The winner of this year’s Bollinger Everyman Award tells us why Jane Austen should be revered as nothing more, or less, than what she is…
What comes to mind when you hear the title Pride And Prejudice?
It’s Colin Firth emerging from that lake in that wet shirt, isn’t it?
“We don’t need that!” cries Howard Jacobson.
“Yes, we do!” shouts a voice from the darkness of the auditorium.
Jacobson is here today at Hay to ask “What if anything does Jane Austen‘s writing lose by being two hundred years old?” Austen is a writer who is many things to many people, and to some she is the woman who didn’t write a scene in her book where Mr Darcy is seen in a see-through wet shirt. And those people don’t care that she never wrote that; they love her for it regardless.
This year, with the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pride And Prejudice, writers and journalists are naturally drawn to revisit her life and work – either of their own volition or at the behest of their editor. Jacobson refers to one American critic who recently stated that had Austen been writing today, her voice is “so close to modern consciousness she could be gal pals with Tina Fey.”
It’s clear that Jacobson doesn’t believe this to be true – and that’s even before he asks us to guess which of the two extracts he is about to read was written by Austen, and which a modern writer – a sentence into the first one, and it’s all throbbing and bra straps. The question here is why do we feel the need to compare her to modern pop culture icons in the first place – as talented as they themselves are in their own sphere? Why can we not let her be Jane Austen, and nothing more?
The anniversary of Pride And Prejudice is an excuse to make such comparisons, but it’s not the first time Austen has been mis-appropriated argues Jacobson. The critic Lionel Trilling makes “a blunder” in Jacobson’s opinion when he tries to read Austen as a kind of philosopher – with Mr Bennet being described as “a moral non-entity”. This approach, like that which views Austen as a crusading social reformer, or someone whose abstract titles should be pored over for deeper meaning, is an example of what Jacobson calls approaching “her work in too abstract or academic a sphere” which ultimately leads us to “flatten the subtle constructs of her work.”
We shouldn’t be afraid to see Jane Austen as what she is, says Jacobson. “Love matters” in Austen he says, “because it stands for something more than itself. It stands as an expression of civilisation itself.” Yes, she is a romantic novelist, yet the reason we know that the author who writes of throbbing and bra straps in his example is not Jane Austen, is not purely that they use a modern vernacular. Or indeed that they had bras to discuss. It’s that Austen was interested in the unsaid; such brazen declaration of detail result in “the end of sex as well as subtly. Word it and you kill it.”
This is all not to say that she shouldn’t be highly praised – superlatively so. Jacobson looks on her as “one of the great novelists”, and not least because she was arguably one of the first. “Who did Jane Austen have to learn from? Shakespeare, the Bible, Dr Johnson. She had nothing” to learn how to write a novel from and yet she went on to produce some of the most enduring works of fiction in the canon. “Even George Eliot had Jane Austen.” he adds.
So, Austen is a romantic novelist – and one of the great novelists. Not a philosopher, social reformer, modern TV comedienne or anything else; and that’s fine. She’s a novelist, and in Jacobson’s assessment “To be a novelist is to be the greatest thing in the world – and then there are some other jobs…”
Dan Lewis, for Waterstones.com/blog
You can of course buy books by both Jane Austen and Howard Jacobson from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/s6sdlu), or online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/18khUDf or http://bit.ly/13ahaem)