With ease I could make a list of my favorite women writers. As effortlessly as breathing, I would type Donna Tartt (The Secret History), Ayn Rand (Atlas Shrugged), Norman Rush (Mating) – okay, he’s not a woman, but his female narrator is so brilliantly authentic that he earns honorary status, Ruth Heller (Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones), Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things), Ann-Marie MacDonald (Fall on Your Knees), Joyce Carol Oates (The Gravedigger’s Daughter), and Jane Austen (The Complete Works).
Austen merits her own special status. And it’s not because the titles that flow so instinctively from my thoughts form an unnaturally dark theme, amidst which her works provide a solitary bright spot. No, it is because among my favorites, it’s Jane Austen’s works that I’ve read and read and read again, viewed in numerous film adaptations, and shared with my husband (who, though he’s never read a word of her novels, has sat through nearly all of the film adaptations with me, has cultivated a compelling affection for an impartial interest in Austen, and has formed strong opinions about observed which actors, if someone must do it, play the best Darcy, the best Mr. Bennett, and so on…).
Austen as a topic is seduction enough to tempt me to read or view related (though nowhere near Austen in caliber) works such as The Jane Austen Book Club, Lost in Austen, and Becoming Jane. (I admit that even though I am familiar with what little there is of Austen’s biography, I wept with grief over fictional Becoming Jane’s heartrending goodness, where in a grand act of profound self-sacrifice and honor, Jane relinquishes her claim on her beloved, who, in my view, is a complete rogue when compared to the likes of Darcy and Wentworth anyway)
My favorite composer, Vivaldi, is often described as having composed the same work a hundred different ways (alternately, he composed his many different concertos in entirely the same way). For me, Austen is the Vivaldi of literature; her works are rhythmic and predictable; her motifs always repeat; and she’s instantly recognizable within the first line. Her heroines may be flawed, but they have strong, silent type suitors as tutors; pride and prejudice are always subdued, and the stories always end well.
So what if Austen’s morals are Victorian and her protagonists can’t inherit? Her plots offer commentary enough on the problematic social status of Victorian women, and I can’t imagine Austen espoused values such as honor, integrity, or charity will ever become passé.
When I lived in Iceland as a Fulbright scholar I was invited to various social gatherings at the US Embassy in Reykjavík, an art showing, a party for the retiring director of the Fulbright Program, and so on. The ambassador’s residence was elegant, by Scandinavian standards luxurious, and the gatherings were as gracious as the guests were interesting (that is to say wonderfully!). Even years later I can recall the fare as well as the floral arrangements, but it was the fact that the ambassador kept a Jane Austen collection displayed prominently where any guest might see it that most fully captured my imagination.
But I’ve never wanted to become an Austen scholar. I never wanted to ruin the pleasure I find in Austen’s moral tales, where deserving Elizabeths, Emmas, and Elinors win happy marriages to Darcy, Knightley, and Edward in spite of conspirings against them by ‘soul[s] of discretion’ [sic] like Fanny Dashwood and Mrs. Elton. No, I wouldn’t want to ruin my Austen by subjecting her to exegesis or (with all due respect) to some literary or feminist critique.
And I still don’t. But I am really, really thrilled about the new Jane Austen Fiction Archive, which appeals both to the Austen lover and the academic in me. This archive doesn’t ask readers to critique or analyze Austen’s plots (though readers might use the archive to do so). Rather, it invites readers to examine diplomatic (i.e. unedited) transcriptions of her writing, to view facsimiles of her manuscripts, and, in doing so, to gain a more intimate understanding of her work as a writer, an extraordinary writer who composes extraordinary fiction but a writer who in revising and editing engages in the writing process nonetheless.
What’s more, the archive presents occasion to merge two things I love: textual editing and Jane Austen! I’m in the midst of writing a post about the reasons I actually want to return to campus this fall. This archive is among them, as it will undoubtedly grant me (and many others) justification to assign a novel I happen to love to my students, whom I hope will appreciate reading it while working with the archive as a wonderful opportunity to engage Austen in an exciting new way.