On Sunday morning, a young lady approached me and asked me to defend Jane Austen. “Will you please tell my dad that it’s manly to like Jane Austen?” she pleaded.
I declined. I didn’t want to look like a wimp. Which, ironically, is exactly how you'd expect a Jane Austen fan to act.
I felt ashamed of my cowardice later. After all, my love for Jane Austen novels is great. People assume that my son is named after the capital of Texas, but my love for a certain 19th century author had as much to do with his name as the state from which I hail. And, although we call her Ellie, it is not a coincidence that my daughter Elizabeth Bennett shares the name of the most famous heroine in all of English literature.
In a recent Christianity Today blog post, Gina Dalfonzo argues men should read Jane Austen. Her blog was prompted by the controversy stirred by V.S. Naipaul, who arrogantly pronounced that no woman writer was his literary match. When asked specifically about Jane Austen, Naipaul replied he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world.” It is a woman’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world” that limits her writing, he argued.
Naipaul’s comments surely resonate within the hearts of many men. There is a sense in which literature that deals with romance and the inner-workings of the heart is not “real” and “weighty” and “manly.”
To make amends for my momentary cowardice, allow me to offer a few thoughts regarding why I think it is helpful for men to read Jane Austen.
Jane Austen affirms gender distinctions. Bombarded by a culture that seems unwilling to affirm the truth that men and women are different, Austen offers a welcome reprieve. In her novels, men and women think and feel differently.
Neither are inherently superior. Both are capable of great good and great evil. Both can be silly and petty and vindictive and foolish. Both can be kind and self-sacrificing and generous. But the novels celebrate unique qualities of each gender.
Jane Austen helps men understand women. I somtimes hear men complain that their wives speak a different language; they simply “don’t understand” them. In Scripture, of course, women are not instructed to understand their husbands. Instead, it is the husband who is tasked to live with his wife in an understanding manner (1 Peter 3:7).
Men, while reading Jane Austen won’t cause you to suddenly fully understand all the emotional intricacies of your wife, it may help you think more clearly about the complicated nature of her thought processes. Austen will help you understand better human foibles and the necessity for clear communication with others.
Jane Austen increases the value we place upon the home. The drama that fills the pages of an Austen novel only rarely delves into the global affairs of the day. Wars and political mechanizations are relevant only in their affect upon the lives of loved ones. Austen’s myopic scope doesn't triviliaze the home but instead shows that it has equal importance with affairs of state. The home as an important place, not a place to "escape" for something more grand.
I can still remember the first time I read a Jane Austen novel. My college schedule had forced me to take a Women's Literature course. The first novel we were assigned was Pride and Prejudice. I delayed and delayed reading the first three chapters we were supposed to read until 10 PM the night before the class. I opened the book and read those famous first lines, full of wit and sarcasm, and was hooked. I didn't stop reading until the morning, having finished the novel in a single night.
There is nothing feminine about understanding human nature. It is a manly endeavor and Jane Austen helps us in that pursuit.