This Monday was International Women’s Day. A day that is dedicated to celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. It is a day to highlight and challenge the disparity between the genders. A time to call for equality. As people in the book community, it is also a time to celebrate and champion female writers. As such, those of you on Instagram will no doubt have noticed plenty of amazing female centric content cropping up in your feed. There was one post that really caught my eye and prompted me to write this post. The caption started with the age-old question:
Do you preferentially read books by women or men?
I, obviously, responded in my normal pretentious and, probably, obnoxious way, which I won’t go into yet because it would negate the need to write this post. Instead, I want to focus on most replies. They consisted of a sentiment that went along the lines of “I don’t care about the gender of the writer. It’s all about the story.” There’s nothing wrong with this idea in theory but it’s an attitude that I do think we need to change. And I’ll tell you why.
What is the first line of your favourite book?
I sometimes think that a memorable first line is a bit of a curse. I know that might sound crazy. After all, authors go through a lot to try and find the perfect opening to draw people in. Surely it must be on the major keys to success? But think about it. What if you have a really great opening but the rest of the novel can’t live up? Every time I see rundowns of books with the best first lines, I see plenty of books that I don’t really care about. Pride and Prejudice? The opening is iconic, certainly, but I find the rest of it rather bland. 1984? The opening promises so much that the repetitive and long novel can’t fully deliver. So, a great opening line doesn’t always indicate a 5 star read. But what about my favourite reads? Do they all have attention grabbing first lines? Do they pass the first line test? Let’s find out.
I always worry when American actors take on roles in English period dramas. It just gives them free rein to use received pronunciation in that stereotype that they seem so keen on. The stuff of Downton Abbey. The kind of accent that doesn’t have a hint of geography or personal context. Add Gwyneth Paltrow to the mix and it makes everything even more uncomfortable. I’m still haunted by Sliding Doors where she tried to convince us she was British by saying the word “shagging” on repeat. It just didn’t do it for me, so the idea of her getting her Austen on did kind of fill me with dread. But I also felt like I should watch it. After all, I’d already reviewed Clueless back in 2015. As much as I wanted to rewatch that absolute gem of an adaptation, it felt like I was cheating a bit.
I keep reading articles posted by people in the film industry pleading with people to keep going to cinemas when the lockdown is over. Now I love going to the cinema and think it’s a great experience. Yet, there is a part of me that thinks all of this desperation is a bit misguided. It’s okay for people who work in the media or in the film industry to say all this but it perhaps also shows a misunderstanding of how “normal” people live. The truth is, it’s not always easy or possible for people to go to the cinema these days. And, if they do, the cost of taking a family might not be plausible for people. It’s also evidence of the cultural elitism that exists in London regarding the rest of the world. But that’s something that deserves a whole post to itself. As much as I don’t want cinemas to shut down, it’s definitely time that we start thinking about the future of cinema. So, when the Covid-19 forced Universal to release their new films online, I was kind of excited. Until I saw the price. £15.99 to rent Emma.? It’s clear that streaming new releases is the future but it can’t work at that price. Yes, they need to make their money back but that’s the price of a BluRay but for a rental. It’s insane and will most likely put plenty of people off. Especially during a time when so many people are worried about money. It seems particularly tone-deaf. But this is Hollywood. When have they ever given a shit about the people watching their films?
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 have never really been the biggest Jane Austen fan. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t describe myself as a hater but I can’t say that she inspires me greatly. And let me tell you something, being a bookish person who doesn’t automatically adore Austen is tough. I don’t judge anyone for liking her but there’s a certain amount of blind faith in her that means you can’t go against her without getting some backlash. My issue is that Austen has been turned into some sort of literary heroine. Somewhere along the way, female writers in history appear to have been erased from the public consciousness and Austen has taken the crown for most important female writer ever. This is nonsense. It’s like the fucking Beatles all over again. Jane Austen did not invent female writing. She has great insights into human nature and is quite funny. But it’s like romantic-comedy. It’s safe because everyone knows where it’s going. The reason that Jane Austen survived wasn’t that she was doing anything incredibly revolutionary or different. She survived because she’s readable. That’s not a bad thing. Obviously readable is good but it’s not necessarily exciting. Austen’s novels never did anything daring enough to have people decry them. They just stayed in the middle of the road. And as for Austen being a feminist? Yes, she writes about strong female characters but Austen was not influenced by the burgeoning feminist narrative going on at the time. It’s very much domestic feminism and it’s very much confined to its little bubble. The main reason that Jane Austen is often given the position of the greatest female writer is that you’re not encouraged to read the others. For whatever reason, they’ve been removed from the conversation. So, here are some of my favourite female writers who, in my opinion, are better than Jane Austen. I’ve not included every single one but there are definitely some women here that I think everyone should read.
Tuesday 28th January marked the 207th year since Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was published. The novel is one that is beloved by so many bookish people. I’ve never been a huge Jane Austen fan. I’m one of those people whose favourite Austen novel is Northanger Abbey. It’s fun and Catherine is, by far, the Austen heroine I most identify with. She’s a little foolish and lets her mind get the better of her. She’s always felt like a real teenager. Okay, a normal teenager from a completely different era but just because a teenager was living in the 1800s doesn’t mean they’re not going to be stupid. I’ve never really felt that about Lizzie and the others. It’s the same reason I don’t empathise with anyone in John Green novels; they don’t act in a way I feel people of that age would. I get that she’s got a brilliant mind, she’s independent and strong-willed. She’s a powerful female character but she’s almost too good to be true. And yes, I know she has flaws, it’s kind of the point of the story. But even her flaws are somewhat perfect. She’s pretty but not too pretty. She’s polite enough and rude enough to be accepted by nearly everyone she meets. She isn’t really too much of anything. How can you live up that?
So, this week definitely got away from me somewhere. I expected to be finished with another book by this point but I’m still reading both of the books I’ve got on the go. I should have Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet by next week but, for now, I’m having to find something random to fill out this post. Thankfully, it’s nearly October and I’ve been trying to get into the spirit of Halloween all month. Last week I posted a Nightmare Before Christmas themed post on Instagram so when I discovered this book tag everything seemed perfect. It helps that I love both the book and the film A Nightmare Before Christmas. But who doesn’t? It’s the perfect film to start you off on your journey to Christmas as early as October. Why wait until advent to start watching Christmas films when Tim Burton has you sorted? And why watch the film when you can do the book tag? Yeah? No? Okay. Well I’m invested now.
Dear Northanger Abbey,
I have a question for you: why do so many people hate you? I seriously do not understand it. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of Jane Austen in general but I know a lot of people who are hardcore fans. And what confuses me more than their absolute adoration of her as a writer is that they all seem to share a dislike of you. Which is crazy. You’re the best thing she’s ever written. You are, by far, the most entertaining of the Austen novels I’ve read and you’re heroine is the one I found most endearing. I know everyone wants to be Lizzy Bennett but I always saw Catherine Morland as someone I may once have been.
Most book nerds have, unofficially, pronounced Belle from Beauty and the Beast as the icon of what we live for. She lives in her books and craves adventure so I get it. However, if we want to find a female character who really typifies what it means to be a book lover then it’s Catherine. She is so obsessed with what she reads that she imagines it happening around her. If she were living this day then she would be writing fanfiction and creating Tumblrs about her favourite ships. Belle has a pretentious side to her whilst Catherine is just straight up adorable. Naive, definitely, but her behaviour is totally forgivable. Totally understandable. I see people like her on Bookstagram all the time so I don’t see why more of them don’t adore her.
Maybe it’s just that modern audiences don’t get the parody? I know a lot of people who have read this and then gone on to read The Mysteries of Udolpho, which is great because Ann Radcliffe is a sensation. However, it means you don’t get the context until after the fact. If you go into this book without an understand of what very early gothic fiction was like then you’ll think it’s all just melodramatic nonsense. Instead of a very clever parody. They won’t fully appreciate how intricate it all is. How funny. How subversive. You don’t get enough credit.
Neither does your romantic hero. There’s a lot of love for Mr Darcy out there. A lot. Another thing I don’t get about Austen fans. Darcy isn’t the kind of man you fall in love with. Who is the kind of guy you fall for? Why, Henry Tilney, of course. Henry doesn’t take time to get used to. He’s charming, funny, sweet, and kind from the off set. He is patient with Catherine and forgives her for being a bit excitable. He lacks the good looks of someone like Willoughby or Wickham but he’s in no way unattractive. He loves his sister and is an avid reader. Basically, Henry Tilney is the perfect man. So why don’t more people see it?
I don’t understand. I’ll always love you. You were the book that made me give Jane Austen a second chance. I was sure I would never be able to fully appreciate anything that she wrote until you came along. Now, I’m willing to see more positives. I reread Sense and Sensibility a few years after I read you and I enjoyed it more. You were the book that finally made me see that there was more to Jane Austen. I can’t say that you’ve fully changed my opinion but you’ve made me more open minded. You were my Henry Tilney.
I am delighted with the book!