Jane Austen, Party Pooper?

It can be great fun to learn about the creative process of writing luminaries, so recently I picked up with delight By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life.

What a cornucopia! David Sedaris, J.K. Rowling, Richard Ford, Katherine Boo, Dave Eggars, Jared Diamond, Michael Connelly, Anne Lamott, Dave Barry, Donna Tartt — to name just a few from the juicy table of contents.

cover of BY THE BOOK

Since I’m all about Jane Austen these days, though, I went directly to the index. I was happy to see a half-dozen numbers next to her name. And so . . .

Now I know that Lena Dunham likes the movie Clueless, which is, of course, based on Austen’s novel Emma.

In response to the question “What was the last truly great book you read?” Mary Higgins Clark says, “After many years, I just reread Pride and Prejudice and understand why it is, and always will be, a classic.”

Rather than the comedic marriage plot found in Austen’s novels, Jeffrey Eugenides prefers the “anti-marriage plot” in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady. “It’s much darker than anything Austen did,” he says, “and it leads straight to the moral ambiguities and complexities of the modern novel.”

Lee Child remarks, “My to-read pile is enormous, but winking ominously is Jane Austen’s Emma. I have never read Jane Austen — in my American wife’s eyes an incredible deficiency for an Englishman, matched only by the fact that I don’t really like Mozart. I hadn’t read Jane Eyre either, until she made me, and I’m glad I did, so I’ll get to Emma eventually — but perhaps not soon.”

Jane Austen is one of Anna Quindlen’s favorite novelists, alongside Charles Dickens, Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, Alice McDermott, Don DeLillo, and Russell Banks.

Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel: admirer of the “shrewdly practical” Jane Austen

Hilary Mantel is asked, “Are there particular kinds of stories you’re drawn to? Any you steer clear of?” And she answers, “Sad to say, I do like a bit of action. I get impatient with love; I want fighting. I don’t like overrefinement, or to dwell in the heads of vaporous ladies with fine sensibilities. (Though I love Jane Austen because she’s so shrewdly practical: you can hear the chink of cash in every paragraph.)”

This was all very interesting to me, but I must say I was stopped short when Emma Thompson is asked, “You’re organizing a literary dinner party and inviting three writers. Who’s on the list?”

Thompson replies: “Sappho, for a bit of gender politics; Aphra Behn for theater gossip; and George Eliot because everyone who knew her said she was fascinating. All women, because they know how to get talking about the nitty-gritty so quickly and are less prone to telling anecdotes. I’d have gone for Jane Austen if I weren’t convinced she’d just have a soft-boiled egg and leave early.”

Jane Austen as a party pooper? The dull old maid who surreptitiously wraps up a piece of cake in her napkin, slips it into her reticule, and creeps away just as things are warming up?

Now, I’m a true fangirl of Emma Thompson’s: I respect and admire her greatly. It’s hard to say if she’s just tossing off a little quip here, or if this is her genuine assessment of Austen’s personality.

Regardless, I’m not sure she’s doing Austen justice.

Much of what I’ve read about Jane Austen — including her sharply incisive, brilliantly funny letters — suggests that she was lively, sociable, witty, and, in her youth, an enthusiastic dancer.

I’m not saying she’d be the one shimmying on the tabletop with a lampshade on her head, but I do think that in the august company of Sappho, Behn, Thompson, and Eliot, Jane Austen would more than hold her own.

Aphra Behn

Aphra Behn

Jane Austen

Jane Austen

Sappho

Sappho

George Eliot

George Eliot

Emma Thompson

Emma Thompson

I’d love to be a fly on the wall at that dinner party.

Read more about By the Book here.