Jane Austen (was: A whole lot of Re: that I snipped off)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Tue Jun 5 01:25:12 EDT 2001

Hallie and Ven, duking it out in fine style:

First, _Persuasion_.  

Ven writes:
>> >Persuasion is the novel that really made me dislike JA. Based on
>> >this novel I think she was spiteful, narrow minded, parochial and
>> >quite lacking in empathy. 

I had a long conversation online with someone who made the same accusations
about Connie Willis.  His reasons were similar to yours: he believed that
Willis took advantage of her position as author, making fun of people who
had genuine problems by turning them into caricatures.

Ven continues:

>I always had sympathy for Mary, but I must 
>now declare an interest, insofar as I suffer from a chronic medical 
>condition myself. I'm used to gritting my teeth to comments like "I 
>see you're not too ill to go to the pub/on holiday/write to your dwj 
>list" I'm making the last one up btw! I don't exonerate Mary from 
>using her illness to get out of unpleasant things   (I don't blame her 
>much either) but I do think she may have been genuinely ill. The 
>question is whether she perfectly full of energy when there is 
>something she wants to do or whether she wants to do things 
>when she has the energy. Her disinclination to waste what energy 
>she has on things like duty visits to her husband's relations seems 
>quite reasonable to me. 

It really ruins a book when you identify with characters the author doesn't
want you to like.  I mean, the whole book is set up for you to sympathize
with certain people, and you as the reader are basically refusing to join
the tour with all the other good little children.  :)

But to go back to the Connie Willis example:  The guy who was arguing that
Willis was arrogant and mean-spirited had worked in retail and customer
service, and identified more with the antagonists in some of her stories
("At the Rialto" was the specific example, but the Dumb Waitress is a common
type in Willis's stories) than with the protagonist.  From that position, he
felt slighted on their behalf.  It affects the reading tremendously if you
have knowledge that the author doesn't seem aware of, or appears to be
ignoring in favor of making a different point.  I don't agree with you, but
it does make sense not to like _Persuasion_ based on your example.

But in general--there is this running theme throughout Austen's books of
Good Parents and Bad Parents.  Mostly Bad Parents--or possibly just
Inattentive Selfish Parents.  And their Annoying Ill-Mannered Progeny.
Since Austen didn't have any children of her own, this has to be based on
observation and hearsay rather than experience.  So it doesn't surprise me
that it never seems tempered by empathy.  In fact, these scenes remind me a
lot of things my single friends have said--comparing my children's behavior
(I'm the Good Parent of course :) to that of their friends' or relatives'
children (universally Inattentive).  Flattering, but I know they don't have
the whole picture, because kids can drive even the best parents crazy

Mary.  Well, this book is very complex, especially if you compare Mary with
some of her analogues in other Austen novels.  She's set up as the
self-centered hypochondriac whose children are like intelligent pets, but
when her little boy is hurt, she's genuinely concerned.  Not like some of
the other Doting Mamas at all.  She's the younger sister who made good in
her marriage, but deep down still feels inadequate as a person.  Notice how
hard she tries to get people to recognize her status, as though she doesn't
have any internal reserves of self-worth and needs the affirmation to be
real.  I feel sorry for her because it seems like such a waste of a
basically nice person, someone who would be admirable if she wasn't so

Hallie says (and, BTW, you should be remembering _Beauty_ right now :)

>-I would want a HUGE amount of trust in 
>> the teacher to accept that Anne Elliot's family was based on 
>> Austen's and that Anne was largely Jane herself.

and Ven replies:

>Hold on I said "partly", not largely, and I'm sure they mentioned 
>this in the publicity for the recent TV adaptation! As I understood it 
>the resemblance between Anne and JA was one of situation rather 
>than, strictly, character. Like JA Anne is an unmarried woman who 
>is forced to leave a much loved family home and  go to live in Bath. 
>Moreover according to the TV publicity she may have had a 
>hopeless romance in her early twenties, like Anne. As to the rest 
>of the family I'm quite sure I read or was told that Mary was a 
>portrait of one of JA s married sisters.  

I don't know about Mary being based on a sister, but the copy of the book I
have plays up this supposed correlation between Jane Austen and Anne Elliot.
Why do you think they've made such a big deal about this possibility?  And
what was the point of your teacher telling you this as part of your study,
Ven?  Was it supposed to make you like it better, or what?

And now, _Northanger Abbey_:

>> Northanger Abbey - well it's like TG and what follows on from that in 
>> a lot of ways, IMHO.  (Thereby neatly - for once! - bringing in an 
>> ob- etc.)  Satire of a literary style which the author feels has gone 
>> a touch OTT.  But taking the mickey out of the gothic romances, 
>> rather than young girls, I'd have thought.

and Ven:
>It struck me as taking the piss out of gothic romances and their 
>young female readers  together. At the time it seemed to be saying 
>"watch out girls the world is duller and far more shoddy than you 

_Northanger Abbey_ hit me hard because I was one of those young female
readers...the scene where Catherine's in her room at the abbey, and the
storm hits, and there's the cabinet in the corner...oh, boy, was I cringing
right around then!  But in a good way.  Maybe it's because I was already
past that age and already realized what an overdramatic person I had been,
but it was just the funniest thing I'd ever read.

But I don't agree that it's saying the world is dull and shoddy.  Quite the
opposite.  Catherine gets all worked up inventing a mystery that turns out
to be nonexistent, but the reality of love and greed and hate is far more
powerful than anything she could think up.  It strikes me as a story about
letting go of fantasy for a better reality.  Austen never makes the point
about dark, brooding Gothic lovers as compared to Henry Tilney, but with
everything else, I think she doesn't have to.  (Though I suppose that's
depressing if you look at it in a certain way...fantasy is quite nice....)

Ven, thanks for elaborating on why you don't like Jane Austen.  I found it

Melissa Proffitt
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