Like so many masterpieces, Jane Austen’s novels might sound trivial or frothy if reduced to their plot summaries. Here’s a partial explanation for why they aren’t:
“Though a contemporary of the major Romantics, Jane Austen is a child of the 18th century, particularly in its Neo-Classical aspects; she is a witty and ironic observer of human inconsistency and ludicrousness rather than a painstaking recorder of consuming passions. As a writer of comedy of manners, she is concerned with a world in which the problems are of good form rather than of subsistence, of the ill-bred rather than the undernourished, of manors rather than slums, of matrimony rather than careers, of gracious gregariousness rather than aggressive worldliness – in short, of bread-and-butter letters rather than bread and butter. To say as much is to risk suggesting that Jane Austen’s world is basically a rather trivial and frothy one. But no discerning reader of hers could hold such an opinion, for she is a serious writer of comedy. In her world the relative unimportance of economic, professional, and political problems permits a concentrating of attention upon personal relations and the quality of living that they make possible. The issue is uniting of moral and social graces, the reconciliation of form and spontaneity.”
From The Reader’s Companion to World Literature: Second Edition (New American Library, 1973). Revised and updated by Lillian Herlands Hornstein, Leon Edel and Horst Frenz.
Comment by Janice Harayda:
As I’ve mentioned, I like The Reader’s Companion to World Literature partly because its A-to-Z entries — unlike those in many literary encyclopedias — aren’t timid. That “no discerning reader” above is typical of its editors’ willingness to put you in your place. I also use reference books that are more tolerant of lesser intellects. But those books are often duller than this one. The Reader’s Companion to World Literature — opinionated as it is — gets it right more often than wrong.
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(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.