Sometimes it’s hard to argue the merit of Jane Austen, especially when one’s interlocutor presents such figures of epic, manly literature-ness as Dostoyevsky, Dumas, and Melville; when the plots he presents in contrast to hers involve the rigors of war, the shadow of death, and the thrill of the chase.
I found myself in this very position the other day, in front of three-quarters of the varsity football team and a fellow teacher who was trying hard—and failing—not to be on their side. We were attempting to talk about my favorite of Austen’s novels, Persuasion, a book I had insisted be added to the reading list and was now left to defend. The running-back, Tyler, jersey-clad for game day, arms stretched across the table in front of him as if pleading to a wrathful god, was begging me to be reasonable. “Nothing happens.” He said, “Oh, do two people have a hard time talking to each other for three hundred pages and then turn out to be in love? Why do I have to read this?” His teammate, Toby, continued, “There’s nothing in this book we can’t see in every day life.”
Ah, Toby. How right you are.
As far as I know, there is only one way to argue for the value of Jane Austen, at least in a way that is applicable and (sort of) effective to my particular audience. Tyler is right, at least in one way: very little of obvious importance happens in an Austen plot. No nations are founded or risked or destroyed, no monsters are hunted or villages saved, no great disasters occur, or are narrowly averted, and no grand heroes are made.
The boys continued their robust dismissal of Austen throughout class that day, and much of the next class as well. The four girls were unusually silent, only chipping in with an occasional, shame-faced, “I liked it.” “Why?” I asked. They didn’t know.
I don’t know why they liked it either, but I know why they should. Novel after novel, plot after plot, Austen’s books assert that the every day decisions of any person’s life matter. The choice to complain rather than enjoy, to trim hats rather than read, to flirt rather than think, all these things contribute significantly to the kind of person one actually is at the end of the day, or the end of one’s life. The very restrictions of Austen’s time and place, the restrictions that so bore my students, make her the ideal author to make this argument. Jane, Anne, Emma or Eleanor do not have the freedom to become great, in a grand sense. The society in which they live ensures that they do not have any such choice to make. They can’t decide to be a war hero or a detective; those options are not available to them. But they can decide, day in and day out, to be good and wise when presented with the temptation to be otherwise. They can decide to be prudent and kind, generous and loving in the small, daily circumstances of a life where very little else is under their control.
I would suggest, and did, that we are in a much more similar position to theirs then we are to Ivan Karamazov or (call me) Ishmael, and so might learn something much more important from them than the others. We would do well if, like Austen’s heroes and heroines, we do the right thing when it doesn’t seem to matter, when nothing much is at stake, except the state of our own character.
I can’t pretend that this argument made her much more exciting to our starting linemen, but it did begin a discussion about the potential significance of the everyday, about what choices are worth thinking about. If we listen to Austen, the answer might turn out to be, “All of them.”