October 28th, 2009

Harriet Vane

The significance of repugnance on the part of certain males to Austen's fiction

Dear Friends,

On Austen-l and Janeites, we've had a revealing thread on an article Emily Auerbach published in an online journal on Twain's well-known strong distaste for Austen.  I was not surprised to find the man on Austen-l and Janeites who repeatedly writes on Austen in such a way as to make the texts reflect  a masculine sexuality and place them in a context of famous male texts took up Auerbach's argument delightedly:  Twain was only teasing, and really loved Austen, read her continually (!)  It's a piece of special pleading in line with her anti-political (which means conservative) book, In Search of Jane Austen:  she positions herself with those who trivialize the strong dislike some males manifest to books  by Austen and aspects of her image (spinster, very intelligent, ironic, dry):  sometimes insecure sexually, but more often variously bored, threatened and irritated, resentful of texts which seem to stand for all that in women's culture seeks to control their sexual impulses to put them at the service of women's needs and a nuanced ethical morality and mannered way of life.

Reading just Twain's comments in the jotted notes (ferreting them out of Auerbach's piece) beyond the frank hatred sent to Howells one see he dislikes Austen.   Twain sees how awful are the awful characters but he also dislikes the good characters; from the texts quoted by Auerbach he plainly doesn't like S&S. He can't stand its central heroine, Elinor for example. It's a dark book and you might think he could swallow it but it's too woman-cented and the sex kept too under control for him: the woman's point of view is central to the book, how exploited and vulnerable & the masculinity reshaped so we have sensitive aimiable "worthy" men.

Auerbach calls the piece an article she's quoting from but to me the notes read like the kind of thing a person writes in a commonplace book. Writers keep commonplace books. Perhaps Howells was trying to persuade Twain to give Austen a chance; Howells admired Austen and may be said to have writen Austen-, and James-like books American style.

The Howells argument is a red herring too.  Howells and Twain were good friends and Howells would not misunderstand Twain. It's a long complicated friendship but to take the most famous example, when Twain got so drunk on one social occasion and made a fool out of himself, and was condemned by others, Howells understood the man had been mortified and disliked the snobbery and felt very uncomfortable around it. Hence his overreaction in drinking too much. The scene is written up by Howells in The Rise of Silas Lapham. Twain could have been teasing Howells but in context these are harsh, shrill condemnations and they resemble D. H. Lawrence's diatribes.

In her book In Search of Jane Austen Auerbach shows a disposition to be against "policitized" criticism which is a stalking horse phrase for assuring readers they will find a conventional establishment point of view as to morality. In this article she in effect shows she is someone not at all concerned with feminism or women readers or men's approaches to women's books -- the sort of scathing reviews we've seen of the recent unsexy Emma by Sandy Welch, a return to a woman's film adaptation of Austen -- I would like to compare it with Fay Weldon's myself and will eventually.

I see this essay as part of Auerbach's antipolitical agenda. Her book is good but she's never ever heard of feminism.  She trivializes: "grumbling."  How quaint he is, and how we should laugh.  She's not at all bothered by men who won't watch Emma Thompson but prefer action movies. She doesn't give the inferences of all this. It's worse than special pleading; it has a reverse agenda against candor and truth about how men regard women's art. I'm not saying men should not like action-adventure films nor have to like costume dramas and film adaptations.

This is a significant agenda she presents -- and hurts women writers and women's art. The sexual distaste here not just by Twain but the two men who write more softly whom she quotes in her conclusions is at the core of why in situations where 90% of the editors and publishers are men, hardly anything by women gets published, why women's movies are regularly dissed.  That's what's important about what they write and also this special pleading. The kind of reaction to the recent Emma 2009 (read Gill, a British journalist) comes out of the same gut reaction. This new Emma represents a return to the unsexualized feminine take on Austen of the 1970s and early 1980 mini-series on BBC.  The two actors playing Mr Knightley and Mr Elton (Jonny Lee Miller and Blake Ritson respectively) were Edmund Bertram in the last two MPS (1999, 2007): they have no wet shirt moments, are not presented doing super-explicit masculine acts (like chopping wood, shooting animals, playing male games indoors); they are neither macho male in type nor sensual-sensibility types; the women in the series are dressed in a 2009 return to Hugh Thompson type illustrations. Fussy.  From the over-the-top hostile reactions to this Emma, we see Twain's point of view is common.  His frankness is not, that's all.

But he was not writing for publication we should remember but to a trusted friend candidly.

The attitude of Auerbach is shared by other women who want to get into print.  All four big awards to women this year went to women whose books eschew all women's issues; Mantel's Wolf Hall has a male narrator who is deeply conservative sexually and there is no critique of that at all. This is how Helen Vendler made her career; she persists in erasing as worthless hundreds of years of great poetry by women. By writing this way Auerbach cannot hurt her career :)

Another angle here that makes me write is this way of trivializing and reversing Twain's (and Lawrence and Nabokov) feeds into the sexing up of Austen by commercial and other people.  It erases the real reasons for some virulent dislike one comes across of Austen repeatedly and so leaves the way for claiming Austen is sexy and wow men can and do read and like her.  So she's okay.

Of Twain's works I like best myself his Life on the Mississippi, a great American book of the land and culture.  I also like some of his short stories, especially the gem "Journalism in Tennessee," not enough reprinted.  Huckleberry Finn is an American masterpiece but I've had experience with black students deeply hurt by it so I no longer teach it.  He would not be grateful for such an article about himself. He'd probably make fun of it though from what angle I leave others to imagine.