Books Reviews Feminism

Jane Austen, the Secret Radical

Cover of Jane Austen, the Secret RadicalI have one friend who will never read Jane Austen because he thinks they’re “just” romances, and he doesn’t like romance. I have another acquaintance who believes Jane wrote anti-romances. I think they’re both right (although that first friend isn’t right to deride romance out of hand.)

The thing I love about Jane Austen’s novels is that they’re not just one thing; just about any interpretation can’t encompass them, but has to leave something out. I’ll go out on a limb and say this attribute — complexity, if you will — is the main thing that propels a book from being merely good into greatness. Emma, for instance, is both a mystery and an ironic comedy, depending on the sharpness of the reader and whether it’s a first or second reading. And it’s about much more than whom Emma decides to marry in the end.

Of course, all of Jane’s novels are romances in the structural sense, because they all feature couples achieving an apparent happy ending by getting married. But did Jane’s central interest lie in getting the couples to that point, or did she perhaps use the structure of the romance as a convenient (and sales-worthy) framework on which to hang the real business of her novels — social satire, moral lessons, skillful delineations of character, or the many other things you can say her novels are about?

Feminism Politics

Getting Georgian England Wrong

Cracked's caption: "Right after the artist was finished, this thing went full-on orgy." What's actually happening: those officers are going to march out at 3 a.m. to meet Napoleon's army. (WikiMedia)
Henry O’Neil’s “Before Waterloo,” depicting British officers at a ball given by the Duchess of Richmond. They’ve just gotten the news they’ll be marching out at 3 that morning to face Napoleon’s army. Cracked’s caption: “Right after the artist was finished, this thing went full-on orgy.” ROFL, Cracked, ROFL! (WikiMedia)

My impression of was that it provides accurate information in a humorous way, but I was not amused by the over-simplifications in a recent post on sexual mores during England’s Georgian period. Yes, there was a lot more sex going on than in your typical Jane Austen novel, but the article implies that this was an equal-opportunity sexual liberation, which it emphatically was not. Here’s a sample (and you’re right if you guessed that the part that got me was where the author described Jane Austen as “a sexually repressed spinster who almost never left her hometown, so what did she know?”):

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