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There are many reasons why we can’t stop reading Jane Austen

Rosemary Goring reckons some devotees of the writer go too far.

If ever there was a good reason for turning again to Jane Austen’s work, it’s the recently reissued novel by Maria Edgeworth, first published in 1834 (see review on page 10).

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When placed alongside her far more fashionable and illustrious peer, the merits of Austen are thrown into particularly sharp relief. Edgeworth’s fiction may have been the bestselling work of her era, making her the richest novelist alive, but where she thumps the table and cranks up the melodrama, Austen quietly rips the rug from

under her characters and her readers, puncturing drama at every turn with her devastatingly understated style. Not only does she rarely moralise, but she has been accused of amorality, a tribute indeed to a parson’s daughter who lived the most sober life imaginable.

Of course, no-one needs an excuse to go back to Austen. I’m sure that many readers of this column, like me, turn often to her novels for pleasure, amusement, comfort, or simply to marvel once more at what she achieved with so little apparent effort. As the plethora of TV adaptations, films, such as Becoming Jane, pictured below, and books exploring Austen and her characters shows, this barbed observer continues to attract devotees in numbers more usually associated with platinum albums than literary fiction.

One more bouquet has just been laid at Ms Austen’s feet. A Truth Universally Acknowledged, edited by Susannah Carson (Particular Books, £20), is a rag-bag of essays written by the famous – JB Priestley, Virginia Woolf, CS Lewis, Kingsley Amis and fils – and the less famous but no less devoted or shrewd. Interesting but uneven, this smorgasbord is subtitled 33 Reasons Why We Can’t Stop Reading Jane Austen. Why only 33, you ask? Good question. If I started to list them now, this column would run through to the back page.

However, before anyone thinks I’m turning into one of those Janeites Kipling referred to – the sort of reader who calls the author Jane, goes into raptures about her novels and cannot tolerate a word of criticism about her – I have to thank inimitable American critic, Lionel Trilling for his essay.

As you’d expect with Trilling, there’s not an iota of cant about his outlook. Dispassionately, he observes that there is a repellent aspect to much of the approbation surrounding Austen: “One may refuse to like almost any author and incur no other blame from his admirers than that of being wanting in taste in that one respect. But not to like Jane Austen is to put oneself under suspicion of a general personal inadequacy and even – let us face it – of a want of breeding.”

One late convert was, we’re told, “able to be at ease with [Austen’s novels] only when he discovered that they were charged with scorn of the very people who set the common tone of admiration”. Perverse and superior as that sounds, I can sympathise. There is something cloying about the sentimentality that surrounds conversations about Austen. Some of her wiser readers are well aware of this.

As EM Forster ruefully remarked, “I am a Jane Austenite and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen.” He and a million others.

For a writer who drew much of her gift from a cold heart and alarming acerbity, her devotees’ admiration is not only mawkish but missplaced. By all means revel in Austen for her literary excellence, but please release the author herself from being pawed and drooled over like a puppy, and claimed as queen of the book group brigade as if she were the kind of benign friend who’d suffer watching an iPod’s worth of baby photos without a murmur of complaint. Metaphorically speaking, Austen is more likely to turn up at the door bearing prickly pears than cupcakes. Yet, despite an army of pious protectors, you still cannot deny her brilliance or cease to enjoy her work. You could say that’s the truest test and surest measure of her talent.

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