Before recently, I had never read any Jane Austen—you could even say, and be totally truthful about the business, that I had been deliberately avoiding her work. And it occurred to me that the reason I had been doing this was out of, ironically enough, pride (to think I should be seen with such a book in my hands! Oh, the potential embarrassment!) and prejudice (Austen’s books are all just florid frilly stories about snobs in crinolines and cravats dancing around each other trying to get married, right?). To my enormous surprise, I finished Pride and Prejudice and bloody loved it. Why didn’t anyone tell me it was this good? Well, the short answer is they did, but the culture surrounding classic literature—on both sides—is such that I wanted to avoid the conversation altogether.
Austen and her ilk (romances and heroine-driven novels from the 19th century, let’s say) are often a love-or-hate-it affair. People are reluctant to pick up classics, perhaps because they’re considered passé or dull compared to modern fiction, perhaps because the language is different and difficult to get your head around sometimes and the writing style and story structure is no longer in vogue or what our 21st century brains and hearts are used to processing. This is fair enough. It is not, however, a worthy reason for classic literature being snubbed entirely because it’s classic. Old things can be good things, and our 21st century brains and hearts should get a taste of the words of the past now and then to broaden our horizons.
That being said, classics should also not be put upon pedestals just because they’re classics. Yes, we know that they are considered ‘classic’ because they shine with a certain light and did something revolutionary or important in their day that contributed to the way literature has evolved. However, to continue to evolve we also need to embrace new writing and not cling to things written 200 years ago as a model of perfection that no heathen work of modern fiction can possibly live up to. It’s this attitude that makes so many people have the opinion in the previous paragraph, mostly, unfortunately, bred by the books being shoved at them in high school with demand for appreciation. The only thing that kills the love of a book faster than analysing it to death is being expected, by some bizarre pretence that someone else decided, to enjoy it, simply because it is old. Half the time, I’d be tempted to go out of my way to not enjoy it, simply out of spite.
It honestly pains me to think how many kids grew up detesting reading because they associate the activity with hawk-like looming English teachers ordering them to see the beauty of Hemingway*, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion. Of course, however much you like reading, there’s always the perfectly valid response, when offered a classic, that it’s simply not something you’d want to read because you couldn’t relate to it. And again, fair enough—people want to see themselves in their books, and these days their problems and dreams are far less represented by dancing around assemblies and balls, twirling in circles trying to find a suitable husband. But give it the chance and you (like me) may find that though it’s what happens in Austen’s iconic works, it’s generally not what it’s about, and reducing them to that without looking at the universal humans themes is doing them a bit of disservice.
The issue of ballgowns and husbands is it, though: things like Pride and Prejudice get a double whammy of modern upturned noses because they are not only old, but they are girly. They’re the ‘chick lit’ (let’s use that stupid-sounding degrading mess of a phrase for the sake of argument) of their time, and God forbid we take anything that centres around women and girls seriously. Not to say of course that Jane Austen isn’t held high as a serious and important scholarly subject, but honestly, I feel like this is a trend that prevails. I mean, it was one of the reasons I never read her until now.
The great oxymoron of my (and I’m sure a lot of other people’s) pre-teens and teens was the simultaneous desire for media I could relate to and the instinctive spurning of anything ‘girly’. Magical girl comics got me past this to some degree, but I was violently opposed to romance fiction all the way through high school—possibly a product of the time period where the only thing cooler than loving Twilight was hating Twilight, but that is also another discussion. Reflecting on it, there was, if not flat-out internalised misogyny, definitely a case of I’m Not Like Other Girls Syndrome (note to younger self: you are not like other girls. No one is. They’re all different. Get your insecure ass off that high horse) that propelled me away from anything decidedly feminine. And what screamed decidedly feminine louder than Jane Austen? I’m a modern non-girly girl! You’re not dragging me back to the bonnet-wearing, romantic dark ages! Yuck!
Generally, I gathered that Austen’s current readership consisted of scholars, grandmothers, and younger women who came out a mix of pretentious and hopelessly romantic. Which is, again, entirely unfair, but people genuinely get pigeonholed by book snobbery, whether from classic fans or classic haters. Did you know that men also enjoy Austen? As do perfectly reasonable modern people, and girls who aren’t excessively ‘feminine’? And you, in a few years’ time? My younger self would have been boggled. But what I heard (or chose to hear) was that Pride and Prejudice was boring, archaic, dense, and had been made into a bunch of movies that girly girls swooned over. The horror! What I know now is that it’s witty, funny, dramatic, tangled up in a complex web of character interactions, relationships and flaws, and all laced with social commentary some of which is still stunningly relevant today. And Lizzy Bennet is brilliant and I love her.
People will avoid classics because they’re classics, people will leap upon classics because they’re classics. Either way, their reputation precedes them whether or not anyone actually knows anything about the book. I didn’t know much about Pride and Prejudice save for what pop culture had shown me, sometimes parodic and sometimes adoring, and that at some point Colin Firth shows up in a wet shirt. Coming out of my cloud of internal girl-hating, it’s really gratifying to see that a piece of decidedly feminine ‘chick lit’ has such a grand place in the canon of classic literature, and that so many academics appreciate it… as well as seeing that so many ordinary people just enjoy it, even with all that going against it.
Basically, like an Austen character, I was forced to reconcile my flawed and incomplete, vain and prejudiced view of something, and now with all that worked out the book and I have a good relationship. So I would advise, in this tumultuous climate of never-ending book snobbery, to give a novel you never thought you’d want to read a try. It might be your new favourite, and you might be compelled to examine the emotional problems of your youth and write a blog post about it. Or, you might want to throw the damned thing out a window, which case, that is also perfectly justified because at least you gave it a chance and now your vitriol is based on experience and not prejudice. Happy reading!
*To be clear, I have an enormous amount of respect for English teachers and the work they do (I have, however, precious little respect for Hemingway)