loudly as is prudent, of course) “Enjoy that ball, enjoy that ride, enjoy that stroll because that’s as good as it will ever get!” That sucks the stargazing of all it wonder. It casts a damper on it all. So why, then, is Austen dubbed “a comic” writer?
            Lewis is of the opinion that Austen is a "comic" author, because a tragic author demands everything from his characters while Austen demands very little. She is “unexacting in so far as the duties commanded are not quixotic or heroic, and obedience to them will not be very difficult to properly brought up people in ordinary circumstances” (186). Whether or not “quixotic” virtue ought to be a good thing or not is a topic for another conversation. What can be said, however, that it would not be amiss, unrealistic, or even “quixotic” to ask Edmund for a backbone or Darcy for some passion outside of his relationship with Lizzy. Realistically, greater men, men that are indefinable by social convention, extraordinary men are the only ones deserving of Lizzy Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, and Anne Elliot. Around men such as those, the fairy tale creeps back into the ordinary. Real romance, passion, and fiery life, all anathema to the English moralist, find their way into the daily and the ordinary. A man deserving of Lizzy Bennet would re-define the normal. What would such a hero look like? You might get close if you gave Edmund Bertram Henry’s charm. You might get closer if you gave Wickham Darcey’s good nature; and if Willoughby had married Mary Anne, now that would have been something special, something great, something extraordinary.

[i] Samuel Johnson, The Rambler No. 4, in “Samuel Johnson Selected Poetry and Prose,” ed Frank Brady and W.K. Wimsatt, (Los Angeles, University Press: 1977) 155. Hereafter cited internally.
[ii] Lewis. 185 Hereafter cited internally.
[iii] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, (Konemann Press, Hungary: 1996), 14. Hereafter cited internally.

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  1. You are a bold and brassy young man. I'm sure Curtright enjoyed that.


  2. Wow. I went into this expecting to hate it and be mad at you but... It's just too good! What the heck Marc? I was falling out of my chair laughing. Holy Crap!

    I still enjoy Austen, and I think that given her time and social context she was dealing with certain limits that, in a certain sense, she made the best of. But I think you really hit the nail on the head here with a legitimate criticism.

    I wonder if perhaps women enjoy these books so much nowadays because they already have such low hopes for men and are invigorated by seeing strong women in fiction, whereas you have recognized that only a man like the ones you describe as missing from Austen's novels can be a really fitting mate for someone like Elizabeth Bennet.

    Finally, however, I would add that it is uncommon to find a novel in which there is an equally matched hero and heroine. As Virginia Woolf was correct to point out, prior to Austen, women had practically no voice in fiction as characters or authors, usually portrayed as some additional appendage attached to the male hero. Perhaps, taking your point regarding the intentional lack of "bigness" in her novels, we can also look at them as a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to portray gender balance in fiction. These sorta lame guys taking a back seat to awesome women is nothing new in fiction - its just a reversal of the conventionally idealized and worshipped perfect but personality-less woman of earlier days (and later ones, if we are to consider the books that were apparently being published when Woolf was writing). So, I am not approving, simply saying that in a certain sense it's hard to fault her for screwing something up that was so new in fiction.

    And you have to admit, while the men and the marriages, and the happy domestic endings are a big part of her novels, I was always more attracted to them because of the "bigness" of the female characters - intelligent, witty, charming, brazen, etc. It is difficult for a women like Elizabeth Bennet not to outshine the "six man world of imbeciles," but is it also likely she would outshine most "six man" contingents, now or then. And to be honest, in Austen's day and age, and to her audience, two equally bright, and equally daring, and equally attractive people running off on some grand adventure would not have been very mimetic - perhaps she is implicitly approving of and perpetuating an insufficient and boring status quo, but how many people reading her novels, even if they had the great depth of passion and drive you describe, would find such a story in any way believable?

    I still have mixed ideas and feelings about this... BUT I really enjoyed your essay - your writing style alone makes the paper awesome and I think you made some pretty valid and important points.

    I am sure Curtright will enjoy it, and I really hope you don't fail for not answering the prompt.

    Peace :)


  3. "And to be honest, in Austen's day and age, and to her audience, two equally bright, and equally daring, and equally attractive people running off on some grand adventure would not have been very mimetic."
    Yes Rose, perhaps it is the fault of her age. It is so... inhuman. As much as I love the 19th century ball, I seriously cannot STAND 19th century England. America in the 1800's... now that is something else altogether.

  4. I thought it only fair to write up Dr. Curtright's comments. On my paper. I will withhold my grade though. So here's what he said:

    "1. If you are not going to write on the topic, why not submit an essay on Sponge Bob Square Pants? The assignment was on Persuasion and this paper doesn't indicate you even red the text. You should have used this for your final exam essay!
    2. All literary works are founded upon exclusions. If you want Christian themes, do not read homer. If you want Don Quixote, don't read Austen. And so on.
    3. Given so, I enjoyed reading this."

    There you have it, the words of THE Dr. Curtright himself.

  5. What exactly are you trying to say in this article? What exactly is your problem with Austen . . . in more simple terms? You have a problem with her portrayal of men? What?

  6. ["Lizzy and Darcy my be equal in their reasoning capacities, but they are not in any way equal in character. One could hardly see Mr. Darcy walking miles through the mud, jumping in puddles and rejoicing in creation, as Elizabeth might. Nor would he playfully scorn an indignant blue blooded lady for his own amusement, as Elizabeth might. To be quite honest, one could hardly see Mr. Darcy playing at anything at all (for it would hardly be “becoming" of a 19th century man to do so). Elizabeth is a creature of wit, not simply of reason, and Darcy in no way measures up to her playful spirit."]

    In other words, you want Darcy to be exactly like Elizabeth in temperament. Why is this desire turning me OFF? Becoming romantically involved with someone who is similar in temperament strikes me as an exercise in narcissist behavior.

  7. I don't believe spontaneity, wit, and gaiety are a matter of "temperment," but rather one of virtue.

    Lizzy is bright and full of life. She is resilient, she is quick witted and flirtatious. Darcy is none of these things. All he has going for him is that he is the only smart man in a six man world of imbeciles. Most of Austen's men are similarly stunted.