I am not crazy about Jane Austen. Don’t get me wrong: I like Jane Austen very much. I’m an English professor, so I’ve read all of Austen’s novels (my favorite is a tie between Emma and Persuasion), as well as a few biographies of her. But I don’t share the infatuation with Austen that seems quite prevalent in this generation, to which I referred in my reblog of last week (check here if you missed it). Many years ago now, when I was teaching at a small Catholic liberal arts college, a fellow professor told a story to demonstrate how popular Austen had become. “I was at a Jack-in-the-Box,” she said. “Two teenaged girls were eating burritos, and they were talking about a third friend’s boyfriend. ‘What’s wrong with him?’ the first girl asked. The second girl replied, ‘I don’t know–her parents hate him. It’s a Jane Austen thing.'” Austen-mania had begun, back in the 1990s. It would only get worse in the coming years.
Austen-mania is a lot like Downton Abbey mania, which is a lot like royal-baby-mania, which is the reaction to the imminent birth of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s baby (happening even as I write this blog: check here. Yet for those of us who are truly enamored of British culture, it’s a bit annoying to find everyone else jumping on our own personal, slightly rickety and not-too-stable bandwagon. I mean, we were the ones who always knew that Austen was cool, that monarchies make for much more interesting history than boring old democracies, and that the British aristocracy is not nearly as stuffy as it’s made out to be.
What I find particularly annoying is that there’s plenty of other good literature out there that goes undiscovered. Consider this: Austen is the mere tip of the iceberg as far as women writers go. There are many, many other good and not-so-good women writers that go unread simply because we are hyper-focused on Austen. We all know, for example, that Mary Shelley, 21-year-old author of Frankenstein, wrote what became perhaps the most important novel of our modern era–it’s a story we are reliving now, in this era of climate change, genetically modified foods, and other critically dangerous corollaries of modern scientific discoveries. But how many people know that Shelley also wrote what must surely be one of the first end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it novels (The Last Man)? Check out this Wikipedia entry on apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature: and you’ll see that she can claim to be the originator of that genre, too.
My point is this: there are lots of interesting writers out there. Austen is surely one of them, but she’s not the only one. Likewise, Shakespeare wrote some beautiful sonnets, but out of 154 of them, how many are really memorable? Less than 10 percent, surely. I’m all for falling in love with a writer and reading everything they ever wrote, but there’s plenty of other works out there that deserve to be read, too. Let’s hear it for the women writers out there who aren’t Austen: Mary Delarivier Manley, Fanny Burney, Maria Edgeworth. And Downton Abbey is fine, but if you really want to be drawn into a great British story set around WWI, try reading The Forsyte Saga. You might even go back to the original television series about British life, above and below the salt, in WWI: Upstairs, Downstairs.