Culture House Daily

Why boys love Jane Austen

2 September 2014

When I first read Jane Austen I had an ulterior motive. I wanted to impress a girl who read her. I didn’t get the girl, but I got the novelist: persuading myself that I was the only 16 year-old boy in Newcastle who had read Jane Austen. Not yet subtle enough to appreciate the extent of how good she was, I was happy loving her heroines, ogling the country houses, trying to emulate the cads, and weeping at the broken hearts and accepted marriage proposals. Repeat this for the films and the endless BBC mini-series.

Then I discovered at university that every boy liked Austen – as did the old boys. I got the impression she was used as a beard (or a bonnet) by latently misogynistic readers who were patronising about other women writers.

Her authorial eye wasn’t rangy and blokish like George Eliot’s. But it’s the hefty, blokish readers – Vladimir Nabokov, F.R. Leavis, Martin Amis – who are most vocal in their praise. This was Nabokov in a letter to Edmund Wilson, before he liked Austen: ‘I dislike Jane, and am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers. They are in another class. Could never see anything in Pride and Prejudice.’ (Austen could have written this – with its chiming prejudices – into the mouth of one of her famous boors.) Then Vlad read Mansfield Park, admitted it to be one of the best books ever written, and gave a two hour, chapter by chapter lecture on it. It is worth mentioning that he developed a love for Mansfield around the time he was writing Lolita. There is a silkiness to that book’s cruelty that I suspect was at least enhanced by Nabokov reading Austen.

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Rereading Mansfield Park today (exactly 200 years since its publication), I think I’ve cracked why boys love Austen. For all the solidity and uprightness, her technique is all about slyness. Austen has it both ways. The prose – yes it’s very good and funny and all that – but it also does what boys of a literary bent are trained out of (in school, uni and life), but forever want to do. Austen says a lot with the most words possible. Her long, necessary sentences heap up meaning. She’s rich and economical.

We know all about Austen and irony – her dramatic and structural command of it: the way she makes fools out of her characters. But I’m talking about irony in the true sense of the word: about the characters themselves being able to occupy two positions at once. Before Mary Crawford falls for Edmund Bertram, the hero of Mansfield Park, she considers people’s expectations that she will go for his older brother, who stands to inherit the family fortune and title: ‘While she treated it as a joke, therefore, she did not forget to think of it seriously.’ Her brother Henry, who at first set out to win Fanny Price’s heart just to trifle with her, has now found himself surprisingly in love. Here, he is taken in by the lies he is telling while also admitting their falsity:

‘”I have had the pleasure of seeing your sister dance, Mr Price…” True enough, he had once seen Fanny dance… but in fact he could not for the life of him recall what her dancing had been, and rather took it for granted that she had been present than remembered anything about her.’

But here’s the most attractive double position. She’s dreamy and serious at once; thoughtful in both senses. In Mansfield she had the confidence to make her heroine sickly, quiet and immobile. Fanny Price just wanders in and out of rooms, having thoughts and impressions, but generates the motion of the book. Emma Woodhouse would be another country-house flaneur in Austen’s next novel.

Before Austen, fiction had been about action; ruminations were for poetry and philosophy. Now we have the first succinct idlers of prose – not at all out of place in an idling class. From here on in all good novels have to be both dreamy and serious. Just like a wannabe boy writer, they’re out to be lazy but taken seriously for it. In fact, this remains the ambition of recent grown-up postmodernists: to do as little as possible and write about it. Think W.G. Sebald, Ben Lerner, Karl Ove Knausgard, Teju Cole and Geoff Dyer. It’s all boys talking about themselves, locked in their heads, and they learned it from Jane Austen. And so reading Austen precipitates the development of a literary sensibility itself. For everything else, there’s the BBC Pride and Prejudice miniseries.

Jonathan McAloon is an arts journalist, and writes about anything with a pulse

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Show comments
  • indranee

    When I was in high school, my AP English teacher told me she was the only female allowed in the all-male Jane Austen Fan Club. To this day, I don’t know if she was joshing me. Sadly, she’s no more (great teacher and fantastic individual).

  • Teacher

    Jane Austen wrote, ‘I do not write for such dull elves as have not a deal of ingenuity themselves,’ How she would laugh at the constant misinterpretation of her work by dull Rushworths too vain and self obsessed to appreciate what she is really about.

    And incidently, the trailer for ‘Mansfield Park’ which precedes the written piece is a case in point. There does not seem to be a word of Austen in the whole of it and the tenor of the film is the complete opposite of that of the novel itself. Fanny Price is not a ‘spirited heroine’. She is clever, moral, quiet, priggish and right, not a blowsy flirtatious trollop.

  • Hunter R

    I have seen many of the version of Pride and Prejudice some better than other but I usually enjoy them all. Hunter

  • Louise Culmer

    I don’t personally know any men who like Jane Austen. I imagine they are very much a minority. Certainly it is not something that woukd have made a man more attractive to me.

  • tjamesjones

    Really? I can still recall Persuasion from my final school days. I can’t speak for all my classmates, but I don’t thing many of us had much time for it. Mimsy.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    Sometimes it’s hard to realise that “Pride and Prejudice” was not written as a screen play.

  • Bridget

    So Austen’s prose-y, introspective writing influenced male postmodern writers but not female…? Strange article… too short, I guess. I’m not sure I agree with what you’re saying; I’d like to see a much longer article :)

    • Halanefleur

      Well, he never said that she didn’t influence female writers, he just said she did influence male ones. Since the article focuses on the male perspective, it is quite logical to leave aside female writers.
      That said, I am not sure I agree with this vision of Austen either, because I think there is ALWAYS something going on in her novels, except maybe Northanger Abbey, in which the point is how there is nothing going on while the protagonist keeps thinking there is.

  • Kitty MLB

    Indeed why should men not appreciate the subtle characteristics
    and wit of Jane Austen, her characters bounce with life and of
    course the feisty Lizzie Bennett is based on herself.
    I find it so amusing what such books called the ‘natural smell of
    man’ being earthy and musty due to outdoor pursuits.
    Now we know that ladies with heaving bosoms didn’t swoon because of the masculine charms of Knightly, Wentworth or Darcy
    (sorry girls not my favourite) but because the men absolutely stank to kingdom come.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Keira Knightley, watch the spelling, luv.

      • Rachel

        Mr. Knightley is a character in Emma. Kitty MLB wasn’t referring to the actress. You are correct in the spelling, though.

        • Kitty MLB

          Yes I know I should have corrected the spelling,
          it was careless…apologies.

      • Liz

        Watch the condescension, man.

      • delacroix

        I often swoon at the masculine charm and musk of Keira Knightley.

      • George Smiley

        Autistic, pedantic spelling police alert!

    • gerontius

      I like Jane Austen. She is the one author i would like to have met – over martinis I think, or sitting by the fire on a cold evening – just letting her sparkle.

      • Kitty MLB

        I think sitting by a roaring fire, her cheeks glowing and eyes dancing with the pleasure of having a
        scintillating conversation..that’s how I envisage Jane

        Maybe todays world is too noisy, busy and suffocating and what with technology we have somewhat lost the art of conversation.
        A bugbear of mine is being away and seeing people
        with gadgets almost attatched to their person.
        At least when away somewhere without internet
        connection you can have peace and be able to listen
        to nature and write poetry or read.

        I’d like to share a jug of mead and have a conversation with Shakespeare..who I might
        add is not Marlowe or De Vere..don’t worry not going

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