Friday, July 31, 2009

A proposition, and a plan.

Like many people, I feel I have a claim on Jane Austen. Though mine seems to me more binding than most: both she and I are authors of satiric novels. I'm not proposing myself as her equal, merely observing that we work the same mine. She habitually strikes gold and I some baser metal, but it's still the same job. I use her tools, I know her trade. We're colleagues.

And yet, whenever I'm asked for my chief inspirations, hers is the name I consistently avoid mentioning. I'm a man, after all, and more than that a man of the world; while Austen is widely considered a woman's writer, scratch that, a particular kind of woman's writer, quaint and darling, doe-eyed and demure, parochial if not pastoral, and dizzily, swooningly romantic—the inventor and mother goddess of “chick lit.” The wildly popular movies and TV serials based on her books are filled with meaningful glances across well-appointed rooms, desperate dashes over rain-pelted pastures, and wedding bells ecstatically clanging over oceans of top hats and shimmering pelisses.

Well, all that's a load of crap. It's not Jane Austen, it's “Jane Austen”—a great writer reduced to a marketing brand, literature retooled as product, genius reconfigured as kitsch.

It's high time I came to my colleague's rescue.

Jane Austen was—is—a sly subversive, a clear-eyed social Darwinist, and the most unsparing satirist of her century. She's wicked, arch, and utterly merciless. She skewers the pompous, the pious, and the libidinous with the animal glee of a natural-born sadist. She takes sharp, swift swipes at the social structure and leaves it, not lethally wounded, but shorn of it prettifying garb, its flabby flesh exposed in all its naked grossness. And then she laughs.

Despite her admittedly limited palette, her psychological acuity easily matches Shakespeare's, and her wit as well; like him, she's also violently allergic to sentimentality of any stripe. If she were alive today, she'd be either a snarky old Doris Lessing type, in tweeds and sensible shoes, abusing journalists who dared to approach her, or a flamboyantly fang-toothed fag hag. Either way, you wouldn't want to cross her. Her tongue could kill at twenty paces.

How did someone whose vision is so darkly, even bleakly, comic—whose work brims with vicious, gabbling grotesques, most of whom are never adequately (or even minimally) punished for their sins (as Dickens, not so many years later, felt compelled to punish his)—become the patron saint of the turgid, chest-heaving, emotionally pornographic genre called “Regency Romance”?

I don't know, and I don't care. I only care to stop it—to fire the opening salvo that will, I hope, ignite the barrage of indignation that brings this travesty to a halt and restores, once and for all, the spit and vinegar to Jane Austen's public profile, raising her to the pantheon of gadflies that she might take her place beside Voltaire and Swift, Twain and Mencken. My goal is to make the world acknowledge, at long last, the bitch in the bonnet.

To that end, I'll be re-reading the entire Austen corpus, one novel at a time, in the order of their original publication, and sharing with you, here, my bellicose pronouncements along the way. Should be a kick.

But it won't be for the faint of heart. Those of you who fear taking offense...consider yourself forewarned. Offense will be generously on offer. So spare yourself, and go mewl in the corner with your goddamn Georgette Heyer.


  1. I for one am buckling my seatbelt and ready for the ride. Rant on, Robert!

  2. Thank God - high time! Love your first post on S&S - can't wait for more!

  3. By way of saying Bravo! I offer a quote from British philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Asked if he ever read novels, Ryle said, "Oh, yes. All six, every year."

  4. Oh. My. God. I love you so much.

    Totally in for the ride.

  5. a friend of mine just started a 'jane austen club' of which i became a member. i have always loved the books and films of dear jane. i just started rereading s&s. and did some research on janey and came to your blog. GREAT, I LOVE IT. i have also started to read the book with a critical outlook. i haven't read all of your blogs. but what killed me in chapter 3 i think it was. that marianne(talking to elinor) calls colonel brandon, at the ripe age of 35, infirm. and that maybe a 27 year old lady, who could never feel affection again, might marry him so she has a roof over her head and he would have a nurse for his sorry state of health. i will follow your blog thru the course of my reading. and i have planned to read all books again. SO I AM WAITING FOR YOUR WORDS.

    i am not a writer, but you could have a look at my blog

  6. As one who has stolen Miss Austen's brand and used it to her own benefit, I can only say it's a good thing she's long dead and doesn't have to suffer the indignity of being treated like Ronald McDonald or the Burger King.

    I used her to learn about both plot and nasty characters as I tend to make everyone too nice -- a problem from which Austen did not suffer.

    Well, anyone who goes to Austen looking for guidance on plot is bound to get what they deserve, but I also wanted to learn to use a skewer and, for that, she was a stupendous teacher.

    I look forward to reading along with you -- every time I read your writing, I am astounded anew by how very good you are.

  7. dutchwomanabroad, I won't even tell you how old I am. By Marianne's standards I'm a freakin' Methuseleh. (I should really Google that spelling, but I'm gonna just trust myself. I'm a real daredevil that way.) Linked to your blog, but can't figure out how to follow it-- guess I'll just check back every week or so. Looks good, though!

    LOL, the most valuable thing I learned from Austen is, lightness of touch. Even when she's skewering (at which, as you say, she excels) she's utterly deft about it; her prose is nimble...musical. As opposed to, say, George Eliot; I love her work, but after four or five pages I gotta lie down with a damp washcloth over my eyes. Thassum HEAVY LIFTIN', baby.

  8. "If she were alive today, she'd be either a snarky old Doris Lessing type, in tweeds and sensible shoes, abusing journalists who dared to approach her, or a flamboyantly fang-toothed fag hag. Either way, you wouldn't want to cross her. Her tongue could kill at twenty paces."

    An "Ann Coulter" type comes to mind perhaps~~~~~~;-)


    Your magnificant tourdeforce metaphors have me ROTFLMAO~~~~;-)
    After reading so far the 20+ chapters of S&S~~
    Looking forward to catching up to the present~~~;-)

  9. At it for nearly 2 years and still going strong! Great admiration, Robert! Does it help you in writing your own novels?

  10. From an 1812 Jane Austen Era Re-Enactor - I love you right now. Jane Austen was a ruthless snarky bitch and is my hero for that. Her letters are better than her novels - it really shows through there.

  11. Just reading the books. I think the BBC Colin Firth Pride and Prejudice is great, especially as to the re creation of the noted best scenes. Just ordered volume II.