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You Tell ‘Em, Jane

April 3, 2015

I’m slowly reading my way through Jane Austen’s novels. Right now i’m on Northanger Abbey and I’m struck, not for the first time, by the thought that I’d probably have liked her quite a bit.* She and I seem to share similar ideas about people and the proper way to gently mock them, a similar desire to send up literary tropes, and, apparently, similar thoughts on novels and literary critics.

Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. “I am no novel-reader—I seldom look into novels—Do not imagine that I often read novels—It is really very well for a novel.” Such is the common cant. “And what are you reading, Miss—?” “Oh! It is only a novel!” replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. “It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda”; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language. Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name …

(Bolding mine.)

Reading that passage, I was reminded of blog posts and Tumblr threads I’ve read about just this sort of thing. Novels may have more cachet in general now, but “geeky” or “girly” novels are still seen as lesser, as escapist, as unworthy of major awards. There was one person, I think on Tumblr, who specifically pointed out that a big reason why people of Austen’s time were putting down novels was because women were reading and writing them, and since women were clearly inferior, anything they did must be too—and that romances and young adult novels are being ridiculed now for the exact same thing.

Austen would’ve written some marvelous Twitter rants about this, if she’d been able. She’d also be very disappointed that we haven’t progressed past this.

I kind of am too.

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Bath, September 2014

* Note: I haven’t read a biography of her, so have no clue if this is actually true. I suspect it isn’t.

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