Recently I went to a conversation between William “Bill” Deresiewicz, author of A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter, and Karen “Karen” Joy Fowler, author of Jane Austen Book Club. There were about 15 of us there at Books, Inc in Berkeley, and OK, it was almost a month ago (don’t you just love instant reporting on the Internet?), but it was really cool! It was like hanging out with all you dear readers, all of us gabbing about Austen, all of us being surprised at just how differently we see the books. One of those, you know, life metaphors.
Here’s a few of the things we talked about. And because I think of you all as my Jane Austen friends, I’d love to hear what you think about any of them.
- The way that the humor of the books is generally lacking in the movies, and if this could be remedied. I and a few others said, yes, it could, but those movies would not be the rather swooshy pink rom-coms lots of people want from their Austen films. (Talk about irony . . . .) How you would do this I’m not sure, being better at watching movies than making them. Any ideas out there?
- Secularism in Jane Austen—how church and religion are hardly ever mentioned in her books, yet she was the daughter of a clergyman, etc, etc. And how the clergymen run the gamut from Edmund Bertram and Edward Ferrars to Mr. Collins and back again. Now my own take is that church and the clergy were such a ubiquitous part of Austen’s life that she hardly ever thought to comment on them, and that she saw the clergy in particular as just a bunch of guys. What do you think?
- Bill said that widowhood and loss are a theme in Persuasion. I’m not so sure. He pointed out that most of the characters are widows or widowers, which is true. Anne’s loss of Captain Wentworth and other losses do play a role, but as Miss Ball argued, the recovery of love and happiness is crucial to the book (and is significantly lacking in widowhood). And the way Austen treats the widows and losers of Persuasion, other than Anne, is not really very sympathetic. Like the clergy, I would venture to say that they were just more common in an age of earlier deaths. But it is an interesting thought.
- So was Karen’s comment that Mrs. Smith is a rather sinister character—she doesn’t tell Anne how wicked Mr. Elliot is until after Anne declares she won’t marry him. This is a common problem in friendship, though, isn’t it? In my own circle I know of two instances of one person on the brink of a disastrous marriage and their friend deciding whether or not to say something. One friend did, the other didn’t (having already made her opinions known). It didn’t make a difference in either case, and both couples are now divorced. Aside from the fact that it had never occurred to me that Mrs. Smith was sinister, this discussion pointed out parallels in Austen’s books to my own life that I hadn’t even thought of!
- One person asked how reading Jane Austen has enlivened your life. Do you think and act differently because of her? Karen said she suffered fools better than she used to, enjoyed them even! And Bill said she’d made him able to admit the possibility of his being wrong. For myself, I think that I started reading Austen young enough (~13) that she helped shape my entire outlook on life, both my morals and my ever-present sense of irony. Though I also simply felt that I had found a friend.
What about you? How has reading Jane Austen enlivened your life? Has she changed you?
Photo credit: ©2000 by Sean Dreilinger. Used under Creative Commons licensing.
Before any Austen heroine brings home the right man to Mother or Father, she always brings home the wrong one! The dashing libertine, the suavely dangerous man who seduces all the women in the household to some degree. Did Austen have a thing about libertines? Because sometimes, you know, they’re a lot more interesting than her good-boy clergymen heroes. Just saying. These men don’t make good rest-of-life fodder, but oh, I think she felt their charm. And of course, what better villain than one who can ruin your life?
So here I present a completely unbiased rundown of the Austen bad boys. Ladies, gentlemen, are they believable? Would you fall for them/let your friends date them? On a scale of 1 to 10, now. 1 = “no, what a dork! I never liked him.” to 10 = “sign me up here and now!”
Mr. Willoughby: A classic, truly, Mr. Willoughby recites poetry at the drop of a hat, rides to any damsel’s rescue, and carelessly seduces innocent young girls. He’s funny, irreverent, and, the kicker, we learn he really does love Marianne after all. Without this touch of heart, I don’t think modern audiences would give him a second thought, but remember, in the book Colonel Brandon is pretty boring. It took all Alan Rickman’s Alan-Rickmanness to make him into a mysterious romantic figure, and satisfy us that he’s a fitting mate for Marianne. With this touch of heart, I’m always left with the vague dissatisfying feeling that Marianne will never be happy without Willoughby.
Mr. Wickham: Chatty, flattering, sly Mr. Wickham. He gets at Lizzie by taking her into his secret and making her feel smart and special. We can all fall for that from time to time. After his unmasking, he’s so annoying I always find it hard to believe I liked him at the beginning of the book! (Lydia, of course, would run off with anyone.)
Henry Crawford: I always do fall rather for Henry Crawford, and regret him his fate. He’s the opposite of Wickham—he starts out bad, obviously and proudly bad, and so gradually becomes good. In fact I think Jane Austen rather liked him too, and had so convincingly reformed him that she didn’t know what to do but have him run off with Maria Bertram AKA Mrs. Rushworth. Do I believe he’d do that? I’m never sure, that’s the thing.
Mr. Elliot: He’s a bad boy, all right, but thoughtful Anne is never in any real danger. Her own Captain Wentworth is dashing enough to satisfy all that. Even more than with the others, with Mr. Elliot Jane Austen really seems to be pointing out how someone can say all the right things and look proper, and not mean a word of it. Mr. Elliot is suave and flatters Anne’s intelligence and looks, but he never caught my eye. Like Jane, I like guys who sometimes act without thinking. (Just ask Mr. Fitzpatrick!) Mr. Elliot is too measured—and more truly a villain than any of the others.
Non-starters: I haven’t included John Thorpe, Mr. Elton, or Frank Churchill in the running. Sure, they deceive people, but either not us, or not much, or they aren’t really bad when you get right down to it. Feel free to differ, of course!
I’ve just realized what separates the charming Austen men from the boring ones! The charming ones, good or bad, sometimes say or do an unconsidered thing—they are natural. Even the bumbling gentle heroes achieve charm when they do that.