The Voices of Men in Praise of Jane Austen
Messages on the Bulletin Board - c. March 6, 2000

While I was at work March 10 I heard a program on the local Pacifica station called (I think) What's The Word? hosted by a woman named Sally Claxon. The premise of the program is writing and writers. Each week a different author or style of writing is featured, and usually there are little "essays" by three different "authorities", usually academics of one sort or another.

This week featured Jane Austin. I got on board the show a little late because I was trying to set up a drill jig, but I was thunderstruck at some of the absolute nonsense I heard.

It wasn't so much the analyses of the novels that the academics put forth, but the fact that they spent more time analyzing the film treatments of our dear Jane's works than they did the novels. And to top it off, they were putting what I consider the inferior films under the magnifying glass, i.e. BBC P&P, Gwyneth-Paltrow Emma and Emma-Thompson S&S. I was disappointed. They were offering milk under the guise of offering the Roast Beef of England.

Here are two examples:

One person (and I don't remember her name because I was distracted boring holes, but she was an academic) went into an analysis of the clothes Emma Thompson wore in S&S. The point was that throughout the film Miss Thompson wore stiff and constricting clothes while Kate Winslet's clothes were free flowing. This served as a device to differentiate the personalities of the sisters. It was only when Hugh Grant (playing Edward Ferrars but acting like Ichabod Crane) notified Miss Thompson that he was free to marry that her clothes became more loose and free flowing.

The second concerned the BBC P&P. The academic (it may have been the same person as in the previous example) said that the reason that Mrs. Bennet did not want Elizabeth to walk to Netherfield was because the muddy state of her clothes by the time she got there would reveal that the Bennets did not have the number of servants to properly wash and take care of the Bennets' clothing. That doesn't make any damn sense at all. This person seemed to think that if one has a servant to take care of one's clothes, the clothes never get soiled, even if the servant isn't there.

But the most maddening thing about the program was that the host and assorted eggheads spent more time talking about the films than the books. These were people who have college educations and who teach college courses! All of a sudden Jane has gone from being a novelist to nothing more than a source for screenplays. It's enough to gag a maggot. I admit that I liked the A&E P&P and Emma and the BBC P&P and Mansfield Park, but I don't confuse them with the novels and when I talk about the novels I talk about the novels and not the screen adaptations. And I'm only a high school graduate. There must be a new literature out there I'm not aware of that's being taught in the halls of higher learning. As for me, I'll light my candle, take a dip of Skoal and read. Arrgh!

Dear Dave,

This maggot was thoroughly choked, long ago. If people want to take a story (any story) and use it for t the basis of a screenplay, then I suppose there is nothing I can do to stop them, but how anybody can think that there is a relationship between that screenplay and a novel is beyond me.

Furthermore, it encourages the lazy in their laziness - people will see a film and think they have read a book!

The loss is theirs, of course, particularly with Jane Austen, as they lose all the beauty and wit of her language and prose style, but it makes my blood boil.

I don't like the combustion engine, either.

Dear Dave and Julie,

Dave: I once had a prof who had to appear on television.  She had a pixie face and long, flowing black hair, but somehow, in spite of her protests that she never wore make-up, they insisted that she wear powder and lipstick so that she looked something like Morticia Addams on screen.  Moreover, the interviewer had apparently not read the material she was there to discuss. She was, if I might borrow from Our Lady, "mortified."  It makes me wonder if your eggheads were told that the television audience would have no idea about the books and they should relate their comments to the films?  Nevertheless, wardrobe is a bizarre focus to take.

Still, it has been my experience with English profs that having hashed over, for example, Austen's irony more than once or twice, they are not the least bit interested in talking about it anymore and go a long way to discover something new to discuss.  The longer they've been professors, the greater the distance they travel until we can't understand why they're convinced that the subject is relevant.

Now Julie, pick any two things in the universe, as opposite as you like, Emma and Mrs. Elton (or better yet - Fanny Price), chook and chinook, book and film, and you will find that they are related anyway.  Even being opposites is a kind of relationship.  I believe the human penchant for comparison and contrast, for compartmentalizing things, draws us to compare a richly detailed novel with a flimsy strand of celluloid, much to the mystification of those who have far better things to do.

Dear Heather,

I think at bottom I regard any attempt to 'adapt' the novels of Jane Austen as damned impertinence, on a level with that other obscenity, the 'Readers' Digest Condensed Book' (shudder). Seriously, though, I do think it is sad that people may be missing the opportunity to develop 'the film of the book' in their own minds, relying instead on somebody else's idea of what constitutes 'the good bits'.  I could draw (if, indeed, I could draw!) detailed layouts of Mansfield park, inside and out, as well as Donwell Abbey, Fullerton (complete with lane leading to Mrs Allen's), Highbury and all the other places   they wouldn't look like yours, of course, but they are none the less real for all that, and they constitute part of my experience of living books.

Novels are not plays:  novels are meant to be developed and seen inside one's own head - that is part of their joy (dare I mention here that Thornfield is just as vivid, not to mention Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange!).  'Film adaptations' are a very poor substitute for one's own imagination, and the tendency to rely on them, I feel, may cause newcomers to our classics to lose much of the pleasure to be had from developing a novel in one's own 'inward eye' (though I've always loathed 'The Daffodils').

Dear Heather,

The radio program on which these academics spoke is called What's The Word? It purports to be a program about writers and writing. In the several years I've listened to it (not religiously, I'll admit) never have I heard so much reference to moving pictures. Most of the time the program concerns obscure writers that no one has heard of.

My point is that a lot of academics in the liberal arts, if they are to get that Ph.D. they so covet, feel that they have to come at a subject from a new angle that is, to those in the larger world, absolutely ridiculous. An example that comes to mind is that in the early seventies someone came up with the theory that Huckleberry Finn was a novel that was really about an interracial homosexual relationship between Huck and Jim. This was based on one scene in the novel in which Jim helps Huck onto their raft by taking his hand. In Cold Comfort Farm the character Mybug is writing a book about how Bramwell Bronte was the real author of all the Bronte's novels. Cold Comfort Farm is a comic novel. But I can assure you that in a college library in a carrel a worm of just such a theory in beginning to stir within the addled brain of a poor English Lit. M.A. trying to come up with a Ph.D. paper.

Also, movies is movies and novels is novels. I've enjoyed some of the film treatments of Jane's novels, but I don't confuse them with the books. For a college English professor to do so is a sign of mental laziness. If movies are to be studied in college (and I'm not sure they merit such study) they should be studied by those in the film or communications departments. Movies are not English literature simply because they do not rely on the language to make their points.

But, then again, you may be right.

Dear Dave,

If you enjoy a good laugh, try reading Daphne du Maurier's The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte.  The woman deserved a PhD for this effort, for all the wrong reasons.

Dear Sir,

Well, I believe I'm going to get an "A" for that assignment!  Brian's very friendly, grateful (let's wait and see if he's still grateful after his marks come in) notes indicate I was useful.

I should apologise to the teacher who set the essay topic, however, as I ended up finding the comparison of the two characters very interesting indeed.  The yardstick I used was Mr Elton, who was discussed as a suitable (or not) marriage partner for both.

Most intriguing.

... was a woman of leisure and fashion, over-estimated her own musical ability, expected to be the center of attention, presumed to take on a protege (for all the best reasons), and was a source of amusement for Frank Churchill and irritation for Jane Fairfax.

Dear Sir,

But they are very different people indeed, for all that.  Incidentally, Emma does not overestimate her proficiency as a musician:  she tells Harriet that her own (Emma's) performance, compared with that of Miss Fairfax's, is like comparing 'a lamp to sunshine.' That is only one illustration of the great fundamental difference between Emma and Mrs Elton - Emma has insight, and the capacity to critically examine her behaviour, and to learn from her mistakes.  Mrs Elton is totally without these qualities, and also lacks Emma's intelligence.

All of the similarities that you mention are in fact superficial, and reveal themselves as differences, upon closer examination.  Emma does indeed manipulate and dominate her friend, but then, she has a friend in the first place.   Harriet is genuinely attached to Emma, whereas the relationship between Mrs Elton and Miss Fairfax exists only because of Miss Fairfax's tolerance and good manners.  There is no genuine intimacy between these two, whereas Harriet allows and encourages Emma's dominating behaviour, Miss Fairfax fiercely, although quietly, resists Mrs Elton's attempts to rule her life.

Emma is capable of remorse, is capable of admitting that she has been wrong, and is capable of atonement   Mrs Elton is, as her creator says, 'self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant and ill-bred.'  She 'conceived Miss Hawkins to have held such a place in society as Mrs Elton's consequence only could surpass.'  Emma does indeed possess self-importance and arrogance, but she is horrified to realise that this is the case, and does her best to improve. Mrs Elton merely gets worse and worse.

Dear Julie,

Yes, you are absolutely correct; although, I must repeat my confession that, at the first reading, I thought that Emma and Mrs. Elton deserved one another. I now have the proper understanding. I must also admit that if Emma had been the first Jane Austen novel I read, it also would have been the last. Tell me, do you think that Emma might have been fishing for a compliment for her playing in the passage you quote?

Like yourself, I have come to think that brian's assignment was more interesting than it seemed at first - that was the point that I was trying to make in my posting.

Does your son's Walkabout go well? Does he learn which insects are edible and which reptiles tasty? I mean, is France in his itinerary?

Dear Sir,

'I am going to create a heroine that nobody but myself will much like', she said.  I like Emma very much indeed - the woman and the novel.

Thinking over, last night, the question a little more, I find myself even more inclined to excuse Emma (I'm usually pretty tolerant of adolescents' behaviour, anyway!).  She was so LONELY! The poor child was virtually residing in a geriatric unit, with nobody at all of her own age near her.  Miss Taylor was deservedly dear to Emma, of course, but all young people need friends of their own age (a fact Miss Taylor acknowledges).  She was never so much as allowed to visit her sister in London, and her life was totally devoid of the normal amusements of the time - no balls, no visits to friends' homes (all of Jane Austen's other heroines, no matter how young, spend time away from home on extended visits, and all go willingly), and no visitors to her own home before Harriet, except for her sister, and that once a year.

These limitations were largely her father's doing, and the more I think of it, the more I am inclined to admire Emma's tolerance and patience, than to criticise her faults.

Was she fishing for a compliment?  She'd already had it:  she was correcting Harriet's admiration of her (Emma's) performance when she made that statement.

My son is in Amsterdam at the moment, via Vienna, Salzburg, and Munich(!).  Amsterdam being what it is, and young people being what they are, he's probably seeing insects at the moment, if not eating them, but, hey, Mum! it's legal.

Dear Julie and Meister,

Teacher's gonna think he copied that essay.

Dear Ashton and all,

I've finally read Kipling's The Janeites and must say that it was worth the time. It's not one of Kipling's great stories, but it is both poignant and humourous.

The story was written about 1922 and, by this time, Kipling's soldiers' tales had taken a change. Mostly they deal with veterans reflecting on the battles and adventures in a less swashbuckiling manner than the stories written before WWI. It must be kept in mind that Kipling's only son, John, was killed in the Great War in his first battle, so RK's war writings are somewhat more reflective.

The Janeites is written as the reminisces of a barber as he tells his tales to some lodge brothers as they polish their Masonic lodge and regalia. It is written mostly in cockney dialect (or is it accent?), so the reading takes a bit of getting used to.

The narrator describes being attached to an artillary battery on the Somme where he, working as a messman, hears a couple of officers and a sergent talking about "Jane." From the way they speak about her, he assumes that they are members of a fraternal organization not unlike the Masons. He is convinced that this is so when the sergent, while drunk, breaks into the officers' discussion of what would have happened if Jane had had "lawful progeny" with the statement, "She did and his name was Henry James." Instead of the man being reprimanded for his uninvited input and presumption, the officers tell the narrator to take the sergent to the barracks and put him to bed. (It may be of interest here that when Kipling married, the bride was given away by Henry James.)

The narrator convinces the sergent to let him into the "Jane" and the sergent directs him to read Jane Austen's novels. One of the Masonic brothers asks the narrator (Humberstall is his name), "Oh! Jane was real, then?" Humberstall replies:

" Real! Jane? Why, she was a little old maid 'ood written 'alf a dozen book about a hundred years ago. 'Twasn't as if there was anythin' to 'em, either. I know. I had to read 'em. They weren't adventerous, nor smutty, nor what you'd call even interestin' - all about girls o' seventeen (they begun young then, I tell you), not certain 'oom they'd like to marry; an' their dances an' card-parties an' picnics, an' their young blokes going' off to London on 'orseback for 'air-cuts an' shaves. It took a full day in those days, if you went to a proper barber. They wore wigs, too, when they was chemists or clergymen. All that interested me on account o' me profession, an' cuttin' the men's hair every fortnight. Macklin used to chip me about me biein' an 'air-dresser. 'E could pass remarks, too!"

As the story continues, Humberstall starts naming artillary pieces after chapters in Jane's novels, gets in trouble for it and is saved from punishment by being a Janeite. Later, during an evacuation of the wounded, of which he is one, he is given preferrential treatment because a nurse hears an Austen related remark he makes.  And despite his description of Jane's novels as having nothing to them, even after the war he continues to read them.

I think, that in a sense, Kipling struck on the appeal that "Jane" has for many men. Her novels, as compared to most, are not about much. The novels almost reflect a Platonic ideal of what many men would like to see as normal life. It is not so much now, but when lives were nasty, brutish and short, the idea of a pacific existance away from war, the pit, or the political backbiting of academia this must have seemed ideal. All one had to do was be decent and patient to find love and happiness. It was comparable to that old joke about what did Vikings do for fun. Is it unlikely that while one is cutting throats one is wishing one had his hand on the plough?

But what the heck do I know?

Dear Folks,

Virginia Wolf, the novelist and critic, once said, "...of all great writers [Jane Austen] is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness". I don't happen to agree with that judgment but many others do. (For example, see the comments of Thornton Wilder.) More to the point, Elizabeth Jenkins does not take this view and I want to discuss that with you. I will be quoting extensively from her biography, Jane Austen, for that purpose. Along the way I will quote some other points that I think are interesting and worthy of discussion amongst ourselves.

I have already quoted from Jenkins on 1/18/00, 1/21/00, 1/29/00, and 2/27/00. I won't be repeating those quotes here even though some very cogent and relevant things are said in those places.

Let me begin with the reminder that I have, for some time, suggested that one must try to ignore the Victorian when reading Jane Austen's work. It must be understood that our Lady's work was not tainted by the attitudes of that later period. Miss Jenkins seems to hold the same view when she says

" ... At its worst, the society of the eighteenth-century England was gross and disgusting; at its best it embodied a beautiful frankness, an honest acceptance of the facts of existence, and it differed from the unhealthy period of the mid and late nineteenth century in that the innocence and elegance of its women were not based on ignorance."

Chapter Four


"The frankness of the present day and its lack of prejudice are much nearer to the spirit of the early nineteenth century than to that of the Victorian era. ..."

Chapter Fifteen

To be fair, I should confess that the last quote is a bit out of context - Jenkins's view is a little more complicated. The biographer believes that it is the world of Mary Crawford that is the more like our own - the world in which "Lady Caroline Lamb visited Lord Byron's rooms at night dressed as a boy."

And what can be said about family influences? Personally, I think the influence of our Lady's mother was important and, as yet, unexamined. Well, Miss Jenkins does not go that far, but she does say this in a discussion of the Juvenilia.

"In examining the early pieces, it is interesting to notice their dedications [to her family members]; they show how conscious she was of an audience, warmly partial it is true, but by nature critical and exacting. Her powers of mind, the strength of her creative imagination, her genius for perception and intuition, were gifts no human influence could enhance or take away; but of the style, so integral a feature of her work, who can say how much of its beauty, its finely tempered strength, its dazzling lucidity, is owed to the fact she was the daughter and sister of the Rev. George Austen's family?"

Chapter Three

In that same discussion, Miss Jenkins offered another insight:

"... At sixteen Jane Austen could choose at random a handful of people, to whom no extraneous interest whatever attached itself, either of beauty, character or circumstance, and breath such life into them that while we are occupied with them we are not conscious of what they are without. ... the absorbing interest with which Jane Austen can invest a commonplace or tiresome person reminds us that no human being would seem dull to us if we had eyes to see. ... we feel it altogether natural that, in her case, the written self-expression showed none of the ordinary symptoms of adolescence, the glooms and gleams of half-formulated thought: ..."

'Know thy thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.

Chapter Three

I think that Jane Austen's work was sensual and emotional. Once again, I can point to Miss Jenkins as someone who held the same view. The biographer points to an early influence.

"Jane Austen's own manner of writing being what it is, the most interesting consideration connected with her reading is that she had in the background of her consciousness such work as Sterne's, so wild, elusive and, above all, so trembling with sensitive humanity, as in that passage from A Sentimental Journey which occurred to her in Mansfield Park when Maria Bertram, looking through the iron gates exclaims: ' "I cannot get out", as the starling said.' It is Sterne's attempt to reason away the horrors of imprisonment. ..."

Chapter Four

Jane Austen's own brother, James, made this connection in his ode to Jane's first novel. On the other hand, Charlotte Bronte took the opposite view; Jenkins was aware of that and made this observation:

"Allowing for the natural difficulty of one great creative artist properly to estimate another, it is not easy to understand what Charlotte Bronte meant by saying that Jane Austen's heroines have only so much acquaintance with the passions as their author would think lady-like."

Chapter Six

I read A Sentimental Journey after seeing the allusion in Jame's ode. I was not convinced then, but this second reference made me re-think matters and I now believe the idea to be correct and profound. A Sentimental Journey is very odd, it seems a series of disconnected and unordered events during an old man's travels on the continent. It is very Joyce-like and that was the basis for my initial skepticism. I wonder if the female reader can relate to the subject matter - a set of chance meetings, mostly with woman, where human, intimate connections are made. I mean there are no physical contacts, but these are the kind of meetings with strangers that a man might later recall for years if not decades. The encounters are short and common-place enough, but the descriptions strike a chord - a resonance. Yes, these allusions to Sterne are quite appropriate. In the same vein, Miss Jenkins observes

"It is not that Jane Austen possessed a more interesting mind or a more varied imagination tha[n] her successors; ... A supernatural power of creating character is not the only attraction of a novelist; it is not indisputably the first. The capacity to stir emotion, by what machinery soever, will always be valued by certain readers beyond all other; a novel of which the chief interest is the philosophical one of seeing its characters as puppets in the workings of fate will always, to some people, have an interest superior to that whose first achievement is that it gives the sensation of contact with an actual being; but in the power of bestowing life, Jane Austen stands supreme. Her method has this virtue, ... that limited as the circumstances are in which she shows her characters, for the time that we read about them, their vicissitudes seem to cover a vast range of human experience. ... "

Chapter Eighteen

With an eye to one malformed way of thinking about Jane Austen, Miss Jenkins supplies this warning.

" ... Many female writers, perhaps most, possess keen powers of observation; many are accurate and painstaking; ... There is nothing very remarkable in these qualities, even when they are possessed in an eminent degree; but they become inexpressibly important when they are the medium by which the spirit of genius is made visible to us. The novels of Jane Austen are not what they are because she almost never makes a mistake, or because the tenor of life in them is outwardly tranquil and unadventurous; the medium itself becomes transfigured, and all its details take on a new significance, because of the power which burns behind it. Reviewers seldom say a more foolish thing than when they describe some ambling tale of domestic relationships as 'quite in the Jane Austen manner.' "

Chapter Seventeen


Finally, I point to this observation of Miss Jenkins because it is something that I have always believed. Have you ever thought this?

" ... Another circumstance which makes for the growth of [Jane Austen's] popularity is that her language offers no difficulty; for she possessed, through a happy combination of art and chance, a style composed of those elements of language that do not date. One may say with tolerable certainty that in fifty year's time the work of those writers of to-day who make use of such expressions as 'plutocrat-flattering bunk' and 'he thought he would go bug-house' will sound old-fashioned beside the conversation of Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley."

Chapter Twenty-Two


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