Thursday, January 13, 2011

Jane Austen & My Inner English-Major Nerd

It's no secret that huge numbers of readers (mostly women, granted) adore Jane Austen, and Pride and Prejudice in particular. (The A&E version and Colin Firth have nothing to do with that, right?)

Today, more than 200 years after her books were published, Jane's popularity is greater than ever. We've had more movie adaptations (you probably know Emma Thompson's Sense & Sensibility, but if you haven't seen the 2007 version of Persuasion, you're missing out.).

Many readers fall for Jane's romantic story lines. While I enjoy those, the English-major nerd in me enjoys other parts, too. I love knowing what society was like then and seeing how Jane's books are often pointed attacks on less-than-desirable elements of that society. (P&P is an excellent example.)

I could go on about the witty dialogue, which I find hysterically funny, but others, who can't stand Jane, find dry. (Chances are, if you don't think Jane's laugh-out-loud funny, the jokes are slipping by you. They're in 200-year-old language, so it's not like watching a sitcom.)

Jane Austen often wrote comedy, but many of her stories are built on social outrage. The opening line to P&P is a great bit of satire in and of itself. I believe it’s that uncanny blend of humor and angst that made and keeps her books classics.

So here's the total English nerd coming out in me: One of my favorites is Sense and Sensibility because of how brilliantly it uses two literary styles of her day. Jane straddled two periods, the Neoclassical and the Romantic.

The Neoclassical side of the fence was very much into science, logic, and reason. Those who clung to this side of things (not just in literature, but pretty much anywhere: politics, science, education, you name it) viewed emotion as a fickle thing you couldn't trust. But science and measurement and logic! Those were put on a pedestal. Being objective and dispassionate was highly valued.

The Romantic movement came largely as a backlash against the Neoclassical view. It embraced emotion above almost all else. (A modern example: Keating in Dead Poets Society embraces emotion and passion for life . . . and quotes mostly from the Romantics.) So we get Byron, Shelley, Keats, Coleridge and other guys who did drugs and wrote poetry while high on opium and who viewed that level of emotion as almost a religious experience.

And then there was Jane, watching the two sides battle, with Neoclassicism dying out on one side and Romanticism rising on the other.

It's no surprise to me that she wrote a novel lambasting both. She used a great story to clearly demonstrate how neither extreme is healthy. She created one character who embodied reason ("sense") and another who embodied emotion ("sensibility").

See where I'm going here?

In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne represent the two sides Jane saw each day in literature, the newspapers, and society in general.

Elinor holds back emotions to an unhealthy and destructive level, using reason and logic to the point that she almost loses her one real shot at future happiness because she's closed off her heart and refuses to feel.

Her sister Marianne, on the other hand, is so caught up by Romanticism--emotions and passion--that when true happiness shows up right in front of her, she can't recognize it. Since it's not draped in iambic pentameter and glowing sunsets, she doesn't recognize the good, down-to-earth (logical) reality right in front of her that will make her happy.

Of course, by the end of the book, both sisters learn to adopt a bit of the other's way of seeing the world, learning that neither sense nor sensibility exclusively is a good way to live your life.

In further nerdiness, I'll point out that American literature also had a Romantic period, but it came a bit later than the one in England and featured a slightly different kind of passion and emotion (think Whitman and his barbaric yawp).

The two periods were similar enough for Mr. Keating to use both kinds of Romanticism with his students at Welton Academy and get himself into trouble.


Susan Anderson said...

I do like Jane Austen, and most especially, her wit.

For lighter but equally witty fare, I love Georgette Heyer.


Melanie Jacobson said...

This totally makes me want to rewatch the movie.

Anonymous said...

Very nice observations!

I read my first Jane Austen--I think it was Sense and Sensibility, in fact--as a young-to-mid-teen and found it somewhat difficult, but enjoyed the storyline. A few years later, in my early 20s, I read P&P and S&S and was amazed to find them laugh-out-loud funny. I'd had no idea.

Lisa Loo said...

What an interesting way to look at Jane's works! Thanks for sharing and I too want to find my copy of S&S!

TisforTonya said...

don't shoot me... I've never read any of these... nada.

I bought them all a few years ago in a nice hardbound edition that looks beautiful on my shelf... you know the type... too heavy to hold up and read in bed. I'll blame it on the weight of the book that I'm still an Austen-virgin.

okay, okay - I can feel the judgment from here. I promise, I'll give it another try... maybe I'll borrow a paperback though!

Rachel Sue said...

The English major in me approves this message. :)

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

Though I've of course noticed the study in contrasts that Marianne and Elinor are, I had no idea that it was also a juxtaposition of two different writing styles. How fascinating!

Sarah M Eden said...

My inner Jane Austen nerd has to add this:

Sense and Sensibility was Jane Austen's first published novel (though she submitted Northanger Abbey to a publisher first--it just didn't actually get published until after her death).
Sense and Sensibility was published in October 1811. Yup, folks. The 200th Anniversary of Jane Austen's literary debut is THIS YEAR! Are you planning a party? I am!!!
No, seriously. I am.

Annette Lyon said...

Oh, I HAVE to party, Sarah!!!

Janette Rallison said...

A Jane Austin party sounds like a great idea! You got to love someone who can make romantic comedies last for 200 years!

Karen M. Peterson said...

I'll admit, I'd had little experience with Jane Austen until I saw the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice. Since then, I've fallen in love.

(Although I'll admit that I was a little dismayed when a Facebook quiz said I was most like Elinor Dashwood.)

Stephanie said...

I first met Jane through the movies, but have since read and re-read all her novels. I'm a big fan, and I love what you said about S&S. I feel like (in addition to the compromise you mentioned) she was also saying that the two extremes need each other and belong together, not independent of one another. Anyway, last year I had a JAM party: Jane Austen Marathon. We watched S&S, Persuasion, and P&P all in a row. I have to say that I like the 2007 Persuasion (my favorite novel, by the way), but I LOVE the older one. It was my first introduction to Austen, and after reading the novel, it's the most accurate to the text.

Ahem. Hi. I'm Stephanie. I read sometimes and obviously come out of hiding when stirred up by a common passion. :)

Anonymous said...

Oh my gosh. Persuasion? That movie? SOOOOO excellent. (Definitely worth the extra o's.) I praise my little sister for making me watch it.

Sense & Sensibility is my FAVORITE Jane Austen. I used to be a Marianne and then an Elinor and now hopefully, I'm a mix. (Though with a dash more Elinor, I think.) Either way, is Colonel Brandon the BEST or is he the best?

Okay, so I'm geeking out about the characters and not the method but you should know that I totally appreciate the method because Jane's jokes are some of the wittiest, most hilarious ever. Although the mom in P&P gives me the shivers.

Jean Ann Williams said...

I want to go to the library now and get a copy of Sense & Sensibility. One of my all time favorites. I adore Jane Austen.

Anonymous said...

I've tried a couple of Jane Austin's books on CD. I does NOT work for me. I think they are hold-in-you-hands books.

I'm going to search out that 2007 movie! I love me a good movie!

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susan dayley said...

I'm such a fan of Austen and P&P will be a fav. even when they quit rewriting it with zombies or making movies in India about it.

So I even tried reading the novel she descimates in Northhanger Abbey--Mysteries of Udolpho--talk about an Austen fan. lol.

I loved your breakdown of S&S.

And DPS! "Oh Captain my captain." Yep, I could get into moonlit poetry readings in a cave.


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