With the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice earlier this year, the media and museums alike have been clamouring to make the most of the bicentenary, and rightly so. Jane Austen was a wonderful writer and an influential author, and should be celebrated. However, the creation of the ‘Jane Austen brand’ has contributed to the perpetuation of the idea that the Austen novel is synonymous with idealistic romantic literature. While making her immensely sellable, it has also prevented many people taking her seriously.
Writing on whether or not Jane Austen is a ‘romantic novelist’ has taken off recently with blogs like Robert Rodi’s Bitch in a Bonnet. Rodi’s work is typical of the counter-culture that has developed in response to the rising public popularity of Austen. Eager to save her, and reclaim her, writers like Rodi have denounced the ‘Jane Austen brand’ as “a great writer reduced to a marketing brand, literature retooled as product, genius reconfigured as kitsch”.
While I appreciate Rodi’s crusade, I disagree on one main point. I believe that everyone is entitled to interpret a novel however they like. If a reader sees Austen as a romance author, and enjoys the novels in that way, why should anyone disuade them? The escapism and optimism found in the romanticisation of a fictionalised past is a perfectly legitimate reason to enjoy a book. To others, myself included, Austen’s work is a social commentary, a merciless satire, and a record of nineteenth-century life, problems, and preoccupations. While I could happily argue that they are not romance novels to me, nor to Jane Austen herself, I don’t see why they should not be enjoyed as such.
My problem is that this romanticised version of Jane Austen has pervaded public perception of her. She has become defined by it.
The idea of Jane Austen the romance author, Jane Austen the mother of chick-lit, Jane Austen the unmarried spinster – these interpretations dominate the media. They mould, manipulate and distort the idea of both Jane Austen and her novels. I have met English Literature students so influenced by this cultural image of Austen that they either dismiss her out of hand, or are ashamed to say they enjoy her novels. When intelligent, well-read, interested students can enjoy a Frances Burney novel, yet ignore Austen, something must be wrong.
I am not suggesting that everyone must like Austen – of course not. Neither am I saying everyone has to read it. What I am fearful of is that many readers are put off of her work by the stigma of the romance novel. Some men think it is a book for girls. Some women think that they can’t be a feminist if they like it, or that they won’t be taken seriously.
Jane Austen sells. She is popular. People love and cherish her work. People will, inevitably, make money out of her. Yet it is important that readers think, interpret, and come to their own conclusions, without being blinded by or reactionary against a popular interpretation.