How I came round to liking the novels of Jane Austen

For my posts on individual novels of Austen, see here.

Not that long ago, I used to find myself frankly puzzled by the high regard, indeed, by the reverence, in which Jane Austen was held. And this reverence was discernible not merely in the casual reader, or in those who, influenced no doubt by various lightweight adaptations, saw her novels as essentially chick-lit in fancy costume: those whom I admired for their taste and for their critical judgement seemed also unanimous in their regard for Austen.

So I had a choice of three options: I could claim that those who enjoyed Austen were fools unable to see through the hype, and that I, possessing superior discernment, knew better (this is the default position on the internet in such matters); or I could shrug my shoulders, and accept that we all have different perceptions, and that not everyone can take in everything; or, thirdly, I could have another go, and see if, this time round, I could at least see something of what her admirers clearly see. Now, there are many things about my former self that I find myself disliking, but I am glad this former self of mine eschewed the first option, found himself dissatisfied with the second, and went for the third. For now, having re-read all six of her complete and full length novels (the shorter and unfinished works are still waiting in the wings), I can not only see why her admirers admire her so, I have come to share much of that admiration myself. I won’t claim to be a fully paid-up Austenite: our individual temperaments inevitably lead us in different directions, after all; but now, when Austen is praised as a novelist of the foremost rank, I find myself inclined to agree, and to join in the praise. Is not our capacity to change over time quite wonderful?

Of course, this is all very inconsistent in me, but consistency is not really, I think, something to be praised: a mind and a soul impervious to change bespeak a spiritual dullness and an inability to look beyond our immediate horizons – as if these horizons of ours encompass all that need be encompassed. Change is not merely to be welcomed, but to be actively sought – change in our thinking, our tastes, our critical judgement; change in our moral and aesthetic values.

Towards the end of Antony and Cleopatra, Antony, who had thought that he knew himself, discovers to his surprise that he doesn’t. He looks at a cloud, and its shape seems to him constantly to change:

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.

He wonders at this, and finds his own self just such an amorphous body:

… here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape …

This is the self-knowledge he acquires in the course of the drama: he comes to know that he doesn’t really know himself at all; there is nothing solid that he can grasp, and all is as water is in water.

Antony is overstating, of course: we need not take this as Shakespeare’s own view. It is a mistake to take the thoughts of a character at the edge of human experience as representative of authorial wisdom. For, whatever Antony may think at this point, there is clearly a continuity between what we are now, and what we used to be; the human personality, for all its multiple facets that so puzzle Antony, retains a unity amidst the diversity. But it’s this diversity that makes humans so endlessly fascinating – a diversity the nature of which is so mysterious, even to ourselves, that it becomes impossible to say whether any change we undergo over time is the acquiring of new characteristics and the discarding of old, or whether it is, rather, the emergence to the fore of existing but previously unobserved elements.

If any reader who has stuck with me so far into this post is worried that I am now about to launch into intimate autobiography, and detail how I have changed over the years, please rest assured that nothing could be further from my intention: this blog is not, thankfully, a confessional. However, it has long struck me that the books that I value or have valued highly in different periods of my life, and my reasons for valuing them, do constitute an autobiography of sorts. And my progress, within a mere few years, from a dislike for Austen, or, at best, a grudging respect, to an unfeigned and unalloyed admiration, very possibly marks out in me new ways of looking at things, new perspectives. Which would give me cause for introspection were I given to navel-gazing.

Perhaps I hadn’t paying sufficient attention in my previous readings. I tried to interrogate my old self: what was it about these novels that I disliked? I don’t think I ever bought the view of Austen as a purveyor of chick-lit in fancy dress, even though legions of her fans did: she was quite clearly a far more serious writer than that. But I did, I think, find her very formal and decorous, and, as a consequence, distant; I formed the impression of her as detached, as lacking in passion; I saw her as looking down censoriously on her own creations from a moral high-ground; I found her too severe, too cold, too unwilling to sympathise with the common flaws and weaknesses of our shared humanity; I found a lack of warmth; and it seemed to me frankly worrying that her laughs were always at the expense of others: never was there an open and generous laugh – what I’d describe as a Dickensian laugh – in which we may all join.

All this seems damning. In some of them, I had been simply mistaken: for instance, Austen is certainly not short of passion – as is surely obvious from even the most cursory reading of Mansfield Park or of Persuasion (and how that insensitive oaf that was my former self could have missed this I really cannot imagine). As for my other criticisms, there is more than an element of truth to them, but they are not the whole truth. What I failed so dismally to see, I think, was that major works of art are not restricted to a single tonality; that what they present merely on the surface can be deceptive. Why, I had asked myself in my previous reading, is Emma Woodhouse to be taken to task for being unkind to Miss Bates when the author herself had presented Miss Bates in precisely the terms in which Emma had seen her – as no more than a tiresome old bat? I think I can now answer that question: Miss Bates is a tiresome old bat, and Austen sees no reason to present her otherwise; but she was wise enough and compassionate enough to know that even tiresome old bats have feelings, and that these feelings are sacrosanct. To have presented Miss Bates as anything other than the tiresome creature she is would have been merely pious and sentimental; Austen does better – much better: she allows us to think of Miss Bates in the same way that Emma does, so that when Miss Bates’ feelings are hurt, we find ourselves every bit as mortified as does Emma. And as a consequence, if we had looked down on Miss Bates before, we feel ashamed for having done so; and if we had looked down on Emma before, we no longer can; for how can we consider ourselves to be above that in which we find our own selves implicated? Far from looking down from remote heights on the flaws of humanity, Austen involves us in them.

The key to my greater understanding – for such, I hope, it is – came when a friend referred to Austen’s novels as “Mozartian”. Now, as a fully paid-up member of the Mozart fan club, I am constantly surprised when people pronounce his music to be twee, lacking in passion, shallow, and all the rest of it; for, underneath the elegant perfection of his surfaces, there seem to me to lie inexhaustible depths of passion. Was I being similarly obtuse, I wondered, in failing to look beyond the formal and decorous surfaces of Austen? Having now re-read these six novels, I can only conclude that such was precisely the case. Not that Austen is now an author close to my heart: she isn’t. Nonetheless, I did find myself charmed by Pride and Prejudice; I found myself utterly absorbed in the sombre drama that is Mansfield Park; I found myself quite swept along by the passion – yes, passion – and the eroticism of Persuasion. Emma, I confess, I found hard work, but its artistry and its seriousness of purpose are in no doubt. Even the two earlier works, Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, though novels of somewhat lesser substance than the masterpieces that followed, remain remarkable works.

So, while our substance may not be of infinite plasticity, while we may not quite be, as Antony had thought, as water is in water, we do have the ability, I think, to look beyond our own individual horizons, and see what we had not previously been capable of seeing. Not that we’ll give ourselves the opportunity to do so if we keep on simple-mindedly rating works in terms of “Like” or “Dislike” as we do Facebook posts; nor if we do as Goodreads urges us, and fix works produced by minds greater than our own on some insipid scale from one to ten. And it may sometimes be the case that one’s temperament is so far removed from that of the author, that not even the greatest willingness, open-mindedness and flexibility on the part of the reader can quite reconcile one to the author’s artistic vision. But it sure is worth a try!

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by kaggsysbookishramblings on November 2, 2015 at 6:49 pm

    Very interesting post. We do, of course, change as readers over the years and as we – ahem! – mature as people (I’m speaking for myself here) so our views of life itself and therefore books will change too. It may be a case that we’re not at the right point in our lives when we read a book to really appreciate it and that’s something which will come later. Or we may just have terrible prejudices against authors (me and Thomas Hardy come to mind…) Whatever the case, I’m glad you’ve learned to love Jane!


  2. It is never to late to become an Appreciationist. Welcome.


  3. I’ve taken a run at Emma a number of times, only to hit my head on the first few pages. Northanger Abbey, on the other hand, had me laughing my head off. Mansfield Park I found deeply disturbing, and P&P is glorious from first word to last. I like Austen and have a very high regard for her. Yet I have never really warmed up to her either–I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s Emma and that Knightley guy. Maybe it’s Heathcliff hovering in the background. Or Becky Sharp or Uriah Heep. I know someday I will get through Ulysses–I have my doubts about Emma. But I’ll keep a copy around, just in case. I’ve been surprised too often to declare it absolutely unreadable.


    • I’m glad I’m not the only one who finds Mansfield Park disturbing: I think it is meant to be disturbing, and am frequently puzzled by those who see it as a romance.

      I find it’s often worth coming back to books that had previously eluded me! But of course, we can’t take in everything, and neither is there any obligation to.

      All the best, Himadri


  4. Posted by Jonathan on November 3, 2015 at 7:32 am

    I haven’t ‘come round’ yet. Her novels have never really appealed to me. I finally read S&S last year but I really struggled to finish it. Austen seems to be a harbinger of the Victorian era. Her technique is excellent but…yawn!……I will try another one soon though.


  5. Posted by studiumliterarum on November 3, 2015 at 12:13 pm

    This is a really thought-provoking post, I completely agree that we evolve as readers over the years – I remember a time when the thought of reading nineteenth-century literature made my heart sink, but now I count many of my favourite novels from this era. I’m surprised you found Emma difficult, I think it’s one of my absolute favourites of Austen’s and actually had me giggling out loud! I do have my misgivings about Pride and Prejudice though…


    • Hello, and sorry for the delay in replying. I have been a bit off colour lately, and have been sadly neglecting this blog!

      Many friends of mine list Emma as their favourite novel, and they are often surprised by the difficulties I have with it. Equally, I am surprised by the difficulties they seem to have with certain books that, for me, are unmitigated pleasures. I find it intriguing how tastes and perceptions differ. And it is thanks to these differences that we may discuss and disagree – it would be a dull world if we all had the same tastes and perceptions!

      Pride and Prejudice seems to me a lighter work than her last three, but it seems to me perfectly conceived ane executed fo rwhat it is. The last three do have greater depth, though – I think…

      All the best, Himadri


  6. I knew you’d come around^^. I sometimes find cynics are the ones who’re more forgiving of human flaws. To have the courage to portray humans with brutal honesty is the start of acceptance and appreciation. Not everyone has redeemable qualities and that’s ok. The comparison with Mozart is interesting. People used to say Mozart wasted his talent on a fluffy chick flick about frivolous women, but now cosi fan tutte is regarded as one of Mozart’s best.


    • Hello Kirsty, it’s good to see you around these parts again!

      Cynics can indeed be more tolerant of human nature: Don Alfonso, after all, is quite happy too accept that people are flawed, while the idealistic Ferrando and Guglielmo are tearing their hair out in rage. But the down-side can be that cynics don’t appreciate sufficiently the sheer depth of human emotions: Don Alfonso certainly doesn’t. But Austen, like Mozart, was, of course, too fine an artist to be tied down by any single label. there’s absolutely nothing cynical, after all, about the passion between Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth!

      All the best, Himadri


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