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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, September 25, 2015

Nick Hornby’s outdated view of "absurd" Jane Austen

I just read the following mention of Jane Austen in an article that ran yesterday in the online Telegraph:

…Nick Hornby, the screenwriter and author of High Fidelity, Fever Pitch and About A Boy, said readers embrace the outdated world of Pride & Prejudice because they can clearly understand the dilemmas facing Elizabeth Bennett and her family. Modern day writers, on the other hand, have no such luxury, with no set rules left to govern how the well-heeled behave. As such, Hornby suggested, modern literature is becoming harder to write than the classics of centuries past, with the simple tensions set up by firm social conventions falling by the wayside. "People love Jane Austen even though those books are absurd to us because we like the clarity of it: we can see very clearly what Elizabeth Bennett has to overcome, what she has to deal with," he said. "In this century, where actually well-heeled people can do whatever the hell they want whenever they want, it's more chaotic to extract a narrative.”

Aside from the article misspelling Eliza’s surname twice, I find Hornby’s comments unintentionally ironic, because he seems to confuse the often self-deluding, and at times absurd perceptions of Austen’s young heroines (besides Anne Elliot, none is over 21—and young adults universally think they know it all, but actually don’t know much) with the complex, morally ambiguous, and very realistic “rules” which actually govern the most significant action in JA’s novels.

I.e., in all six novels, I’ve uncovered action occurring “offstage”, just beyond the naïve heroine’s grasp, which is every bit as chaotic, disturbing, and morally complex as the action in any 21st century novel. Those shadowy goings-on drive the narrative in complex ways that the heroine (and therefore the passive reader) never “gets”.  So, to use the words “outdated” and “absurd” to describe Austen’s novels is to adopt the heroine’s cluelessness, and to be blind to Austen’s own ironic subversive subtext.

The shadows of JA’s fictional worlds concealed a great deal of exploitation of, and violence toward, women and the poor. JA did not, as is so commonly (and mistakenly) believed, avert her eyes from all that evil and suffering, and focus on a fairy tale world of everlasting love with lots of money to pay the bills. That’s Emma’s worldview, not Austen’s.

Instead, and further ironically re Hornby’s comments, the shadow stories I’ve excavated in her novels are actually all about “well-heeled people doing whatever the hell they want whenever they want”—meaning, people, mostly men of mature age, acting selfishly in ways that are harmful to other, less powerful people, mostly women. And five of those well-heeled men just happen to be named Colonel Brandon, Mr. Darcy, Sir Thomas Bertram, George Knightley, and Henry Woodhouse!

Talk about fractured fairy tales for adults!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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