Man presenting a documentary on nineteenth century fiction, in twenty-first century voice:
Women are romantic, aren’t they? You can be a hard, poe-faced old hag but it’s just a farce. You can reiterate it all over, and over, and over again. How much you don't care about Valentine's day. Your biological clock is anticlockwise. You're allergic to chocolates. Blah blah. We all know the truth. We know you go home, you lock the front door, you light some scented candles, you put your Grey's Anatomy on and you gets to it. The romancing. Doctor McBag-o-Buff is telling a lady doctor that he's into her and you just swoon, don't you? A generous dab of rouge, roses, a playlist that’s 95% Snow Patrol. It’s all there, hidden in amongst your non-romantic 'interests', like crime fiction and David Attenborough. But that girly shit is ready to lull your aching heart and untapped loins when needs be.
JANE AUSTEN SAUNTERS INTO SHOT, CORSET UNDONE, KICKS PRESENTER IN THE BALL BAGS AND LAUGHS AS SHE SPARKS UP A PIPE.
If you think all that was fucking stupid, imagine how stupid you'd think it was if someone called Silence of the Lambs a romance novel. Or if they said that Killing In The Name was a romantic song. Yeah. Stupid. So now imagine that you're a writer, a writer in the year 1813. You write about class, about money, social conventions, war, love, hate, family, tradition, modernity. You're subversive, a realist, a satirist, someone who recognises the baffling idiosyncrasies of your generation. Imagine you're a commentator, someone who understands philosophy and politics. A pioneer of postcolonial theory, a person who appreciates the human experience of pain and suffering. Not only that, you work hard. You work really bloody hard all the time and your family support you and throughout your life, you exist modestly.
You do so because you're a writer, your writing is important - at least you think so, your family thinks so. Now. Imagine all of that, hard. But also, imagine you have a vagina. Congratulations. You are Jane Austen. And everything you've ever written will be categorised as romantic fiction. Favourable to chick-lit only in that it doesn't sound like something you get at McDonald's.
Today marks the 200th birthday of Pride and Prejudice. Rather than a cake, I'm going to explain why Jane Austen is badass and why you should never judge a novelist by all her frilly pink covers.
Allow me to introduce my favourite Janeite, Robert Rodi, who writes the fantastic Austen blog Bitch In A Bonnet. Fed up of "the quaint and darling, doe-eyed and demure, parochial if not pastoral, and dizzily, swooningly romantic" Jane that permeates cultural references, Rodi set out to give her reputation a nudge in the satirical, witty, irreverent direction.
Elizabeth is a girl who feels like she isn’t good enough. She questions her own worth and we’ve all done that.
Take today's bicentennial, for example. Pride and Prejudice is 380 pages of gentry bashing and second only to Persuasion in the ranks of Austen novels you should feel ashamed you haven't read. It's funny, biting, clever. Elizabeth is sarcastic and stubborn and I love her. It’s rife with the ridiculous constraints that class represented in a society that thought itself enlightened. It’s fantastic. But throughout the years the novel's been simplified into a mere boy-meets-girl thing.
In fact, it's often voted one of the most romantic novels in history. And Mr Darcy was recently voted third in a perfect fictional men poll. Er. It’s not very romantic. Elizabeth spends an inordinate amount of time and effort simultaneously fancying and detesting someone who wouldn’t know romance if it bought him flowers.
Next: Mr Darcy is an ARSEHOLE. The only man in literary existence whom I imagine to have an actual stick up his arse. Apart from that Grey bloke. But that's different, it's how he gets his rocks off. Elizabeth loves him, yeah. But Mrs Mussolini loved her husband, we don't get Colin Firth to play a short, snivelly fascist and wank over it. (Does anyone else imagine Mussolini crying all the time? Sorry. Not the point.)
Rodi explains that this nightmare exists because the novel is: “Bogged down by the accumulated accretions of generations who know it only second - or third-hand - or who know it only by reputation, a kind of ripple effect across the surface of western civilization; familiarity by osmosis. Whenever it’s mentioned we no longer even hear the dissonance in the title; it's just a series of syllables, a consumerist trigger—not Pride and Prejudice, but Pridenprejudice.”
The man has a point. Like so many other heavy weight laureates, Jane Austen's novels have become folktales. Bedtime stories for the supposedly well read, passed on through TV, motivational pictures with teapots on and word of mouth. We all know of Pride and Prejudice, we don’t all know it. Rodi backs me up: “What’s been lost in all this, alas, is the original novel, which, when it’s read at all these days, is undertaken by people who already "know" it, who are convinced they’ve always known it, that they knew it in utero; they don’t just read it, they read it with intent.”
This is true for all of Austen's work, and so many others. The real bone of contention in Austen's case is that her novels have become the mascot for unliterary trash, the kind of shit that if it were on TV would be on Channel 5 at 2 am, picking it’s nose in the diary room and contemplating sex with a woman whose name it can’t say properly. Not only is it unfair, it's bloody unfounded. Anybody who's ever sat and read an Austen novel will tell you she has more in common with Voltaire than the Brontës.
Pride and Prejudice breaks my heart a bit. Not because Mr Darcy is an arse and won’t admit that he’s in love with Elizabeth, and not because she’s too proud to accept it when he does. But because Elizabeth is a girl who feels like she isn’t good enough. She questions her own worth and we’ve all done that.
And there's actual laugh out loud moments in Pride and Prejudice. My favourite one is while Elizabeth is dancing with Mr Darcy at a ball, trying to make small talk (we've all been there, but on dates not at balls. Unless maybe you went to Eton or something. In which case you'll be wearing too much tweed to understand what I'm banging on about anyway), and she gets the hump with him:
After a pause of some minutes, she addressed him a second time with: "It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples."
200 years on, and those jokes have been whittled out of the many big screen adaptations. You don’t see Elizabeth being scathing or her sisters getting on her nerves. You wait for the end, the bit where they kiss. Because you know what’s coming and you don’t care what’s in between. Well it’s time to reclaim Austen. It's not going to happen over night, programmes like Downton (I love Downton, but not because it's romantic. It's not.) have seen to it that our love affair with period rom-dram remains as it is.
But Rodi reckons the first step, as far as Austen is concerned is to read her work afresh: “Make a conscious effort to clear away the layers of received opinion, the yellowing varnish of endlessly parroted consensus, and you find a lean, feisty, spiky little novel, limber and fleet-footed and occasionally even vicious.”
I’d go a little further than that. Forget your preconceptions, by all means. But my advice would be: read it as though Jane had testicles. Then you'll see how great she really is.
Becky Shepherd Becky’s latest endeavor, All Quiet On The Wench Front is attempting to write the wrongs of history, one brilliant woman at a time.