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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Jane Austen was a Manly Read, and Other Literary Links

I rarely read much on the NYTimes' Paper Cuts blog, but today they have a fascinating post by Jennifer Schuessler about the gendered-ness of Austen-mania. Apparently in the 19th century, it was a guy thing to obsess over Austen. (EBCs maintain that Jane is for everyone. That is our official position.) Dudes wore their Jane fandom with oodles of pride. To wit:

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...

Really fascinating, right? There's some snark in there that makes me feel as if Ms Schuessler might be ;)

Other literary links of note:


  1. This is a fascinating subject. I wonder what caused men to stop reading Austen. The change seems to coincide with WWII. England's fall from power? The emergence of the Strong, Silent Type as the epitome of masculinity? Somebody must have done a thesis on this!

  2. Since Jane Austen helps us think on the human condition and understand the human character, her books' universal appeal stretches ad infinitum. Any literary lad or lass, any lover of people and story-telling can only extoll that virtue. Thanks for keeping us on point about the importance of that.

    Also, were there not fewer well-known female English-language authors in earlier centuries? I would imagine this would account for some of Austen's popularity among bookish men.

    On an optimistic note, luckily wherever I have gone, there always seem to be at least some people who cannot but keep their sense of equality and appreciation for all human life in tact.

  3. I agree with Sandra Leigh that the change might have had something to do with a new version of "maleness". Poets like Longfellow were writing to the male condition in the 1850s, but by the 1920s he was seen as more of a "woman's poet". I would put the change in the interwar years, not WW2, however, and link it pretty intimately with the new form of antimodernism emerging at the time. But then, I studied antimodernism so I'm bound to link everything back to it. :)

  4. Disraeli puts me to shame. I better start re-reading P&P.

    This is very interesting, but not surprising at all. It's only recently that fiction has been corrupted as "feminine" or "womanly."

  5. I think that it's a tricky thing. While men read austen with pride, there was this victorian conception of women being addicted to/corrupted by novels (I think of Aunt Elizabeth in Emily of New Moon) and there's also the erasure of a whole bunch of popular lady novelists like Haywood and Burney and even Gaskell, who have just recently been revived. So fiction has always been gendered, but as K Sarah Sadie and Sandra all point out, HOW it's gendered changes with the times.

  6. Hmm, that's true. I guess I meant all fiction rather than genres - for example, Victorian women were told not to read romances, right? Not stuff like Dickens (or the men of the 18th century/Shakespeare/etc). But I find that today, as a male commenter blithely said on my blog in complete seriousness, all fiction is seen as "feminine."

    I have to say, I've only read one Haywood novel but there's a good reason she's not in the canon.