Classic Remarks 2: Does Jane Austen belong in the literary canon?


Some argue Jane Austen writes “fluff” and others argue she belongs in the canon because she writes witty social commentary.  Do you think Austen belongs in the canon? Why or why not?

Some people are bozos whose literary ears are clogged with the fluff of snobbishness (as opposed to the stuff of flobbishness, which I thought I made up for this pun but can actually mean something about the nature of spit. Google “to flob.”). Jane Austen isn’t quite a personal favorite yet but she is indisputably a worthy member of the world’s literary canon.

emmatitlepageMy experience is a bit limited, I admit. I read Emma once and have frequently seen bits of Austen films, mostly 2005’s Pride and Prejudice. My mother and sister are major Austen fans, and I’ve discussed the stories with them extensively. A most trusted and literate friend read every one of her novels for a college course and has also discussed them with me. The books themselves made him a committed Austen fan. Thus I feel confident in what I assert.

Austen seems to achieve with near perfection just about everything she sets out to achieve in her stories. The country gentlemen and ladies of her England are not larger than life, they are alive. They are not heroes or heroines, but fallen children of God in which both their sin and His grace are revealed. And these revelations come not through melodrama, nor thrilling adventure, nor the many contrivances which seed most of literature both low and high. They come through men and women interacting as men and women really do, and no less real for living in words rather than flesh. Her characters are fictional, but not false.

The question of reliable or unreliable narrators is irrelevant with her, because you can always rely on her women to describe the world exactly as they see it, and can always be sure that they are missing much. In following these women’s inner journies, the reader in turn learns how much he is likely misunderstanding about the people around him. Journeying together, the reader and protagonist’s eyes are jointly opened to the depth and mysteries that each human being holds within them, no matter how they appear outwardly.

Depth, mysteries, and also foolishness. Delve deeply enough and some amount of foolishness will be found in everyone. I think Austen understands that, as perhaps very few authors do. She also understands that acknowledging this foolishness is a way towards humility, good nature, and wisdom.

Austen is often funny—so much that it has been common for her novels to be called comedies—but she does not write jokes, gags, or any of the exaggeration which is normally associated with funny stories. Rather, we laugh as we truly see ourselves revealed in her characters. Such as when Emma gets so fed up with a busybody woman (whose natterings have also exasperated us the readers) that she finally puts her down wittily—we laugh, and then soon feel guilty as we realize how cruel it was for Emma to do that. We’re grateful that she has as wise and honest a friend as Mr. Knightley to call her out, and become grateful for our own friends who have done the same for us at various times.

There are gentler laughters throughout Austen’s books as well, but all come from careful observations of the follies and foibles of real persons. Every exaggeration a character makes is also one that has been made either by ourselves or people we know. Their every mistake and every triumph are relatable. The art of accurately describing people can claim Jane Austen as one of its finest practitioners.

Austen’s one break from reality is how all major issues are satisfactorily resolved by the book’s end, but that is a concession to fiction that elevates her stories from mere observation of human nature to truth-bearing tales with the power to affect peoples’ lives. I wish more exalted novelists would make such a concession.

In leaving, I encourage you to peruse this collection of what Austen’s peers in the literary canon have said about her. If they believe her one of the most deserving of their ranks, what fool could object?

C.S. Lewis:

These are the concepts by which Jane Austen grasps the world. … All is hard, clear, definable; by some modern standards, even naively so. The hardness is, of course, for oneself, not for one’s neighbors. … Contrasted with the world of modern fiction, Jane Austen’s is at once less soft and less cruel.

Sir Walter Scott:

That young Lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.

G.K. Chesterton:

I fancy that Jane Austen was stronger, sharper and shrewder than Charlotte Bronte; I am quite sure that she was stronger, sharper and shrewder than George Eliot. She could do one thing neither of them could do: she could coolly and sensibly describe a man.

Next up:

Is Romeo and Juliet a tragic love story or an ironic comedy? Should we take the play seriously when its protagonists are so young?

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

1 thought on “Classic Remarks 2: Does Jane Austen belong in the literary canon?”

  1. I appreciate that you point out that Austen is funny because I think it’s somewhat easy to overlook that aspect of her writing. But the scene in P&P when Mr. Collins dines at Longbourne and admits he plans compliments in advance makes me laugh every time. Her wit is subtle, but it’s sharp!

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