By Linore Rose Burkard
Quora is growing in popularity. What is Quora? A forum where anyone can ask a question to the world (the world as registered on the site, that is) and expect an answer. The good thing about Quora is that you can ask any question you want, and you might learn a thing or two while browsing answers. The bad thing is that anyone can answer your question—not only experts, but anyone—and the only possible “vetting” is by popularity: people either upvote an answer if they like it, or downvote it if they do not. An upvote doesn’t mean the answer is necessarily correct. It just means the viewer liked it and voted for it.
What has this to do with defending Jane?
Since I am registered on Quora, I sometimes receive email notifications of new questions. I recently received the following: “Is Jane Austen a great writer?”
Now, if you’re reading this, you surely know that of course Jane was a great writer. You might even feel as I did, affronted that one might question it. (We’ve been through all that with literary critics of the past, and put those doubts—we hoped!—to rest.) So I expected to see a wonderful answer demonstrating why Jane was undoubtedly a great writer. Imagine my dismay to find that someone had tackled the question and explained why Jane was only a great writer “for her time.” That her subjects were “very, very, narrow,” dealing only with “romance and marriage of the gentry.” (She paints Austen assigning Harriet Smith a farmer-husband as if societal constraints were Jane’s idea.)
Really? Can she really mean that?
And thus, I rallied to the defense of Jane. I wouldn’t call myself an Austen scholar but I couldn’t fathom letting that answer stand alone to mislead anyone! Here, then, is my defense of Jane, such as it is…
Jane Austen was a brilliant writer. I fear I will not do her justice, but I’ll have to give it a go if only to disagree with the earlier answer to this question saying her subjects were “narrow” and that none of her stories go beyond the upper middle class or gentry.
Austen obviously has universal appeal, and, like any great novelist, dealt with great themes of literature: not only marriage, but class structure, sexual discrimination, cultural roles for men vs. women, the inequality of freedom for the sexes, financial opportunities or the lack thereof for men vs. women, and lower class vs. upper. She portrayed all classes as having value as human beings (including Harriet Smith, who may be a literary foil to the heroine, but her being better suited to marry a farmer is a conclusion that Emma draws only after being forced to it by the constraints of her society.)
Austen did NOT write mere romances and would roll over in her grave at the thought of anyone taking them as such. Her books never, never are concerned with only two people and their romance. All of her stories are concerned with the family circle of the hero and heroine, then the larger circle of their closest social connections, and finally all of society. You never get a myopic view of life as it concerns only the lovers: Austen’s characters act within the context of family and society and their actions, or failure to act, are always demonstrated as having enormous consequences within those contexts. This is part of Austen’s brilliance: showing how individual choices are much more than individual choices. Their consequences are inevitably tied to a community of people, and always shown as such.
When Fanny Dashwood convinces her husband that his father’s dying wish “couldn’t” have been to take good care of his surviving female relatives, the Dashwood widow and sisters suffer greatly as a result. When Maria Rushworth commits adultery and leaves her husband, she also commits social suicide (she ends up living in relative poverty and isolation with a bitter aunt, hardly seeing anyone, including her own family)— not because Austen approved of such a result, but because society demanded it. Private actions are NOT private only—they affect one’s family and society much like ripples from a rock thrown into a pond.
The larger world of Austen’s day is brilliantly exposed in each of the books for exactly what it was—and in each, a peculiar difficulty of females for that time period is exquisitely brought to light. (The plight of the widow, the plight of an orphan, the plight of a poor relation, the plight of a family of girls with no male heir.) I could go on…but the point is that yes, Austen was a GREAT writer.
I’m sure there are many who could wax more eloquently than I have with regard to Jane’s defense.
But at least everyone on Quora (those who read that question, anyway) have the straight answer, if not the best one. Jane Austen was a GREAT writer, and no lightweight when it came to literary standards of “greatness.” (Shall I say it? Here I stand. I can do no other!)
Linore Rose Burkard is author of “Romance for the Jane Austen Soul,” a regency trilogy with Harvest House Publishers, and “The Pulse Effex Series,” YA/Suspense with Lilliput Press. She studied at Queens College, CUNY, and earned a magna cum laude bachelor of Arts in English Literature. Join her mailing list for “writers, readers, poets and dreamers,” for articles, inspiration, writing tips and book giveaways, at http://www.LinoreBurkard.com