Friday, July 10, 2015

According to Jane Austen ...

Let's face it - readers in the twenty-first century have some fascination with the novels of Jane Austen that goes beyond a common sense (and sensibility) understanding.

There's just something about Jane that resonates with readers and consumers in an age markedly different than the world of Elizabeth, Emma, and the like.  Then again, perhaps we're not so different.  For, at their heart the stories of the Bennet sisters and Emma are really the stories of what it means to be human.   That is the essence of a great new critical look from writer Adelle Waldmen in her piece "I Read Everything Jane Austen Wrote, Several Times" for Slate Magazine.  
Admirers make much of Austen’s deadpan tone, her wit, and her irony, and rightly so. But hers isn’t irony for irony’s sake: Austen’s portraits of people and their milieus are animated not by satirical malice or mere eagerness to entertain but by a sense of moral urgency. With a philosophical eye, she sees through fuss and finery and self-justification. She gives us a cast of characters and then zeroes in, showing us who and what is admirable, who is flawed but forgivable, who is risible and who is truly vile. Delivered economically, her judgments are not only clever but perspicacious, humane, and, for the most part, convincing. Her real subject is not the love lives of barely post-adolescent girls, but human nature and society. Austen wrote stories that show us how we think. Take Emma, in which Austen is at the height of her powers as both an artist and analyst of human beings. The novel has very few obvious signifiers of “seriousness.” It’s the story of a young woman blessed with good looks, wealth, intelligence, and an adoring father; the plot revolves around Emma’s attempts to make matches among her friends and her own mild flirtation with a good-looking charmer. It ends with her marriage. Yet for all its apparent frothiness, Emma is a book about a maturing mind, and it is as devoid of melodrama as a postmodern experiment. At one point, the book even dabbles in stream-of-consciousness, with a wonderful monologue that carries the reader through the arc of a morning’s strawberry-picking expedition while deftly sending up the affectations of its speaker.
Waldmen has actually written several interesting commentaries about the works of Austen, and her insight may be of use to the contemporary English teacher who seeks to connect the students of today with the lives and loves of those past. Two hundred years after the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen novels remain a cottage industry unto themselves. And there may be no author who is more targeted for re-invention and re-imagination and re-packaging, than the young British woman who wrote six novels which bridged the neo-Classical and the Romantic ages. The latest, and perhaps most "Austen-tacious" of ideas in its scope is The Austen Project, a new series which presents the stories of Jane Austen in contemporary settings, written by six well-known contemporary novelists.  An interesting take on this idea comes from Megan Garber, writing for The Atlantic, who offers insight about the challenges of adaption - "For Pride and Prejudice to Make Sense Today, Jane Has to be 40." It's a clever bit of scholarship that brings necessary understanding of why the novels of Jane Austen remain so popular and relevant.

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