A reader (former Slovene exchange students Katja Zupan) pointed me to this article about rereading the classics. The article in turn alerted me to a recent must-read book on the subject by former Yale English scholar Patricia Spacks. Here’s a passage on Jane Austen from the article:
Rereading does not have to lead to loss, however. Plenty of people reread because they find it soothing, fortifying even. And a disproportionate number of those rereaders seem to pick up a novel by Jane Austen. When Patricia Spacks started researching rereading as a topic, it was Jane Austen who was most often the answer to the question of who people reread (especially women, it seems; men, according to nothing more than anecdotal evidence, keep a volume of Tolkien nearby). She asked a young woman in China why Austen was her favorite author, and then a group of Holocaust survivors who met to read Austen aloud to one another. From their answers, Spacks concluded that Austen meant civilization. “We may plausibly surmise that a considerable proportion of Austen’s many rereaders, from adoring members of the Jane Austen Society to casual pleasure-seekers, find comfort in civilized discourse: carefully formed plots that end predictably in satisfactory marriages, style that reflects the author’s dominion over her material, characters rewarded and punished according to their deserts.” The fact that her world is one that values words — think of the verbal sparring between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice — also gives the rereader an extra jolt. Spacks writes, “It’s not just that Austen teaches us about life — life teaches us about Austen.”
[As an aside I want to mention my particular fondness for Spacks, who was the reader of an article about Alexander Pope’s Dunciad that I ambitiously sent to the prestigious journal PMLA when I was a grad student. She rejected it but in such a kind and affirming way that I felt supported. This was unlike another article of mine that was rejected by a journal with the comment “some of our readers found this intelligent and others dismissed it as pure drivel.”]
Spacks’s observation matches my own experience with Austen when I used to ritually reread Pride and Prejudice at the end of each school year to regain a sense of order after the frenetic pace of the previous few weeks. At those times I understood why Rudyard Kipling wrote a short story called “The Janeites” (you can read it here), which is about a group of soldiers in the World War I trenches who continually reread the novels as an antidote to the insanity of their situation. Current fans often borrow Kipling’s appellation and call themselves “Janeites.”
If there was a cinematic Jane Austen outbreak in the last decade of the 20th century (1995 was a particularly rich year with Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility, Amy Heckering’s Clueless, and the A&E version of Pride and Prejudice), I think it was because of the uncertainties of entering a new millennium. That and the confusion of living in a globalized, postmodern world.
Of course, as readers of this blog well know, I see Jane Austen as more than a refuge from a chaotic world. I think she gives us wise and powerful guidance for negotiating its challenges.
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