How Jane Austen makes fools of her fans
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Slaying dragons Series

According to legend, St George, a Roman knight, freed a Libyan town from the cruel attentions of a sea-dragon by killing it. And any public figure who has since dared face-down fierce vested interests or kill off harmful prevailing orthodoxies has similarly been branded a ‘dragon slayer’. This year, once more, in honour of England’s patron saint, we’ve asked various of our contributors to nominate the contemporary tyranny they would put to the sword.

Jane Austen is not a great writer. There’s as good an argument for putting Jilly Cooper or Joanna Trollope on our £10 note – or perhaps even a better argument. Of course, the Jane-ites – ghastly phrase, ghastly cult – will combust to hear it and I am happy to give them something with which fill their days. I hate all writers’ cults – imagine gathering to sing a hymn to individualism with one voice – but the Jane-ites are the most deranged. They gather in Bath – a vast, Georgian Cath Kidston emporium – and dress up as Elizabeth Bennett and talk nonsense about bonnets.

Even so, she sits there serene and prettified on her bank note: a titan of literature, the greatest female English novelist with her six fat novels. Like hell she is. I can think of at least five novelists I like better: only two of them are Brontës, and only one of them a drunk. Even so, she is now immortalised as currency, which is not something a writer should aspire to. But I get it. She doesn’t rock the boat, Jane. She doesn’t know there’s a boat.

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What did she write about? You already know, because her work has been on every English syllabus since syllabuses existed. But I will remind you. A yearning for marriage among upper-middle class women – a sort of very stylised Napoleonic Cosmopolitan featuring Elizabeth, Emma, Marianne, Catherine, Fanny, Anne and Elinor. You might say there is nothing wrong with that, and there isn’t. But if you argue that Austen is a great novelist, how can you forgive her choosing – and it was obviously a choice – to ignore the great themes?

Austen would swim to New York to avoid a great theme. She writes as if emotion – emotion – might contaminate her. She burrows, instead, into picnics and tea parties and balls. She is very interested in property, too: a modern Jane Austen would surely spend a lot of time on Rightmove. She touches on pain – her minor characters (Miss Bates, Mrs Collins, even Mrs Bennett) are the most interesting people in her books. But just as she gets interesting, she flees from the subject again. It’s too interesting.

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Marianne gets Brandon. Elinor gets Edward. Jane gets Charles. Always a happy ending, just like with the Mr Men. These endings are so finite they feel like death, not marriage. Even Persuasion, the closest she came to a masterpiece – it had the most pain because Anne was 27 (27!) – got its happy ending. It’s the happiest ending of all.

Want Austen to write about unhappiness, degradation, despair? She wouldn’t. And so she isn’t a great novelist. Her strivings are petty. Charlotte Bronte understood her. She said she had no heart. I would go further: I would say she had no energy. I would call her mainstream, and the BBC drama department agrees.

Austen was writing at the end of the Enlightenment. She was educated and informed. Yet her acknowledgment of the existence of slavery, for instance, was to have Sir Thomas Bertram return from his estates in Antigua. Did he have a mistress, did he beat his slaves, was Lady Bertram an opium-eater? These are all good questions, and she doesn’t answer them. She doesn’t even ask them.

Instead, she has Bertram rage that his children are performing a play. She didn’t just ignore the great themes, then. She fled screaming from them. Is that excusable in a female novelist, and only in a female novelist? It would seem so. The passion for Austen is misogyny. Bonnets are a great theme in female hands, and only in female hands. 

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Then there is the impact she had on her readers. I will ignore the Jane-ites – they are not literary critics, they are re-enactors. An intelligent woman reads Austen and hears, under sediments of ribbon, the anguish of powerlessness. It is muted, but it is there. Austen should make anyone a feminist. But due to her artifice, generations of women instead drool over Fitzwilliam Darcy – and his big house. She makes modern, enlightened women think they want to live in Hampshire in the 18th century, and that is unforgivable. She actually makes her readers stupider.

She did write the perfect sentence, as a Hampstead Jane-ite once told me.  And it’s true. They are music, but still I don’t forgive; rather, I find it unforgiveable that such glorious cadences should be in the service of something so meaningless.

So Austen is my dragon. Except she wasn’t as exciting as a dragon, and I wouldn’t get to slay her, for she would just melt away. I have read her all my life for – and all I dream of now, in middle-age is – the novelist she could have been.