Rants & Reflections

Does Austen belong in the canon? | Classic Remarks


Hello, all! Today I’m participating in one of the awesome prompts created by Krysta and Briana at Pages Unbound as part of their Classic Remarks Meme. You can view the full list here for the dates and prompts; they are fantastic. I will be participating in the ones I feel qualified to post about. Like this one!

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?

I want to start by quoting a bit of Krysta’s post because she outlines the topic really well (and I’m being lazy today):

Generally, the two schools of thought I hear when Jane Austen is discussed is either that she “just” writes romances or that, in fact, she writes pointed social commentary and should thus be taken seriously.  Implicitly embedded in this discussion, then, is the idea that romance is not worthy of academic discourse.  Perhaps because romance is traditionally associated with women?

The idea that romance is not worthy of academic discourse is not just a problem exclusive to romance, but with all genre fiction. And that’s only one of the problems with canon; we all know the canon is very white and very male. Kyrsta also makes the astute point in her post that the canon is constantly in flux, and what gets admitted greatly depends on the values of the time. We tend to think of the canon as a body of “must-reads” when studying literary history: books that shaped the state of literature in some way. And if Austen didn’t shape the state of literature in some way, then slap me on the ass and call me Susan.

To our modern sensibilities, Austen’s novels may seem like they should be shelved with the “chick lit” because they’re all about love and marriage. But it’s hard for us as modern readers to remember that there was no such thing as “chick lit” when Austen was writing novels. Quite the contrary; it was brave of her as a woman to risk publishing anything, let alone novels that provide social commentary about the strict conventions guarding the institution of marriage at the time. There were other novels being published by women, which Austen read and commented on (most famously her satire of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho in Northanger Abbey), but these novels were seen as vulgar; anything that stirred that level of passion and emotion in women was decidedly improper, and women were the primary readers of novels at that time. So all novels were smut. The truly classy and educated read poetry. Or philosophy. Or some shit.

I’m not super jazzed concept of the canon in general, but that’s another topic for another day. As it stands, however, I believe that Austen belongs in the canon. After taking an Austen course in college during study abroad (in Bath, where Austen lived for a time), my eyes were opened to just how significant she was. The big question for me is, do you consider context when declaring an author or work’s literary merit? Literature is never created in a vacuum, and if the purpose of canon is to collect works that made a significant impact on literature, then context is important when considering admission into the literary canon. People who claim Austen is all fluff are probably unaware of the larger context in which she wrote. If taken out of context, her stories could easily be lumped in with the ever-increasing amount of romantic dramas that have BBC/Masterpiece Classic-esque feels. Austen was a brilliant writer, but if her novels were published today, they’d probably be at Barnes & Noble on the “buy 2, get the 3d free!” paperback table.

Thankfully for us though, Austen wrote several hundred years ago, and we have the joy of studying her work and seeing just how influential she was. She gave voices to women in fiction that will never be silenced, despite the hundreds of years (and, you know, the line between fiction and reality) that separate us.

Shout-out to Ami @ Luvtoread, who also wrote an excellent response to this prompt! Don’t forget to check out Pages Unbound if you want to participate in this great meme!


18 thoughts on “Does Austen belong in the canon? | Classic Remarks”

  1. Hm. I wonder if Austen would be on the bargain table. It seems to me that a lot of people do try to imitate the Austen quality, or to get into period drama and try to use the popularity of stuff like Austen and Downton Abbey, but they sometimes fall short because they focus too much on the drama or try to make it all scandalous/salacious (you almost have to be salacious these days because our idea of “scandalous” has changed). But Austen has such pointed observations and a keen wit, and she’s always saying something about her drama, not just trying to titillate her readers with the story of a woman eloping or whatever.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitely true! I fear that observations and wit are lost among the drama. I think Downton Abbey has a lot of witty observations, but people do tend to focus more on the drama anyway. Even if something these days is witty, if it happens to be about these sort of plot lines, they kinda still get lumped together.


      1. I guess when I think of Downton Abbey, I think of the ambassador. You know, it’s not shocking anymore to say “Lady Mary is sleeping with a guy.” You have to make it even more dramatic. To the point where it’s almost ridiculous. And I think that focus on “How can we shock people?” can divert attention from the other things the work might be saying.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! Thanks for the shout-out 🙂 You make an excellent point about Austen’s bravery to publish and what readers were reading back then. If only Jane could see how her work has held up over the years.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So many brilliant points here! I’m also little suspicious of the idea of a canon to begin with, but if I had to choose books that I think have shaped the way we write novels, and which are still relevant today, Austen would definitely be top of the list. I definitely agree that the publishing context is so important – in her own day Austen was read and admired by men as well as women. The fierce divide between ‘male’ and ‘female’ books wasn’t quite so developed yet. I find it funny that we question the inclusion of Austen in the canon because she wrote books that are ‘just’ about romance but we never question the importance of teaching Romeo and Juliet, Madam Bovary, Lady Chatterley, in Literature classes. These are also stories about women falling in love, but we immediately read them as ‘more than that’. It seems that when women write about women in love it’s romance, and when men do it it’s social criticism.

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  4. Great post! I agree that Austen’s books belong in the canon. They astutely reveal the very limited options women had, in her time. That alone makes them important. Just because the subject matter stays within the realms to which women (including herself) were confined should not make them any less worthy of the canon.

    I have trouble understanding why anyone would consider Austen’s work “smutty” or simple “chick lit.” They miss the point entirely.

    Happily, one of my formative male teachers in jr. high loved Austen and he taught her work with love, alongside Shakespeare and other greats. My high school teachers never even mentioned her, but her work is truly valuable.

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  5. I’m surprised that Austen would be considered anything other than canon- it’s unquestionable that it has a lot of depth, can teach us loads and is one of the best written works of all time- which, to my mind, were some of the main reasons for a book being included in the canon. I don’t have an issue with the canon as a concept- but in practice, some odd things end up being considered “canon” just because some academic said so or someone somewhere wanted to make some peculiar point. Incidentally, I find that debating what should and shouldn’t be considered canon a huge waste of time- it’s basically a way for academics to have pointless arguments or prop up some agenda (ooh that may have gotten controversial- clearly I feel more strongly about the canon than I thought) Basically- what I’m trying to say is I don’t see the point in having long-winded debates about what should and shouldn’t be studied. Contrary to what many people believe, canon books are a fairly modern concept- people didn’t use to sit around discussing this kind of thing- books just went in and out of fashion when they suited people’s mood or were seen as relevant to a particular age- which is probably how it should be!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Great comment; I understand your point. I tend to wish canon just wasn’t a thing. I wish we could go back to those days like you said when people just read what they wanted without these debates; but although they didn’t have a canon per say, they still debated about literary merit. I think if we are going to have a canon, an exclusive/limited list, it’s worth discussing what should or should not be included. For example, I wish there were more POCs represented, as well as women. You gotta debate to change that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yup and yup- that’s definitely true- and I guess there will always be people trying to dictate these debates and foist particular books on everyone *sigh*. I reckon that’s fine- but if it would be upto me (which fortunately it isn’t cos the discussion alone would drive me mad) I would make it just about the quality of the book and not about anything else. I understand your desire to read more books by people of colour or women- but being from a western culture and the fact that literally every society *everywhere* was patriarchal until fairly recently, it somewhat limits the options. Perhaps the solution would be to read more books in translation from other cultures- but that wouldn’t be a debate to have in English Literature classes for example, as reading books in translation and studying these kinds of books is a different skillset. My friend did Chinese history at uni and so read a lot of Chinese books in translation- maybe foreign or Asian literature studies as part of history courses would be the way to go for that one.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Very intelligently addressed. I felt a poignant urgency in your commentary, which I believe is stemmed from my own attachment to this genius author, but I could also laugh with you at the notion that Austen wrote anything but a timeless depiction of society. Most of her rules of engagement and perspectives on human nature remain true to this day and we can accept it with her magnitude of satire or sit around crying about it.

    Liked by 1 person

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