(by Alice Chandler)
Why do so few men read Jane Austen? That question has been getting a lot of attention recently. In an article reprinted in the blog Jane Austen’s World, William Deresiewicz writes about “the strangeness, the effrontery, of a heterosexual man who reads Jane Austen.” Another article by Margaret Barthels, talks movingly about her father, who was a lifelong Austen reader, even in a world of “female-dominated fandom.” A 2008 survey readership found that 96% of all Austen readers were women. Even allowing for the distortions of such self-reported data, the evidence is clear. Women read Jane Austen. Men do not--or to be more accurate, most men do not. It was not always so.
Once upon a time there were men who loved Jane Austen. I’m not talking about Tom Lefroy or Harris Bigg-Wither or any other of Jane Austen’s supposed suitors. I’m talking about Sir Walter Scott, the author of Ivanhoe; and George IV, the dissolute Prince Regent in Austen’s day; and the world-famous historian Thomas Babington Macaulay; and Rudyard Kipling of Jungle Book Fame. They loved Jane Austen, and their reasons are valid even to this day.
Sir Walter Scott frankly admitted that he could do “the Big Bow-Wow strain” better than anyone. But that he lacked “the exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description.” He liked her “quiet yet comic dialog” and praised her for “copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life.”
George IV, the Prince Regent—think Regency romances to get the period and the atmosphere right!—was another contemporary admirer. He kept copies of her novels in each of his royal palaces and requested that Jane Austen dedicate her next novel to him. Such a princely request was in reality a command, and her next novel Emma was dedicated to him. The prince’s morals—or lack thereof—were not to Austen’s taste, and we can figuratively imagine her holding her nose as she “most respectfully” dedicated the book to him and signed herself his most “dutiful and obedient humble servant.”
Thomas Babington Macaulay was the most famous historian of his day, and older readers may have recited his “Horatius at the Bridge” poem in elementary school. He saw Jane Austen as second only to Shakespeare in her ability to create living characters. He is said to have reread Pride and Prejudice even more times than I have!
But if we are speaking of true love, no one exceeded Rudyard Kipling in his passion for Jane. His World War I short story, “The Janeites,” told of a group of army officers who adoringly read Jane Austen in the trenches to give them the courage to go on. Kipling also wrote a poem in which Captain Wentworth, her hero in Persuasion, follows Jane to heaven--and blissfully marries her there! Kipling ends his poem by praising God for having created her:
Jane lies in Winchester, blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made.
And while the stones of Winchester - or Milson Street - remain,
Glory, Love, and Honour unto England's Jane!
With famous men praising her as the very embodiment of Englishness, is it any wonder that Virginia Woolf wrote in 1924 that “there are here 25 elderly gentlemen living in the neighborhood of London who resent any slight upon Jane Austen’s genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their aunts”?
Woolf’s sentence unfortunately tells us more than she perhaps intended us to know. It suggests that Austen is for the elderly, the genteel, and the maidenly. In the current era, where we reject elitism and value open sexual expression, Jane Austen can be made to sound dated and out-of-touch. One famous nineteenth-century man anticipated that attitude toward her. Mark Twain thought her prose was “impossible” and claimed it was “a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.” Jane Austen seemed spinsterly and school-marmish to him. His attitude foreshadowed the current distaste for Jane Austen among many twenty-first century males—and some females—especially those who have never read her works.
William Dereciewicz argues quite the reverse in his article “A Jane Austen Kind of Guy.” For him, one of the problems men have with Jane Austen is that they are centered on “feminized spaces.” He thinks that recent movies-- such as the Colin-Firth-in-his-wet-shirt Pride and Prejudice--have exacerbated these attitudes among men, who see ”the world of Austen fandom [as] one of female heterosexual desire”—and that no one wants “a guy there any more than they do at a bachelorette party.”
Dereziewicz may be right in seeing a heightened emphasis sexuality in some recent Austen movies and fan fiction, though I have difficulty with his implication that it’s the women who are somehow being exclusionary. I prefer the gender-neutral conclusion that Margaret Barthels’ father reached about his lifelong reading of Jane Austen: that her world “had a very clear system of rules and morals,” in which she herself deeply believed, and that her sentence structure was “both elegant and straightforward in kind of the same way that Mozart’s music is.”