Category Archives: Books

10 Life Lessons WE Can Learn From Jane Austen

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.- Northanger Abbey, 1817

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen’s novels are some of the most widely-read in all of literature. Her work regularly appears on popular must-read lists, is a staple on English literature syllabi, has inspired tabletop and online role-playing games, and is even invoked by the U.S Supreme Court in quibbles over language. Austen has also notably saturated the literary and film/television markets with a flood of adaptations, spin-offs, prequels, and sequels ranging from Andrew Davies’s iconic 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (yes, that one. Take your time. *cue daydream music*) to the web series “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and last year’s successful retelling of Lady Susan in “Love and Friendship.”

Today mark’s the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, and many readers and scholars across the world are reflecting on the reasons for her longevity as a literary phenomenon. For many of us who return time and time again to her novels, the answer lies in the fact that they resonate with universal truths about the human character and the joys and sorrows of life, at once encouraging us to laugh at ourselves and challenging us to scrutinize our failings alongside our admirable qualities. I myself have written about how my exposure to Austen at a young age shaped my reading tastes and taught me what it meant to be a feminist before anyone had even formally introduced the word into my vocabulary. Today, then, as we reflect on the life and legacy of Jane Austen, here are 10 life lessons her novels can teach us.

1. A runaway imagination rarely leads in the right direction

Northanger Abbey (1817) is often dubbed Austen’s satirical foray into fanfiction via young Catherine Morland’s fascination with Gothic Literature. When Catherine, captivated by the Gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe, receives an invitation to stay with her new friends, the Tilneys, at Northanger Abbey, she’s quickly carried away on a wave of mystery and intrigue, convincing herself that General Tilney has secretly murdered his wife. While she does still manage to snag the generals son Henry for a husband in the end (because of course), accidentally accusing one’s would-be father-in-law of murder isn’t the best way to win his affection. Here Austen satirically cautions us not to fall victim to our imagination and let fancy override good sense.

2. Pride goeth before a fall.

“Pride, where there is a real superiority of mind, will always be under good regulation,” declares Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (1813). Unfortunately, however, he fails to keep his own pride in check during his first ill-fated proposal to Elizabeth: “Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?”

Who could accept such a charming declaration? Good day, sir. I said good day. If Darcy learns one lesson here, it’s that thinking too highly of yourself won’t endear you to anyone. Never approach a goal in life as if it’s a settled thing; work hard to earn the respect of your family, your friends, your colleagues and, of course, your spouses.

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in the 2005 "Pride and Prejudice."
Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) and Mr. Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen), image credit Working Title.

3. Never presume to know what’s in a person’s heart better than they do themselves.

Emma Woodhouse, the titular character of Emma (1816) thinks she’s doing Harriet Smith a favor when she tries to separate her from the gentleman-farmer Robert Martin, with whom Harriet is in love, and match her up with the vicar Mr. Elton. Little does she know how deeply Harriet and Robert care for each other. While everything turns out well in the end (as it usually does in Austen’s universe), Emma’s interference comes with much heartache and embarrassment for all parties involved. Support the decisions of your friends; voice your concern when appropriate, but never presume to tell anyone what to think or how to feel, particularly in matters of the heart. Not to mention, when you spend so much time looking into the hearts of others, you risk silencing the still small voice in your own. All’s well that ends well, of course, because to paraphrase Sarah Vaughan, whatever Emma wants, Emma gets.

Emma and Mr. Knightley in the 2009 "Emma."
Emma Woodhouse (Romola Garai) and Mr. Knightley (Jonny Lee Miller), image credit the BBC.

4. Hold fast to your right to make your own decisions.

Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park (1814), often gets shunted to the side in discussions of Austen’s heroines; she doesn’t possess Lizzie Bennet’s wit, Anne Eliot’s self-command, or Emma Woodhouse’s charm. She cowers in the presence of her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, is practically her aunt Norris’s personal servant, and doesn’t even voice any objection when Mrs. Norris insists that Fanny doesn’t need the luxury of a fire in her room because she must remember her place. Yet when she truly thinks herself in the right, Fanny possesses just enough self-confidence to stand her ground, even if she’s shaking in her shoes as she does so. Consider the moment when she stands up to her uncle when he insists that she accept Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal. Lucky for her that she refuses, since Henry later runs off with Mariah Bertram not long after her marriage to Mr. Rushworth, plunging the family into scandal. Close call, Fanny. Timid she might be, but Fanny Price still reminds us to stand firm in our convictions and protect our interests.

5. Learn when to hold your tongue.

Yes, we’re looking at you, Mr. Collins. Nobody likes a windbag. His excessively eloquent speeches in Pride and Prejudice do little more than fill already stuffy ball rooms with more hot air. Likewise, Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax’s maiden aunt in Emma, prattles away to the amusement (but more often irritation) of her neighbors. The danger of mindless chatter is, of course, saying too much, as when Mrs. Bennet speaks so loudly and presumptuously about Jane’s possible marriage to Mr. Bingley that she unwittingly harms all of her daughters’ chances of marrying with her uncouth manners. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent, and learning the difference between the two is a social survival skill worth cultivating.

6. Keep your head in a crisis.

Anne Eliot knows all about this one; anyone who has read Persuasion (1818) will recall Louisa Musgrove’s ill-fated leap from the cob so that captain Wentworth can catch her in his arms, only to wind up with a nasty head injury. While everyone else flails in panic, fearing Louisa is dead, only Anne has the sense to remain calm and give directions about carrying her to the nearest inn and fetching a doctor. While being the only one in the group to keep your wits about you means that everyone is apt to rely too heavily on your judgement, you at least have the satisfaction of knowing that when cooler heads prevail, you can solve problems more easily.

7. Never underestimate the power of a well-written love letter.

You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you again with a heart more your own than when you almost broke it, eight and a half years ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant.

Yes, Captain Wentworth, this one goes out to you. When Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth reunite at the conclusion of Persuasion, more than eight years have elapsed since Anne broke off their engagement, acting on the advice of her godmother, lady Russel. If we think her unwise, we can forgive her because, after all, she was only 19; nor can we entirely blame Captain Wentworth for being, in his own words, weak and resentful. She did chuck him, after all. Fortunately for them, he swallows his pride and pours his heart and soul into a love letter with an offer that she really can’t refuse. In this age of social media, emojis, and online dating, when the love letter seems to have become a cultural artifact, it’s worth remembering the value of a few well-chosen words.

Anne Eliot and Captain Wentworth in the 2007 "Persuasion."
Anne Eliot (Sally Hawkins) and Rubert Penry-Jones (2007), image credit I TV.

8. Don’t let your emotions get the better of you.

This is basically Sense and Sensibility (1811) summarized in one concise sentence. When Marianne Dashwood discovers that Willoughby, the young man who has been paying her attention, is actually engaged to another woman with a larger inheritence, anyone with an ounce of human sensitivity can’t blame her for feeling crushed, but walking about in the rain and intentionally catching such a severe chill that it nearly kills her seems a bit extreme. No man is worth that much. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wearing your heart on your sleeve, but over-dramatization and self-martyrdom never does anyone any good. Still, once again, more sensible heads prevail in the end (we love you, Colonel Brandon, flannel waistcoats and all).

Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon in the 1995 "Sense and Sensibility."
Marianne Dashwood (Kate Winslet) and Colonel Brandon (Alan Rickman), image credit Columbia Pictures.

9. Sisters before misters.

Elinor Dashwood, who plays sense to Marianne’s sensibility, would probably have quite a bit to say about this contemporary maxim; while Marianne is wringing her heart out over the worthless Willoughby, Elinor is secretly and silently nursing her own heartache. She spends several months during the course of the novel concealing her knowledge that Edward Ferrars, whom everyone, including Elinor, believes to be attached to her, has been secretly engaged to one Miss Lucy Steele. Her silence speaks volumes about her loyalty both to her own sister and to the bonds formed when women share confidences. Cautioned by Lucy not to breathe a word of the engagement, Elinor solemnly keeps her word, despite being none too fond of Miss Steele.

Marianne speaks sensibly, perhaps for the first time, when she declares, “How barbarous have I been to you! You, who have been my only comfort, who have borne with me in all my misery, who have seemed to be suffering only for me.” That’s right, Marianne; the sun called, and you are not, in fact, the center of the universe. She, not to mention the rest of us, could learn a lesson from Elinor about self-sacrificial love.

10. Live life according to your own dictate.

Lizzie Bennet says it best when she refuses to promise Lady Catherine never to become engaged to Mr. Darcy not only because she shrewdly suspects that he’s still in love with her (which, you know, he totally is), but because she refuses, in proto-feminist fashion, to let anyone else decide her destiny: “I am only resolved,” she declares, “to act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to anyone so wholly unconnected with me.” The takeaway here is simple yet profound; never allow anyone to dictate the choices you make about your own happiness. Of course, it’s worth pointing out that Lizzie’s self-determination here carries tremendous risk given that, as Mrs. Bennet continually reminds her, her fate and that of her family depends largely on her ability to secure a rich husband. That said, Lizzie can still remind us never to sacrifice self-respect for the sake of pleasing others, and to never allow anyone to convince us that we’re undeserving of the best life has to offer. (Can we say mistress of Pemberley, anyone?)

Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in the 1995 "Pride and Prejudice."
Elizabeth Bennet (Jennifer Ehle) and Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth), image credit the BBC.

It Isn’t Only a Diary: How Bridget Jones Helped Me Find Myself

Dear Bridget,
I’ve wanted to write this for some time now, but whenever I sit down to draft a letter, the words get stuck between my brain and the page. It seems odd, really, to suffer an attack of writer’s block when addressing a woman who was once famously accused of verbal incontinence. You, with your candor and ready wit and your lack of (or perhaps refusal to activate) your brain-to-mouth filter, have often inspired me to practice greater honesty in my life, with others and, more importantly with myself. I have also discovered, as have you, that alcohol, while a seemingly effective tongue lubricant for confessing honesty, occasionally does more harm than good. Over the years, I’ve tried to express to others how much your story means to me, but nothing I’ve ever said has felt like an adequate tribute, so in honor of the 20th anniversary of your story’s publication this year as well as your return to the silver screen this month, now seems a fitting moment to thank you.

I first met you as an overwhelmed, twentysomething, budding feminist graduate student in English Lit, between crying over my inability to grasp Michel Foucault and eating entire cartons of ice-cream. When not slaving over novels that I seemed destined never to finish reading and feeling intellectually inadequate because I couldn’t use the word epistemological in a sentence, I gradually discovered that my social life had slunk off into the darkness, crawled beneath a pile of dirty laundry, and died. As I slumped on the sofa with a bottle of wine and a bag of pretzels, I convinced myself, in a fit of despair reminiscent of my elementary school days, that no one wanted to befriend the strange, bookish blind girl; never mind that I was pursuing a graduate degree in English and was entirely surrounded by strange, bookish people. I imagined everyone was attending swanky wine and cheese parties on Saturday nights and couldn’t be bothered inviting me because no one wanted to give me a ride. The fellow graduate student on whom I’d been crushing turned out to be a Mormon divorcee with three kids who flirted blatantly with me while being engaged to another woman and then tried to set me up with one of his friends. Had I known the textbook definition of a fuckwit at that time, I might never have landed in that particular mess, but I digress. To add insult to injury, my roommate (an undergraduate who was also blind) told me one night that “you dress like a woman twice your age, and it’s really off-putting. People think you’re older than you are.” So now I was not only unpopular; I was so criminally unfashionable that even other blind people shunned me.

Thus I found myself, during winter break after that first semester, de-fogging my brain with your diary. As you poured your heart into my lap, counting calories and alcohol units, self-consciously scrutinizing yourself in dressing-room mirrors, and worrying about dying alone and being eaten by an Alsatian, I realized something. Your struggles, your insecurities, your doubts, your fears were mine too. When I agonized over whether or not the size of my butt was the reason I couldn’t get a date or sulked about not being invited to any fabulous parties, you were doing the same. For one of the few times in my adult life, I experienced the thrill of bonding with another woman over the struggles of, well, simply being a woman.

I had spent most of my life struggling to fit comfortably in my own body, let alone fitting in everywhere else. Rationally, I knew that I couldn’t bow to the stigmas of disability; I couldn’t conform to the image that many people associated with a blind person who groped every day for one of three identical pairs of jeans to avoid a citation from the fashion police. How though, I wondered, could I construct a body image that reflected my personality without having my physical appearance and fashion trends filtered through the eyes of others? Trips to the mall were my personal purgatory, spending hours in front of a mirror that reflected nothing to me, relying on others to tell me honestly whether or not horizontal stripes made me look like a circus tent. This reliance on the judgement of others’ opinions of my body, believing that I couldn’t construct a self-image without the ability to see my own reflection, instilled me with a deep sense of self-loathing. I believed that if someone else told me that I was too tall, or too fat, or my hair looked like a bird’s nest, then it must be true, because they could see what I couldn’t. My body was disabled, abnormal, and therefore unattractive, and this, I gradually learned to believe, explained why I seemed to be a social pariah.

Then, Bridget, I met you, and I felt, for the first time, that someone understood me. My struggles, my self-scrutiny, my feelings of inadequacy had nothing to do with my disability and everything to do with the realities of being a young woman trying desperately to keep up with, as you put it, “Cosmopolitan culture.” You, Bridget, helped me to recognize that what I see in the mirror every day is as much a projection of what I believe my self-image to be as what is actually reflected there. On the one hand, you critically yet comically revealed a sadly enduring pressure on women to maintain unrealistic body image standards; on the other, you revealed to me that I wasn’t alone in my insecurity. My seeming inability to maintain a steady, healthy relationship with a mature adult male had nothing to do with my so-called disabled, abnormal body or the circumference of my thighs and everything to do with the fact that I simply hadn’t met the person who was ready and willing to love me just as I am; moreover, it didn’t (and still doesn’t) matter if I ever do, because being a woman of substance means loving myself with all of my flaws, not defining myself in terms of how others, especially others of the opposite sex, choose to see me. You gave me the courage to believe that if I choose to pursue love, I should settle for nothing less than someone who celebrates my strength and values me as a strong, independent woman; if I choose to remain single, my life and my work make no less valuable contributions to society because of that choice.

In the same way that you dramatically imagined that everyone had forgotten to invite you to their Christmas parties, I allowed my acute loneliness to exaggerate the perfection of everyone else’s lives. I imagined that everyone else had a successful job, a fashion magazine-approved BMI, glamorous circles of friends, and wildly sensational sex lives. Their reality, I gradually discovered, was far closer to my own. You gave me what I’d spent most of my life searching for: the validation that my lived experiences as a woman were, in many ways, no different than those of other women despite sometimes being constructed through the lens of disability.

After connecting with your story, my life didn’t magically change overnight, but that reading experience opened a space for me within the communities of women I began to encounter. You helped me to find a voice to participate in the narratives that women told and bonded over every day, from agonizing over the seemingly unattainable quest to find a perfectly-fitting pair of jeans to wondering if the barista at Starbucks who always gave me extra foam was hitting on me. Having reached this realization, I gradually found myself forming deep, enduring female friendships with women who have loved me, laughed with me, cried with me, eaten countless trays of chocolate chip cookies with me, drunk through enough bottles of wine to fill a black hole, and endured hours of agonizing dressing-room scrutiny and relationship analysis as only women can. You, Bridget, with your self-deprecating humor and your willingness to keep buggering on, taught me to embrace the wonderful, tumultuous, imperfect beauty of simply being a woman.

5 Classic Christmas Stories to Read This Season

Deck the halls and gather round; Christmas time is upon us once again, and amidst the hustle and bustle of Black Friday, big deals, packed shopping malls and parking-lot disputes, I hope you’ll take the time to pause, pour yourself a glass of mulled wine or a cup of hot coco and curl up by the tree with a classic Christmas tale. This festive season has yielded some of the most magical stories Literature has known—celebrations of family, friendship, hope, and healing, all in homage to the one season, as Charles Dickens famously writes, when we see one another for who we truly are: “fellow passengers to the grave.” If you’re looking for a bit of Christmas cheer, here are five classic stories sure to fill your heart with the spirit of the season.

Image of Ebenezer Scrooge in 2009 Disney's a Christmas Carol
Ebenezer Scrooge, portrayed by Jim Carrye (2009) image credit Walt Disney Pictures

1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Possibly one of the most famous Christmas stories of all time with numerous adaptations starring everyone from George C Scott to Kermit the Frog, Dickens’s tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey through his past, present, and future in search of Christmas spirit still speaks as poignantly to us today as in Dickens’ time, if not more so because of the ever-increasing commercialization of the season. With a host of memorable characters including the kind-hearted Bob Cratchit, gentle Tiny Tim, the elfishly exuberant Fred ,and Miserly Scrooge himself, this classic story is sure to remind us all how to keep Christmas and keep it well.

2. “The Gift of the Magi” by O. Henry

Another classic from celebrated American author O. Henry, this story tells of how Jim and Della selflessly, if impulsively, sacrifice their greatest treasures to buy each other a special Christmas present. As you’re haggling over the price of the latest apple Watch, remember the girl who cut off her hair to buy her husband a chain for his precious timepiece. “Of all who give and receive gifts,” O. Henry reminds us, “such as they are wisest.”

3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss

Join the Whos down in Whoville and give a great cheer. No time to be grinchy, for Christmas is near! The good doctor delivers a dose of wisdom in this well-loved story of how the Grinch discovers the true meaning of Christmas. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is the perfect pick-me-up when your Christmas spirit seems lost in the clamor of commercialism.

4. The Christmas Box by Richard Paul Evans

First published in 1993 and later made into a television movie starring Richard Thomas and Maurine O’Hara, The Christmas Box tells the story of a young family who comes to share the home of the elderly widow, Marianne Parkin and discovers a secret at once heartwarming and heartbreaking, particularly poignant against the backdrop of the Christmas season. This story reminds us to pause and celebrate the true gifts of Christmas—family, friends, and the ribbon that binds them all together–love.

5. “Christmas Every Day” by William Dean Howells

The department stores would probably love this concept, but this, as the wise Papa in the story reminds us, is a tale with a moral. “Christmas Every Day” is a story about a little girl who wished and wished for it to be Christmas every day, until her wish came true and she discovered that the whole thing was really quite a bother with all the presents and the turkeys and everyone running themselves ragged buying presents for one another until they didn’t know what to do with them. The kernel of wisdom, of course, is quite simple; it is Christmas every day without all of the material reminders, if we keep its message in our hearts.

Question

What are your favorite Christmas stories?

Mark Twain and the Magic of Reading: a Reflection on International Literacy Day 2015

One Saturday afternoon, while languidly grading essays on my couch as the rain pelted my windows, I received an unexpected jolt of surprise when a student’s essay informed me that, apparently, Mark Twain was the author of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Oliver Twist. As a Victorianist, I found the latter particularly amusing; apparently I have been reading all the wrong books. Once I had indulged in a brief chuckle over what Dickens might have thought of this misappropriation of authorship, I kindly made a notation in the student’s essay, correcting the mistake—or misinformation.

When I shared the story with several friends and colleagues, they expressed incredulity at the error, exclaiming, “These students went to high school, right?”
“Yes, presumably,” I answered. “but we can’t know where they’re coming from and what their educational experiences or access might have been like.” It’s easy to arch a brow in astonishment or weap in despair over such student errors, and I’m the first to admit that many English teachers spend hours in such comiseration. Yet while this serves as our coping mechanism to maintain relative sanity during grading marathons, such moments should also provide a sobering reminder of our responsibility as educators not to chide students for what they don’t know, but to broaden their knowledge base as we share our own.

As I scribbled a comment in the margin of my student’s essay, a memory suddenly dislodged itself from the fog in my brain. I saw myself, 7 or 8 yrs old, sitting on my grandmother’s lap while she regaled me with the story of Huckleberry Finn, from her memory.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, image source Wikimedia Commons

Growing up, I lost count of the number of times my grandmother told us how important it was to get an education, because she never had the opportunity to finish college.
“You’ve got to study,” she used to say. “You have to learn, because you have to go to college.”

So-called “lack” of formal education notwithstanding, Grandma was perhaps one of the most well-read peple I have ever known. She always had a book with her, and was always ready to share her stories.
“What are you reading, Grandma?” I’d ask, sneaking into the living-room on the nights she used to baby-sit, after I was supposed to be in bed, to find her sitting by the lamp, bent over a thick volume with close-printed pages. “Isn’t it boring?” I’d ask. “There are no pictures.”
“The pictures are in your mind,” she’d explain. “You have to use your imagination.”

And that was when it all started. That was when I began to understand that, tucked between sheets of paper were entire worlds—worlds where people fought battles, hunted for buried treasure, faught crime, made friendships, fell in love, lived, and died as many times as I wanted them to. They were there to talk to me, to tell me their stories over and over again; all I had to do was open the book. Before I even picked up my first Mark Twain book, Grandma had told me the story of Huck’s journey with Jim and his adventures (and misadventures) with Tom Sawyer. It was Grandma who introduced me to O. Henry, master of the American shortstory. “Tell the one about the Red Chief,” I’d beg, for the 10th or 20th time. It was Grandma who taught me the didactic value of stories; with Huck Finn, she taught me about the wrongs of slavery and the prejudice of the American South before I could pronounce the Emancipation Proclamation or even knew that there was such a thing. With “The Gift of the Magi,” she taught me about the enormous love behind the simplest acts and the meaning of selfless giving. She taught me to treasure stories for the lessons they taught me as well as for the hours of enjoyment they brought me.

I find myself reflecting on those memories today, when we celebrate International Literacy Day, because that love of literature, that passion for sharing stories, is the reason why I teach. I want to open the world of stories to students the same way my grandmother did for me, to be their guide through the magical land of Narnia or the packed throngs of Dickens’s London. I want them to know the wonder of traveling through time and living an entire life in the pages of a book.

Question

Who are your favorite storytellers?

Improving my Mind by Extensive Reading: How Pride and Prejudice Taught me to Read Romance

Several days ago, a conversation emerged on my Twitter feed about romance novels—specifically, what had been the “first” romance novel people had read. It might surprise readers who know me well, but this question gave me pause. I can list any number of romance novels I’ve enjoyed over the years, but as a child and teen, I gravitated more toward mystery and fantasy—some of which had strands of romance woven through them but that I couldn’t squarely locate within that genre.

Then I remembered that lonely Saturday afternoon when I was 13, just after the Valentine’s Day dance at school, when I lost myself in the comfort of a fictional universe to drown my sorrows over the fact that not a single boy had asked me to dance. Quite by chance, the novel I plucked off my shelf featured a heroine in the same plight as myself: a girl who, for want of a partner, had been forced to sit down because the gentleman who’d been suggested to partner her was “in no humor to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” Yes, I’m talking about Pride and Prejudice. What a comfort that, as if bestowing a smile on me from the netherworld, Austen introduced Elizabeth Bennet to me when I needed her most.

Portrait of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra Austen. Image credit Wikimedia Commons
Jane Austen (1775-1816)

Why I didn’t immediately pluck this title from my brain when asked what the first romance novel I’d ever read had been likely stems from a (admittedly pretentious) tendency to only categorize Pride and Prejudice as literary fiction by default, as if the “romance” genre cannot bestow enough literary distinction on Miss Austen. As someone who encourages and even participates in conversations about the blurred boundaries between literary and genre fiction, I’m almost ashamed to admit my mistake. Joshua Rothman, in an article published in the New Yorker, poses the question, “What is it, exactly, about genre that is unliterary—and what is it about “the literary” that resists genre?” Appropriately, perhaps, he cites Austen’s Northanger Abbey as one of the earliest examples of the collision between literary and genre fiction.

Pride and Prejudice, in as much as it’s been categorized as literary fiction, also fits fairly snuggly within the romance genre because the major conflict, after all, arises from a “matter of the heart.” The choices that the characters make, both wise and poor, have a ripple effect on more than one romantic relationship in the novel; Darcy’s interference in Bingley’s courtship with Jane, for instance, not only causes them both heartache, but loses him points in his pursuit of Elizabeth. Ultimately the novel follows that formulaic construction in which we know who will wind up marrying whom, but we read because we want to find out how they reach that conclusion.

To return to the conversation about romance novels with which I opened, thinking about Pride and Prejudice in relation to the romance genre also challenged me to reflect on the extent to which Pride and Prejudice has shaped my overall reading tastes. For one thing, I learned at a young age that I could, and should, expect strong-minded heroines in fiction. Even if Lizzie Bennet’s narrative follows the traditional trajectory for that period (ending in marriage) she’s still a relatively forward-thinking female for her time primarily because she holds strong opinions and has no qualms about voicing them. One of my favorite scenes in the novel is the moment when she stands up to Lady Catherine and refuses to promise never to enter into an engagement with Darcy. It matters not in that moment whether or not Darcy does propose to her a second time. It only matters that she make it clear that she, and she alone, will decide what will make her happy.

I credit Austen with guiding me toward romance fiction in which the couples are not only sexually/romantically attracted to one another, but worthy sparring partners on the intellectual playing field, which deepens their romantic attachment. I learned at a young age that both in my reading tastes and my own romantic choices, I could and should demand a man who values my brains as much as if not more than my beauty—a man who doesn’t feel intimidated by a self-sufficient, intelligent woman.

Having given Jane Austen tremendous credit for the extent to which my feminist principles inform my relationship choices, I’ve strongly considered implementing a sort of relationship version of the Litmus test, effective immediately, in which I ask each of my dates to name his favorite woman writer. I imagine the conversation proceeding something like this:
Me: so, who’s your favorite woman writer?
Date: I’m…not sure. Name a few.
Me: Contemporary or classic? British or American? Fiction or nonfiction?
Date (looking a bit like a deer caught in the headlights): I…have to go to the bathroom. *he abruptly leaves the table and climbs out the window*

This seemed like a perfectly sane screening practice for a college English teacher; then I remembered that I haven’t had a date in two years, so I might be better off casting a slightly broader net, at least for the time being.

question

What was the first romance novel you remember reading?