Just Like a Woman

By Audrey BilgerSeptember 5, 2011

Just Like a Woman

A Jane Austen Education by William Deresiewicz
Why Jane Austen? by Rachel M. Brownstein

Illustration: Les invisibles en Tete-a-Tete (detail), from the series Le Supreme Bon Ton, No. 16; artist unknown; published by Martinet, Paris, c. 1810-1815 with thanks to Two Nerdy History Girls

WHEN V.S. NAIPAUL picked a fight with women writers in an interview earlier this year, citing a "narrow view of the world" as the source of female inferiority, he scorned Jane Austen for "her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world," declaring that no woman, not even Austen, was his literary equal. "A woman," he said, "is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing." Women at best produce "feminine tosh."

If Naipaul's goal in putting down women writers was to get attention, he couldn't have picked a better target than Jane Austen. In fact, it's hard to imagine any other woman whose disparagement would have garnered so much notice. In a word-association game, if I say "woman author," odds are the first name in your head would be that of the creator of Pride and Prejudice. It's worth noting that when I tried to talk to one of my nonliterary friends about Naipaul's remarks, his immediate response was "Who's V.S. Naipaul?" Nobody ever says, "Who's Jane Austen?"

Naipaul's comments drew a flurry of responses, mostly of the eye-rolling, here-we-go-again variety, but clearly he touched a nerve. "The idea that Naipaul imagines he is a better writer than Jane Austen would be simply hilarious," wrote Francine Prose, "if the prejudice it reveals weren't so common and didn't have such a damaging effect on what some of us have chosen to do with our lives." An editorial on the Economist blog noted that if Naipaul's flame-throwing could prompt "a forthright discussion of gender bias in the literary world," then he would have performed a "useful public service": "No doubt there are readers who share Mr. Naipaul's belief that women writers are inferior, but such misogyny tends to be indulged in secret, or else couched in cowardly qualifications and euphemism."

Like it or not, the reality on the ground is that Jane Austen benefits and suffers from being associated with women, and her status as a major writer has been complicated by gender issues since her earliest readers. We can thank Austen's brother Henry for helping to frame the terms of the early debate. After his sister's death, he prepared the two completed novels she left behind (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion) for publication and included a short biographical essay on the "authoress," which was, for most of the 19th century, the only source of information about Jane Austen, the person. To this mini-biography, he attached a few extracts from her private writing; one of these inspired an entire school of thought on how to read the novels, a fragment of a letter he claims was more of an example of "her temper, taste, feelings, and principles than any thing which the pen of a biographer can produce." He sets up the fragment by calling it a "playful defence of herself from a mock charge of having pilfered the manuscripts of a young relation." Then he supplies the excerpt:

What should I do, my dearest E., with your manly, vigorous sketches, so full of life and spirit? How could I possibly join them on to a little bit of ivory, two inches wide, on which I work with a brush so fine as to produce little effect after much labor?

"A little bit of ivory" versus "Manly vigorous sketches": the opposing poles would be used by later critics. Never mind that "E." was Austen's teenage nephew, 20-plus years her junior, trying his hand at a genre she had already mastered; that bit of ivory came to represent Austen's properly feminine modesty, her acknowledgement of what came to be known as her limited sphere, what Naipaul would disparage as a defect, a narrow view of the world. The opposite of "manly."

As Austen's reputation grew at the end of the 19th century — due in large part to the 1869 publication of a family memoir written by none other than "E.," aka James Edward Austen-Leigh — her admirers could be divided into two camps: scholars who saw Austen as a great writer, albeit a chronicler of domestic life, worthy of close study for the sake of her work, and ardent fans who celebrated her deliciously feminine worldview, enamored of drawing rooms, lively heroines, and, above all, love stories. Over the course of the 20th century, the lines between taking Austen seriously and wanting to inhabit her world have often been blurred. To this day, Austen is one of the few authors who can boast a literary society in which academics are overwhelmingly outnumbered by laypeople. It's easy to make fun of the Jane Austen Society for their character costuming and fancy-dress balls, particularly when the majority of participants are women, who look from an outsider perspective like they're just playing dress-up; however, when doctors, lawyers, and teachers, among others, take time off and travel to spend several days talking about an author, they're demonstrating a pretty serious level of commitment. Further complicating our gendered understandings of Austen's reputation are the films, spin-off books, websites, toys, knickknacks, etc. that contribute to what Claire Harman has called Austen's "success as an infinitely exploitable global brand." Austen's mass appeal is hard to separate from an implied or actual female audience, and the more she gets associated with women's culture, the further she seems from a Shakespeare or Milton or Chaucer.

Contrast Austen's fame and fandom with that of Shakespeare. As Deidre Lynch, editor of Janeites: Austen's Disciples and Devotees, points out: "Shakespeare fans, we should note, can act like fans, parade through Stratford-upon-Avon every April 23 sporting sprigs of rosemary, and not put at risk the plays' claims to be taken seriously. No one, it seems, feels compelled to take this cult audience to task for their excesses and their failure to blush over them." Bardolatry does Shakespeare no harm, but Austen's cult following has, in the eyes of many, branded her as a chick-lit exemplar, a frivolous writer of "feminine tosh." 


As Austen's celebrity femme status grows, those who see her as, above all, an important literary figure are apt to become defensive. Two new books out this summer seek to rescue Austen by telling us how we ought to read her. William Deresiewicz's title is self-explanatory: A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me about Love, Friendship, and the Things that Really Matter. Rachel Brownstein asks and attempts to answer her titular question, Why Jane Austen? Both books fly the flag of humanism in defense of the much-loved author, and each sees Austen as encumbered by the "woman writer" label. Boiled down to the most basic level, they share the same thesis: Jane Austen is a great writer, and we should take her seriously. The shadow of the culture wars falls over these books, and Jane Austen becomes both the rescued and the rescuer.

Deresiewicz is someone who might have agreed with Naipaul's point about Austen's inferiority had he not undergone a dramatic conversion. When he was a young graduate student in the 1980s, he could barely bring himself to think of Austen: "Wasn't she the one who wrote those silly romantic fairy tales? Just thinking about her made me sleepy." In his misguided youth, Deresiewicz identified with manly modernist writers and their ungovernable heroes. "I was Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, raging against the machine," he gleefully reports; "I was Joyce's Stephen Dedalus, the rebel artist who runs rings around the grown-ups. I was Conrad's Marlow, the world-weary truth teller who punches through hypocrisy and lies."

A Jane Austen Education recounts how Deresiewicz overcame his bias against Austen and became a better person because of her. When he actually sat down to read the novels, he discovered that "Austen wasn't silly and superficial; she was much, much smarter — and much wiser — than I could have imagined." He blames masculinity for his initial skepticism: "If I was slow to catch on ... there was a very good reason. I'm a guy, after all." As he recounts his moral education at the feet of the author he once thought of as the "girliest novelist of all, the godmother of chick lit," he makes a case for why men need to take women seriously and why Austen is the perfect teacher.

For Deresiewicz, Austen becomes not just a representative woman writer, but a stand-in for all women, and his ongoing surprise and delight at being schooled in the art of being human by, of all people, a female, is certainly honest, even if it leads to some cringe-worthy moments. For instance, the Penguin press release for the book begins with an anecdote about Deresiewicz being interviewed for a position as an English professor: "[T]he head of the hiring committee (a woman) asked him a question she must have been dying to ask the whole time. Glancing down at his resume, and the focus of his published work, she said, 'So what's with you and Jane Austen?'" The publisher's notice proceeds to describe A Jane Austen Education as having been "written with the refreshing and unique perspective of a man entering a woman's world, and finding that you don't have to be a woman to appreciate what Austen has to offer." Granted, these statements are part of the P.R. pitch for the book and not the way Deresiewicz himself frames his argument, but the underlying story is one that might have come out of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus: the surprise expressed by the (woman) professor that a man should care about Jane Austen; the idea of separate men's and women's worlds. Penguin might as well be preaching to Naipaul's choir; or a Victorian audience, for that matter.

A Jane Austen Education is essentially a coming-of-age memoir, organized around the six major Austen novels. Deresiewicz learns life lessons alongside the heroines and becomes a changed man as he reads more closely, picking up on messages that require close attention, and taking every word to heart. "Like so many guys," he confides at the outset, "I thought that a good conversation meant holding forth about all the supposedly important things I knew: books, history, politics, whatever ... [I]t had never occurred to me to imagine how things might look from someone else's point of view." Once he discovers that "[r]eal men weren't afraid to admit that they still had things to learn - not even from a woman," he's well on the way to a happy ending.

He finds Jane Austen - "the woman who would change my life," he calls her - with the help of a humanistic professor, one who required "[n]o lists of secondary sources or packets of supplemental reading, no theoretical framework or critical jargon." "Literary study," this professor taught him, "was not about learning a secret language or mastering a bag of theoretical tricks. It was not about inventing a new, professional personality, either. It was about getting back in touch with the ways we used to read — the ways people read when they're reading for fun — but also about intensifying them, making them more thoughtful and deeply informed." Modernism, Deresiewicz comes to believe, is the "snobbiest of literary movements" in its "contempt for ordinary people." After his eyes are opened to Austen's merits, he looks back on the writers whose heroes he had wanted to emulate and finds them wanting by comparison: "[S]he didn't need to play the same game as the big boys. Her small, feminine game was every bit as good." Austen, he sees, took her stand in the midst of the everyday; she "understood that what fills our days should fill our hearts, and what fills our hearts should fill our novels." We're firmly on "little bit of ivory" turf here, rounded out with the gallant notion that women, because of their limited sphere, have special civilizing powers to tame masculine excesses and make them fit for society. Men should read Austen, according to Deresiewicz, in order to learn "what it means to see and think and talk like a woman," "what it meant to act like a woman," and "why it was worthwhile."

In the hands of a clumsy writer, this book could have been insufferable. The thing about Deresiewicz, though, is that he's charming on the page. He talks about literary characters as if they were real people, and about Austen as if she lived at the end of the block — qualities that hearken back to early 20th-century belletristic writing — yet he does so in a style that comes across as fresh and conversational, like a genuinely witty bibliophile you'd like to talk with at a party. Because he's an enviably good writer, I got caught up in his story and was glad to see him happy in the end.

More importantly, he believes that men who think they have nothing to learn from women are jerks. The more he puts himself in the shoes of Austen's female protagonists, the less he dwells on guys versus gals. As he comes to see his "own ugly face" in Emma's callousness, his cocksure certainty in Elizabeth, his need to pay attention in Catherine Morland, and so forth, moving through the Austen heroines, he grows into a more complete human being. In other words, by identifying with all of these women, he becomes a better man. He presents his hard-won life lessons in terms that are fiercely humanistic and practically platitudinous:

Learning to read ... means learning to live. Keeping your eyes open when you're looking at a book is just a way of teaching yourself to keep them open all the time. ... Life, if you live it right, keeps surprising you, and the thing that keeps surprising you the most, I now understood, is yourself. ... Love, I saw, is a verb, not just a noun - an effort, not just another precious feeling. ... Friends, Austen taught me, are the family you choose. 

His journey of discovery is punctuated by such neatly packaged insights, not, ultimately, about women's worlds or men's worlds but a common ground of humanity.

If you're turned off by Deresiewicz's lessons, he might say that you're cynical and jaded like he was in his youth, or perhaps he'd call you an elitist intellectual. He didn't write this book for you. Even though he's a former Yale professor, he's not addressing academics here, and the book doesn't aim to contribute new insights to the canon of Austen criticism (he checked off that box with his first book, Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets). A Jane Austen Education is aimed at a general readership. For those who have resisted Austen because of the chick-lit stigma or for anyone who wonders why reading matters, this book will give you reason to believe in the power of the word.


Rachel Brownstein, author of Why Jane Austen?, shares Deresiewicz's humanistic approach, but unlike him, she would rather we stopped talking about gender altogether. In referring to her 1982 study, Becoming a Heroine: Reading About Women in Novels, a foundational text for feminist literary scholars, Brownstein expresses nothing but remorse. In fact, she claims to have written this new book "to atone for joining the chorus that has ended up by imagining Jane Austen as first of all and most of all a woman, the paradigmatic prisoner of sex and gender, and a paragon of proto-feminist romance — in other words, by misreading her, and not reading her as she meant to be read." Brownstein now wants to focus on "genius" and on how "Jane Austen's subject is, as she wrote, human nature."

Both Deresiewicz and Brownstein are critical of ideological readings and of the current state of the academy, and Brownstein is, in addition, particularly hostile to feminism. She begins the book by expressing discomfort at having been called, at a literary party in the 1980s, a "feminist critic" — this would have been a new term then — and although she comes to admit that this is exactly what she once was, she wants to distance herself from "the women's party," as she calls it. Like A Jane Austen Education, Brownstein's book is, in part, a memoir; she describes its pages as "experiments and explorations in what might be called — if the term is very broadly defined — biographical criticism." Whereas Deresiewicz follows a model of development, Brownstein's book structure is more impressionistic. She describes her book as combining "literary and cultural analysis with personal anecdotes and recollections of a lifetime of reading, teaching, and talking and thinking about Jane Austen." Her "I" is less a developing person, as in Deresiewicz's case, and more an analytic observer: of her students in the classroom, of ideas about authorship, of Austen's mass popularity, and, above all, of Jane Austen. Brownstein's personal tales more often than not involve reporting on those around her rather than the changes she herself undergoes. She aims to clear away the misunderstandings and false impressions of Austen and to get to some truth about why Austen has endured. "This book," she says, "boasts no bright new take on Jane Austen ... The claim I make about Jane Austen here is that she is a great writer, delightful to read."

At its best, Why Jane Austen? reads like the content of an invigorating college seminar. As an English professor myself, I can imagine putting together a syllabus based on the chapter entitled "Authors," in which Brownstein discusses Austen's writing alongside that of Byron, Mary Shelley, Henry James, and Ian McEwan. I admire her close readings, her astute observations about authors' biographies, and her well-chosen quotations from the texts they produced. I understand and respect her literary scholarship. I'm confused, however, by her anxiety over what's happened to Jane Austen. She frets that "the increasingly giddy competing interpretations of the novels (and the life) have lowered the conversation around her." Ultimately, she worries that Jane Austen has become such a name brand that no one actually bothers to read her any more: "Familiarity breeds contempt; simplifications trump complexity; writing has driven out reading; Jane-o-mania has gone on too long."

Brownstein adapts her book's title from an unfinished essay by mid-20th-century American critic Lionel Trilling, "Why We Read Jane Austen." In pointing to this lineage, she notes, "I stand on Trilling's tweedy shoulders here with trembling knees." This homage to the generation that preceded her own says much about the direction of the book. Brownstein favors a great books approach to Austen, something she sees as having been lost in the culture wars of the late 20th century. In a section called "Looking for Jane," she narrates a conversation that occurred during her stay at the Bellagio Center in the mid-nineties, where she went to work on this book (here described as "an Austen memoir"). She expresses surprise when a surgeon tells her that literary study is superior to medical research because "art saves lives." She muses on how this statement stands in stark opposition to the current state of the academy: "If the notion of the importance and saving grace of the literary classics still prevailed in the pockets of high culture, humanities departments in the West had jettisoned it long ago ... My colleagues at home looked for literary value, if they continued to think it existed, in dark and difficult texts that spoke for the inarticulate and powerless, fragmented or jagged texts that reflected things as they are."

If Deresiewicz proceeds by mocking his own early misunderstanding of Austen's greatness, Brownstein surveys what the world and academics have done to the author and tries to imagine what Austen might have thought of all this. "Reading Jane Austen," she remarks, "we deliciously imagine being conflated with one or another of her heroines, or all of them, and also — even better — with her." A subtext of Why Jane Austen? is Brownstein's own disillusionment with academia and her recovered faith in the life of the mind via this exploration of what Jane Austen means. She recalls what it was like to encounter Austen before the late-20th-century culture wars erupted: "When I was in college in the 1950s, Jane Austen was the author of great works that were by the way delicious, six peaks of pink icing on the cake of English literature (or perhaps its rich center)." In discussing what happened in the decades that followed, Brownstein claims, "the critical attack on the canon in the late 1960s, and feminism and queer and postcolonial criticism, and the new media and the sense of a new millennium" all combined to diminish Jane Austen's status. Toward the end of the book, Brownstein writes, "We reread Jane Austen because she persuades us to be nostalgic for what we never knew, and because we want her clarity." She concludes by identifying the history of the novel as the "story of civilization," and she associates Austen with the highest possible meaning: "[M]any of us see civilization now as a fiction, a story threatening to come to an end. Jane Austen is the focal point of nostalgia for that old story, a name for it."

Both Brownstein and Deresiewicz have responded directly to Naipaul's disparagement of Jane Austen. For Brownstein, emphasizing Austen's role as a woman limits any sense of artistic greatness. "Readers who excoriate (or, indeed, adore) her too narrowly imagine Jane as first-and-foremost a woman, a writer of romances, and/or a moralizing goody-two-shoes," she declares. "She was in fact much more than that." All the same, she has fun taking potshots at Naipaul's virility, declaring, "If [his] pronouncement that no woman writer can be considered his equal is merely the sad senescent squawk of a geezer, his grandiose comparison of himself to Austen is a silly show of faux-boyish daring."

Deresiewicz, who similarly calls Naipaul a "grumpy old man," takes a different tack on the woman writer issue, providing a context for why gender matters when we talk about Austen:

What he says about Jane Austen and women writers in general is the biggest cliché, the least original thing you can possibly imagine. People have been saying this, ever since she wrote. Women write about trivial things, women write about narrow things. They're sentimental.

The fact is that Jane Austen is not only a great writer, she's a great writer because she was a woman, because instead of going out hunting and shooting and conquering India like the men of her time, she was sitting in a drawing room, watching how people interacted, listening to how they talk. She's the greatest writer of dialogue in the language, after Shakespeare, because she listened to how people talked. 

In Deresiewicz's approach, feminism coexists with humanism. We can see gender difference as a cultural reality without writing off women as less than fully human.

As something of a feminist humanist myself, I do not believe that Jane Austen appreciation is a zero-sum game. There's room in the Austen tent for men and women of multiple and intersecting identity categories, scholars, laypeople, and even (gasp!) zombies. The various lenses of interpretation we can apply to Austen should not lessen for a moment the enjoyment we find in her brilliant prose stylings.

Rather than insist on pinning Austen down to one thing, one truth, one way of reading, we can relish what the multitude of approaches to her work says about the complexity of human life. Naturally, there are better and worse readings — this holds true for any author — and not reading Austen at all because of prideful and prejudicial generalizations about "all women" is as problematic as any bias that can be brought to literature ("Papa" Hemingway knows whereof I speak).

If feminism ever succeeds in making men and women full-fledged equals (for what else might?), we will be able to stop talking about whether women genuinely belong to the literary canon. Maybe there will even come a time when we can speak of Jane Austen without thinking of her as a female. Then comments like Naipaul's will be universally mocked as the sexist "tosh" they so obviously are. Whenever this comes about, Jane Austen will still be a great author.

LARB Contributor

Audrey Bilger is the Faculty Director of the Center for Writing and Public Discourse and Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College. She is the author of Laughing Feminism: Subversive Comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen and editor of Jane Collier’s 1753 Essay on the Art of Ingeniously Tormenting for Broadview Literary Texts. She writes for Ms. magazine and the  Ms. blog and is a frequent contributor to Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop CultureHer latest book, which she coedited with Michele Kort, is Here Come the Brides! Reflections on Lesbian Love and MarriageShe is the Gender and Sexuality Editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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