Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Why I love Jane Austen

This post is essentially a personal narrative with reflections inspired by the article mentioned in my previous post. This post will make a little more sense if you've read that one first.

Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin

While I had read Pride and Prejudice sometime in late middle or early high school and definitely enjoyed it, much of the exquisite humor and irony, fascinating characters and perspicuous insight into human nature did not leave a strong impression. I had a positive but nonetheless weak impression of the genius of Jane Austen. It was not until I stumbled on the 1995 BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries a year out of high school that I became hooked. I watched Andrew Davies’ Emma as well and then decided that I should definitely read Pride & Prejudice again and Emma for the first time.  For Emma, especially, it was the movie that got me reading Austen. I now hardly go a day without reading at least a few pages from a Jane Austen novel and spend hours thinking about her characters, plots and insights. The older I get and the more I read her, the more interesting and fascinating her work becomes.  

Having taught literature and writing in several colleges over the past 10 years, I certainly sympathize with Eggleston. However, I think, perhaps, the problem Eggleston describes is not so much Emma or the first-year literature students, as much as it is timing. Emma is a prodigious work—most first-year literature students are probably not mature enough, nor have enough critical reading and thinking skills to appreciate it. I know that I wasn’t ready for it as a freshman in college, despite the fact that Austen was already on the fast track to becoming my favorite author. I think Emma is much better suited to a second or third year literature class, which is where I first studied Jane Austen in a college setting—and, unsurprisingly, found it fascinating. Several years later, I was teaching Emma to junior English majors in Mexico. They loved her. Gradually, Austen’s writings became not only my favorite reading material, but also much more than that. They became my friend and, in a sense, my literary comfort food. When stressed by horribly hot, dry weather, unpleasant or difficult life experiences, I turned to Jane for a brief, but delightful respite. She soothed my emotions, made me smile, even laugh, when little else could.  Now it doesn’t really matter what is going on in life—I simply love to read Jane Austen. When life is wonderful, I read Jane; when life is difficult, I read her.  When I’m supposed to be working on my linguistics dissertation, I keep thinking about writing an article comparing and contrasting her heroines and discussing what an audience’s reaction to them says about the mores, beliefs and feelings of that audience. What, in fact, our reaction to Jane Austen’s heroines says about human nature. 

I think if nothing else, Austen (especially in Emma) is one of those writers that on a first perusal does seem boring, difficult and irrelevant to modern readers. So, I, for one am thankful for the artistic, creative adaptations—TV, movie, and now video blog (thank you, Hank Green & Bernie Su!!)—that pique our interest. We like the movie and think that perhaps we missed something in our first reading. So we try it again. And then Jane pulls us in. We chuckle at Mrs. Elton’s ridiculous illusions to grandeur and Mr. Woodhouse’s “gentle selfishness"; we smirk with Emma and fall in love a little bit with Mr. Knightly.  Some of us stop there. But if we take the time for a second, third and often many more readings of Austen, the “rewards of observation and reflection” (to quote Davies’ Pride and Prejudice screenplay) become immense. They open up gradually and, like hidden treasure, the more we search and uncover, the more amazing and valuable they become.   I think that C.S. Lewis describes this process of learning to delight in literature quite aptly in his essay “The Weight of Glory.”  Though he is talking about learning to love Greek poetry rather than Jane Austen (and please ignore for the moment that the entire point of his illustration is related to a completely different topic), I think it rings true for either case:

“The schoolboy beginning Greek grammar cannot look forward to his adult enjoyment of Sophocles as a lover looks forward to marriage or a general to victory. He has to begin by working for marks, or to escape punishment, or to please his parents, or, at best, in the hope of a future good which he cannot at present imagine or desire. His position, therefore, bears a certain resemblance to that of the mercenary; the reward he is going to get will, in actual fact, be a natural or proper reward, but he will not know that till he has got it. Of course, he gets it gradually; enjoyment creeps in upon the mere drudgery, and nobody could point to a day or an hour when the one ceased and the other began. But it is just in so far as he approaches the reward that he becomes able to desire it for its own sake; indeed, the power of so desiring it is itself a preliminary reward.”

Learning to delight in Austen’s writings does take work. But so does pretty much nearly anything worth pursuing. A pursuit that is easy and digestible in fifteen minutes usually brings about fifteen minutes of enjoyment. But those things in life that require persistent effort—art, music, friendships, marriage, the pursuit of God Himself—are often the ones that lead to the richest joys and deepest satisfaction.  I’m certainly not trying to say that learning to understand and enjoy Jane Austen’s writings is the most satisfying or important task in life. There certainly are much greater and as many noble and fulfilling pursuits in life. But what I am saying is simply this: Robert Eggelston, take heart. In every generation, some  of those first year literature students—perhaps even a few of those who throw out a caustic whatever now—will eventually learn to love Jane Austen as much as you do, despite—or maybe even because of—the movie.


  1. Indeed, dear Lynnelle, I was your student in Mexico, and since then I LOVED Emma. I remember a day you were sick ando you couldn't come to school for the class. We came to your house so you could tell us the next chapter. We couldn't wait another day to listen the story (by the way, I've a picture). I appreciate I had such a wonderful teacher. Thank you. So glad you have this blog.
    Elizabeth Aguirre

    1. Thank you so much, Elizabeth!! I had such a great time teaching you all. What a fun group you were! :) I am thrilled that you love Emma too!

  2. Yes, persistent effort especially in the pursuit of God and in our marriages leads to the richest joys and deepest satisfaction. Sometimes I think we never truly learn to love in marriage until we have been married for at least 25 years. Thanks for your blog.

    1. Thank you for your affirmation!:-) Though we are not yet close to 25 years of marriage, I'm so thankful for the lessons we're learning on loving and serving each other. I know we have much more to learn, but I'm thankful for God's grace and faithfulness so far!