Friday, July 18, 2008

Whose Jane Austen?

Ever since there have been Jane Austen fans, they have been split between two warring camps, each convinced that the others are idiots and/or snobs, liking Jane Austen for all the wrong reasons.

In our own time, this could be best described as the split between the people who really, really, really like that scene in the A&E 1995 version of "Pride and Prejudice" in which Colin Firth dives into a pond at Pemberely, perhaps even to the point of not realizing there is no such scene in the book -- perhaps because they never read the book! -- and the people who... well, who think those people are airheads.

Although this divide may have become more acute since the 1990s and the rash of Jane Austen adaptations for TV and film that have followed, it is in fact far older, and relates to a certain duality in how Jane Austen has been perceived ever since the beginning, relates in fact to the very ambiguity at the heart of her work. Was she a sweet, genteel lady who wrote light, romantic novels about young women's husband-hunting? Or was she one of the greatest geniuses ever to write in English, producing subtle work of surpassing irony under the guise of writing light, romantic novels about young women's husband-hunting?

To which I can only reply, yes. One reading need not rule out the other. A reader (or viewer) drawn to Jane Austen for the cozy, romantic aspects of her work may later find there is more to it than immediately meets the eye. Or not, in which case they have still had a lot of fun, and a glancing encounter with something more bracing than Harlequin romances.

It is, of course, the serious people who really can't stand the Pemberley-pond camp, both because they fear being lumped with them, and because they feel that these morons are somehow unworthy of their Jane, and are indeed sullying her with their regard.

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