It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a bookish girl in possession of a good library, should be in awe of Jane Austen. Not just girls, obviously, but I had to make it work for the quotation. Anyway, as a bookish person who has never really been enamoured with her work, I’ve occasionally come across some criticism. I mean, I did make the mistake of studying the era in which she was writing so that didn’t help much. I’ve also got plenty of friends who enjoy her books. I don’t judge them for it, as I don’t judge anyone for reading anything they want. I just don’t appreciate people giving her so much credit for the shaping of English literature. Especially feminist literature. As I discussed in my Friday Favourites last week, there were plenty of women who were as, if not more, inspiring than Jane was. They’ve just gone out of fashion. After all, outspoken and overtly political women aren’t the kind of people who are celebrated in most societies back then. Jane Auten survived because she wasn’t pushing as much of an agenda. Yes, she was putting strong women in her books but there was nothing anyone could really disagree with. Her writing isn’t the most beautiful but she was never trying to be. To me, she’s not literary fiction but romantic fiction and it’s just not my genre. I’ve been known to describe her as chick-lit before and it’s got me in trouble. I don’t think there’s anything negative about chick-lit but it’s formulaic and doesn’t push boundaries. And I love my boundaries to be pushed.
I’ll be honest, every time I think of the opening line of this novel, I think of that episode of Black Books when Danny Spudge becomes an audiobook narrator. Listening to the words of Jane Austen spoken in a thick Cockney accent will always be fun and I kind of wish Audible had taken that route instead of Rosamund Pike. Not that she was terrible but it was more traditional. Plus, her voices for Mrs Benett and Lydia just seemed a bit off to me. Kind of Valley girls meet corsets. Like if The OC had been set during the 1800s. Although, in general, she was an engaging narrator. She also did a good job of the male voices which isn’t always the case in these situations.
The problem with a book like Pride and Prejudice is that the story is so well known that it has an innate familiarity about it. You know these people and feel comfortable with where you’re being taken. I often worry that a sense of familiarity can be mistaken for quality. We know that, no matter what journey we’re taken on, it’s not going to be a particularly terrible destination. I’m not going to waste time going through the narrative because it’s moot. Although, even if you were one of the few people on the planet not aware of the story, I don’t think you’d be much surprised by the ending. Which is fine but I don’t necessarily find the rest of it exciting enough to make up for it.
It doesn’t help that I’m very much into New Historicism I guess. This is such a fascinating era and there were so many other women making great strides. Austen? Not so much. Yes, she toys with the conventions of the day but, really, she conforms to everything. There are arguments in Pride and Prejudice about primogeniture and women having their own opinions but, ultimately, Austen isn’t going against tradition. The women here may be wittier and more independent than those written by men but they aren’t revolutionary. A massive disappointment considering the revolutionary period they came out of. Something that makes Pride and Prejudice seem very childish to me.
I see a lot of praise for Jane Austen’s understanding of human nature and I agree to some extent. It’s like when people say “oh, Charles Dickens was really good at coming up with funny names!” That may be true but, if I’m bored by the rest of it, no amount of funny names is going to convince me that he’s the greatest writer ever. If they’re doing stuff that I don’t find interesting then it’s not enough. But how much depth do her characters really have? How much development do they go through? They are mostly caricatures and stereotypes. It just feels lazy and unoriginal. Yes, the background characters may provide some humour or villainy but I want more.
And I guess her main characters do go on something of a journey but it never feels anything but superficial. It’s never very substantial. I’ve never been a fan of Elizabeth because she’s this perfect “every woman”. She’s pretty but not too pretty. Clever but not too clever. Sensible but witty. Independent but ultimately knows her place. Cruel but kind. It’s so irritating. Yes, maybe she rethinks her opinions at the end of the novel but it barely registers. Plus, I never felt that I connected to any of these people. Austen never presents them in such a way that makes me care about them. There’s such a lack of emotional depth on display that you’re just reading something quite stiff. I’ve never been engulfed by this book.
To me, Jane Austen typifies such a specific time and place. She is very much stuck in one class and one tiny portion of society. It was probably outdated at the time she was writing and it is certainly outdated now. It is a superficial story that never seems to give its underlying message enough power. I’ve always found it lacking and wanted Austen to go further. The narrative meaders along and she indulges in all of the wrong things for me. I’ve tried to like this novel so much over the years but it will never happen. In my studies, I’ve been lucky enough to read work by so many inspirational women. They might not be remembered as much now but they make Jane Austen look like an amateur.