Jane Austen and Edith Wharton and Hunter Thompson and William Burroughs. I presume I am the first person to put those four names on the same page, but it is not in the interest of priority that I mention them.
Rather, I happen to have just read The Age of Innocence right after Pride and Prejudice, and was reminded obliquely of my experience, many years ago, reading Naked Lunch right after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. My thought then was, Hunter Thompson, for all his skill as an entertainer, is just a little boy playing at decadence. Burroughs, for good or ill — and he seems pretty ill — is serious. And it caused me to feel retrospectively revolted at Thompson for playing with horrors, instead of feeling revolted at Burroughs, who describes the perversity of the flesh in a style that feels more real — hence more disturbing — than any realist chronicle could be. Surreal in the original sense: higher than reality, more intense.
And it is the same with Austen and Wharton. I am not insensible to the charms of Austen’s prose, and I finished P & P with great satisfaction, but next to Wharton, her fellow in the comedy-of-manners genre, she seems terribly unserious. Her characters have motives and passions, but they all seem so superficial. Obviously we can’t blame Austen for not anticipating the psychological revolution in fiction that Wharton was heir to, and her elegantly polished prose has many pleasures that Wharton’s prickly — and sometimes overly analytical — sentences can’t match. But her characters are all such simpletons — particularly the men. There is an occasional mention of the virtue of someone being generous to his servants, but no one has any real project beyond redesigning her garden, and ambition is scoffed at. It all feels so confined and dreary.
Maybe a mathematician has trouble appreciating Pride and Prejudice because it’s too much like our work. It’s like a chess game, or someone working through all the combinatorics of possible relationships with a certain set of people, given some arbitrary but fixed social rules. A friend of mine likes to compare Jane Austen’s novels to the publications of the RAND corporation.
On a peripheral note, I discovered recently that there is a whole world of Jane Austen reënactors, who meet at the Jane Austen Society of North America to dress up in regency gowns and do… stuff. (Deborah Yaffe has written a whole book on the cult.) It seems pretty bizarre to me. There are authors whose fictional worlds I would less like to inhabit — the aforementioned William Burroughs is one; George Orwell comes to mind — but not many. I’ll have to read Yaffe’s book for insights. I suppose there are all those Civil War reënactors who play at having their legs sawn off in a field hospital, so who can say what motivates people?
My favourite comment on the analytical virtues of Jane Austen is that of W H Auden. It is in his Letter to Lord Byron, and so apostrophises that great contemporary of Austen
But now the art for which Jane Austen fought,
Under the right persuasion bravely warms
And is the most prodigious of the forms.
She was not an unshockable blue-stocking;
If shades remain the characters they were,
No doubt she still considers you as shocking.
But tell Jane Austen, that is if you dare,
How much her novels are beloved down here.
She wrote them for posterity, she said;
‘Twas rash, but by posterity she’s read.
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.