On Pride and Prejudice

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.

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8 responses to this post.

  1. And that, my dear, is a perfect illustration of why you shouldn’t be in grad school. Because in the world of the fulltime job, people get to know your strengths and help you work towards them, while also helping you to work on those weaknesses. And they can simultaneously respect your trash talk capabilities (very handy around the coffee urn or water cooler) and your intellect. And they know you can think critically, which is why they hired you in the first place.

    Reply

  2. Clair: Oh I don’t know about that. I am currently working and my boss recognizes the strengths that I have that are needed to accomplish my job as an editorial assistant, but beyond that, he has absolutely no interest. He could actually care less about my critical thinking skills. And my professors, on the other hand, do help me work towards knowing my strengths and weeding out my weaknesses. A few of them even talk sports trash with me. Again, I think it’s a matter of where one is in one’s own personal development. For those who feel more or less comfortable with themselves and their positions in the world (professional or otherwise) it’s easier to recognize and encourage that discovery in others. When one is busy trying to figure out where one stands, however, performing is, in some sense, a necessary step towards self-discovery.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Queen Mother on November 27, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    Hooray for being able to admit that you can use your brain and at the same time zone out to give yourself enjoyment that is purely enjoyment. It is that ability to let yourself enjoy the whole spectrum of living that allows you to believe in the “magic” of Christmas and the world around you as well as delve into the intellectual side of life and learning. For you the intellectual stimulation and the zoning out is your ying/yang side of life. You have to have one to have the other and to enjoy both. Good for you in realizing that you can have both and enjoy life to the fullest.

    PS – I like the new look of the blog and also my ears have recovered from those years of your youth and they miss the stimulation.

    Reply

  4. Not to be defensive, but for me, grad school was a full time job. More than that most of the time, but for most of my career it was just a poorly paying full time job.

    And I think it is more the group you are surrounded with in either situation. Prior to grad school I had a “real” job; it paid well and I enjoyed it, but one of the primary reasons I left and returned to school was that I never felt like I had a community I shared anything with. In contrast, my grad school cohort had many of the same non-research interests: sports, music, movies, politics, even books. I found a much larger group of people who were into the same things, even outside of school. Perhaps that is just geologists, and how amazing we are. But I think those communities exist, just not everywhere.

    And to agree with Loose Baggy Monster, I think a big chunk of it is the relative maturity of the students. I see it in my own life. There was a time when I viewed myself and the eco-vegetarian-pacifist-scientist, and at that time I would never have admitted how much I’d love to spend all Sunday with a 6-pack and the NFL. It took a while to admit to myself that the apparent inconsistency between being a eco-veggo-academic and beer-drinking football fan was an entirely false construct. I put it there to help me define myself by what I thought I should be. Now it is gone, and I can fully enjoy the Bears beating the Packers at Lambeau, as they did earlier this season (not to bring up sore points or anything…) Same thing goes with being a NFL loving dude who likes to attend author events and poetry readings. I never knew people in the work force who shared, or even respected those interests, but I think that is more a function of the group I worked with, rather than working outside of academia in general.

    Reply

  5. Queen Mother: Thank you! Although you may soon regret telling me that you miss the tired ears…

    Thermochronic: that’s exactly what I’m trying to get at! And I know you have to bring up the Bears’ victory over the Packers because it’s, well, one of the only victories they’ve had this season (generous of us to give it to you, no?).

    Reply

  6. I agree completely. 🙂 People always seem surprised that I love to read and also love certain TV shows. I think a certain amount of balance is called for; if I watch a ton of TV or movies, I start to really crave reading and vice versa.

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  7. It sounds great that you have such a balanced attitude. I think that’s surely a great benefit of taking some time off before going to grad school — it can give you some perspective, so you’re less likely to get caught up in silly games.

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  8. Eva: “Everything in moderation” is something I strive for. Whether I achieve it is another story entirely, but it’s a good goal. 🙂

    Dorothy: I think that’s the key–perspective. I always recommend taking time off–it helps to see that there is a world outside of academia. And things like “fun” reading, knitting, spinning, hanging out with my husband…those are my lifelines. They help me keep that sense of perspective firmly in place.

    Reply

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