Persuasions #3, 1981 Pages 19-20
You have to be suspicious of people who label things delicious which are not to be eaten: babies, boutiques, books. These are the same people who will insist on confusing novels with peaches: “juicy,” they will say, or “fuzzy” or “pithy.” Perhaps it comes of memorizing that old adage in high school: “Some books are made to be tasted, others to be chewed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Was that Bacon or was it Lamb? One can check it in Bartlett’s, but even that is a pear. (Actually, it’s Bacon.)
Puns, literary and otherwise, are a matter of – taste, as are the books one reads and likes. Literary tastes change, of course, but there are a few staple writers whose reputations seem not to have been affected much by time. One is Shakespeare; another is Jane Austen. A fondness for Shakespeare is entirely acceptable. We even have Shakespeare festivals in the United States. But Jane Austen?
Admit to a passion for Jane, and any of several things might occur. The person to whom you have confessed your admiration may clap you heartily on the back as a person of great discernment. Maybe. But it is entirely possible, and far more likely, that the person to whom you’ve admitted your preference will enquire, “Jane Austen, the kid who played at Wimbledon? Do you know her?”
Answering that question with an identification of Jane Austen as an 18th century lady novelist, the spinster daughter of a country parson from Steventon, Hampshire, England, even though the explanation may be offered in the most off-hand manner, may peg you, for better or for worse, as a literary snob.
Intellectually, being labelled a literary snob is perhaps on a level with designer-label clothing. On the other hand, in a name-conscious world, it’s not the worst tag to be wearing. “Designer-literature,” if you will, would definitely, but definitely, have to include the classic Miss Austen. And she’s so easy to get into, so comfortable. In an Austen work, you do not have to decipher long Russian names, nor endure long philosophical digressions. The Austen novels are compact, elegant, fun, and relevant!
It is with absolute delight that her fans noted the lead to the Prince Charles wedding story in a recent Time magazine essay, a direct quote from Miss Jane herself, indeed the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice:
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” If that is not relevant, then what is?
One of the fashion-plate arbiters of society said once that you can never be too thin or too rich. To that one would add, you can never be too well-read. Thus one may encourage an Austen appetite. You may not be able to afford an original Halston, or a Valentino, but you can certainly afford a book. The real genuine article, Jane Austen.
Acquire, to return to the original metaphor, a taste for Austen. The benefits are sublime. You find out, after years of dreading the classics because someone made you read Dickens when you should have been reading The Catcher in the Rye, that the classics are fabulously funny, entertaining, thoughout-provoking. Off-putting is the customary word for them, the books you “ought” to read and like, and then somehow you pick one up. Maybe it’s the only one on the shelf in the rental cabin at Tahoe, or it’s been sneakily re-issued with a lurid airport cover in a paperback, and you read it, and it’s great. What a treat – something akin to waking up one day and finding out that you like grapefruit or yoghurt. Now you can be obnoxious back to all those supercilious bores at parties who tell you they’ve re-read Trollope this past summer, and you’ve never read him in the first place.
You can be forgiven your literary snobbery, your connoisseur’s stance toward the written word. You can gorge yourself on Austen and not get fat. She’s both a comic and a romantic, a nearly impossible combination. Like the recently touted Beverly Hills diet, in which you eat nothing but one kind of food for days at a time, an Austen diet, Sense and Sensibility, say, with a little Persuasion on the side, will sharpen your taste. Unlike the Beverly Hills diet, however, the Austen regimen will not be found deficient in essential ingredients or nutrients. It will not dull but will whet your appetite for good fiction. On the down side, you have to watch for real snobbery in yourself, the self-congratulatory zeal of the convert.
I sat next to a young lady on an airplane recently. She was reading a popular romance; I was re-reading Persuasion. “What’s that about?” I queried, noting with disapproval the cover of her book, with the full-bosomed heroine swooning into someone’s tall, dark, and handsome arms.
“Oh, it’s lovely,” she sighed. “It’s all about a woman who meets her old lover, years later, only this time they get married. It’s very romantic,” and then to be polite she asked, “And yours?”
“Same as yours,” I smiled.
“You’re kidding?” She eyed my book suspiciously.
“No, really,” I protested, “and it’s set in the 18th century, in England.”
“Oh,” said my new friend, “let me write it down. I just love historical novels.”
With suppressed glee, I hoped that she had a sense of humor as well as a love of romance. And just as I was settling smugly down into my shell of literary elitism, the young woman said, “I did like that play she wrote for television, the one with Lizzie and Mr. Darcy. He was so stuck-up, wasn’t he?”
Weakly I replied, “You could read that too.”
“Oh! Have they made a book out of it already? Delicious!”
Now there was food for thought!