Romances with brains: How Jane Austen joins together what man puts asunder

One of the truly great slogans our slogan-happy age has produced is Real Men Read Austen.  I regard this slogan with the deepest approbation.

First, the fact that someone else uttered the phrase Real Men Read Austen spared me from having to coin it myself.  Agreement – even vigorous agreement – demands much less of a man than invention, both in inspiration and in perspiration.

Second, and more profoundly, I esteem the slogan so highly simply because it’s true.  It is a truth universally acknowledged that an author in possession of sound morals, a keen eye, the homeliest good sense, and wit sharp enough to cut granite must be in want of a wide readership.  And, statistically, at least some of that readership would be masculine.

I.  Austen’s startlingly conjoined virtues: Sense and Sensibility

Unlike Anthony Trollope’s Miss Thorne, whose “virtues were too numerous to describe, and not sufficiently interesting to deserve description,” Jane Austen’s virtues as an author, numerous as they are, are interesting by being so startlingly conjoined.  Take two from the title of her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility.  In early nineteenth century England, you could hardly have made such a conjunction more jarring – not even, say, by adding and Sea Monsters.  It would have been assumed that the conjunction in the title was a conjunction of rivals, and that one – either sense or sensibility – would triumph in the end.

The words sense and sensibility don’t quite mean to us what they meant to Austen’s first readers, but if you translate the title of Austen’s debut novel to Rationalism and Romanticism you’ll get the idea.  That you could have an author who might exhibit both sense and sensibility – an author who was a rational romantic, who could conceive a diverse cast of well-drawn characters who display both sense and sensibility in generous measure – was a rare and remarkable thing.  And such was Jane Austen.

II.  What the world needs now: She’s timely because she’s timeless

For that very reason, I can think of few authors with more to say to the world – in any age – than Jane Austen.  For when it comes to setting the heart and the head as rivals, sacrificing one for the sake of the other, we make Procrustes look like a piker.  Procrustes stopped at lopping off limbs.  But we’re more ruthless: by turns, we pluck pounds of flesh from chests and vacuum gray matter out of skulls.  This is not a malady unique to our age or culture — it’s a timeless error.  And everybody has gotten in on committing it: philosophers, poets, playwrights, priests, parents, psychiatrists.  According to volumes of human testimony, the heart and head live at enmity with each other.

Sadly, there haven’t been very many people with the wisdom to gainsay that conventional wisdom.  And still fewer that could do it with the clarity, wit, and infectiously understated eloquence of Jane Austen.

Thus, in my two remaining July posts, Lord willing, I will take up Austen’s first two published novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, with an eye toward demonstrating just how powerfully they convey the beauty of sense and sensibility held together.  For of all the delightful matches Jane Austen made in her books, perhaps the greatest was the reconciliation of the head and the heart.

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Posted on July 2, 2012, in Authors, David Mitchel, Jane Austen, Story and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

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