Last weekend, I finished reading my first ever Jane Austen novel. It was all Tricia’s fault.
A couple of weeks ago, she had made a passing reference to Sense & Sensibility, and was aghast and appalled when I told her that I had no idea what she was talking about. She implored me to read it. So, like any true friend would, I did. Before I get into what I thought about the book, I feel I need to share why, although I love romance novels and they’re my “go to” reads whenever I want to escape into fiction, I didn’t pick up Austen until the ripe old age of 39… (And Tricia, once you’ve read this post, feel free to give me the lecture you’ve been dying to give me ever since I told you I was reading Austen. 😀 )
Just Mom, who has a B.A. in English and is a lover of the great, classic works of literature, gave me Wuthering Heights to read when I was about 14, and basically told me that Heathcliff was the mold from which my future husband should be cast (Dear Husband: rest assured, I neither want nor need you to be anything like Heathcliff.)
I tried to read it. I really did. But I just couldn’t get past the overwrought, melodrama of it all. While I am an uncompromising romantic at heart, I’m not particularly sentimental. To be honest, I found Heathcliff and Cathy to be, well, kind of ridiculous. (By the way, my mother is still heartbroken that I’ve never read Wuthering Heights, and feels as though she has failed me as a parent.)
Moreover, I couldn’t see how the life of a 19th-century, so-pale-she-was-practically-translucent White girl from the English countryside was relevant to the life of me, a 20th-century, Canadian Black girl from the suburbs. In fact, the sheer Whiteness of all those types of novels (Austen, Bronte, etc.) is largely what kept me away from them, even though as a teenager, I hadn’t as yet found the language to express my resistance in that way. All I knew back then was that I couldn’t bring myself to care about the love lives of spoiled rich White girls set during a time when my ancestors were being bought, sold and traded like chattel.
The irony of the fact that, up until recently¹, I’ve had no issues with reading about the love lives of contemporary, occasionally-rich-and-spoiled-but-always-White girls is not lost on me. All I can say is that, because I could still relate to their hopes, dreams, challenges and fears, the Whiteness was (somewhat) easier to overlook.
Anyway, back to Sense & Sensibility…
As with reading any historical English work, such as Shakespeare, it takes a while to develop an “ear” for the spellings and rhythms of the language. I found, however, that if I “said” the words in my head with as posh an English accent as I could muster, it actually helped me to better understand what was going on. (No joke!)
Once I had done that, the first thing I noticed was that Ms. Austen was quite the saucy, snarky minx, which, given the gender norms for women during the time in which she was writing, increased my appreciation for her ten-fold. (You’ve got to love a woman who gives good snark, especially one who was so sweetly, subtly, and “English-ly” polite about it.)
The next thing I noticed was how clearly the characterization and plotting in the novel has served as the template upon which modern romance novels are based. I understand now why Austen’s stories continue to be told again and again: she was able to display the depth and complexity of romantic love in such sharp relief, her writing has resonated across time and place.
Finally, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed simply reading about Elinor and Marianne, and rooting for them to get their happily-ever-afters (I admit to being on tenterhooks when it came to Elinor, in particular. Well played, Ms. Austen. Well played.). This, despite my slight annoyance that “happily ever after” equaled “get married, stay at home, and have lots of babies”: a formula that is the foundation upon which the systemic barriers that women faced then, and continue to face now, are built.
Having said all that – and I really hope Tricia doesn’t disown me for this – I don’t know that I will read any more Austen. If I do, it will probably be Mansfield Park, and only because of Tricia’s excellent review of Belle. (A movie, by the way, that I couldn’t wait to see – in fact, I’ve seen it twice and am planning to buy it, even though I don’t buy movies – because it was based on the true life and love of an, 18th-century English gentlewoman who resembled me.²)
I don’t know that I can fully articulate why I don’t think it’s likely I’ll be reading any more Austen, or any of her contemporaries, especially given that I did enjoy Sense & Sensibility. I guess it all boils down to my own sensibilities (heh): I’m just not that into classical³ fiction. Perhaps it’s because, with contemporary, paranormal, and science fiction, the possibilities for me to insert myself into the lives and worlds of the characters – which, for me, is the whole point of reading fiction – are seemingly endless, even if the characters are predominantly White.
With classical fiction, on the other hand, I can’t shake the discomfort of knowing that, had I actually been inserted into the lives and worlds of those characters, the possibilities for me would have been exceedingly, excruciatingly, narrow.
¹ The sheer ignorance of the mainstream response – in both traditional and social media – to the execution of Michael Brown at the hands of a police officer, and to the resultant protests in Ferguson, Missouri, led to something that I can only describe as “Whiteness Fatigue”. I was just so over Whiteness and its refusal to see the world through a lens other than its own, that I lost my ability to overlook it as I searched for romance novels to read during the holidays. So, instead, I went looking for romance novels that featured women of colour, which I have happily been reading since then.
² People of Color in European Art History is a good primer for understanding the sheer magnitude of the erasure of people of colour from Western artistic production over the centuries, and the legacy of that erasure in artistic production today.
³ And by “classical”, what is generally meant is “European classical”, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue.