Jane Austen: praised for being seen rather than read

David Bowden

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As a long-suffering literature student, the campaign to get Jane Austen on a bank note warms my heart. After all, a society which honours one of its greatest writers surely has some claim to civilisation. Yet what a shame Austen is not here today to train her sharply ironic eye over the strange spectacle of being hailed for the biological fact of her existence rather than the rich content of her novels.

Those complaining vigorously of trolling and abuse should probably walk a mile in education secretary Michael Gove’s shoes. This, after all, was a man denounced as ‘still living in the Victorian era’ and ‘a snob’ for his suggestion earlier this year that George Eliot’s Middlemarch is a better novel than Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series.

Indeed, outside of Twitter – what Austen might have termed ‘a quick succession of busy nothings’ – Austen, far from being an inspiring role model for young girls, is frequently posed as a clear and present danger to their minds. One teacher warned that putting pre-twentieth-century authors on the curriculum was tantamount to ‘force-feeding the classics’ and ‘risks putting [students] off for life’; another columnist declared Gove a ‘sadist’ for merely suggesting the canon should be an area of interest for young minds.

‘Give a girl an education and introduce her properly into the world’, Austen famously wrote, ‘and 10 to one she has the means of settling well’. Of course, there is an important debate to be had about how we instil a love of literature into today’s students, about which Gove deserves scrutiny. The quotation for which Austen will be immortalised – ‘I declare after all that there is no enjoyment like reading’ – is, as John Mullan has pointed out, a trademark example of her richly ironic voice, uttered by the philistine Caroline Bingley (who really would prefer Twilight). The sad irony behind this ‘feminist’ victory is that we’ve heard a lot of noise about Austen being seen, but silence reigns over whether she should be read.

David Bowden is a columnist for spiked.

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