Tuesday, September 27, 2005


This weekend I took a detour off my current reading list to re-read an old favourite: Jane Austen's Emma. I was inspired to read it by a newspaper article discussing whether Jane Austen is nineteenth-century "chick lit" or a real classic author(ess), but it took me this long to find my copy of the book.
I love Emma best of all Jane Austen's heroines, mostly because it is easy for me to relate to her with all her flaws. She is clever and pretty but she can be thoughtless and selfish, just like me when I was 21 (and 31, and possibly when I am 41...). She has the steadying influence of Mr Knightley to gently remind her when her behaviour transgresses the bounds of social acceptance, and still be madly in love with her despite it (in that sense, he reminds me of the Voice of Reason.)
It seems to be the fashion these days to classify books by the great female writers of the past as "chick lit". See my earlier blog entry on To the Lighthouse. Why, because they're by and about women?
I have to say that, in my experience, very few male writers can create a convincing female protagonist. For example, the VoR loves sci-fi and begged me for years to read Contact by Carl Sagan (you know, the one they made into a movie with Jodie Foster). It's a great story, well-written and with a convincing use of real physics to back up the fiction, but the main character left me cold. She thought too much like a man, especially when it came to her personal relationships. I have read a few other sci-fi novels, mostly at the VoR's request, and the overriding social motivation in many of the futuristic societies seems to be sex without consequences. (The female sidekick is generally a willowy blonde with an insatiable sex drive and no personality to speak of: Ringworld, by Larry Niven, for example.) There's no getting-to-know-you action: attraction followed by assessment and then overcoming misunderstandings and social or temporal obstacles. All the things that make Jane Austen's novels so difficult to put down.
Is sci-fi the male equivalent of "chick lit", where sex-without-consequences is used as a condiment to add spice to an adventures-in-space narrative structure? Whereas in chick lit, either old-fashioned or modern, sex/attraction always has consequences for the protagonist and the society at large (as it does in real life).
Is the "chick lit" classification of Jane Austen et al a misguided attempt to help people see past the old-fashioned manners and social mores that constrain the behaviour of the protagonists? To get back to Emma: modern readers might find it tiresome to have to wait right until the end of book two before Mr Knightley even takes her hand, and there's certainly no suggestion that they ever kiss before their wedding day. A modern Emma would not be forced to deny physical attraction to any of the three contenders for her affections. But despite this Jane Austen fills the narrative with delightful frisson and URST that build up by tiny steps to a satisfactory conclusion at the end of the book. That prime example of chick lit, Bridget Jones' Diary, is simply (I understand: I haven't actually read it, or seen the movie) a bringing of the Pride & Prejudice story into the 21st century. Yet I've read parts of the next Bridget Jones sequel, which is being serialised in my local newspaper, and I can't say I admire the writing style or identify with the character as strongly as I do with Emma Woodhouse, despite the fact that Bridget Jones is my social and moral contemporary.
Is Emma chick lit? It's about a female protagonist dealing with human relationships, so if chick lit is defined by those terms, then that's what it is. But the implication is that any book about those subjects is only for "chicks": and I think that is underestimating the skill of Jane Austen as a writer. I only know a few males who would bother to read or confess to enjoying Jane Austen's books because of the social stigma they would be under if they did. There's no social barrier, on the other hand, to chicks reading and enjoying "bloke lit" like Moby Dick, Ernest Hemingway, or even science fiction (if they like).


Sharon said...

I like Jane Austen... She was funny,political,and an ironic writer who thumbed her nose at the very stuffy conventions of the times... I have wondered from time to time what she would make of today society and the mixed messages which we are constantly exposed to and LOL try and make some head and tails of... I have started to collect her work with the aim of re reading it....

beche-la-mer said...

The day I posted this review, I re-read Persuasion as well. Some people think this (her last book, published after her death) is Austen's best work.

She has such a great sense of humour:

"By this time the report of the accident had spread among the workmen and boatmen about the Cobb, and many were collected near them, to be useful if wanted, at any rate, to enjoy the sight of a dead young lady, nay, two dead young ladies, for it proved twice as fine as the first report."

(Of course they are not really dead, just unconscious.) I just love the way she has of capturing the foibles of human nature in a single sentence -- the locals are like drivers slowing down to stare as they pass the scene of a car accident. There's certainly nothing old-fashioned about Jane Austen!

Kevin Rosero said...

Nothing at all old-fashioned about sharp observation, I agree. Jane Austen does have a rep as chick lit, and for that reason many people won't end up reading her -- which is proof enough that "chick lit" is an unhelpful term, and actually anti-intellectual. Probably the reason I haven't read her books is that guys are not encouraged to read them. But Jane Austen is sexy in the movies (sexy in every sense of attractive). I've seen the movies of P&P (1940 and 1996), Persuasion, Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale), as well as Clueless and Bridget Jones. (Persuasion is my favorite). The New York Times had an article some years back on how we'd passed through a wave of Shakespeare movies and embraced Austen as the hot item of the moment.

Anyway, I hope to read her books. Fact is, the men in her stories are real and compelling; they're not the empty chests of romance novels.

By the way, for years I counted Middlemarch and Moby-Dick as my favorite novels. Middlemarch is chick lit by the standards you mentioned; but Middlemarch has two central characters, Dorothea Brooke and Teritius Lydgate. Lydgate may be the reason that Middlemarch gets some more respect than Austen does.

beche-la-mer said...

Kevin, I agree that Middlemarch is in a similar category to Jane Austen's works but it seems to avoid that categorisation, perhaps because of the subterfuge of its publication. If it had been written by Mary Ann Evans instead of George Eliot it might have been immediately classed as chick lit and be all but forgotten today; and also, because Lydgate is probably a more well-rounded male character than Jane Austen's men, it may avoid the chick lit tag.