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September 9, 2008

Jill Pitkeathley: Jane Austen's Enduring Allure

Posted by carol
What is it about Jane Austen's novels that continue to appeal to modern-day readers? British writer Jill Pitkeathley reveals how she finally got her book club to read and discuss the classic scribe's works. Jill is the author of the debut novel Cassandra & Jane, which explores Austen's relationship with her sister.

"Jane Austen?" said my friend. "Are you mad? Nobody will want to read Jane Austen at the women's group."

"Why ever not?" I asked, amazed by the vehemence of her reaction.

"Well, she is so, so...un-liberated --- all that Mr. Right stuff and women sewing shirts while men were out hunting. It is all so irrelevant, and anyway, we need to discuss books which are controversial --- there is no controversy in Jane Austen."

This was my first try at getting a book group to focus on my favourite author, and it certainly was not going very well. To be fair, it wasn't actually called a book group. It was called a women's group --- this was the '70s after all --- but we met in each others houses, read books and discussed them, so a book club in embryo perhaps?

My friend who was so opposed to Jane Austen was the group leader, so I needed to ask why she thought my suggestion would be so unpopular.

"They all have the same plot --- 'poor girl wins rich man after some misunderstandings,' there is no sex in them and most of us were made to read them at school --- enough reasons?"

I resisted the temptation to refute her first two by reference to Emma, who is extremely rich, and to the various seductions and women fallen from grace to whom I could point. I had to own, though, that if you had been forced to study a book --- especially for an examination, and almost every educated English woman had had that experience at the time --- reading that author for pleasure might take some getting used to. So I resolved to resist pressing Jane on to the group immediately.

At the next meeting the book we were discussing was about whether marriage was necessary for a woman to be happy and how you could cope with a marriage which was unhappy. One member suddenly said: "It all depends doesn't it on whether you see yourself as Elizabeth Bennet or Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice? You know, whether it is all about romance and dreams coming true or whether you settle for the least worst option."

"Oh, but Elizabeth is not a romantic fool," said another. "She will manage Darcy well, but there will have to be compromises on both sides."

"Well," I joined in, scarcely able to believe my luck at this unexpected development in the discussion, "there are compromises and compromises. Would you settle for Mr. Collins?"

Almost immediately the room was buzzing, every member trying to contribute:
"Think of the consequences in those days of not being married."
"Yes, how would you like to be dependent on your brothers?"
"But imagine Mr. Collins in the bedroom. It is too awful."
"Far better to be single and poor or even a governess."
"Don't be ridiculous. Governesses were slaves. Think of Jane Fairfax."

I glanced over at my friend as the heated conversations went on. "Still think there is nothing to discuss in Jane Austen?" I asked.

"You win," she said. "Which book do you want to present next time?"

Since then I have heard Jane Austen discussed in endless different settings. I have seen people laugh helplessly at some of her scenes and cry uncontrollably too. I have witnessed people almost coming to blows about whether Fanny Price is a moral example to be admired or a self-righteous prig, or about whether Emma's attentions do more harm than good to Harriet Smith.

I suppose the most common topic for discussion in the groups over the years is whether Jane's writing is relevant today or a form of escapism. I have no doubt where I stand on that. I rarely pick up a Jane Austen without finding within it some dilemma which is facing me or my friends and family today, or some new historical perspective on a problem. Above all, I will always find her delicious irony and her wicked humour which will enable me to cope better with whatever is worrying me at the time.

Of course, the huge interest in Jane Austen and the new films and TV series which have been made of her works and about her life, have introduced many more people to the joy of her. They have added many more topics for discussion, too --- not only well-trodden ones such as "Was she ever in love?" "Was she a feminist?" --- but also details of the adaptation, casting and dialogue. "Is the new Elizabeth as good as the last, and is this Captain Wentworth better than last year's?"

I am sure I am like many others in that there are some portrayals I cannot bear to watch, others I could watch every week. As long as people feel the same about the adaptations, the novels themselves and, above all, about dear Jane, book clubs will never be short of discussion topics!

--- Jill Pitkeathley