Classic Remarks: Should Jane Austen Be in the Canon?

Classic Remarks 1

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.  Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!  This week’s question is:

Should Jane Austen Be in the Canon?

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?

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 creation of the canon has led to the idea that the texts that comprise it somehow got there magically by virtue of their own intrinsic and timeless properties.  That is, if you write a great enough book, somehow your work will be universally acknowledged as a classic or worthy of the canon.  This is not strictly true.  People put the canon together–editors, academics, professors–and the canon has changed over time, though few people ever seem to discuss this delicate matter.  Authors that were once considered great have since faded away as tastes have changed.  Turns out the canon isn’t as timeless as its proponents might want you to believe.

This means that the books in the canon are in many ways books that share the same properties, properties that the literati tend to value at this moment in time.  Think about what your instructors may have emphasized when teaching literature. Complexity.  Word choice.  Things like the Other, interiority, or what it means to be human.  Someone could write a great book, but if it doesn’t fit into the categories currently encompassed by the canon, it’s not going to be admitted.  And if you look at who is admitted, it tends to be white males.  Writers like Jane Austen, women, who may focus on domestic matters, women’s issues, or romance apparently aren’t complex or deep enough by canon standards to gain entry.

Jane Austen, however, is, of course, complex in her own way.  You can read her books as straight romance and there’s nothing wrong with that.  Literature as entertainment or escape should not be devalued.  But there are layers of social commentary, from the subtle digs at Mr. Collins to the fate of Charlotte to the almost glaring absence of commentary on Mr. Bennett’s running of his household.  Austen lived in a time when women were commodified and struggled to find ways to achieve personal fulfillment and happy marriages within a system that dictated what they could and could not do, and what their value was based on their families and fortunes.  And she did not let that elude her when she wrote.

I realize that the canon is ostensibly selective because you’re still supposed to be able to read all or most of it,  but the reality is that the canon is already pretty unwieldy for the average person, and it could use the admittance of a few women and writers of color.  I think Jane Austen should be there since she does give her readers a lot to think about and bears rereading–and rereadability is what I think makes a great book.  We don’t even need to think about her social commentary in terms of her worthiness–I think her work is valuable in other ways as well and that romance itself is a category that can be analyzed discussed in an academic setting.  Austen may not fit the mold the current canon demands, but the canon has never been static.

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Krysta 64

19 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Should Jane Austen Be in the Canon?

  1. luvtoread says:

    Great post! I love your reasons why Austen belongs in the canon.
    Her writing is so influential and is more than just romance, or “fluff” as some may call it.
    Her books speak to the everyday things that people deal with. Love. Money. Family.
    They are wonderful and stand the test of time.
    Here’s a link to my review I tried using that linky thing and am not sure I did it correctly (whoops…!)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Bailey @ Fictional Fox says:

    I love this! You make great points! Austen definitely belongs in the canon. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’d say most people would include Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre as canon. To me, both of those books are romances, just darker, but they cover many of the same topics as Austen. Why is Austen considered fluff simply because her stories are lighter and end happily? To me that’s just cynical.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      I think Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot are the two women definitely included in the canon. Jane Austen is iffy because for some reason her focus on romance makes people think she isn’t serious (no word on why Jane Eyre is more serious). Sometimes I think academia and the literati just have something against happiness. Like darkness and melancholy are more “artistic” and have more “depth.” But Austen can be kind of dark–Charlotte’s fate seems a pretty dismal commentary on the state of women!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ceillie Simkiss says:

    I’ve always considered the classics to be books that have meant a lot to people since they were written, so the lists will be different for different people. Jane Austen’s books have done so much for other people that I would always include them in the classics, even though I don’t always love them.


    • Krysta says:

      Well, classics and the canon are technically two different lists. Jane Austen’s books are accepted as classics but not admitted to the canon by all parties. The canon, of course, is somewhat nebulous as well, though. People do try to compose lists like the Harvard Classics, but that doesn’t mean other scholars wouldn’t argue for a different selection of books. Right now it seems to be that being admitted to a Norton anthology is what gives an author recognizable canonical status–or at least helps to begin the process. I’m not sure if Austen’s currently in one or not.


    • Krysta says:

      I keep wanting to do a post that clarifies the canonical process for people because I still can’t get most to accept that it didn’t spring fully formed from the earth, that it’s changed, and that money and influence and taste dictate it. But I don’t know that I have the time to research it right now. :/

      Liked by 1 person

      • Briana says:

        Yeah, I think I mentioned I was reading one academic article that essentially said, “So Penguin realized they could republish these books as ‘modern classics’ and make more money, and that’s what they did.” So, that didn’t *quite* shove said books into the canon, but arbitrarily declaring a book a classic is the first step. :p I can’t remember the name of the article though.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. majoringinliterature says:

    This is a really great topic. I think you’re so right to draw attention to the artificiality of the canon. It’s constructed, and therefore reflects the concerns of the powerful. F.R. Leavis, who was an influential 20th century critic, included only two women in his lists of the greatest English writers (to his credit, Austen was one of them, although I don’t think that is enough to excuse him). I’d like to think we’ve made leaps and bounds in this field, with the inclusion of more female writers and writers of colour, but I have the feeling that writers considered canonical are still overwhelmingly white and male, and other writers, like Austen, constantly have to prove their credentials even when they are included.


    • Krysta says:

      Of course, there’s also always the problem where we now essentially have a women’s canon and a Black canon. Are they really considered in the canon? Or are we continuing to separate them? Would most people ever be introduced to Black writing if they didn’t specifically take a course based on it?


      • majoringinliterature says:

        That’s a really good point – on the one hand I like the idea of breaking down the canon into many canons so that we have a better awareness of diversity in writing, seeing as the idea of a canon is so artificial anyway. But it also leads to the problem you point out, that there still seems to be The Canon and then all the other canons are still considered marginal. It’s sad that the people who are more likely to be exposed to diverse writing are those who specifically seek it out. These canons are somehow seen as specialised, and often the assumption is they’re only relevant to the minority which they discuss (women’s writing is for women, Black writers write for Black people). Meanwhile, the ‘official’ white male canon is considered somehow universal, transcending these kinds of assumptions.


  5. David says:

    You make a salient point about romance often being looked down on. Of course, what we usually mean by a romance is “a story focusing on romantic love and high in emotional content,” rather than the traditional meaning of a heroic adventure in the Roman (read: Virgilian, as interpreted by medieval writers) tradition. The latter were almost always written by European men, but often featured love interests for the heroes. In fact, I wonder if the idea of romantic love stories being the domain of women really only started with Jane Austen’s complete mastery of the subject. Shakespeare wrote unabashed love stories full of drama, comedy, and nuance in Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in a way Jane Austen is an heir of his tradition, but placing it more firmly in reality and with more realistic characters.

    Actually, I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone speak lowly of Austen who has actually read her. I certainly don’t recall encountering any disdain for her at university. I’ve heard more criticisms of Bronte. My impression has been that Jane Austen is the unassailable queen of English literature. But I never studied her or her critics properly, so I don’t quite know the variety of her critical reception. I also know that C.S. Lewis considered her one of the greats, as did many other canonical authors (see the end of my post for more on that!). I seem to recall Tolkien mentioning her positively, but I couldn’t find a reference in his Letters.


    • Krysta says:

      I’ve always found the stereotype that women write romances odd, but I’ve read about male authors who felt they needed to publish romances under a female pseudonym to sell their books. But, yes, in the past, men certainly wrote a lot of romances!

      I think since Austen-mania started in the 90s Austen has become both more and less accepted. More people seem to know and appreciate her, but, as with any popular author, she’s not seen as somewhat over-exposed. I’ve also heard from women who said that their male professors didn’t take their interest in Austen seriously because, you know, all women just like Austen or something.

      I didn’t know Tolkien might have mentioned Austen, but that’s pretty exciting!


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