After about two decades of being a voracious reader, I'm still at a loss as to why so many people have elevated Jane Austen to the level of literary herodom. To put it bluntly, I just don't the seemingly female-gender-wide obsession with Ms. Austen.
Austen died before putting the final polish on Persuasion. She was only forty-one. But "in fiction, . . . blessedly, the dead return to life." Despite her fears about women writers, Jane Austen never was deserted. Her influence is endless. The pen remains in her hand.
My class has just finished discussing Mansfield Park, and we are about to start Emma. With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, the combination is fortuitous. Among other things, both novels depict the pain of gratitude.
Unlike the typical politician, Austen always signals the artificiality of her narratives. If only political narratives -- or all the pundits insisting we need them -- could be as honest. But what politician says, "enjoy the artificiality of my American success story?"
In Pride and Prejudice, the reward for meticulous critical scrutiny is self-consciousness, intellectual expansion and moral growth. Long before the invention of fMRIs, Jane Austen knew that close reading was good for the brain... and for the soul.
My favorite memory of Emma is reading it in a hammock at the edge of my uncle's orchard outside Tel-Aviv. I loved it best among her books at the time, and I'd brought it with me almost as a talisman since I'd never been so far from home.
Nobody's expecting Wharton to ever be as popular as Jane Austen. After all, Wharton had a much more jaundiced view of life than Austen did, and she's unlikely to be hijacked as a writer of romances, the way Austen has been.
Most of them are addressed to her beloved sister Cassandra, and afford a unique and irresistible insight into the daily life of the novelist: intimate and gossipy, observant and informative - the equivalent of telephone calls between the sisters - and read much like the novels themselves.