Sunday, October 29, 2006

Reclaiming Jane Austen

I'm currently at the Jane Austen Society of North America Annual General Meeting. This is a once a year event in October, when 500 Jane Austen fans get together to talk about all things Austen. I've been speculating this weekend that this is one of the only academic conferences in which we get together to talk about one book for an entire weekend. I'm not sure accurate that is, considering there's a Milton Society and a Burney Society and a Bronte Society, etc., but on a quick search, they don't seem to have conferences, or at least not such well-attended conferences.

This is my fourth JASNA AGM, with another three "super-regional" JASNA conferences, and there's nothing quite like performing in front of the JASNA crowd. As a presenter, it's almost unique and certainly gratifying to know that every person in that audience has read the book you're talking about, so you don't have to spend any time on plot summary. They've also thought about the book and question and answer sessions are sometimes my favorite part of my presentation, because I get to talk about like-minded people who are sincerely interested in what I've just said.

All that aside, when I suggest that Jane Austen is a romance novelist, the instinctive reaction I get is a cringe, followed by a grudging admission that they suppose I'm probably right. This is usually immediately followed by an insistence that Austen's works are so much deeper, so much more layered, so much better, so much more lasting than modern mass market romances. Those who know a little more quickly point out that Austen wasn't actually a best-seller in her own time, the implication being that if she didn't have mass market appeal when she published, then she can't be compared to popular mass market romance novelists of today.

On the other side of the fence, however, "it is a truth universally acknowledged" among romance critics that Jane Austen is a romance writer. How could she be anything else? Non-romance critics might label her genre the domestic novel or the courtship novel or might just label her "the best" and leave out genre classification, but she wrote romances. And although we all love to ascribe our beliefs to Austen's being, I think she'd proudly admit she wrote romances if she were alive today.

Jane Austen might be the female author least in need of reclaiming today. She's was canonized in about 1870 and has since been sometimes the only female in the literary canon and certainly the first female (besides perhaps George Eliot) to receive the treatment of whatever new literary criticism is currently hot. The feminists got hold of her in the 1980s and we've never let go.

But I now reclaim her for romance criticism. Jane Austen wrote mass market romances, which does not imply that she wrote simple books, but rather implies that modern popular mass market romance novels are as layered and textured as Austen's six novels and as deserving of consideration.


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  2. Sarah do you distinguish between romance and chick lit? Most people do, I think, but as I haven't read much/any chick lit I don't know what the differences are. I'm fairly sure that Jane has been claimed for chick lit quite a few times, for example this article from the Washington Post

    "chick lit" tables are smothered with volumes that boast pastel covers and an Austen reference somewhere within (or even in a blurb on the back). Austen, it's been suggested, is the great-great-grandmother of "chick lit" -- that exploding genre about upwardly mobile young women and their wayward travails through the world of modern courtship (and modern-day shopping), mostly set in the best neighborhoods in London or New York.

    I don't see Austen as being particularly about 'upwardly mobile young women' (though I suppose some of her heroines could be read that way. They're nothing like Thackeray's Becky Sharpe, though) and there's not that much shopping (though again, there is some). But maybe that description isn't being particularly fair to chick lit either? How much chick lit is about shopping and upward mobility?

    [Oh, and apologies for the previous comment. I'd posted a comment here which was supposed to go on another blog: I had too many Blogger windows open at the same time.]

  3. You know, I think the only reason she's the mother of chick lit is because the first identifiable chick lit was Bridget Jones which is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice. I think she's much more a romance novelist and the way in which she constructs her heroes is still the template for modern romance heroes, much more than her heroines are templates for chick lit heroines--although I guess Emma could certainly be classed as such.

  4. Now that you've said it, Sarah, it seems really obvious that the link would be Bridget. I suppose some chick lit could also be considered romance, but not all of it.