The internet ruined Jane Austen.
It has ruined: attention spans, rock album playlists (I’m sure the songs on albums were deliberately arranged in a certain order), newspapers, book reviews, and respect for expertise. That’s what happens when you depend on Facebook.
I’m not exaggerating about Austen. When I first got wifi, I joined a Janeites group.
And what a long, strange trip that was. Though there are many brilliant fans and scholars in the group, some read Austen like Georgette Heyer. I was never crazy about Mr. Darcy, but all romance fans “heart” Mr. Darcy. Mind you, I’m not a fan of Austen’s heroes anyway. My favorite is the immoral Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park. I know he’d make a horrible husband, but I can’t help it: he’s so much fun!
My real problem is not with Mr. Darcy, though. It’s with the more literal readings of Emma, my favorite Austen.
I fell in love with Emma in college. The 19th-century lit professor dismissed a timid student who asked why we weren’t doing Pride and Prejudice: “It is so much done.” She was right, though we hadn’t done it much!
And we all loved Emma. She is witty and her misconceptions are hilarious. Though the marriage plot is in earnest, as always, Emma is more independent than most of Austen’s heroines. She is handsome, clever, and rich, as Austen says in the first sentence, and since she doesn’t have to marry, she can do as she likes.
The professor thought Austen was a horrible snob and couldn’t see any satire in the book. I find Emma comical from beginning to end: Emma’s kindness to her ridiculous but sweet valetudinarian father, her conviction that her friend Harriet must be the bastard daughter of a well-connected gentleman, thinking Mr. Elton is in love with Harriet rather than with herself, and complete misunderstanding of the characters of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.
I am not saying my reading of Emma is the “right” one. Even Jane Austen wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Yes, Emma has faults but I can’t imagine thinking her malicious, as some Janeites do. She is conceited, often mistaken, and gossips like most young women, but becomes a nicer person by the end of the book. So why the wrath?
For a few years after reading the Janeites posts, I could not read Austen. And the 200th anniversary of her death in 2017 was so much written about in both professional and amateur publications that I overdosed on Austen. (I now limit the number of online publications I read, because, what am I, a media critic?)
Austen and I recently got back together, now that I’ve had a break from the internet. She is the greatest writer, well, except for Charlotte Bronte maybe.
So perhaps I’ll read Austen as my women’s fiction this Thanksgiving. Nothing like reading a good book while the guys are watching football…