If there is a serious rival for the pedestal I tend to place G.K. Chesterton on, it is Jane Austen.
Like Chesterton, I discovered Austen during my freshman year as an undergraduate. I had previously made a failed attempt to read her a couple of years earlier, but it didn’t take hold. It was being assigned Emma and Persuasion for classes that made me take a liking to her. And in both cases I seemed to be in the minority of my class – in particular those of the opposite sex didn’t care for her romantic comedies. To this day I seem to know more men than women who are familiar with her works. So much for Austen being for girls.
Auden, in his poem, “Letter to Lord Byron”, wrote:
But now the art for which Jane Austen fought,
Under the right persuasion bravely warms
And is the most prodigious of the forms.
She was not an unshockable blue-stocking;
If shades remain the characters they were,
No doubt she still considers you as shocking.
But tell Jane Austen, that is, if you dare,
How much her novels are beloved down here.
She wrote them for posterity, she said;
‘Twas rash, but by posterity she’s read.
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effect of “brass”,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
There is in Austen a certain cutting realism about human nature and society that is wedded to a strong moral vision – both of which can go over your head if you’re just skimming for the, “will they or won’t they?” (of course they will). She is indeed better than Joyce at deconstructing the pretensions of her time and place.
Alastair MacIntyre made the point that Austen was the last major English writer who could rely on there being an implicit drama of salvation in the background; after this point, writers who want to explore that have to become self-conscious about it. Austen’s heroines have their souls, as well as their personal happiness and economic/social prospects on the line. That is perhaps one of the reasons for why she has eclipsed Joyce in my book – Joyce was a worldly cynic who wrote from a position of ironical detachment. And so there is a certain narrowness of vision in him which has grown increasingly apparent to me over time.
So there is a lot going on underneath the cozy Regency exterior. But the exterior itself is also quite lovely – she knew how to write prose fiction with style, and would-be novelists out there could do good by reading her corpus. The characters, the dialogue; it all never stops being fun.