Jane was some mighty woman, not, as Blackadder would have you believe, a big Yorkshireman with a beard like a rhododendron bush. The magnitude of her achievement is pointed by the way it has grown with time.
We’re due yet another movie version of Pride and Prejudice any year now. Austenworld is already a kind of global virtual reality archetype, into which those sensitive souls horrified by everyday reality can slip, donning their imaginary corsets and entering an age which was gentler, kinder and airier, for those who weren’t poor anyway.
One regrettable fact of Jane’s eminence is the way she’s held up as a sort of literary fig leaf for today’s chick lit purveyors. When challenged, as they seldom are these days, about the repetitive plot lines, the cliched characters, the endless search for tall, dark and handsome non-entities, today’s chick lit millionaire is quite likely to pipe up ‘I’m not doing anything that Jane Austen wouldn’t. She’s my role model, my spiritual mother.’
It’s a charge that isn’t entirely baseless. Austen is a remarkable novelist, an acute observer of her time, capable of writing with great perception about both women and men. But she too has her tropes, her literary tics.
My favourite Austen novel is ‘Persuasion,’ and this is in spite of the fact that, in the character of Anne Elliot, Austen may have written the template for a billion chick lit protagonists. Anne is kind, patient to the point of madness, and of course infinitely put upon. No one in her family understands her quiet, giving nature. They of course merely exploit it.
Early in life, she bows to family pressure and abandons plans to marry the dashing Captain Wentworth, a figure straight from Austenworld central casting. We know almost nothing about him save that he is handsome and noble, and Anne has the hots for him. Oh well, as women readers will no doubt point out, men have been writing such female ciphers for centuries.
But in spite of Wentworth’s appealing lack of anything resembling an actual character trait, he’s not suitable because Anne’s father doesn’t consider him rich or aristocratic enough.
Rather than sulk or shout or throw things or do any of those things we know women would never do, Anne meekly submits, goes a little bit paler and thinner, and goes back to being infinitely put upon.
Austen writes with sublime passive-aggressiveness about Sir Walter, Anne’s father, couching an absolute contempt inside phrases of respectful elegance.
She could have saved an enormous amount of paper by writing something like ‘Sir Walter was a brain dead fart who spent his days practising his signature and colouring in pictures of himself.’ But that is not how things were done in those days. Indeed, if they were done these days, then an awful lot of chick lit novels would be an awful lot shorter.
Wentworth returns (I apologise for any unintended spoilers here). We are subtly given to understand that Anne is all a flutter deep beneath her petticoats. Wentworth seems to be interested in marrying one of Anne’s sister’s in-laws. Anne takes it all in her martyr like stride, goes back to caring for the unlovable offspring of her sister, goes on endless walks listening to the vacuous prattle of her sister and the in laws, and never experiences so much as an unworthy thought.
In other novels, Austen is prepared to admit faults in her main heroines: Lizzie Bennett is fiery and quick to judge, Emma is an inveterate meddler, and this makes them so much more real and even lovable as characters. But Anne is apparently born without fault, and therein lies the problem for much of what has come after.
It’s a testament to how gifted a writer Austen was that ‘Persuasion’ manages to be a fine novel in spite of glaring defects in the portrayal of its two main characters.
Are we legitimately expected to believe that, in all those decades of being dissed by her family, Anne never once thought ‘God, Dad is such a f***wit,’ or ‘if Mary doesn’t shut her stupid mouth soon, I’m going to break that overflowing chamber pot on her cranium’?
For that matter, are we also expected to believe that Wentworth never got into any trysts with exotic native girls out there in the South Seas, or wherever he was supposed to be?
You see, Anne really is a kind of saint. She should be out there infinitely caring for the sick, or maybe away in the South Seas looking after lepers (perhaps she could have met Wentworth that way, with a couple of native girls dangling off his manly arms. She would, of course, have forgiven him.).
Instead, she’s a paragon of domestic saintliness that is mostly bogus, and in creating her, the very fine writer that was Jane Austen spawned a myth that has been tapped into by a million far lesser ones.
‘Don’t change. You’re perfect.’ As someone wryly observed, tell somebody that and of course they’ll buy your books. Today’s chick lit heroines are rarely wrong about anything. They are watered down Anne Elliots for today.
Everything that’s gone wrong in their lives is the fault of their spineless, cheating husbands, their unfeeling boyfriends, their inability to meet the right man, their psychotic mothers, their bitchy sisters, their friends.
Being a Saint confers upon you the greatest gift of all, the cloak of unaccountability. How can you ever be wrong about anything, you’re a Saint for f***s sake?
Chick lit taps into the lazier, less self-aware instincts of its readership by recasting them as Anne Elliot, and God how they drink it up.
Jane Austen’s legacy is truly a great one, but like most great legacies, it has its downside as well. That ineffably meek, quiet, pale Anne is the ship that launched a million literary catastrophes.