I’ve been obsessing over Austen lately; re-reading Pride and Prejudice, quoting her, watching three different versions of Persuasion, etc. (which one do I like best? I never can decide) Obsessive as I am, (and I’m also on school break so I’m trying to read stuff I want to and not textbooks) I got Dear Jane Austen from the library and I thought it would be a sort of silly cute little book like How to Hepburn, but it was actually a bit more than just cute and amusing.
Dr. Hannon is an authority on Jane Austen and has managed to artfully weave her novels into a sort of literary criticism slash self help book. Written in a ‘Dear Abby’ form, it merges modern requests for advice and help with 18th century reflections. The book paints a really wonderful picture of Jane Austen; discussing her works, and using her characters to illustrate how human nature does not change, but only modifies in the sense that society changes and how we choose to meet that society changes.
(There is something fearfully wrong with that sentence. I haven’t been writing much lately. Can you tell?)
For each modern appeal for advice, Jane refers the letter writer to her heroines, and points out the similar issues that may be found in her books. It solidifies the idea that even though Jane lived in the late 18th century, her books are still relevant to today’s world. Women still misinterpret men’s behavior, make fools of themselves, lack self-confidence, worry about money, have dysfunctional families to contend with, and all of us end up either happily married or unhappily married or forever single.
Hannon’s Jane is wonderful and exactly as you’d expect Jane to be, if she were really sitting at her desk and answering letters from her readers. What I liked most, next to the use of characters to illustrate real-life problems, were the little illuminations into Jane’s actual life; her family dropping in to put in their two cents, and Jane’s speculations about her own history.
There was a particular point in the book where Jane gives a letter writer advice on the difference between reckless behavior and reserved behavior. Since I am usually somewhat more reserved than out-going, I read this part carefully. Then I stared out the bus window and thought about Marianne Dashwood and Lydia Bennet and the term ‘reckless’ used in lieu of ‘lively’ or ‘extroverted’, and the significance of it. I thought about all the women I know who behave recklessly, but it doesn’t follow that they have the self-confidence to drive them on. Anyone can be reckless, but having the courage of your convictions is a very different thing.
I also enjoyed the part where Jane points out the great difference between her works and the Bronte sisters, who wrote very passionate, but unrealistic characters, while Jane wrote real people. Wuthering Heights is a great book, but it’s a pure gothic fantasy, chock full of people who, if one met them in real life (and outside of a mental asylum) really wouldn’t behave the way they all did end up behaving.
Jane, on the other hand, writes characters that might not be as arresting or exciting, since none of them are extremely bad (except Willoughby, Wickham, or perhaps Henry Crawford, and even then its only a philandering type badness and no one dies of a broken heart or bangs their head against a tree or drives anyone to drink) and most of her characters are made of different levels of complexity; vanity, pride, kindness, reserve, and all kinds of neurosis’- which is precisely what makes them work as guides to modern day women, while the Bronte sisters characters would not. (Bless the Brontes, I love them, too, but Kathy is no Elizabeth Bennet)
We might watch a lot of Hollywood movies, and swoon over Heathcliff on the screen, but in real life we’d call the cops on him for stalkng and abuse. (Lets hope so anyway) In the same sense, we’d probably fall for a Wickham type, too, but when we catch on that he’s only using us as fodder for his ego, we’d just kick him to the curb and – while not necessarily call the police – probably tell all of our friends what a waste of time he is.
Anyway, I got quite a bit out of this book about the real Jane and her works. It made me examine her characters in new and interesting ways that I hadn’t thought of before. In a way, it was like taking an English survey course on Austen, and it gave me an even deeper respect for Austen’s writing.