On my first date with my boyfriend, we were walking around Washington DC and books came up as a topic of conversation, as they usually do when I’m talking to someone. This was a particularly important topic for both of us, as we both admitted that we tend to get a feel for other people by what they read. Luckily we both approved of each other’s taste. But one part of that conversation went a little something like this:
Boy: So do you like Jane Austen novels?
Me: . . . I mean, yeah. I like them.
Boy: Are they not your favorite books?
Boy: Do you have a favorite one?
Me: Yes. Persuasion.
Boy: Not Pride and Prejudice?
Me: Nope. I like it, but it’s not my favorite.
Boy: . . . Oh. I just lost a bet with my best friend, I was sure that you would be a fan.
While the exchange was humorous, it also got me thinking about the expectations in our culture. A lot of people assume that all females worship the ground on which Jane Austen once tread, just in the way that a lot of people assume that all women love chocolate (though I, personally, am not the biggest fan). I don’t blame my boyfriend for assuming that I would be obsessed with Jane Austen based on what he knew about me at the time. Here is a little Venn diagram to show what our culture’s expectations are:
Because I am female, I’m expected to love Jane Austen. Because I was an English major in college, I’m expected to love Jane Austen. And as a female English major who happens to be a Christian, my idea of an ideal Saturday is supposed to be being curled up with a mug of tea and Emma. But it isn’t.
And whenever I state this in conversation, especially with other females, many people are shocked and dismayed by this fact. They try to convince me that if I reread Sense and Sensibility or watch a film adaptation of Northanger Abbey, I will grow to love Jane Austen as much as they do. Some girls get upset with me when I stand my ground and say that I’d rather not, like I’ve failed some rite of passage.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I like Jane Austen. She was a brilliant writer with a glorious sense of humor. The way that she is able to slyly describe a character in a way that ensures that you know the ins and outs of that character in just a sentence or two? It leaves me in awe every time. I respect her for her well-deserved success and admire her talent. I also wish to emulate her ability to work hard to achieve her goals. I have read all of her novels, and have thoroughly enjoyed them. I watched a lot of the film adaptations at sleepovers growing up.
What I guess I’m trying to say, however, is that I would rather read Charlotte Bronte or George Eliot. This has nothing to do with Jane Austen, and everything to do with my personal preferences and tastes. There are so many books out there and so many characters to meet. I think that we all have old friends that we love to go back to visit– Little Women, Lord of the Rings, A Wrinkle in Time. For a lot of people, Jane Austen’s characters are these old friends.
But I think that we do women everywhere a disservice by trying to fit us all into one mold or trying to dictate what we all must like. So please. It is not a truth universally acknowledged that all girls’ favorite author is Jane Austen. And that’s okay.