Wednesday, July 19, 2017

No, Jane Austen Is Not Your Bestie

by Howard Jacobson

New York Times

July 19, 2017

For the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, the Bank of England has just issued new 10 pound bank notes printed with her likeness. A new honor for the writer. Or a new indignity, depending upon your point of view.

I propose we get our noses out of Jane Austen. Not her books, her life. A victim of the most inane biographical rummaging at the best of times, Jane Austen is suffering unconscionable prying two centuries after her death. Where she lived, how she felt, how long her headaches lasted, whom she danced with, whom she loved, who loved her. Ask yourself which of her characters would interest themselves in tittle-tattle of this sort: Mr. Knightley or Mr. Collins, Fanny Price or Mary Crawford, Elizabeth Bennet or Lydia Bennet.

As for referring to Jane Austen as “Jane,” as many enthusiasts do, it is more than an impertinence; it is singularly cloth-eared, considering the precise forms that address takes in Jane Austen’s work. It isn’t only manners that are at stake when one person trespasses on another’s privacy and distance, it’s morality.

In novel after novel, we see how disregard for the niceties of respect will lead to what is described in Mansfield Park as “too horrible a confusion of guilt, too gross a complication of evil.” Outside the barriers that ceremony erects, “barbarism” lies in wait.


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