Recently I was cornered by a university employee who knows I’m a scholar of British literature, specializing in Jane Austen.
“I started Pride and Prejudice last week,” he told me. “It’s one of those books I know I should have read, but I couldn’t get past the first few chapters.”
“Really,” I replied, eyebrows raised.
“Yeah, I just lost interest,” he went on. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘Oh, brother. I think I know where this is going.’”
Was this disarming honesty or throwing down the gauntlet? Was I being called out? Whatever it was, I shifted nervously as I listened to the rest of his monologue: “My theory is that the novel can be pretty much summed up as Elizabeth and Darcy meet, Elizabeth and Darcy hate each other, Elizabeth and Darcy fall in love, yadda, yadda, yadda.”
Reader, I stared at him blankly. Of course, I spent hours afterward constructing witty, cynical comebacks, such as “Yeah, I know what you mean. I have that response to episodes of VH1’s 'Behind the Music' and to reading the Bible.” But in the moment, all I managed to spit out was something clichéd and professorial resembling, “Hmm. That’s interesting. I think maybe it takes a few readings of Austen to really appreciate her fiction’s depth, humor, and irony.”
That’s also my stock answer to traditional-aged undergraduates on the first day of class -- 20-year-olds who confess that they’ve signed up for a literature class on Austen and her contemporaries because they absolutely love (or absolutely hate) her fiction -- or maybe just the film adaptations. Or Colin Firth or Keira Knightley or Clueless. The Austen-haters often claim to be taking the course because they want to understand what in the world is the big deal. A few of them end up seeing it by the end of the semester, a few more don’t, and that’s fine. But the yadda-yadda-yadda employee was a well-read, middle-aged guy with no sophomore excuse for being sophomoric. My gut reaction to his confession registered somewhere between crestfallen and incensed.
I'm having a similarly mixed reaction to the latest wave of Austen mania in the U.S. and U.K., shifting nervously, while approaching it with a combination of anxiety and dread. I know that all English professors worth their salt should be constructing some theories and responses now, in advance of being cornered by colleagues and co-workers and co-eds, so as not to have to resort to the professorial and clichéd. What will we say when asked about Anne Hathaway’s Becoming Jane (2007); about upcoming The Jane Austen Book Club film, with its star-studded cast; or about PBS’s planned 10-week winter 2008 airing of the Complete Jane Austen on "Masterpiece Theatre"?
What’s the witty, cynical comeback to this cultural flowering of Austen-related stuff, I find myself wondering: “Can’t wait to see it!” “Wish I’d thought of it first!” “The Decline and Fall of Austen’s Empire.” “A tippet in the hand is worth two in the bush.” “A stitch in the huswife saves nine.” “Don’t look a gift pianoforte in the mouth”?
But along with such repartee, we’ll also need to ready weightier observations. First, I believe it’s imperative that we call a moratorium on starting sentences with “It is a truth universally acknowledged,” as in, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that this is the first time in television history Austen’s complete works have been aired in succession.” In the coming months we will no doubt suffer through dozens of newspaper and magazine articles beginning, “It is a truth universally acknowledged.” Best not to add to the collective torture.
In addition, when constructing our soundbites, we ought not to forget the sheer breadth of today’s Austen craze; it’s more than just films and television adaptations we’re in for. New books have appeared, too, like Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict (2007) and Jane Austen for Dummies (2006). Though I worry that these books make reading her fiction sound like something done at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for slow learners, surely it’s not too late for some well-placed damage control?
After all, the Austen-inspired publicity stunts are already in full swing. Perhaps you’ve heard about the kerfluffle that unfolded over the pond, “Jane Austen Rejected!” Thinly veiled versions of Austen’s fiction were sent out to British publishers as new work, under the name of Allison Laydee (a.k.a. David Lassman), and all were rejected. Even Harlequin Mills & Boon passed on publishing adulterated Jane Austen plots. The horror! The horror!
But isn’t this is déjà vu all over again? Please raise your tussy mussy if you remember 10 or so years ago, when we were last inundated with Austen film and TV adaptations; with Bridget Jones novels and films; and with Austen board games, stationery, and editorial cartoons. Everyone then seemed to be asking, “Why Austen? Why now?”
The late 1990s were strange days for us longtime members of the Jane Austen Society of North America. It was as if we no longer had to apologize for indulging in our versions of wearing plastic Spock ears, whether quadrille, or quilling, or merely quizzing. Many of us became instant pundits among our friends, family, and the media, providing copy for everything from the Arkansas Democrat to The Wall Street Journal. Only a few periodicals continued to misspell Jane’s name as Austin, while many more managed to render correctly Bennet, Morland, and Love and Freindship. Oh, those were heady times.
If you were there, then you’ll no doubt recall that we came up with some pretty wild theories to explain the Jane train, too. Remember when Camilla Paglia said Austen’s popularity could be explained as a cultural symptom in reaction to the O.J. Trial, as people longed for stories in which no one was being butchered? That was a good one. Or how some claimed that the return to Austen was a result of the fin de siècle’s prompting us to take stock and return to works of past centuries? Seems pretty thin now. Others claimed that Austen’s resurgence happened because we needed to measure the worth of our male heroes, from Bill Clinton and Brad Pitt to Kurt Cobain and Ross Perot. (Jane Austen and Ross Perot?)
So here we are, circa 2007, finding ourselves in danger of being asked yet again, “Why Austen? Why now?” How delightful. How frightening. I’m determined not to be caught off guard, so I’ve constructed some all-purpose answers to explain the latest Austen craze, suitable for everything from The Nation to "Larry King Live" to Marie Claire. Anyone struggling for words is, of course, welcome to use these as conversational building blocks:
Option A: “Today’s Austen mania is a form of cultural compensation for the disaster of the Iraq War and for the genocide in Darfur. Her novels offer us a way to forget the world’s evils by allowing us to travel back to those halcyon post-French Revolutionary days of Napoleon.”
Option B: “Austen’s timeless narratives of women’s romantic searching provide a welcome distraction from the Supreme Court’s rolling back of abortion rights, as we yearn for an era when many women had the power to refuse a proposal of marriage.”
Option C: “Austen’s newfound popularity signals that empire-waist frocks are due for a fashion revival; that irony, having been shunned after 9/11, is back and better than ever; and that Wal-Mart will roll back prices on its imported teas.”
This list is just a draft of talking points. I still have a few more ideas to work out. For instance, can it be an accident that Austen’s popularity is surging, just as Jane magazine has gone defunct? There is certainly a quotable quip in the making there. Even if we don’t perfect our theories in the coming months, I don’t think there should be much cause for worry. Check back with me in 2013, the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice’s publication. Oh, brother. I think I know where this is going.
Devoney Looser is associate professor of English at the University of Missouri at Columbia, and the author of British Women Writers and the Writing of History (Johns Hopkins University Press). She has just completed a book on British women writers and old age, to be published next year.