Friday, December 11, 2009

Jane Austen, Moralist Extraordinaire?

My time available to work on Not-So-Gentle Reader has been waning (due to a possible job promotion *fingers crossed*), but I had to mention Robert Fulford's piece in the National Post that I just stumbled upon, "Snide and Prejudice."  In it, Fulford argues that Jane Austen is, in fact, a "vicious gossip" because she makes it abundantly clear which characters are not to be liked and then skewers them every chance she gets.

Some choice excerpts from the essay:
"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."
"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."
I'm not going to disagree with him, but I think there's a larger point to be made.  Jane Austen wrote to make money, and her books were meant for entertainment.  She was not the messiah, telling parables of the Good Samaritan to make a moral lesson.

Instead, I think we need to look critically at how people today view Jane Austen.  She had, from all accounts, a biting humor that occasionally bordered on the dirty.  In fact, the modern perception of Jane Austen has a lot to do with the PR campaign her family ran after she died--her letters were burned, and nothing bordered on the unladylike was alloweed to be associated with her name.  Therefore, while I don't feel that Jane Austen was a great moralist in the truest sense of the word, neither do I think she was a "vicious gossip."  As usual, the truth falls somewhere between these two extremes.

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