A chance encounter with a review on Goodreads has led me to discover a whole new world – men who love Jane Austen. The review was for Pride and Prejudice, and it was very concise.
I was forced to read this by my future wife.
I was not, however, forced to give it 5 stars.
I understand where this guy is coming from. I too avoided Jane Austen. Put off by school friends who swooned over Mr Darcy, girls who grew foggy-eyed whenever Austen was mentioned, I wrote her off as rubbishy romance. Austen was not for me, thank you very much, and off I went to read Dickens and Hemingway.
It took a long time of unpacking my own misogyny before I was able to get past these prejudices – and I have the advantage of being a woman. I can walk around with a book featuring white calico dresses on the cover with nary a thought for my identity. I can read pastel-coloured novels without a care. But for many men there is still a stigma attached to reading anything smacking of frills and sappiness.
So I was intrigued by these men who proclaimed that they loved Jane Austen – their new found evangelism of an old classic often involved endearing personal anecdotes. Forced by girlfriends and teachers to enter dangerous waters, they emerged, glowing with pride, into a new world where it was okay to love a little love. If they could read Austen, what other literary waters might they enter?
As I scrolled through those Goodreads comments, however, I saw something again and again. ‘Get past the icky girly stuff and even a man can enjoy this,’ said one. ‘Sure, it’s chick lit, but it’s great.’
I started to despair. We live in a world where Jane Austen is ‘chick lit’.
I searched the internet for articles by men about why they like Jane Austen, which proved very illuminating – they wonderfully exhort other men to put aside their fears and jump on in. Reading Austen, they say, will make you a better man. Not a better human, but a better man. They defend Austen’s choice of subject: ‘she is only writing what she knows, as a young Victorian woman, but the writing and the characters are great.’ See, it’s not the stories they’re interested in, it’s the writing. Make no mistake, they are not there to enjoy romance. Oh no. It’s the humour, the characterisation, the great writing. Under no circumstances is it the gossip, village intrigue and absolutely not the marriage proposals.
Now, I understand that this is not all men. Many perfectly normal men love Jane Austen and don’t feel the need to post an article on the internet, or defend themselves on Goodreads. But there was something going on among the pieces I encountered once I started looking – some sort of prejudice – that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, until I found this quote:
So go ahead and blame her for the whiny Bridget Jones. But then give her credit for the straight line we can draw between her novels and Charlie Chaplin, Monty Python, Peter Sellers, Douglas Adams and Mr. Bean.
What about the straight line to Nancy Mitford, Stella Gibbons, Catherine Tate and Joanna Lumley? And are we really ‘blaming’ Jane Austen for the ‘whiny’ Bridget Jones?
And here we are back at the beginning of my journey: men (serious readers, such as I once was) avoid Austen because she’s perceived as ‘girly’. Some men are comfortable enjoying her without worrying what is says about their manliness; others go on to read her and love her, but it does not follow that they will go on to read anything else with a pastel cover, or with a woman’s name on the spine, or a book that appears to deal exclusively with ‘domestic’ matters. Serious readers might read Jane Austen, but they certainly do not read chick lit or women’s fiction.
Chick lit versus lit lit. Women’s fiction versus, you know, fiction.
If we can drag Jane Austen into that argument, and silence her voice, what hope have today’s women writers to be taken seriously? Can we really be surprised that year after year the majority of literary reviews are of men’s books?
As far as I know, reading Austen does not diminish a man’s virility. But why not admit that you liked the gossip, that you were interested in who was in love with whom, that you might even watch the cinematic version because Colin Firth does look pretty hot coming out of that fountain? Perhaps it’s time for these men to stop being vain about reading Jane Austen, and start being proud.
Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.