The Jane Austen Backlash!

Jane Austen, "vicious gossip?"

Look, anyone who's read any Austen in school knows that there are plenty of people who will dismiss her as boring or trivial - in this regard, 19th century literary critics are rivaled only by 14-year-old boys. And, as the Spectator's Alex Massie points out, she's always been despised by certain writers, from the Brontës to Coetzee. And given the current "divine Jane" love-fest, she's cruising for a bruising.

In the National Post, Robert Fulford complains that Austen simply hates some of her characters too much. "When she doesn't like one of her characters, she ceases to be the subtle, witty ironist everybody writes about and turns into a moral harridan." He speaks specifically of her caricatures of Pride and Prejudice's Mr. Collins or the venal Elliots in Persuasion. "Jane Austen intensely dislikes these people, and expresses herself by chopping them to pieces for our amusement. She does it so often that she acquires the characteristics not of a moralist but of a vicious gossip."

Ouch! Massie defends these characterizations as a satirist's prerogative, but has her own bone to pick with Austen.

It is at the moments when the comic spirit deserts her that I find Austen failing. She never subjects her heroes to the sceptical and probing intelligence she applies to her victims. It doesn't ever seem to have occurred to her that Mr Knightley is a self-satisfied prig, that Captain Wentworth is a thoroughly uninteresting fellow, and the sub-Byronic Darcy an essentially comic character in his self-pity and pompous self-esteem.

To which the boys of my English class would have added, "boring." And none of which will effect the pleasure of her legions of fans an iota - let alone the millions more who've never actually read the books but still consider themselves Janeites (the author of one of the erotic 'sequel' series, Linda Berdoll, admits to being inspired purely by the BBC miniseries) - a meta modern subset that's a doctoral thesis in its own right.

Snide And Prejudice [Spectator]

Jane Austen's Pompous Heroes
[Spectator]