Somewhere near the middle of Why Jane Austen?, a book that combines literary and cultural criticism with recollections of teaching and travel and anecdotes about friends, neighbors, and strangers, I describe a gathering of Jane Austen fans I attended some years ago in England. Here's the first sentence of the passage: "An international group of assembled scholars and Janeites--girls of all ages with competitive claims to a perfect right to Jane, snooty dowagers in pearls with county accents and upstarts from all manner of margins--gossiped in their separate groups under a big tent."
Out of context, the tone might strike some readers as arch and mocking: "girls of all ages" deliberately echoes the barker's call to "children of all ages," suggesting that the big tent is a kind of circus. But I rely on my reader to understand that I am not condescending to my fellow Janeites and Austen scholars. (I don't think "gossip" is a derogatory term: see the book by Patricia Meyer Spacks.) For me, much of the private fun of a heterogeneous, enthusiastic gathering like this one comes from noticing differences and making distinctions; taking pleasure in this is partly a function of personal temperament, but also something I learned from Jane Austen. While the passage insists on differences--separate groups, competitive claims, and yes, the comedy of better-than-you-are, of downright snootiness and snobbishness--it is in fact a paean to inclusiveness.
The argument of my book is that Jane Austen's novels are for boys as well as girls, amateurs as well as professional readers, and not only (as they have long been considered in certain circles) for members of a self-congratulatory coterie. One of my subjects is the transformation of Jane Austen since the movies of the 1990s, which made the novelist popular and, ironically, a figure in popular culture (and therefore, ironically, the subject of learned articles by--among others--students of popular culture). My book worries a question many have addressed: why so many passionate readers and (more recently) followers of "Jane"? Why her and why for so long and why as if for the first time now, again?
In Why Jane Austen?, I entertain several answers. (My title rephrases the title of Lionel Trilling's last, unfinished essay, "Why We Read Jane Austen"; the mid-20th -century academic critic was one of the first to read Austen as a cultural phenomenon.) I examine the brilliance, boldness, and accessibility of the well-turned plots; the appeal of old-fashioned stories that seem distant and stiff and mannered, yet also still fresh and relevant to how we live now; the nostalgia for a smaller, more stable world that Austen's readers entertain and enjoy; and the shrewdness and hard-eyed views of the long-ago lady novelist. I discuss the play of satire and comedy and the differences between them, the charm and complexity of the fictional characters, the wit of the language, the drama of the scenes, and the perfect clarity and shape of the oeuvre (six novels, all so different, every one of them a variation on the marriage plot). I compare and contrast this exquisite and influential writer with other writers of her time and ours. And I try to put my finger on the personal allure of the elusive Jane Austen, who runs in and out of her characters' minds, and flatters the reader into thinking he or she is--as Katherine Mansfield put it--the secret friend of this altogether desirable author.
But the big tent is a central metaphor, appropriately enough for a book that is a collection of kinds of conversations (or gossips) about and associations with Jane Austen and her novels, gathered from various aspects and areas of my life as a reader and a gossip and an amused observer of how people live and talk. I argue that the novels are not just for professionals devoted to the study of English literature or Romanticism, not just for women who enjoy romances, and not just for the cultural elite. Although I deplore simplifications and misreadings of them, and insist on their intrinsic distinction, I also argue that the novels are accessible to everyone and very useful too because they teach you how to read--people and situations as well as these books and others.
The idea of reading Jane Austen for moral improvement seems to me nearly as wrong as the idea of reading the novels to escape from the grit and mess of real life (which in their way the novels definitely do acknowledge); although I have "taught" them in college classrooms for many years, I find it difficult to list what students should learn from the novels--unless it is how to read them. They fairly force one into attending to their language. Specifically, they teach you how to read them, that is, how to pay attention to the sound and sense of words and the distinctions among their various meanings, and to syntax and subordination and tone.
Reading Jane Austen right, you feel on your pulses the pleasures and immense rewards of paying such attention to books (and other works of art) of distinction. But there are other, more practical profits as well. Following Jane Austen's lead, noticing the ways people give themselves away (or cover themselves) by their language and manners, sharpens your sense of how ordinary life matters. Ideally, it makes you a better neighbor and citizen and voter, even. And ideally, for further insights, you will read these novels again.