There's a piece in Britain's Spectator about how Jane Austen weathered her own "banking crisis." Her brother was a banker who had business problems; it was stressful. In other words, it had exactly nothing to do with the global economic situation. Look, gang, I love Jane Austen as much as the next gal, but can we please have a moratorium on linking everything contemporary to the poor woman? (Yes, Maureen Dowd, I'm looking at you!) It's really getting ridiculous, and here's why.The way this article opens kind of illustrates my point: "In times of anxiety, I always turn to Jane Austen’s novels for tranquil distraction. Not that Jane was unfamiliar with financial crises and banking failures. On the contrary: she knew all about them from personal experience." This is how much rationales always seem to go: Jane Austen's small, organized world of rules and wit is a comforting escape, so let's take something scary and make an inexact leap, putting it in comfortable Austen-like terms that reduce everything to a gently humorous comedy of manners that ends with a wedding. This is not to disparage the scope or appeal of Austen's work, which obviously owes a good measure of its brilliance to the natural universality inherent to all good writing, and all honest portrayal of emotion. Nor is it to slight the perfectly interesting bit of biography the article in question details - hey, I didn't know much about her frivolous merry widow sister-in-law - but simply to question the weird "Austen is always applicable" notion that seems to have crept into our culture. Not that taking comfort from Austen us a new phenomenon; World War I "Janeites" famously escaped the horror of trench warfare by discussing Austen's orderly novels. The Jane Austen Book Club certainly made hay of the notion: everyone's modern problems are neatly solved when they dive into the wisdom of Austen; at one point in the movie version, a traffic light actually flashes the words "What Would Jane Do?" But here's the thing: she wouldn't do anything. Because she wouldn't be in a position remotely like that or any of our times, and her own world was confined by strict codes of conduct. Which, when you think about it, is what people find so comforting — the strictures within which human dramas play out. So why are they always trying to lift her out of that world and plop her into ours? Barack Obama is not Mr. Darcy; Jane Austen has no relevance to the current financial situation; Jane Austen would not be contemplating an affair with a high school student, as does the JABC character. What's funny is that we never read pieces like, "Who would Edith Wharton have voted for?" or "What Henry James character is Angelina most like?" although there are certainly plenty of respected authors with well-read canons. And maybe that's what's sort of annoying about the whole superficial Jane-ing of the culture: you don't need to have read it — or, hell, even have seen one of the hundred movies — to enter into these fatuous hypotheticals. Because at the end of the day, the Austen industry has very little to do with the substance of Mansfield Park or the complexities of Persuasion. Rather, it's a shorthand for cozy easy-intellectual escapism that does her novels a real disservice. What would Jane do? Be pleased her books still sold so well. And probably be completely baffled and amused by this half-assed coopting of her trademark! And Another Thing [Spectator]
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