Classic Remarks – Is Austen canon?

Classic Remarks is meme hosted at Pages Unbound that asks questions every Friday about classic literature in hopes of starting a conversation.    This week’s prompt is:

Some argue Jane Austen writes “fluff” and others argue she belongs in the canon because she writes witty social commentary.  Do you think Austen belongs in the canon? Why or why not?

Firstly, I guess we need to ask ourselves what exactly is the “canon” of literature? It means in essence, the most important works of a particular time-period or place.

Now that we have that out of the way, the questions is should books like Pride and Prejudice or Emma be included as part of the canon?  I’m honestly a little surprised that anyone would think they shouldn’t be.  What would be the reasoning for not including them?  Because they are considered “fluff”?  Hmmm, why is that?  Because addressing women’s issues are too fluffy?

Think about what a woman’s life was at that time.  A girl grew up in a strict household, with set rules about how much she should be educated, what her interests and hobbies should be.  With strict attention to dress, figure and comportment.  How she should sit, stand, address others, was prescribed.  Education in preparation for a career was not even considered, every moment of her life was structured with the end goal being marriage.  An advantageous marriage!  So why would a book that dwells on exactly those things be considered extemporaneous? It was the way of life for 50% of the population, and yet was below standards for notice?

Maybe Jane Austen a little too honest about women? Society required girls to be perfect daughters, wives, and mothers.  Jane’s girls are not perfect.  They have faults, they make mistakes … sometimes ruinous ones.  Ms. Austen sheds light on these women and helps us see how much we are like them.  Too fond of gossip? So was Emma.  Got a younger, boy crazy sister? Elizabeth knows where you’re coming from.  Feel like you’re never going to be happy, because you’re too busy taking care of everyone else in the world? Elinor shares your pain.  On top of all that, Ms. Austen also pointed a spotlight on how unfair so many of the laws of the time were for women, for example, with it’s ridiculous laws about property and inheritance. How much women depended on parents, rich relatives and potential suitors just to live!

I have trouble understanding how any of that can be considered unimportant.  Just because these conversations happen in the breakfast room and ballroom, doesn’t make them less important than those happening on horseback and in the men’s club in London. In my opinion, all of those reasons and the sparkling beauty of her writing makes them canon, no matter what her detractors might think. Just don’t tell Jane’s girls that they might be left off the list.  They can dance a lovely quadrille, but they’ll cut you.



/rant 🙂


3 thoughts on “Classic Remarks – Is Austen canon?

  1. I think you may have answered the question “Why isn’t Austen in the canon” when you mention that the social commentary happens in domestic spaces. Domesticity isn’t something the men who composed the canon seem to respect. Important conversations happen in “male” spaces, don’t you know!

  2. I do think there’s a sense that “women’s issues” can be uninteresting. Austen might actually have an advantage because, even though she’s writing about romance and women’s lives, she’s looking at generally well-to-do families and more general social interactions.

    I’ve read some women poets from the Romantic period, since there’s been a movement to add women back to the canon in this time period and get us beyond Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, etc. And I admit I didn’t like them. “All” the men (well, the ones we deemed important) were writing about all the lofty things we associate with Romanticism, pondering the great questions of life. The women were writing little rhyming poems about finding a mouse near their laundry on washing day. I have to admit I wasn’t fully impressed. :p

  3. This is a great post!
    Jane’s girls are so interesting because they are not perfect. Each one has faults, and they are real because of the faults.
    And even though her girls were entirely focused on marriage, because without an advantageous marriage they would have financial & social difficulties, they had personality and wit, and they weren’t afraid to stand up for themselves. Her characters are so memorable. They do what they can with what they have to work with.

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