Saturday, 14 April 2012

Why do I nearly always hate Jane Austen novels?

I liked Northanger Abbey, but I think part of it was joy at the surprise of not hating it. Of the others I read, Sense and Sensibility was tedious, Pride and Prejudice, the first one I read, was fine, but then having read that I feel like I've read them all, and Persuasion was by far the biggest disappointment. Once again, I failed to engage.

So that leaves me with Mansfield Park and Emma, and as I type this, Emma sits next to me with Trotwood on top of it. This will be the last time I bring it down from the shelf to read because this time I will read it. That goes without question.

The important thing here is how do I make myself at least tolerate it? With some books, it is important to go in with the right attitude. Effort is required, and dedication: no lack of presence. Some times it works - initially, I was bored by Les Misérables and ended up giving it five stars. Tales from Ovid also surprised me, however I put that down to the talent of Ted Hughes. That said, some books are simply lost causes to a reader.

But, you see, I knew this already when I read Persuasion. Not even Virginia Woolf's essay in The Common Reader managed to save it for me. I do not like Jane Austen, but she's one of the authors I would actually like to like! Everybody likes Jane Austen apart from me, which makes me feel like I've failed somehow. Why can't I like her when everyone else does? I feel cheated. Strange, because whilst I do sometimes take responsibility for hating a book, I'm never particularly concerned or down-hearted about it.

One of the greatest sources of irritation is the constant references to money. I hate it, each and every time it makes me cringe. However, this is like objecting to the moralising in Aesop or the long sentences in Dickens. I can't read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and wish it was set in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, or The Bible and wish that chap Jesus didn't play such a central role, or Ariel and wish Sylvia Plath would write something cheerful for a change. This is it: this is what I'm reading. The English Pound is a main character and that has to be accepted.

I want so much to finish Emma and say, "Yes! I get it!" Something that makes me feel less like the outsider in the bookish community. So, I'm going to go spend half an hour reading through people's posts and reviews of Jane Austen's novels. I need to find something I've never known about Austen or her novels (which won't be hard, I know next to nothing about her, her technique, or her intentions). I need a new appreciation, something that will at least make me see the skill and talent in her works. Something is missing and I need to find it. After then, I shall spend the day reading Emma. I don't necessarily intend to finish it today, however I have an unexpected evening to myself and I intend to use it. Emma isn't my last chance, my last chance is Mansfield Park, which I'm deliberately saving 'til last because it is, I believe, one of the least liked, which makes me think it may be the one for me, being as it sounds by all accounts the least Austen-y. But I want to like Emma.

So please: wish me luck. Criticise me. Leave me a comment and tell me my attitude is ridiculous. Don't hold back. I want to love at least one Austen, and Austens are running out!

18 comments:

  1. Hi - I just came across your blog by searching randomly for 'Emma Jane Austen' on Google because I was bored, so you can probably imagine that I'm a fan! ;)

    Until about two years ago, I was in the same situation - I could not understand the appeal of Austen's 'white frocks and weddings' stories, as I called them, and refused to read the novels (being forced to dissect 'Sense and Sensibility' in school didn't help). What worked for me was finding an adaptation which brough the story and characters to life for me - in my case, the 2005 film version of 'Pride and Prejudice' (the Janeites hate that film, but I loved it!) So I read the novel, finally, because I actually liked the onscreen Darcy and Elizabeth, and surprised myself by enjoying the book, too. Next, I tackled S+S, then 'Emma', wherein I found my 'favourite' Austen novel.

    I can't explain why I love 'Emma' so much - perhaps because the heroine is more complex and realistic than Lizzie and the rest - or why you should definitely persevere with the novel, but if you are still daunted by Austen, try the 2009 BBC adaptation with Romola Garai first. Screenwriter Sandy Welch gets in the spirit and enough of the original dialogue to capture the essence of the novel, but the miniseries is just a joy to watch in itself.

    So - yeah. Keep trying! 'Emma' is my favourite, but I have read most of Austen's novels at last - bar 'Persuasion', which, like you, I struggle with :S

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  2. Well, I'm sure you already know that Emma is the heroine that Austen described as one whom "no one but myself shall like." Or something like that. Emma is bored, not self-aware, and overly confident, so she gets into plenty of trouble. There is actually maybe less talk about money--but more of social status.

    But it's not a requirement that you love Jane Austen. We can't all have "correct" tastes, and why should we? :)

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  3. Austen is also a writer I struggle with. Pride and Prejudice is one of my all-time favorite novels, whereas Persuasion left me thinking "That's it? Really? That's what all the fuss is about?" Then I read Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, one of which I mildly enjoyed and one I really loved. So I'm not sure exactly whether to consider myself a fan.
    I love Austen's sense of humor, her wit, her ability to ridicule people without even having to describe them- she just lets them talk. These are elements I found thoroughly missing in Persuasion, a story I intend to reread because maybe having read a Spanish translation played a part in my disenchantment with it. I don't know. I want to like Austen too, but going into one of her novels I'm never sure what I'm going to find.

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  4. I often find people are either Austen fans or Bronte lovers, I'm not sure it's possible to be both. I also find that those who like the Brontes tend to be fans of Woolf - perhaps they're more to your taste? If you're happy on one side of the fence or the other I don't think anyone expects you to balance on the top of it. :)

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  5. Caro, O: You don't like Persuasion? Tut, tut. That's the best one! The Letter! You pierce my soul, and all that. How do you two sleep at night!

    Is that the sort of criticism you were looking for? :)

    I don't blame you for not liking Jane Austen. She can't be everybody's cup of tea. I can understand why you feel cheated at not loving an author, because...

    I don't love Virginia Woolf's fiction. Yes, I am confessing this to you, the ultimate Woolfian, to try and console you in your Jane Austen grief. I tried to read Mrs Dalloway, which everybody says is the easiest of her novels to read, and couldn't finish the first chapter. I hope this has more to do with bad timing and not being prepared to receive Woolf and all of that, but I was so disappointed not to be immediately captivated it like I expected to be. I was so let down by Great Woolfian Expectations. (Don't worry, I have hope that I'll come around.)

    Here's a little story my Bronte tutor told me about Jane Austen that I hope at least amuses you:

    We're so used to thinking of Jane Austen as a sensible creature, one who believed in the possibility of love and marriage, but who nevertheless was mindful of propriety and etiquette.

    But apparently she often drank far too much and got completely pissed at parties. On one occasion she was so far gone they had to carry her up to bed. This image of Jane amuses me, and I often include her on my list of 'authors I'd invite to a dinner party' with the proviso that she limits herself to a glass or two of wine.

    Right, novella over. Good luck with Emma! :)

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  6. Your honesty is refreshing. I'll be interested to know if you find a new appreciation you are seeking.

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  7. Well guys, I have just finished it. Meh. Alex - I'm DEFINITELY team Bronte / Woolf, and it's interesting that you said that.

    And yes, we don't all have to like the same thing and that's the beauty of it, but you know, sometimes, you just want to find out what it is you're missing.

    Mansfield park is the last chance! Not now though, give me a few weeks :)

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  8. I never thought I was either a Bronte or Austen fan. In my case there's some truth to it. I definitely prefer Bronte, but I do like Austen's Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.

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  9. Don't worry, not everyone can love Austen. I'm on the fence. I read Pride and Prejudice years ago and I never really got into it and I attempted Sense and Sensibility but gave up pretty quickly. But that was a while ago and I think its about time I read some more. At least now I won't feel so bad if I don't like them either.

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  10. Oh, don't feel like you're the only person who doesn't like Austen. I know of MANY people who initially declare that they can't stand Austen (some, of course stick with the idea, others are converted.)

    I often tell people who don't like Austen that she's not a Romantic - look at all the references to money, read her burlesque juvenilia, read her cynical letters. However, your objection to her revelation of what W.H. Auden called "the amorous effect of brass/the economic basis of society" makes me think you're different from the average "I'm not gonna read someone who's all about pretty frocks and finding husbands" detractor. May I ask why you dislike the prominence of Money so much? I believe you're a Bronte-fan, so it may be hard to read an author who's all about mocking the Romantic in all its forms. (I see you just read "Emma" - even Mrs. Elton's donkey was an ironic bow to the craze for "the natural".)

    Have you read Woolf's comments on Austen's writing in "A Room of One's Own"? I'm hoping to write a post sometime on them and how I read Jane Austen for her lucid mind that consumed all impediments.

    You might want to read a biography of Austen. I know Jillian (at A Room of One's Own) read Claire Tomalin's very decent one and came to appreciate Austen more.

    In conclusion, I would offer you a "It's okay, not everyone has to like Austen", but I'm one of those fanatical Janeites who (like Marianne Dashwood) cannot tell a polite lie or betray my goddess. ;)

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  11. Since money is a problem, be sure to stay far, far away from Balzac and Trollope. My recent posts about Washington Square were mostly about money - cross that one off the list, too.

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  12. I was looking forward to Balzac! Only Trollope I've read is He Knew He Was right, which I was very much taken by.

    So why is a money a problem with Austen...? I suppose it's a personal thing, which as I said in the post shouldn't be taken as a fault of her's. I think it's like a dripping tap, once noticed, very irritating. And it's so blatent it makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps the best answer I can give you, and this isn't the best answer a reader ought to give, money is such an issue for me and I'm judged by it, or lack of it rather. Sometimes that hurts me. And when I see others do it in any walk of life, it annoys me and again hurts me a little. I don't want to make anyone uncomfortable, so i'll keep it brief, but there are people in my life (not necessarily friends, let's just call them unescapeable associates) who have hurt me very deeply by judging me and dismissing me for my rather tricky financial situation. I'd rather not be reminded of it when I'm reading. Yet, at the same time, I still am looking forward to Balzac and discovering more Trollope! Perhaps you think I'm oversensitive, all I can say is everyone has a weak spot.

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  13. Oversensitive! I think no such thing. Maybe that was addressed to someone else.

    Balzac is the most vulgar writer (great writer, I mean) about money I have ever read. I suggest an exercise at the end of this post on Washington Square.

    gutenberg.org does not seem to have an electronic text of He Knew He Was Right - it might well be money-free. But if I look at Barchester Towers, say, and search for "income" or "money" or " L " (the £ substitute), the text is dripping with them. Sentences like "His income had averaged L 9000 a year; his successor was to be rigidly limited to L 5000" are common.

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  14. Cheers for those links! And I was being oversensitive about the possibility of being thought of as oversensitive, it would seem! :)

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  15. Your explanation is interesting, because I come from a financially-challenged family and that's something that influences various things about me, and consequently how others judge me. And that's precisely why I love Austen - she's writing about the social awkwardness and all the problems surrounding money - problems for those who have little, problems for those who have much, problems for those who obtained it in a suspect way. So maybe my appreciation for Austen's focus on money comes jointly from the inspiration and comfort I derive from her own life as a "poor relation" and her portrayals of financial awkwardness, and also from the economic basis of today's society being somewhat less obvious than in her day, and therefore more bearable.

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  16. I'm sorry to hear that you didn't enjoy Emma as I know you were hoping to. Although I'm an Austen fan, I won't fault you, as I know everyone has different tastes, and it would be boring if we all always agreed! I also admire your dedication in attempting to read all of her works even though they haven't worked for you.

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  17. So many comments already and no one has spoken out what I have to say: Even though it may seem so, you're not alone, at least not totally.

    I hate Jane Austen passionately and with all my heart.

    And yes, that makes me feel like a Philistine. I totally get you, the prominent role money plays in her works irritates me too and to be honest I just don't understand why everyone declares Austen to be oh-so-brilliant!
    Perhaps it also has something to do with the subjects she writes about, yes, marriage was an important thing in her era, but I still don't feel like reading 300 pages about nothing else than how the witty and clever heroine (whom I usually detest) ends up with prince charming.
    I have nothing against romances (I loved, loved, loved Jane Eyre, but perhaps that's due to the Brontë/ Austen phenomenon) but for me, there isn't enough meaning in Jane Austen's books.

    Nonetheless I wish I could love them, or at least not cringe whenever P&P is mentioned.
    It is hard to hate everybody's darling...

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  18. I gotta say, I'm a Bronte fan and an Austen fan equally. I adore them both. I often see people say that one either loves Bronte "or" Austen. I adore Bronte's passion and Austen's humor. :)

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