When it comes to books and movies, there’s plenty of room for different tastes in our wide world. And I’m not the kind of guy who will usually argue with someone who didn’t enjoy a book or movie I happen to like. Even if it’s something I REALLY like. Had a hard time getting into Beowulf? I understand. Maybe try the Seamus Heaney translation? Didn’t care for Star Wars? You know, I see how it’s not everyone’s thing. Don’t enjoy zombie movies? Well. Ok.
But there are some exceptions to this. And one of those is Jane Austen. I don’t think everyone should read Austen just because she’s an important literary figure and her words are classics. There are plenty of classics that I’ve read, understood why they’re classics, but still don’t enjoy reading. And I don’t even think everyone should read Austen because her prose is absolutely beautiful. I think everyone should read Jane Austen because she’s incredibly insightful and indispensable for a good understanding of character and virtue. I just can’t trust someone who really doesn’t like Jane.
It’s sad that so many people miss out on Austen because they either fail to start reading her or because they don’t quite understand her works. This seems especially true for men. And, since I am a man, I thought I’d give a brief explanation of why I think all men should read Jane Austen.
She did not write romance novels
These days, Jane Austen is so closely linked to 18th century comic romances that it can be difficult for people who haven’t read her to think of her books as anything but stories about British women looking to get married. And while it is true that Austen’s novels often follow a basic format common at the time, her novels aren’t really about romance. They are about virtue. Austen studies character. She critiques society, religion, and culture. She writes about men and women in a way that is even more impressive because she does all of this within the confines of a very narrow genre.
It can be easy to miss this if you only glimpse a scene of a BBC miniseries. There are plenty of period dramas that look similar but are worlds apart in depth of content. But saying Austen merely wrote romance novels is like saying Star Trek is just a show about space ships, Lord of the Rings is just a book about goblins, and Rocky is just a movie about fighting. Most of us know that these stories have deep meaning beyond the trappings of genre. And this is even more true of Austen. So, look past the setting, don’t worry about the funny clothes, and try to see the brilliantly drawn characters beneath the tight socks and frock coats.
She is one of the keenest observers of character in all of history
I’m not exaggerating. I won’t try to argue here that Jane Austen is the most important modern western writer for the study of virtue. But, yeah, she is. Or at least pretty close. She doesn’t write philosophical treatises on virtue, of course. So the reader is forced to dwell on her characters and their actions. I’m convinced that if we do this in earnest, we see stories that are really about the application of virtue and our common quest to know ourselves.
This is something I think is missed by even many fans of Austen. You see this sometimes when people simply praise the biting wit and sarcasm of Elizabeth Bennet but fail to see how this characteristic is actually related to a flaw she has to overcome. We can miss these things if we get caught up in the romance and fail to pay attention to what Austen is telling us about her characters.
Reading Austen, I’m often floored when I see myself in one of her characters. Obviously, I’m not an 18th century lady-in-waiting or wealthy bachelor. So, seeing myself in Emma Woodhouse or Henry Crawford says a great deal about Austen’s strength in crafting characters. But, what’s more, Austen critiques these characters and I find myself learning something about who I am, my motives, and areas where I need improvement.
Her critiques of men are still relevant
We may be tempted to see Jane Austen’s novels as books for women. Women are the main characters. The stories are told from the perspective of women. And Austen never writes a single scene where men converse without women present. But her writing is just as relevant for men because her study of virtue is applicable to all people. And even more than this, her critiques are often specifically of men.
The female protagonist of Mansfield Park, Fanny Price, develops very little over the course of the novel. She grows up and becomes slightly braver and bolder. But, for the most part, she is constant in her virtue. Instead, it is Edmund who shows the most significant growth. It’s Edmund who must come to understand himself and his own heart. And it’s the rakish Henry Crawford whose failure to know himself leads to disaster.
Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice may be a heartthrob for many women. But he has a deep character flaw that he must overcome in order to be with the woman he desires. Without being about men or specifically for men, each of Jane Austen’s novels, shows men who fail in the practice of virtue or, conversely, show great character and strength. When I read Austen, I never fail to find a man who reflects my own flaws and calls me to change or a man who displays a kind of virtue I aspire to.
She is sidesplittingly funny
The other day I was trail running and listening to Mansfield Park in my headphones. I’d just gotten to the part where, against the better judgement of Edmund, the companions at Mansfield decide to put on a play. The silly and vain Mr. Rushworth is delighted to have a part in the play and brags to his companions:
“We have got a play… It is to be Lovers’ Vows; and I am to be Count Cassel, and am to come in first with a blue dress and a pink satin cloak, and afterwards am to have another fine fancy suit, by way of a shooting-dress. I do not know how I shall like it.”
The way Austen paints this character, the way he’s so oblivious to his own ridiculousness, the subtlety of the humor; I had to stop running because I was laughing so hard.
I missed a lot of the humor when I first read Austen. Some of her characters were silly to me but it seemed like a product of the culture, just the silliness of old British people. But now I understand that the funny characters are supposed to be funny. It can be easy to miss because of how subtle the humor is. But once you understand that Austen means Mr. Collins’ absurd statements to be absurd, it becomes difficult to read his lines without laughing.
If you’ve never read Jane Austen, you should start. And if you’ve tried before and didn’t like her, well… I think you should try again.
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