Monday, July 22, 2013

Becoming Jane Austen, 21st Century Style

From The Wall Street Journal, Joy Y. Wang writes about her attempt at time travel, including wearing clothing from Jane Austen's era:

IT IS A TRUTH universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a spare room must be in want of a lodger.

That was the case, at least, with the room in London I booked through the home-rental website Airbnb. My host was an attractive 33-year-old Australian solicitor, and for a spell I imagined a romance playing out like a Jane Austen plotline.

Such an encounter would fit neatly into the story arc of the trip. Days before my 30th birthday, I was on a mission: to experience Jane Austen's England and decide if that world holds any relevance for a single woman of today—especially one who, by the standards of Austen's time, would be considered positively spinsterly.

I've been an Austen devotee since first reading "Pride and Prejudice" at the age of 15, and my milestone birthday felt like the right time to explore a country I'd read about extensively but never visited. I'd see if the mineral waters of Bath could cure me of too many hours spent in front of a computer screen and too few spent at the gym. Perhaps a visit to Jane Austen's house in the village of Chawton, where she lived when "Pride and Prejudice" was first published 200 years ago, would fire up my writerly ambitions. I would wander the grounds of Chatsworth, the grand estate in Derbyshire that is thought to have inspired Austen's description of Pemberley in "Pride and Prejudice."

Read the rest here.

The word "devotee" intrigues and puzzles me. Merriam-Webster's on-line dictionary defines "devotee" as  being "an ardent follower, supporter, or enthusiast (as of a religion, art form, or sport)". I am not a devotee of Jane Austen: I am a reader of Jane Austen; I have written about Jane Austen (I wrote my M.A. thesis on "Jane Austen's Persuasion and Hugh Blair's Rhetoric"); I appreciate Jane Austen's art and ability; I enjoy watching adaptations of Jane Austen's works--but I am not "ardent follower, supporter, or enthusiast". I will stipulate that I am odd, but I don't think that Austen needs me to follow, support, or enthuse about her.

On the other hand, the question of Jane Austen as "an ardent follower, supporter, or enthusiast" of Christianity is a topic seldom addressed in criticism of her work, because, as this author notes, her works seem so secular and her clerical characters are so often mocked. Yet, he concludes his analysis of religion in her works in the context of her age:

I read Jane Austen’s novels against a “long eighteenth century” in which Austen firmly stood; against the intellectual prisms that dominated the period—neoclassical hermeneutics, British Empiricism, and Georgian Anglicanism; and against the pervasive and unrelenting reality of unregulated capitalism. My reading does not seek to make theological that which is not theology; but it does seek to make religious that which, for too long, has been misunderstood as secular. In Austen’s world, religious issues are indivisible from secular issues; and religious observance still has a public importance and is not a matter of private observance or psychological journey as it is now considered to be.

If we have become so dedicated to understanding Austen’s novels in the context of their period, then recognizing the unity of Austen’s social and religious vision, whether we choose to believe in it or not, is an urgent critical task. Austen is a Christian humanist who belongs to the neoclassical Enlightenment. She is not a secular humanist whose work can be appropriated to validate the post-Enlightenment critique of the traditional western and Christian world-view. Austen may be a feminist and a capitalist but she is also an Anglican who writes Christian stories. If we—her readers, biographers, and literary critics—fail to grasp the centrality of that fact, and do not rise to the challenge that it presents to reading, biography, criticism, then we will misunderstand her life and misread her novels at their most profound level of interpretation.

Michael Giffen has written a book about Jane Austen and religion, titled Jane Austen and Religion: Salvation and Society in Georgian England, available from Palgrave Macmillan in the UK (Print on Demand):

Jane Austen is often thought of as a secular author, because religion seems absent from her novels, because she satirises her clerical characters, and because history and literacy criticism - and the literary sensibility of the twenty-first century reader - is overwhelmingly secular. Michael Giffin offers a reading of Austen's published novels against the background of a 'long eighteenth century' that stretched from the Restoration to the end of the Georgian period. He demonstrates that Austen is a neoclassical author of the Enlightenment who writes through the twin prisms of British Empiricism and Georgian Anglicanism. His focus is on how Austen's novels mirror a belief in natural law and natural order; and how they reflect John Locke's theory of knowledge through reason, revelation and reflection on experience. His reading suggests there is a thread of neoclassical philosophy and theology running through and between each of Austen's novels, which is best understood in its cultural context.

No comments:

Post a Comment