It’s such a pleasure for me to return for a moment from writing columns about the endless tragedy of the Middle East to a reconsideration of one of the great comic-ironic artists of the West. (Particularly now that The New Republic has weighed in to inform us that there’s nothing much to be alarmed about in the Middle East anyway.)
The problem with Jane Austen is that she is routinely and foolishly consigned either to antiquated classic status or to the contemporary ghetto of “chick lit.”
Let’s dispose of the “chick lit” slander right off the bat. Re-reading Northanger Abbey for the first time since college reminded me of the way Jane Austen, even here in her earliest novel, is not some slightly more acerbic Harlequin Romance writer (which some of the films based on her books would have you believe). She is one of the great godlike observers, analysts and dissectors of human beings, of human character: one who saw, with a jeweler’s eye, the microcosm and the macrocosm, the human organism and the social organism, and the comedy and cruelty they reflect and refract.
So don’t give me any of that “chick lit” crap. If you’re a guy who uses that phrase in relation to Jane Austen, I’ll tell you flatly: You’re not man enough for Jane Austen .
And, by the way, Northanger Abbey features a love interest for Catherine Morland, a fellow named Henry Tilney, who makes a brilliant defense of novel-reading which could serve as a demolition of the “chick lit” slur as well. You might recall that back in the day, back in Jane Austen’s 1790’s, virtually all novels were considered “chick lit.” Novel reading was considered a frivolous diversion best suited to women.
But very early in Northanger Abbey , we find the following conversation in which Tilney attacks that notion.
Catherine is teasing Tilney, an older man she finds herself attracted to at Bath. She’s a devotée of the new fashion in Gothic horror novels, the ones like Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho , she tells him. “But you never read novels, I dare say?”
“Why not?” he asks.
“Because they are not clever enough for you-gentlemen read better books.”
“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid ,” he replies (my italics). “I have read all Mrs. Radcliffe’s works …. The Mysteries of Udolpho … I could not lay down again-I remember finishing it in two days-my hair standing on end the whole time …. Men read nearly as many [novels] as women. I myself have read hundreds …. “
It’s a defense of popular culture, but more a defense of reading . Northanger Abbey is unique among Jane Austen novels in being so obsessively focused on the way that reading enlarges and distorts us.
Which is one reason I feel the need to revise my controversial system of Jane Austen character types to include the previously neglected Northanger Abbey type. There were other reasons.
It started with an innocent request: Someone at The New Yorker asked for a copy of one of my most popular and controversial old columns-the one on Jane Austen character types, in which I argued that one could classify people by their favorite Jane Austen novel. It was a column that my super-efficient filing system didn’t immediately yield up, and one that had yet to be entered in The Observer ‘s digital database. It was also one that I knew was due for some revision. Certainly for one addition: Justice must be done to the Northanger Abbey –type person, a type that I had initially doubted even existed, and one that some might find the most desirable of them all.
Although Northanger Abbey was the first novel she’d written, it was the last one she published. It was also one that had somehow been lost in the shuffle-never filmed with Emma Thompson or Alicia Silverstone playing the heroine, or the annoying Colin Firth as the prize. One that re-reading had convinced me was, if not the best Jane Austen novel, the most naked Jane Austen voice in all her novels-aside perhaps from Persuasion , which is in a category of its own.
As I recall, the occasion for my original Austenology column was a screening of the brilliant BBC version of Persuasion. It was the first of the sudden tsunami of Austen adaptations-
another reason my original character classifications have to be revised, since film and novel sensibilities have now interpenetrated each other to the point that a person’s preference in Austen flicks must be factored into their preference for Austen novels.
Anyway, in that column I argued that Persuasion people were in a different category from other Austenites, that Persuasion people loved Persuasion above all other Austen novels because in some profound way, it differed from the rest of them: It gave itself up to the hopeless romanticism held in check in the other novels.
To prove my thesis that Persuasion people were different in kind rather than degree from other Austen types-you might say to confirm my pride in being a Persuasion type-I made a prejudiced survey of other Austen character types: one I now see was too glibly dismissive of most of them.
And worst of all, after having gone through the five major novels, I recall saying somewhat dismissively that I’d never met a Northanger Abbey type, although I admitted I’d be interested in doing so and wondered what she might be like.
Well, I still haven’t met a Northanger Abbey type, but now I have a sense of what she might be like.
To put this new discovery into context, let me briefly revisit the Austen character archetypes with some further elaborations and denigrations based on the way the recent spate of film adaptations have insinuated themselves into even devoted readers’ consciousness. As a service to readers, I have viewed and reviewed three Emma s (if you include Clueless ), two Mansfield Park s, three Pride and Prejudice s, and the astonishing, singular Emma Thompson Sense and Sensibility . Perhaps they’ll help you understand your significant other more deeply. Of course, if you’re with someone who hasn’t read any or all of the novels, this characterological analysis will prove less useful, and my only advice in that case is: find someone else .
1) The Pride and Prejudice Type: Most common, in both senses of the word. I may have been a bit unfair in ascribing a certain kind of conventionality to the person who chooses Pride and Prejudice as his or her favorite Jane Austen novel. I love Pride and Prejudice , but I fear the conventionality factor has become even more true with the advent of the veritable cult that’s grown up around the five-hour BBC miniseries version of P&P , starring the simpering Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy (which then morphed into an even greater media phenomenon with Bridget Jones’s Diary , in the film of which Colin Firth plays a modern Mr. Darcy in a loosely adapted P&P plot).
I know this is going to get me in trouble, but much as I like the Pride and Prejudice miniseries, the focus on the heroic Elizabeth Bennet and the too-sensitive-from-the-get-go-to-really-be-Mr. Darcy Colin Firth has somehow turned a novel of great wit and asperity into, well, a generic chick flick. I think it’s important to make distinctions between the unfairly disparaged “chick lit” category Austen has been consigned to and the sometimes generic “chick flicks” her work has been translated into. And for all the miniseries’ attempts to broaden the Austen canvas to include the whole social fabric, the star power of the two principles makes it into too much of a Harlequin Romance-one in which Mr. Darcy isn’t very proud and Miss Bennet not very prejudiced for long.
Still, I can’t deny the appeal of both the novel and the miniseries to an array of extremely intelligent women who secretly believe in Romance-of course, not with a poor starving artist, but with a rich handsome landowner. (The most telling scene in the miniseries is the one in which Elizabeth glimpses, for the first time, the size of Mr. Darcy’s estate and virtually gasps.) Nonetheless, I find the Bridget Jones connection is troubling. Only the most secure in their intellectual stature can maintain this posture. So I would have to rank Pride and Prejudice types in a prejudiced hierarchy of subcategories: a) those who have only read the novel; b) those who have read the novel but don’t really like the miniseries; c) those who have read the novel and like the miniseries, but are embarrassed by the Bridget Jones connection; and d) those who have read the novel and loved the miniseries and the Bridget Jones connection.
2) Mansfield Park : The choice of the tormented, often sexy playa-hata. By the way, don’t you kinda love the street term “playa-hata”? I was so jealous of my friend Virginia when she wrote something in Slate and someone in “the Fray” called her a “playa-hata.” Not that she is, in any way, a playa-hata-the definition of which involves someone who is a kill-joy disapprover of good-natured, mischief-making “playas.” (Think Malvolio in Twelfth Night . Think Ken Starr).
But it’s such a cool and knowing term that even to be insulted by it is a kind of accolade, I think. Anyway, it was Virginia, in fact, who recently sent me an extremely important essay by Miranda Seymour in The [London] Spectator which argued that Jane Austen was not , in effect, the playa-hata that Mansfield Park would have you believe her to be, at least in the orthodox Lionel Trilling vision of the novel that so many unthinkingly defer to. Of course, Austenology is not an exact or an unprejudiced science, and I must admit that initially I warned against involvement with those tormented souls who choose Mansfield Park as their fave Jane. Did I call them “repressed” or “kinky”? Or both at the same time?
Still, this doesn’t excuse the ridiculous recent film version, which tried to transform MP from the work of a playa-hata to some D. H. Lawrence–like paean to sexual liberation. (See my column on the Mansfield Park adaptation, Oct. 25, 1999.)
It’s just silly to transform a novel which, if one takes it seriously, suggests the snares and perils of liberation into a movie that celebrates it. The point I would make about Mansfield Park types is that there is clearly something smoldering and seething within them, something so intense they feel the need to repress it-and that can be interesting . They don’t hate playas, but recognize their appeal. The least interesting people are the ones who have nothing they need to repress. So again we have to divide Mansfield Park types into those who are attracted to the novel because of its overt playa-hata gravamen, or because of the attraction to play it evokes and only partly represses. Then there are those who bought into the film. The former may be no day at the beach, but the latter are more like a day at the mall.
3) The Emma Type: Again, I was probably unfair in dismissing Emma -choosers as “witty control freaks.” In this case, I feel that the BBC adaptation featuring Kate Beckinsale captured something that was there in the novel but is sometimes overlooked: the charming desperation beneath her bossiness-something I regret to say the icy Gwyneth Paltrow Emma missed. And I love Clueless ! I thought Clueless was so smart in capturing the spirit, if not the letter, of the novel. Here, unlike the previous categories, I have to say I’d warn you away from those Emma types who like the novel but don’t get Clueless.
4) Same with Sense and Sensibility . I’ve said it before and I still believe it: The Emma Thompson–written, Emma Thompson–starring, Ang Lee–directed film version in some way deepens (improves!) what might otherwise be the slightest of the five major Austen novels. I thought it was a thrilling film-the most thrilling moment being the one that so beautifully and cinematically compressed all the inherent drama and suspense of courtship into that single beautiful Emma Thompson gasp . A gasp for all seasons, the gasp of sense and sensibility locked in a shocking embrace.
Austenites who choose Sense and Sensibility as their favorite novel are understandably rare, but those who choose it as the best film adaptation deserve serious attention.
5) The Persuasion Type: Maybe it’s me that’s changed, but I find myself feeling a little different about Persuasion . I’d loved it in the past because I thought it more personal, less distanced, more honest about the terrifying power of love. But now I think I just can’t bear its intensity any more. Instead, I think I might prefer …
6) The Northanger Abbey Type. Because I think Northanger Abbey is more personal, less distanced, more honest about the terrifying power of reading . A power, a lust that can leave love in the dust.
Northanger Abbey is regarded by some as Jane Austen’s first novel after the dismissable juvenilia. (I noticed that Barnes & Noble is now selling a facsimile of Jane Austen’s handwritten The History of England , a work she produced as a 16-year-old. A gift for truly demented fans only.) But, in fact, it was the very last novel she published, and there is some scholarly debate about whether she may well have revised or rewritten parts of it in the most mature phase of her creative development.
But whenever it was composed or revised, it may be time to regard it as on a par with her five more well-recognized major novels. In the introduction to the Penguin edition, Marilyn Butler says “it is time to acknowledge Northanger Abbey for what it is: an ambitious, innovative piece of work, quizzically intellectual about fiction itself.”
That could stand as a definition of the Northanger Abbey type, in fact: “an ambitious, innovative piece of work …. ” Although I would make one modification: Northanger Abbey and the NA type are “quizzically intellectual” not so much about fiction itself-although that’s there-but about reading itself. And not “quizzically intellectual,” but utterly obsessed. Something a little bit different. Obsessed by the powerful spell reading has over its addicts.
Northanger Abbey is ostensibly about a young woman of great sense and sensibility-Catherine Morland-who is caught up in the craze for Gothic novels, who sees everything through the scrim of novelizing Terror-Romances, but who also sees herself seeing things through the scrim of novelizing romance. She’s both ravished by reading and exquisitely enchanted by her own ravishment: a very powerful combination, and one that few actresses could portray on the screen. (Although I hope that someone will give Natalie Portman the chance.) Anyway, there’s only one obscure BBC made-for-TV version of Northanger Abbey dating back to the mid-80’s. The time has come for someone to do a remake and give this character type the preeminence it deserves.
But wait-stop the presses! I’ve just learned of an extraordinary development. There was a Northanger Abbey project in development by Andrew Davies (who wrote the Pride and Prejudice miniseries) for Miramax, but “creative differences” seem to have forced Mr. Davies off the project, and according to a May 6 report in The Independent , brought to my attention by my colleagues at The Observer , Miramax has called in none other than Martin Amis to do the script! This may cause weeping and wailing among fans of generic chick flicks, but I have to admit I think the idea is genius-maybe the only guarantee Northanger Abbey can be rescued from the chick-flick ghetto. Nobody writes about the unbearable pleasures and torments of reading better than Mr. Amis. And he ain’t no playa-hata.