Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Debate this! Jane Austen's Characters & the 21st Century

I opened my Fiction Study Guide this morning, to begin work for Semester Two, and this is what I read:

...One is the idea that by looking at a text which arises from a system of beliefs roughly similar to our own, we can spend less time on the hisotrical context and more on how the text works as fiction. To read someone like Jane Austen, for instance, ideally you would need to know something about Regency England and its world view. While the worlds of Faulkner's 'Yoknapatawpha' and Laurence's 'Manawaka' may sound remote to us, their characters are at least more familiar to us as fellow twentieth-century inhabitants, than are those of writers in earlier times.

Let's debate this! What's your opinion on this passage? I'm pretty sure we'll be able to get a stimulating conversation going.

I am really on the fence about giving my opinion here, now. I don't want to kill the discussion before it begins! I have a very strong opinion, and will be back with it later today, in the comments section. Have fun!

Pic: Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennet from: MB Palaver


Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll stick my neck out first. The author may have a (small) point, but my opinion is goes a bit further. Yes, it is nice to have a bit of Regency lore to understand some of the details. What I have found is that the characters are just the same today as then. I can identify with so many of them. The author does not differentiate as I do and s/he lumps the work in one pot. You can't, or shouldn't, do that, especially to Jane.

Linda the Librarian

Michelle said...

Yes, yes, yes Linda!! (Oh well, I just have to post).

I was originally going to post only the bolded comment, because that's what made me see red, or perhaps I should be friendlier and say pink. Then I realised readers would need to see the quote in it's full context (which makes it worse anyway!)

I disagree completely with him. Although, like Linda, I agree that details (such as how much "ten thousand a year" is in 'today's money' - yikes!) enhance the text and allow us to understand the subtle nuances, etc. However. I still completely disagree with him! Jane Austen's work, a social commentary, yes, but it is TIMELESS because her character's are human - they are not 18th C set pieces, they live and breath just like us, they feel the same pains and pleasures (well, Darcy WAS a perk, wasn't he?!) and despite the timespan, they are as relevant today as they were then. Austen is character-driven. To miss that is to miss the point, isn't it? Her characters, with their common weaknesses and strengths, and her insight on life and humanity are relatable to a 21st C audience! Why do we love her?!

Yes, this is a Fiction paper, where I will be studying the mechanics of fiction (as the first sentence of his paragraph states), but, to use Austen's characters as an example of unfamiliarity for 21st C readers is not that hot. Other 18th C (or earlier/later) author's sure, but Austen is a bad example, because she is famous for her timeless human characters!

I couldn't believe this paragraph when I first read it. Yes, extra historical knowledge enhances, but it is not essential to relate to the characters. Geesh!

(And on re-read, I realised I said the same thing as Linda, just in a long-winded fashion. Linda, my hat off to you!!)

Anonymous said...

Michelle, let me go one step further. I have been collecting and briefly reading the things that Jane might possibly have read, such as Johnson, Addison, Steele, etc. who wrote almost 100 years before she did. Those writers were talking about human nature and their characters were just as "human" as Jane's were. That is where she got it from. People, meaning human nature. is/are timeless. So we are in total agreement. 'Nuff said.

Linda the Librarian

mamma jakeline said...

I haven't even read Faulkner... Perhaps it is time? But I do agree with JA's characters being timeless. Of course everybody has different historical baggage, but it is not needed for understanding the brilliance of JA. I have been trying not to analyze too much since I finished (well, apart from my paper which is still due, anytime now... perhaps when I'm on maternity leave?) school. I want to read just to enjoy the book itself. But I find I'm still analyzing, automatically... damn it! ;)

Me and Peanut are fine. In week 15 now. Time flies...

/hugs and kisses, Maria and Peanut
ps. Part 31 (1) of I remember Love is up.

mamma jakeline said...

there should be and "!" instead of the "1"...

Rachel said...

Of course he has a point but I feel he has misconstued his own point! As Michelle rightly said, you can appreciate the subtle nuances of a text if you have some background and knowledge of the historical and cultural context. He is saying, however, that you should only focus on reading novels with a context that you are comfortable and familiar with- what poppycock! How are we going to expand our breadth in literary knowledge without familiarising ourselves with a variety of novels and a variety of time periods? I think that only when we have done that can we really learn how the text works as a fiction...its all about comparing and contrasting which leads to us having a desire to read and learn more...
I am waffling, I hope you understand what I am saying. I think, in my opinion, that this is a very ignorant paragraph.

Icha said...

Man o man... sorry that I skipped this one Michelle, you posted it during my hectic field days. Anyway, since I'm going back to the field the morrow afternoon, and hence will be lost in traffic, I will try to offer my opinion, albeit belatedly.

To read someone like Jane Austen, for instance, ideally you would need to know something about Regency England and its world view.

I will stick my neck out and brace myself, daring to be different :-D from my fellow posters and fellow Team Jane.

I somewhat agree with the author of that passage. See it from my viewpoint as an Asian woman who knew next to nothing about Jane Austen before the launching of Becoming Jane (one more thing to kill me virtually). At that time, I can pick an Asian book easily, say Musashi(Japan), the Hungry Tide (India), or Senopati Pamungkas (Indonesia) and follow the stories pretty easily.

Why? Because I know the cultures where those writers came from. On the other hand, my dear ladies here might have hard time to grasp the Samurai soul in Musashi, or how an Indian cetologist like dwelling in a mangrove area of Sundarban, with lots of mosquitos. Or Indonesia during the reign of Majapahit Kingdom, more than 5 centuries ago.

I will give you another book that will be even harder to grasp: Taj, telling the story of the founder of Taj Mahal in India. To enjoy it, one must understand India, the Moghul Dynasty in India, and so on and so forth. Or at least, willing to learn about it.

As for Jane, it took me a while to understand her dictions and style, because I was not familiar with the Regency World. Over the time, of course I could enjoy it, but not without first striving to understand their meanings. Hence Penguin and Oxford editions are dear to me, for they provide historical background of a passage.

I find it odd to be different with you ladies, but here's my true heart speaking. Yes, it takes a while for Asians (who never touched Austen before) to understand Jane's language... but once we're in, we're hooked.

That's the power of Jane Austen. To keep readers attached to them. But for some readers, it does not come easily, particularly due to language and cultural 'barriers'.

Just my two cents.