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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The pleasures of reading Jane Austen's novels are enhanced by knowing about Jane Austen the person

From the NY Times Bookends piece.... “whether knowing about an author’s life deepens or detracts from the pleasures of reading fiction”, I selected quotes from each of the two opiners, to which I will respond:

First, Thomas Mallon, English prof: “Applying the writer’s biography to one’s reading of a novel strikes me as less a matter of cheating or impurity than an additional, incidental pleasure… At its best, critical interpretation informed by biographical fact can deepen our emotional pleasure in a novel and our intellectual grasp of it as well. Flipping through the reviews of literary biography and authorial memoir that I’ve done for this newspaper over the years, I can see example after appreciative example of how a work of fiction ends up being illuminated by shining light on the author’s life.”

And second, Adam Kirsch, magazine editor/columnist: “The self that matters to us as readers is the one we encounter in, or hypothesize from, the novelist’s pages. It is impossible to read “Pride and Prejudice” and “Emma,” for instance, without developing a very vivid sense of the kind of person Jane Austen must have been; indeed, the pleasure of Austen’s intellectual company is one of the primary reasons we read her. In this she stands at the opposite pole from Shakespeare, who as a dramatist camouflaged even his literary personality.”

My principal quibble with both of the above pundits is that neither even attempts to account for the subset of authors (whether novelists, dramatists, or other) whose fictions carry an intentional “message” and/or a didactic purpose.  While I have no idea what % of authors fit that description, I am 100% certain that Jane Austen was one of them, and that she had an extraordinarily ambitious didactic agenda, one which simultaneously succeeded (because so many readers have been positively altered by their/our  encounter with JA’s fictional worlds) and failed (because her deepest authorial goals have not—yet---been achieved).

As I have long since passed from the first stage of reading her novels solely for the exquisite pleasure they provide as stories, to a second stage of wanting to understand them, and the agenda of the genius who wrote them, as deeply as I possibly can, I believe that a casual interest in who Jane Austen was as a person will simply not be sufficient to enable a reader to reach that level of insight about what she really sought to do as an author. It might suffice for many other authors, but not for her.

So the facts of the lives of authors like Austen are of the greatest importance to me, insofar as those facts provide windows into that message or didactic purpose, especially with an author who was so cryptic and ironic in her few private statements specifically about her writing. My sense of the covert radical feminism of Jane Austen the person, and of her didactic goal to provide meaningful experiential instruction in life, from that perspective, to her female readers, has been sharpened and informed hundreds of times by what I’ve learned about JA’s life. In a nutshell, I’ve learned how to read her novels from reading her letters, and how to read her letters from reading her novels, in an endless upward spiral of deeper understanding of their essential unity. And I’ve simultaneously learned to take with great skepticism the biased (and repeatedly bogus) interpretations of JA’s authorial agenda by her earliest biographers, most of all brother Henry and nephew JEAL. If you look back and rely on them, beware, your understanding of Jane Austen the person and author will surely be frozen into a huge pillar of ersatz salt and misunderstanding.

As for Kirsch’s intriguing comment, I would agree with him that reading JA’s fiction, and nothing more, definitely gives us a vivid sense of “the kind of person” she was, IF we limit what we mean by that to the certainty we all derive that JA must have had the highest level of  “penetration”, .i.e., intelligence, both intellectual and psychological, combined with the sharpest sense of irony and humor. Only a very dull elf would suggest otherwise on either of those points.

But I am curious to know if Kirsch meant anything more than those safe inferences—e.g., did he also believe he got a strong sense of her personal politics, spirituality, and/or other opinions about a variety of issues? If so, did he see her as a Tory or a Radical? a high church Anglican or a theist? an ally, or an enemy, of the patriarchy of  her England?  I wonder if  Kirsch is aware of all the controversy in Austenworld today on all of those points?

My sense of Jane Austen on all those points has been decisively informed equally by both her fictions and her letters, as they are, as I suggested above, inextricably woven together. I doubt that any elf, no matter how sharp, could have discerned her true stance on all those points without as deep and sustained a study of her biography as well as of her novels.

But lest anyone misconstrue any of the above in one respect----I get even more pure reading pleasure from reading JA’s fictional creations today than I did nearly 20 years ago, when my JA reading career began by my opening Chapter 1 of P&P. Like listening to a Mozart piano concerto for the 200th time, it is a deeper, richer pleasure every time, and it never palls.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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