Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Divine Jane

I saw an online exhibit about Jane Austen (c/o Smart Bitches) the other day that is a companion to a real-life exibit in The Morgan Library & Museum in New York. What caught my attention was the short documentary, The Divine Jane: Reflections on Austen. It's basically a gathering of a bunch of famous people who love Jane Austen and tell us all why, and there's one thing I noticed right from the beginning:

This documentary starts off with two quotes and two interviews. What do all of the four people in the opening of this film have in common? They are all men. And the third person interviewed, a woman, describes Austen's work right off the bat as, "masculine... not dainty."

What?!? Woman, are you listening to yourself? What in the world does masculine writing even look like, pray tell? And why is it better than "womanly" writing? Here's a clue: Austen wrote books about women and the issues women cared about, for a largely female audience. Afterall, she was a woman, though some people in this documentary seem to be doing their damnedest to forget that fact. And I believe it was the same woman who called Austen, "small minded"--as in confined (does that equate to what Tennyson referred to as "her small sphere," one wonders?).

I'm not saying men can't enjoy Austen--of course not. And also, Cornell West is as cute as a button. However, the purpose of this mini-documentary seems to be to legitimize Austen as a major figure in literature (uh, duh) by subtly shoving aside the fact that her novels are essentially about finding love and security, and talking instead about how her books are a study of human nature. And some stuff from the Irish novelist about how he'd rather take an Austen book to bed than a real woman (kinky!).

Quite frankly, I don't think the filmmakers did Austen any favors with documentary. And in light of the PW Top Ten List debacle a few weeks ago, I think it's clear that women authors are still valued below men just because of their gender--even when that writer is someone incomparable like Jane Austen. She needs the approval of male writers and critics, and a masculine voice to legitimize her as a great novelist--never mind that probably more people have read her work than that of either Tennyson or Beckett. Oh, but then those are just romance novels.

everything austen button I'm counting this toward the Everything Austen Challenge. Because I can. Two down, four more to go!

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