Samuel Clemens vs. Jane Austen: Never the Twain Shall Meet?

The Chicago Examiner recently ran a fun list of the “50 Best Author vs. Author Putdowns of All Time.” The collection of gloriously vicious insults includes one of Mark Twain’s many stabs at Jane Austen: “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”

Mark Twain in 1909

The irascible Mark Twain never tired of skewering Jane Austen.

Twain (Samuel Clemens to his friends and family) also wrote that “any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book,” and lamented that “it seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.”

Ironically, that sounds just like the kind of barbed stuff Austen would write. Twain and Austen are two of my favorite authors, precisely because they are so adept at throwing literary darts. Austen had a much narrower focus and a much more contained life than did Twain, but in a lot of ways they aimed at similar targets.

I find Twain’s reference to “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ ” a trifle suspicious. Just how many times did he read it, anyway? I’m not the only one to think that perhaps Twain doth protest too much about Austen. An essay some years back in “The Virginia Quarterly Review” suggested that Twain’s hatred of Austen may have been at least partly a pose, and that he may have realized (albeit reluctantly)  that he and Austen shared a similar disdain for fools.

As for Twain, he didn’t escape skewering by other authors, either. William Faulkner called him a “hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe.” Ouch!

How Did Jane Austen Get So Famous?

janesfameThe Oxford Times has a short interview with Claire Harman, author of Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World (Canongate Books), a book that I read as part of my Austen Challenge and definitely recommend.

Jane didn’t grow popular until decades after her death, but since then her books have remained constantly in print and now, nearly 200 years after the publication of her first novel, Jane Austen remains a worldwide cultural phenomenon.  The opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice is almost as widely used (and abused) as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.”

Jane’s fame long ago eclipsed that of her novels. In fact, as Harman points out, a large number of Jane Austen fans have never actually read one of her books. (In the preface to Jane’s Fame, Harman shares an anecdote about a woman who sent the first chapters of Pride and Prejudice, bearing Austen’s original title of First Impressions and with proper names changed, to 18 British publishers. Not only did they all reject it, but apparently only one editor recognized it.)

[Read more…]

The Bitch in a Bonnet

Sometimes it takes a guy to remind many of us women what Jane Austen was really about. In his new blog, Bitch in a Bonnet, Robert Rodi, author of satirical novels, explains why Jane Austen is one of his influences and why it pisses him off that he can’t tell people that because she’s widely viewed as the dewy-eyed, romantic mother of “chick lit.” He’s out to reclaim her reputation as a superb social satirist.

I don’t agree 100% with his views of Austen or chick lit. While much of Austen’s literary reputation lies in her ability to roast upper class hypocrites to a crisp, her comedies of manners did take the form of love stories, after all. Pride and Prejudice is about the strictures and hypocrisy of uppercrust Georgian society, but it is also about how love often arrives in disguise and is a worthy reason for marrying. Emma is a good meditation on the dangers of an aristocracy with way too much time on its hands, but it’s also about how the love of your life can turn out to be your oldest friend, the guy you’ve been taking for granted all these years.

As for “chick lit,” the best of it does follow in Jane Austen’s steps, using love stories as the vehicle to make points about society and gender roles.

But Rodi makes a good point. When people ask me why I like Jane Austen, my first response is usually, “Because she’s got a wicked sense of humor. She’s merciless.” Those who haven’t read her books look puzzled when I say that. If I’m reading an Austen novel and I don’t laugh or say “Ouch!” at least every other page, I figure I need to reread it because I’ve just missed something.

[Read more…]