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retread| The Joy of Reading Jane Austen 24 June 2006

Posted by EDITOR in ABD, Arts, Culture, Relationships, Reviews.

Retreads are quality posts from yesterweeks that are given a second run on Saturdays. This piece was originally posted by ABD on 9 February 2006.

Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors, and Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books. There, I’ve said it. I’m hardly alone, but I recognize that I have more sisters than brothers standing with me on this one.

Janissaries like me are so drawn to this woman because she opens a window into another, richer world. The drama of Pride and Prejudice depends on the insights and perceptions of its characters, and on the delicacy with which they make or lose their point.

Here is a textured vocabulary with which to communicate without being too direct, rude or crude in matters that require sensitivity. Take for example the grace with which Eliza Bennet refuses Mr. Collins’ suit, or the wit with which she nettles Mr. Darcy without shaming him. It’s almost a guilty pleasure.

To be fair, there is something very artificial about this comedy of manners. We are invited into the drawing rooms of an idle class of tea-drinkers and piano-players who can afford to learn fourteen different ways to flirt with someone without being crude. The greatest distance that an Austen novel runs is from ettiquette to courtship. To drive this point home, we can invoke as great a literary authority as Mark Twain (my brother is certainly more than willing to):

Everytime I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.

From his own criticism, however, it would seem that even Mr. Twain has read Pride and Prejudice several times (Janissaries who have worn their copies into vintage editions can take solace here).

Muslim readers in particular can be gratified that a world of rules does not take fun out of the game. Modesty is celebrated rather than ridiculed in Austen’s world. Lydia (the younger sister who runs off with bad boy Wickham) would be a wonderfully three-dimensional figure in a contemporary novel, but Austen has no sympathy for her. Moreover, we (re)learn that elders can be a moderating influence on young women and men. Note how gently Eliza’s aunt speaks to her about the impropriety of an otherwise desirable relationship. Even the failure of the Bennets to be good parents points to the need for more, not less, chaperoning. Strict guidelines on what is or isn’t appropriate can set up obstacles, but they also protect us. From each other and from our own selves. As we know from our Prophet (saw):

Every deen has an innate character. The character of Islam is modesty. (narrated by Zayd ibn Talha, transmitted by Malik)

In the Austen game, the smartest and most sensible girl wins. Jane is prettier, Catherine Bingley is richer and Lydia is looser, but it is Eliza that walks away with the biggest prize.

To repeat, we shouldn’t be fooled by Austen: this is a romanticized view of a world that no longer exists. We are at least twice removed from it, by fiction and by time. But literature can teach as much by absence as it does by presence. If things turn out wonderfully for Eliza by the end of the novel, only the most careless reader forgets how easily they might not have. (Lest we forget, Jane Austen never married.)

Or take the more difficult question of “Where’s Darcy?” He’s harder to find than Waldo, but somehow men are less disturbed by this than women are. Sure, the average guy has less invested in being the ideal man than the average girl is in finding him. But there may be something more fundamental at work here. As Robert Bly writes in Iron John: A Book About Men:

The European novel, a lovely phenomenon of the last two centuries, has taught more than one contemporary woman what a rich reservoir of impulses and longings she has in her soul that can be satisfied or remain unsatisfied. Few women say now, “The boundaries of my life are my husband’s” or even think it. A twentieth-century woman feels complicated sensibilities in herself that no ordinary or mortal man can meet.”

In other words, beer nuts can’t compete with complicated sensibilities. I realize that even as I am defending the male character, I feel obliged to caricature it. But that will have to wait for a later discussion. Suffice it to say that while men have something to learn from Darcy, women can also learn something from the gap between him and most men. Even the good ones.

Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was the first book read by the Iqra Book Club this semester.



1. Celal - 27 June 2006

Excellent post.

Who is “Editor” ? I see nobody by such name in your list of profiles

2. ABD - 27 June 2006

thanks celal, i’ll take the credit for this piece :)

retreads are earlier pieces by authors (in this case myself) that are simply reposted by the editor.

3. Safiyyah - 16 July 2006

Love the analysis. For some reason, it’s all the more fascinating coming from a Muslim guy. :-)

4. Lilia from Algeria - 25 July 2006

Jane Austen is my favourite writer and Pride and Prejudice is my favourite novel, it’s such a wonderful book and I love it.
This is the first time I visit your website, I was looking for some Austen-related works on the web.
I’m a 24 year old Muslim woman and I dream about becoming Mrs Darcy; he has all the qualities I look for (except that he’s not Muslim, but that will come after our meeting of course!). Austen’s works are so full of politeness and modesty that I envy her characters, even though they are fictional, but I know that we can find them even today, they are so life-like, except may be, famous Mr Darcy who is so very rare, but not impossible to find, I’m sure. I’ve a very strong faith in Allah and I know that He’ll give me the man I’m dreaming about Inchallah.
Thank you Abd for your post, it’s so rare to find a man who loves my Jane’s writings.

5. a - 31 July 2006

I can’t thank you enough for this post! I love the works of Jane Austen but recently I’ve read that a Muslim should keep away from fiction and instead read books that increase one’s knowledge about Islam. I felt so gulty.. as such a bad Muslim since my biggest hobby is reading novels. But then I stumbled into your blog and your post gave me the impression that it’s actually somewhat good for a Muslim to read the novels of Austen because of the moral values in them. Your post gave me back my hope. So now I can go and finish reading “Emma”!! :D

6. ABD - 5 August 2006

safiyyah, thank you for the note of appreciation — although we’re still waiting for you to join the conversation. (your own blog is teeming with observations, and we’re hoping that some of them will spill into your comments on this blog.)

lilia, you’re right: austen’s characters are so lifelike that we want them to exist. perhaps we can find some of these values among good muslims in our own communities.

a, your comment has raised a question for which i do not have an answer. i have no evidence to suggest that reading literature (even good literature) is islamically appropriate. i do want to share a few points (neither of which is decisive):

1. unless something is clearly good or bad, the question of whether or not you should do it often depends on where you are in your practice of islam. given the choice between reading literature and watching movies, for example, you might conclude that reading literature is a better use of your time. on the other hand, a friend of mine who is devoted to dawah recently gave up an obsessive strategy game (his wife convinced him that, even if the game was permissible, it was taking time away from his family and islamic work).

2. broadly speaking, i think that art is an expression of desire and appeals to desire. a good painting, music composition or novel moves you. it either justifies or changes the way you feel about something — but it works at an emotional level rather than a rational one. this is why art can be so powerful and also so dangerous. to my mind, this is a useful way of thinking about why islam has in so many cases restricted the types of permissible art. take poetry, for example: we know that while the prophet (saw) criticized pre-Islamic poetry, one of his companions (hassan ibn thabit) was a poet who used his art in the service of islam. the philosophical point here might be that art should be guided by reason — in our case, by the principles and objectives of an islamic way of life.

i am actually very interested in these questions, which are central to my own graduate studies (albeit in the context of western political philosophy). this might explain the length of my comment, as well as my reluctance to take a decisive position. now that you’ve got me thinking, i might turn this into a post…

in the meantime, please don’t give any legal weight to the opinions expressed on this blog. none of us are experts here; we’re trying to figure things out as we go along.

7. The Turk - 10 August 2006

I personally don’t like Emma or any of Austen’s work while it may architecturally good but it doesn’t flame my heart like Steinbeck or Fitzgerald. That why I have also never cared for Shakespeare. The guy is hack and only piece by him I like is the Macbeths’ famous soliloquy. Romeo & Juliet is so stupid that I was annoyed with it. A couple idiotic 13 years-olds kill themselves for what? Nothing. They would have been broke up within 2 weeks if it went through anyway.

Islamicly; I don’t really see entertainment within Islam. There are 2 days of Eid but outside that nothing in the Hadis really mention about entertainment. Only thing is Prophet(PBUH) visiting his wives and enjoying his children. Me and Abd have talked about but have no real resolution on it.

Living in modern world; we demand entertainment. That’s what we work and live for. Linking about it; reminds me of Roman mobs. Somebody messes with our gas prices and our entertainment it’s a Severity 1 issue. I lost electricity for 5-10 minutes and I was on the phone calling the city “what the hell” because I was missing my TV and internet.

On the other hand, reading, doesn’t matter what fiction or nonfiction, increases our knowledge. A lot of books today have a lot research behind including fiction books. I was talking to a doctor friend of mine and was talking about a procedure I read in book. And he was impressed because I had matching knowledge of him on that issue. He was like how the hell you know that? I said I read in a fictional mystery thriller. I also am very sad that people today don’t like to read as much. I read books and newspapers and the net. I think everyone should keep themselves informed.

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