Every generation rediscovers Jane Austen with a renewed passion for her timeless stories of romance, family relations, and foibles of human nature. Today she is more popular than ever.
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July 31, 2001
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Excerpt from The Friendly Jane Austen by Natalie Tyler
I have loved Jane Austen since I was a teenager too innocent in the ways of the world to know that there is a great divide between crude sarcasm and delicious irony. Learning how first to discern and secondly to cross that division is part of learning how to understand and appreciate Austen's sensibility.
I had my earliest lessons in that fine art when I first read Pride and Prejudice at age sixteen. Initially I came to some of the following conclusions: that Mary Bennet was the most intelligent and potentially the most interesting Bennet sister; that Mr. Collins expressed himself very prettily indeed and I would love to have such a well-spoken suitor; that Mrs. Bennet's maternal enthusiasms were wonderful and that my mother was very lacking in her failure to scout the neighborhood for a suitable match for me. Upon more reflection, I realized that perhaps some subtleties had been lost on me. Had Austen been crudely sarcastic about her characters, I would have understood at once. But she demanded that I explore the nuances in her characters. I read another Jane Austen novel, this time Emma, and in a flash of illumination I understood the delicacies and the delectations of Austen's irony. I reread Pride and Prejudice with gusto then, realizing that Mary Bennet was a parody of pseudointellectual show-offs, that those "well-spoken" words of Mr. Collins revealed that he was a ludicrous nerd, and that Mrs. Bennet was a more tiresome mother than my own could be on her worst days.
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Rereading Jane Austen has taught me how to read the world and has given me more guidelines and examples on how to behave than the combined efforts of Emily Post, psychoanalysis, and a lengthy stay at the Betty Ford Clinic possibly could. With each rereading I gradually realized that Jane Austen was teaching me something that was not on the curriculum of my high school.
Many years later, in graduate school, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to enroll in a seminar on the works of Jane Austen. At last my love for Austen's novels would be married to academic discipline. I would become a Jane Austen scholar, which promised to be the harmonious denouement of my love of literature and my desire to teach. My desires were thwarted. The professor approached Jane Austen the way Wagner's Brunnhilde and her warrior Valkyries approached Valhalla. She was dressed in academic armor and rode on stallions of critical theory. Her battle cries seemed too fierce for what I had thought of as the always amusing and gratifying act of reading Jane Austen. The professor drilled us in the arcane metalanguage of academic theory. We galloped through Sense and Sensibility dutifully noting "tagged indirect discourse," "untagged direct discourse," "free indirect discourse," or "free direct discourse." As if this were not sufficient to dampen my delight in Austen scholarship, she flew on, with great zeal, to Lacanian Austen, poststructuralist Austen, Todorovian and Bakhtinian Austen, and Austen under the pendulum of Foucault. I was still wondering why Elinor Dashwood found Edward Ferrars so appealing and whether or not Jane Austen was endorsing the decision of Charlotte Lucas to marry Mr. Collins. The novel is a text, I was reminded, and it was naive to treat the characters, those verbal constructs, as though they were real people with whom I could interest myself.