Jane Austen is unreadable - Macleans.ca

Jane Austen is unreadable

Not all English professors like Pride and Prejudice


Photo courtesy of daniel.julia on Flickr

Every once in a while someone asks me what I think about a certain novel or play and I remark that I haven’t read it. And they seem shocked. Or disappointed. I’m an English professor, after all. How could I not have read that book?

Sometimes I try to explain that while I have not read Great Expectations, I have read David Copperfield, and Bleak House, and A Tale of Two Cities, and Oliver Twist, and A Christmas Carol. Can we talk about those? And then I make a mental note to try not to admit to not having read anything ever again.

It’s hard for academics to admit to not knowing things because knowledge is our trade.  Carpenters frame walls, plumbers connect pipes, professors know everything about their respective fields. Except, of course, that they don’t. And can’t. There are always things we ought to know, or that people assume we ought to know, but never got around to. You can, of course, steer the conversation away from such lacunae, or, more shamefully, pretend to know things you don’t. When I was a graduate student, I gave a conference paper about Arthur Miller’s autobiography. Unfortunately for me, the room was filled with Miller experts and one of them asked me about how the issues I dealt with in my paper were handled in After the Fall, a play I had not read. I panicked for a moment and then stammered something about not having considered that angle until the moderator stepped in and saved me.  Still, not having read everything that Arthur Miller ever wrote is far from my worst secret. I have one that is much worse.

I have never read a Jane Austen novel.

It’s not for lack of trying. I made a real effort in first year with Pride and Prejudice, but I found it insufferable. I tried again a few years later with the same result. Last year I had a spirited conversation with a colleague who convinced me to have a go at, I think, Northanger Abbey, but it, like Pride and Prejudice, had the paradoxical effect of making me anxious and sleepy at the same time. Austen is witty without being funny, like Oscar Wilde’s inane big sister, and I just can’t stand it.

Thankfully, I’m not the only one who feels this way. Though he might have been kidding some of the time, Mark Twain liked to take shots at Austen. “Any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen,” Twain wrote, and he once expressed a gruesome fantasy about digging her up and giving her a good beating. I know the feeling.

The worst part is that this summer I asked my students to write about how a notable work of literature has been adapted to film. There were only four students in the class, so I pretty much let them choose whatever book and film they wanted, provided I would be able to get my hands on both. You can probably guess where this is going.

The first essay is on Pride and Prejudice. So now I have to read it. I’m not that shameless.

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Jane Austen is unreadable

  1. From my personal experience, males seem to have a more difficult time reading Austin than females. That being said, while I really enjoyed ‘Pride and Prejudice’ (I’m female, by the way) I cannot get through more than 40 pages of ‘Emma’.

    You can always try reading ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ instead. It’s basically the same story, but there are zombies to break it up. (IMHO, the zombies ruin a great book, but based on your dislike of the book, it can only help.)

  2. Oh Prof. Pettigrew, do I ever know the feeling! I am a second year English Major, I’ve read about 750 books in my life, and I cannot STAND Jane Austen. To make matters worse, one of my dearest friends is her number one fan. I tried to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in an attempt to make it more tolerable, but alas it was equally as mind-numming. Thank you so very much for publishing this article; it is fantastic to know I’m not alone!

  3. I find it difficult to believe that you could get through David Copperfield and not be able to read Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps you should learn a bit about the Regency Era so you understand the financial and cultural background of the Austen books. In a period rife with affectation and melodrama in fiction, Austen’s books are a miracle of coherency and readability, as well as subtle, ironic humor. For some reason men, in general, do not appreciate her works (only 3-5% of Jane Austen fans are men), but her female fans cover the entire spectrum of education, occupation and financial status, so I cannot ascribe her popularity to some particular group or time period. Many less erudite readers come to Austen from some of the fine films made of her books (that would be the 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice which is the most true to the original…but ignore Mr. Darcy in a wet shirt- it did not happen in the book!). I hope that your mind will be open to the paper of the person writing about Pride and Prejudice and not apply your prejudices to the paper with a red pen (if such an article is not an anachronism in the computer age).

  4. I recently had this discussion about Austen with my partner, and you, like myself, quite simply are a guy. Her bottom line was, guys don’t get Austen.

    From a female perspective, one of the things that really did make her great is that she wrote about things she knew in realistic manner. She wrote about her own world and social class. No one else was doing that at the time- let alone from a women’s perspective. It’s clever and witty social commentary about a really specific segment of society- but if you don’t care about the issues she’s commenting on (women’s life choices, social faux pas, snooty rich women who judge other women harshly) then you’re not going to care about Austen.

    Where as, for women, they face the same set of issues in every time period in history – so it easily translates into modern commentary, including (and now the discussion dissolves into bathos) stuff like “Clueless”.

  5. The film _Clueless_ is a wonderful adaptation of _Emma_.

  6. Try listening to a podcast of her book read by an actor as you drive on a long journey. You might be pleasantly surprised with her humor and acerbic wit. Mark Twain, if you noticed, read Pride and Prejudice several times. Each time he wanted to whack her bones, but I think it was out of admiration and jealousy.

  7. If you are up for just one more attempt, try reading it out loud. It was, after all, written at a time when reading out loud to a group was common, so imagine yourself with an audience. This has worked for many of my students who couldn’t read- as in “can’t stand”- Jane Austen.

  8. Austen’s novels center around the moral struggle of her characters. It is a pity that she has been reduced to simply a female author who must be studied because there are so few for the period. I think that a new appreciation would be felt for Pride and Prejudice if it were followed by a reading of an earlier Austen work, Lady Jane. Then, readers can better appreciate just how sophisticated her writing became in P & P as she fine-tuned her style and found her voice, to borrow a cliche. I don’t think that men really dislike Jane Austen as I believe they think they should dislike Jane Austen.

  9. I do have to agree that it seems it is mostly men who can’t read Austen, while women generally have an easier time reading her novels. I also find that to be true of other female authors, such as the Bronte sisters.

  10. I have the same problem with Margaret Atwood, although I’ve managed to force myself to get through some of her books by letting her drone on in the car through book tapes/CD’s, one every decade or so to see whether she’s come to deserve her over-rated reputation. Try the same thing with any book you’d put down and never get back to – make yourself a captive audience in the car.

  11. I remember my prof calling it “a comedy of manners – I couldn’t get through it and had to rely on Cole’s Notes to answer the exam questions. It and it’s literary companions are the most boring and silly literature I have never read. Even the BBC films (which I got a set of for my wife, who was thrilled) left me cold. Notwithstanding the literary comments above, I felt it a waste of time – 19th Century soap operas.

  12. I, too, have yet to read Jane Austen, although I did buy several of her novels and they wait, accusingly, on my bookshelf. Yes, I am a man, which may have something to do with it, although I adore Anne Patchett as well as other modern female writers and have read Wuthering Heights twice which may suggest it is not the gender of the writer that matters to me so much as the voice or the story itself. I don’t think a professor, whether of English or French or any other subject, can be expected to have read every single work written that pertains to that field. That is impossible. There are so many books and so little time. I hope one day I will get to Jane Austen, but then I’ve also got Proust and Zola waiting as well as other worthy authors. Chacun à son gout!

  13. i thing , everyone have some books that people dont like and you love , and others that people love or considered a classic and you just cant stand, but all is personal taste