Ron Rosenbaum thinks Jane Austen is overhyped . Not, he insists, overrated. But lost in what he calls “the tsunami of schlocky, rapturous, over-the-top, wall-to-wall multiplatform of celebration of the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice .

He’s got plenty of evidence to back it up: Erotic Austen, Tweeting Elizabeth Bennet, TV Austen, and “Austenland,” a film about an Austen lover who falls in love at a theme park.

What he finds most dispiriting is William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter . Deresiewicz is a leading Austen scholar, but the book is about how Austen helped transform him from a sex-crazed libertine into the cultivated man he is today. Rosenbaum writes:

“he could have any number of gorgeous, knowing, bisexual babes at the drop of a hat, but he’s become a better person than that now. A more virtuous person. He says so himself. And he’s even willing to impart to his implicitly oafish and clueless reader some super-obvious lessons about interpersonal interaction that he claims he only grokked to after reading dear Jane . . . . This is the basic theme throughout the book: Jane Austen schools him out of his bad behavior.” It sounds like a very Victorian reading of Austen, the kind of reading that drove Mark Twain to distraction.

Rosenbaum has two problems with this, one Austen-specific and one generally literary. The Austen specific one is that Jane “would surely have made fun of [Deresiewicz’s] overbrimming self-satisfaction. Deresiewicz is exactly the kind of sententious character she particularly liked to skewer in a not-nice way.” The generic literary reason is that literature is not merely for moral training. He asks, not a little plaintively, “Is Lolita not literature? Is Anna Karenina not literature? Is Coriolanus not literature? I rest my case.”

You can’t reduce even a morally interested author like Austen to a series of “teachable moments.” He’s right about Austen’s limitations; she doesn’t question “the moral order of the universe.” Probably she never thought to do so. But he also has a sense of what she does “inimitably”: “Austen writes brilliantly about Bad Behavior in a little world,” and the novels are cheapened when turned into “little sermons on Good Behavior.”

More on: Literature

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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