Yesterday, Shannon and Mike, along with their dogs Holly and Samara came over for a visit. The apartment above them was being sprayed for flea eradication, and they wanted to be away for the worst of it.
How nice it was to have a midweek visit from Shannon and Mike. They helped me move some heavy pots off the steps, and we stayed in the backyard until the damp and the rain drove us inside.
I made apple crisp for our tea, and as we sat around the dining room table on a gray day, we all decided that this was a pretty fine way to spend the afternoon. Whenever we get together, there is always movie talk and book talk. Recently, on Public Radio, I had heard a discussion about books, where The Great Gatsby was pronounced “overrated” as well as “vapid,” and Jane Austen was dismissed as delightful but not difficult. One of the guests, who shall remain unnamed, questioned whether Jane Austen was even great. Jane Austen was, perhaps, too entertaining.
I am a huge fan of both The Great Gatsby and Jane Austen, and I told Mike and Shannon that by the time the show was over, I was ready to put sticks in my ears. What was so disappointing about this show was how glib and dismissive the comments were. Certainly, with any book—no matter how beloved—there is a place for thoughtful, intelligent criticism, but the comments I heard indicated that the guests, as well as the show’s host, had just skimmed over the books and had missed the essential elements that do in fact make these books great.
Mike, Shannon, and I spent a fair amount of time discussing the show and the books. Mike commented on how it didn’t matter if Daisy and Gatsby were vapid, and that might even be the point. I spoke of how the role of money, crushing capitalism, and inequality are themes that thrum through the book. What could be more relevant today?
Essayist and critic Maureen Corrigan, who has just written a book about The Great Gatsby-–So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why it Endures—perhaps comes closest to getting to the essence of this admittedly offbeat novel. In an interview, Corrigan notes, “It’s not character driven nor especially plot driven; rather, it’s that oddest of literary animals—a voice-driven novel.” That voice being Nick Carraway, the narrator. Corrigan also notes: “Gatsby celebrates the doomed beauty of trying in ordinary American language made unearthly by Fitzgerald’s great poetic gifts.”
Then Shannon, Mike, and I moved on to Jane Austen. Shannon observed that all too often, Jane Austen’s novels are considered light reading. “It’s not fair at all,” Shannon said. “There’s a lot going on, a lot of shrewd, social commentary and a lot about the relationships between husbands and wives, children and parents, siblings, and friends.” Class, of course, is a huge concern in all of Austen’s novel, and “It’s not like we don’t have class issues today,” Shannon went on to say. We certainly do.
I suggested that Jane Austen was in the vanguard of the modern novel and that she led the way for those who came after her—the Brontës, George Elliot, and Thomas Hardy, to name a few. Who comes before Jane Austen? Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, and Jonathan Swift, all brilliant in their own, often strange ways, but none of them were such keen observers of human nature, of families and society, as Jane Austen was.
Is it fair to say that Jane Austen was the godmother of the modern novel? I think it might be. Merely entertaining indeed!