Hello, friends! This week, I saw an interesting conversation develop about Jane Austen, race, and feminism. It started at Reading in Color, when Ari asked, “Is Jane Austen only for white people?” Sayantani at Stories are Good Medicine picked up the conversation and posed the logical follow-up question: “Can feminists dig Darcy?” There were loads of interesting observations in the comments at Reading in Color, and my intention here isn’t to rehearse those dialogues or respond to each one. But I was struck by the questions and want to talk a bit about how they sound to me.
To my ear, at least, each question can be flipped around and made more general:
Should everything I read as a woman of colour include characters of colour?
Should everything I read as a feminist be overtly progressive?
In sum, should we create a world of books that reflects our own world views and positions?
It’s certainly important to see ourselves – our own kind of people, whether we’re talking race or creed – reflected in our literature. It creates a sense of community, assists us in defining ourselves more clearly, helps us to look critically at our own strengths and shortcomings.
But at the same time, what a wilfully small world that would be. Can you imagine how limited our interests, imaginations, interests, and conversations would be, if that were the case? How unable we’d be to imagine another point of view, or follow an argument that didn’t relate directly to our own interests? How would we learn new things? How could we admire – and borrow – streaks of brilliance that we didn’t create?
We must read widely, read deeply, and read well outside our comfort zones if we’re to learn and grow. And if we enjoy what we read – if we absolutely adore what we discover – so much the better.
I’d also argue that when we make assumptions about the homogeneity or reactionary nature of Jane Austen’s (or anyone else’s) world, we’re limiting ourselves as much as we are them. People assume all the time that Victorian London was lily-white, with a clear-cut and never-changing social order. The reality is much more complex, as I try to show in the Agency novels.
Finally, isn’t it interesting that we don’t have to give our beloved Jane Austen a special get-out-of-jail-free card? Think about the lesson at the heart of her most-adapted novel, Pride and Prejudice. It is, at core, a novel about humility: 1) not presuming yourself superior to another group of people (in Darcy’s case, the Bennet family), and 2) being able to retract your hasty judgement of someone based on hearsay (in Elizabeth’s case, Darcy). That’s a fine message for any progressive book to carry – whoever the author.
Are you an Austenite? What have you learned from Jane Austen – or another favourite author?
Other bits from this past week:
On the same day I received my finished copies of Traitor, I heard on Twitter that They Are About – as in, already on sale in some places! One reader in Texas and another in Kentucky have already read the real deal. This is so exciting.
This review from Forever YA is the funniest review I’ve ever read about one of my own books.