They done ‘er in! And you’ll have to admit, that takes some doing for a writer who departed our tear-filled vale close to two hundred years ago! Even so, such is the case for this defenseless lady, an English spinster born so long ago in the village of Seventon in Hampshire.
And she’s the very novelist who that toughest of modern critics, Edmund Wilson, deemed virtually untouchable. He reminded us that with Shakespeare, she alone, over the centuries, holds the crown of distinction for never being out of print!
Jane Austen, whose sharp tongue barely left her cheek during her short lifetime, and, whose caustic satire survived the intervening centuries of industrialization, through revolution and war, as well as the whirligig of literary fashions (whose onslaught took down others as great) may finally be deflated or drowned in the crazy waves of idiot’s delights!
Who’s to blame? You could say, the rout commenced decades ago. Oddly enough, it came from her avid readers, an avalanche of admirers, well-intentioned people, frenzied wooers, worshipers, and fawning fans. Their adoration, their awe, their banal veneration constructed a jerrybuilt palace of confusion around the novelist’s slender opus.
Just consider the ways such attentions surrounded that Regency gentlewoman over two centuries. Sentimentalists, moon-Juners, yearners for Mr. Right talked and wrote mounds of rubbish about her six books. Yet, those patronizers were, for all that, somewhat manageable. It’s what’s happened since, especially lately, that is perfectly dismal to contemplate.
In our time along came popularizers, vulgarizers, “contemporizers,” cartoonists crowding the poor ghost of Jane! Eager beavers who, latching on to her heroines (or their men), boosted them as the answer to all and every hope and dream. They have turned these into the fantasy of “everywoman,” “everywhere!” from Buenos Ares to Bollywood! Worse, they were followed by schemers aiming to exploit “the potential” of the genre, make their killing to run to the bank. Among them, pre-quelizers and sequelizers moved in on her literary world. Some to imitate, others to emulate, still others in sheer reverence for the novelist. (Full disclosure: Under the name Julia Barrett, I myself have created three “pastiches” based upon her work. All have prospered, to be reprinted frequently and translated into many languages.) And, at last count, we’re told by bibliographers that some ninety-five of that ilk have already appeared in print, with more prepared to come! To think, just six of Austen’s works are extant.
Consider too the next phenomenal explosion of mega movies! The contemporary Beverly Hills-clueless smart alecks, and the Bridget Jones’ swiftly materializing from the books into full-color screen adaptations. Or, in the musicals where Bollywood dancing girls are eager to make Elizabeth Bennet and her Darcy into Ginger and Fred!
Add to these the “biopics.” These are renditions of her short life, with generous fictional additions by way of fantasized romantic encounters that simply never were during her few years! Not to forget the current fever to psychologize her hapless creations! Those come at us as big as life, adapted and in their contemporary garb to agonize over their portions in life on the movie screen.
Or on stage, clones cavort in Regency-style cleavage for the whole world to ogle, as they glide foward in their dance routines, the music up, playing variations of happily-ever-after themes for the final embrace.
More than enough in all that to defeat any author, living or dead! Still, there are others to hammer nails into the coffin. These are the societies of her dedicated, would-be associates. Devotees, protectors, proprietors! Scribblers professing to know her intimately better than anyone in the world. They spew out articles year after year, tomes reviewing her life, her art, her love life or, lack of one. Lit-critters, onliners, footnoters, getting kicks and promotions at colleges and school in whatever country they produce such gems. Austenites, pop up and out, like the cat in the hat, now here, now there, now everywhere!
Proprietary too are such would-be experts! They fret and worry their goddess to shreds. They debate, dissect, cavil, quibble over each nuance or snub. HANDS OFF! to anyone they have not themselves certified, those self-appointed judges of what makes Jane run.
There is also another sub-species amongst them: the politicizers. Their Jane Austen staggers, carrying the burden of the British Empire, its aggrandisement, its conquest — in exploitation of its slaves for cotton and sugar. These polemicists, eagerly unearth subtexts, hidden agendas. Down with Jane’s imperialists! Plantation owners, shipping magnates are the forces of the Jane Austen romances. Such experts have revealed Austen as the staunchest of Abolitionists fighting the evil of slavery. All that and more, to enhance a writer who rigorously declared her craft to be merely work upon “her bit of ivory.”
The most strident of the neo-Janeites are our Feminists. Such will have Austen march at the head of their women’s liberation troops. While the author might have taken up such issues as class, order, civility and breeding, there is a hidden fire in her: she rages to liberate females from marriage, which is the very symbol of the system that impoverishes, oppresses, enslaves.
Some have even promoted her as Lesbian. Is it not obvious, they ask, in her lifelong attachment to her sister? (Didn’t she and Cassandra sleep in the same bed most their lives?)
Scores of journalists and cartoonists maul her work. Wags of the wider world bandy her name and words about bowdlerizing her wit to make their own reputations. They simply can’t let her alone!
How often need we be hit by that first line from Pride and Prejudice? Must we continue to suffer from the likes of: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a corned-beef sandwich on rye will be in want of a pickle!” (displayed in a Delicatessen window) or face those smug little ladies in teeshirts emblazoned with the words, “MRS. DARCY”?
What about pausing for a generation of benign neglect? Who knows, but that her genius could shine through the murky din and reappear pure and delightful once more.