...it’s useful to ponder the way our ideas of the masculinity or femininity of works of fiction can change over time. For example, I was surprised to learn a few weeks ago, while researching a story on Jane Austen monster mashups, that until fairly recently the Bardess of Basingstoke was regarded as pretty much for the boys.
“There is a pattern throughout the Victorian period and into the modern era that sees the great English statesmen and literati and gentlemen scholars manifesting their devotion to Austen by reading her novels over and over,” Deidre Lynch, a professor at the University of Toronto who has written extensively on Austen devotees, told me in an e-mail message.
Benjamin Disraeli read “Pride and Prejudice” 17 times, and Matthew Arnold and John Henry Newman read “Mansfield Park” every year. The historian Thomas Babbington Macaulay read Austen obsessively and, as a colonial administrator in India, wrote letters home comparing various colleagues to characters in “Emma” and “Pride and Prejudice.” None of them are known to have covered the books in plain brown paper.
In fact, Lynch points out, the term “Janeite” — today used somewhat derisively to refer to Austen’s besotted female fans — came into usage in the 1890s thanks to men who wore it like a badge of honor. Kipling’s 1923 story “The Janeites” was about a platoon of British soldiers who use Austen talk to distract themselves from the horror of the trenches. And here’s E. M. Forster, coming out as a “Jane Austenite” in 1924:
I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen. My fatuous expression, and airs of personal immunity — how ill they sit on the face, say, of a Stevensonian! But Jane Austen is so different. She is my favorite author! I read and reread, the mouth open and the mind closed. Shut up in measureless content, I greet her by the name of most kind hostess, while criticism slumbers.
On the distaff side of the library, women readers were often much less enthusiastic. Charlotte Brönte, Lynch says, bridled when George Henry Lewes (George Eliot’s paramour) kept pushing the novels on her. “Why do you like Miss Austen so very much? I am puzzled on this point.”
The heroine of “Troy Chimneys,” Margaret Kennedy’s 1953 historical novel set in the Regency, offered one possible explanation. When the male hero keeps pressing “Mansfield Park” and “Emma” on a lady he knows, she pushes back, arguing that the books, however entertaining, ended up keeping her, well, in the house. Austen’s “greatest admirers,” she says, “will always be men, I believe. For, when they have had enough of the parlor, they may walk out, you know, and we cannot.”
But by the mid-20th century, Austen had become identified as a women’s author. Lynch points to a 1947 usage cited in the O.E.D. that suggests that the question of the Janeite’s gender was starting to make people nervous:As opposed to the awesome clothes and swoony subplots? Next time I go whaling, I’m taking Jane.
Men as masculine as Scott and Kipling have been Janeites and have been enthralled by her sly humor and fidelity to reality.
24 March 2009
Let's hear it for the boys!
Here is a lovely article from the New York Times about the gender politics of Jane Austen fans: