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Lev Raphael

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Jane Austen Takes No Prisoners

Posted: 09/19/11 01:55 PM ET

It wasn't until I recently blogged about loving Jane Austen as a satirist that someone turned me on to Robert Rodi's hilarious blog "Bitch in a Bonnet."

Rodi's title is a tribute. He's angry that the Austen craze has defanged a novelist who's "wicked, arch, and utterly merciless. She skewers the pompous, the pious, and the libidinous with the animal glee of a natural-born sadist."

Satire really turned me on in college. Samuel Butler's The Way of all Flesh offered one of the cruelest (and quietest) put-downs I'd ever read: "If it was not such an awful thing to say of anyone, I should say that she meant well." I found lines and characters like that everywhere in my favorite authors: Fielding and Sterne, Wharton and James, Fitzgerald and Lawrence Durrell.

Austen was a special favorite because she excelled at wielding the skewer. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is an obvious example in Pride and Prejudice (and she was fun to work with in my Austen mash-up). But the book holds worse.

Lizzie's mother is a woman whose moods, narcissism, and hysterics dominate the Bennet household as if she were an alcoholic in a co-dependent family. And though her husband's genial enough on the surface, he's more destructive, insulting his own children as casually as he'd flip the page of a book. Retreating into his library lays the foundation for a good deal of the chaos that disrupts the Bennet household.

Austen makes it very plain that he's turned his back on his family and abandoned his responsibility as a father. Mr. Bennet may be fond of Lizzie, but he's blind to her common sense and totally unwilling to heed her impassioned plea for his intervention:

"I must speak plainly. If you, my dear father, will not take the trouble of checking [Lydia's] exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life, she will soon be beyond the reach of amendment. Her character will be fixed, and she will, at sixteen, be the most determined flirt that ever made herself or her family ridiculous; a flirt, too, in the worst and meanest degree of flirtation; without any attraction beyond youth and a tolerable person; and, from the ignorance and emptiness of her mind, wholly unable to ward off any portion of that universal contempt which her rage for admiration will excite . . . Vain, ignorant, idle, and absolutely uncontrolled!"

All he can do is take Lizzie's hand "affectionately" and dismiss her concerns. It's a terrible scene. One of many, and more shocking to me than all the cartoonish zombies and vampires currently rampaging through Austen's novels.

Like Rodi, I believe Austen deserves to join the grand pantheon of gadflies: Voltaire and Swift, Twain and Mencken.

 
 
 

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