“If This Is Heresy, I Cannot Help It”: I Don’t Like Jane Austen

This post was partly inspired by Charlotte Brontë’s 1848 critique of Pride and Prejudice, which you can read here. The quote in the title also comes from a letter by Brontë, which you can find here.

Image via Project Gutenberg.
Source: Project Gutenberg.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed already, I love to read books, especially when those books are classics. I’m also a girl. So it seems it would follow that I like the novels of Jane Austen. I do not. I don’t hate her with quite the same passion that Mark Twain did: I simply find her uncreative, stilted, and all around dull. Which is odd because I love the three film/TV versions of Pride and Prejudice that I’ve seen. That was the one book that I actually liked better as a movie.

I first tried to read Austen when I was about thirteen, starting with Pride and Prejudice. Instantly, I was lost in the maze of Regency-era language and customs. To be fair, thirteen may be a little young to start reading a book like that. Then some years later, after seeing the BBC miniseries based on P&P, I tried twice more to read it, each time getting bored and setting it aside. Well, perhaps if I hadn’t had the story spoiled for me, I would have found the book more interesting. Very well, so I tried Sense and Sensibility. After all, Jane Austen is reputed–by scholars and laywomen alike–to be the greatest thing to happen to the English language since William Shakespeare. Even my beloved Harper Lee thinks she’s awesome! Why shouldn’t I like her? Nevertheless, Sense and Sensibility turned out to be even less enjoyable than Pride and Prejudice: I gave up about two pages in, I was so horribly bored. Last of all, I tried Persuasion; this was much easier to read than either of the other novels, yet it still failed to hold my interest throughout the first chapter.

An article on the blog The Story Girl helped me figure out exactly why I dislike Austen so much: in the article, the author compares the works of Austen with those of the Brontë sisters and explains why she prefers Austen. “I relate much more to her [Austen’s] characters than Charlotte Bronte’s,” she said. “I never liked the emotional drama of Jane Eyre, Villette, or Anne Bronte’s Agnes Gray. I just didn’t get it. I was Elinor trying to understand Marianne, and it just wasn’t working!” Reading that, I realized that I often do gravitate toward stories in which the characters experience deep emotions and lots of drama (Shakespeare, anyone?); this is probably why I find Austen so off-putting. In the films, her characters seem lively enough, but on paper, they seem like perfect examples of the stereotypical passionless Briton: no emotion and no enthusiasm. They reminded me of the black and white pen and ink drawings in my mother’s anthology of Austen novels: they were flat, lifeless, and the only words that came out of their mouths were the ones someone else had forced in there.

Which brings me to my next point: Austen’s language. I’ve never had much patience for people who complain about the complexity of the words used in older literature, but to me, Austen’s manner of speaking, especially in Pride and Prejudice, seemed much more complicated than it had to be. Did ordinary people really talk that way in the early 1800’s? Or did Austen think that to make her novels more dignified, she had to use the most dignified language possible? I haven’t read lots of other literature from the period, but of what I have read, none of it (excluding The Federalist Papers and a few other political writings) sounded as convoluted as Austen’s books.

Do you agree? Disagree? Am I the only female (excluding my sister) who can’t take Jane Austen?

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9 thoughts on ““If This Is Heresy, I Cannot Help It”: I Don’t Like Jane Austen

    1. Much too overrated. I’ve heard that she was very intelligent and that she shows great insight in her writing, but I can’t force myself to stick around long enough to find out if that’s true.

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  1. No one should ever feel compelled to like something they don’t! But I will say, RE: the dialogue and tone, Austen’s work is in no small part a satire of the Regency conventions – a dark satire, in spite of the light and fluffy feel of the matter. The fact was that light and fluffy seeming things – things that shouldn’t have mattered – had a major impact on the real lives of people. Women could doom themselves to a life of poverty if they didn’t behave “just so” and get married. They had to take very, very soap opera-ish and silly concerns absolutely seriously because there were real consequences, and her work was meant to be a little overdone so as to expose this as subtly as possible.

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    1. That’s interesting. It’s only just recently that I’ve seen Austen’s novels presented as satire, so I though they were meant to realistically depict the customs of the time.

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  2. I’m actually to some degree a fan of Austen. That is a bit difficult to write though because I find some of her novels to be so different from each other. Further, there are certain parts that have given me a definitely bitter taste.

    Why do I like some of them? I suppose because I tire of the typical American story plot: “Hold onto your seats, the best/worst thing has happened, how will the main character deal with it?”

    I also like some of them because:
    – of the perspective they provide.
    – the observations she makes are quite good
    – I think she can relate the height and depths of emotions very well.

    Perhaps I enjoy some of her books because many people today seem to try and gloss over certain things – like someone will stay in a bad relationship even though it is clearly unhealthy. Today, people realize things are bad when a certain very bad thing happens (much like in contemporary literature) – and they finally realize. What I’ve learned from Austen’s books is that you really don’t have to wait until someone does something terrible to realize they’re no good for you – unhealthy people are typically waving red flags quite often. The question is whether or not you’re able to recognize it for what it could mean down the road for your happiness.

    Actually, I used to absolutely love her books, but like so much in life, there are let-downs, so I’m not as in love as I used to be. I still read her works a little now and then though.

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