Alternatively titled: I know way too much about Jane Austen and this is a really long post so I don’t blame you if you don’t read it. Alternatively, alternatively titled: How literature can change your life.
[Nota Bene: I realized after initially writing this post that part of it was really inspired by a conversation I had with Apparent Dip this morning regarding those literary reviews that ultimately highlight the reviewer. You know the ones. The ones that say, “Hey, I’m smarter than that person because of X,” or “I’m too smart to be taken in by that popular book,” or “This is the book that I think should be written.” I just wanted to give credit where credit was due. In other words, if you disagree with the post, it’s Apparent Dip’s fault.]
Today in my grad seminar on the Romantic Era novel, we discussed Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. One of the more interesting questions that came up was: Why Jane Austen? Why, when she was not as popular as other female writers (such as Maria Edgeworth) in her own time, has she come to stand in as one of the best known examples of Romantic era novelists? We threw around a lot of different ideas (she seemed “safely” English compared to Edgeworth, for example; her political arguments are rather subtly drawn–you can see it if you look for it, but you can also choose to ignore it in favor of the overall plotline; in the mid-1980s and into the 1990s the British government made a conscious decision to support film adaptations in the hopes of increasing tourism and giving a boost to the economy; she died young and there’s an air of mystery about her life due to that early death and the mythologizing that her family participated in by burning large parts of her correspondence leave one with a sense of possibility, etc).
The more material point of the discussion being: I revealed the full extent of my dorkiness.
Now, I could have made excuses for the fact that I have seen every adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (including the Mormon version–twice), Emma, Mansfield Park, and Sense and Sensibility. I mean, for a while I was a graduate student living in a really expensive city and away from my husband. I could barely afford my tiny studio apartment, let alone finance other fun excursions. But a subscription to Netflix is rather cheap by comparison. So I watched movies. A lot. Moreover, a few years ago I also worked in an independent bookstore in the San Francisco Bay Area. When you are responsible for shelving the fiction and mystery sections and the popular table titles, you’re bound to discover all of the Jane Austen fan fiction (and even read some of it). But that is only half of the story really. Now that I can afford cable (or I should say, now that Apparent Dip pays for the cable) I watch a bit of tv (not as much as I could, but quite a bit really). I fully participate in popular culture. And I continue to watch a lot of movies, often over and over again, particularly if they are set in England (I’ve just completed the entire Inspector Morse series, and I’ve also seen every Miss Marple and Poirot adaptation). They often serve as background noise while I’m reading or writing. And I’ll come right out and admit it: shows like Dancing with the Stars, Project Runway, and Top Chef are consistently recorded for my leisurely perusal.
What I found interesting, however, is the sense that I got from my fellow grad students that I should somehow be ashamed of this. That there was something rather embarrassing about my unabashed (and so not ironic) fondness for Austen-mania. And at first I bought into it. But now that I’ve had a chance to think about it, I’ve had a bit of an epiphany, and here’s what I’ve come up with:
I think that grad school is rough. And part of the reason I think this is so is that it breeds insecurity. We (and I know I’m generalizing here but hear me out), we academics spend so much time trying to justify our positions in the world and to act the part of a proper intellectual (whatever that is), that it takes a bit for one to realize that it’s ok to love sports and Jane Austen (hell, it’s ok to love Jane Austen period). It’s ok to enjoy the mindlessness of Dancing with the Stars while reading Daniel Deronda and thinking about other very serious matters. I know that I can think critically about the world around me and therefore, I don’t feel the need to perform for others all of the time in an effort to prove the same to them. Thus, I can talk trash about any football team that isn’t the Green Bay Packers and then turn to a discussion of Jews and the politics of authorship in William Godwin’s Caleb Williams. I enjoy cheesy chick flicks, mysteries, and romance novels. But I also enjoy delving into those books that might be termed “high” literature. I don’t feel the need to disdain popular novels just because they’re popular. I read what I read, I watch what I watch, and I have chosen the career of an intellectual because I want to. Because all of these things, contradictory as they may appear, ultimately make me a “round” character (and not just in the sense of physical appearance, ha, ha).* Plus, it gives me a lot to talk about, which is good, as I love to gab (my mom used to say that I made her ears tired).
Anyhoo, this is a long way of saying that I often worry about the fact that I feel so “old” compared to my fellow grad students. I mean, I’m essentially starting my graduate career at a point when most people are applying for jobs, ph.d. in hand. But at the same time, I think that being a bit older has given me the clarity to see that I don’t have to perform all the time. Oh, I still play the game when required, but I can relax with myself a bit more, in part because I’ve started to understand who I really am.
See? Reading Jane Austen really can change your life!
* I am using a notion of “round” characters as taken from Deidre Lynch, “‘Round Characters’ and Romantic-Period Reading Relations,” from The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 123-63.