We are all Jane Austen

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.

And here’s a terrific podcast about the Plimsoll line, which has a small but important role in the plot of A Spy in the House. Thank you, MrsFridayNext, for sharing it with me!

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7 Responses to “We are all Jane Austen”

  1. Mary says:

    Ying,

    Totally agree with your comments today. Plus LOVE the review from Forever YA. Thanks for linking that. FUNNY!

  2. Kate says:

    As I’ve said before, I just recently started reading piles of Victoriana, and since I came at it through “Sanctuary”, it’s not exactly the beaten path! Which is, naturally, what makes it so interesting. One of the reasons I *don’t* enjoy reading Austen is because I find it on the dry side (and Darcy makes me want to pull out all my hair), but once you un-whitewash it, it becomes an actual society, and not just a mono-ethnic history.

    (One of my most common refrains while reading a book is “Yes, but what is happening in Canada?”, which is my own variation on [fill in the blank]-centricity. I think everyone has their own, and the more authors try to incorporate, the better the story will get.)

  3. Radha says:

    That review was soooo funny! You might not like me very much- but I can never actually finish any of Jane Auten’s books. I start reading the beginning, but by the middle, it just kinda bores me a little- SORRY, but I had to say it! One series that I am obsessed with (other than ours, of course) is harry potter- I’m a HUGE potterhaed. If I do ask, what would one call themselves if they like your books? A Quinnhead, Langhard, or my fav- super-duper Jamesalicious Marytine?

  4. Lovely entry Ying! Many thanks for the shout-out, and also for your own novels, which do the important job of adding more complexity, more nuance to a genre/time period we modern readers seem to think we know:

    “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.”

    In so doing, you help undermine what Chimamanda Adichie has called (in her brilliant TED talk) “The Danger of the Singular Story.”

    Cheers!

  5. Ying says:

    Thank you for weighing in, everyone, and for your very kind words, Mary and Sayantani. We’re all chipping away at the monolith of thoughtless assumptions, right? Kate, I think it’s interesting that Darcy makes you want to pull out all your hair. I’m not much of a Darcyphile myself, although I do love P&P and seeing Elizabeth Bennet get her way without making a single compromise; all she has to do is admit that she jumped to conclusions. May I humbly suggest that you & Radha revisit Austen in 5 years or so? I just re-read Muriel Spark for the first time in years and ADORED her. In my early 20s, I thought she was pretentious and stiff; now I find her brilliant. And I love that it’s me who’s changed. And Radha, I have no idea what the right noun is, but I loooooove Jamesalicious Marytine! It also sounds like a fancy cocktail.

  6. Helena says:

    im reading pride and prejudice at the moment, and at first i couldnt get used to the language but now i am almost at the end and am really enjoying it. caroline bingley is not one who i would be able to get on with :/ i do actually like mr darcy because although hes proud he really does adore elizabeth and even with her family still tells her that he loves her…. mr collins is also really annoying hehe! but i think mr bingley and jane are like angels- so cute together hahah! :D

  7. Ying says:

    Helena, it’s great that you stuck with it until you got used to the language! I’m so glad you’re enjoying it.

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