Two Guys Read Jane Austen by Steve Chandler and Terrence N. Hill

During a lunch not long ago with our dear Mimi, I was given a gift in addition to her scintillating company. This fun book has a hilarious premise: “two grown men in their early sixties . . . reading Jane Austen together . . . [which] sounds like something an army psychological warfare unit would turn to if waterboarding were outlawed . . . as a way to break a man . . . down and surrender his manhood forever.” The book delivers on its comedic promises, which sometimes means our joint epistolary narrators make mean comments about stars (ex: Meg Ryan reminding us of “the little yellow duck we used to float in the bathtub when we were children”), and other times means we’ll hear these men’s ideas on a lot of seemingly random things—from aging to bad TV, from America’s weight problem (we don’t play piano) to horseracing. Most of the time, these interesting diversions lead back to Austen, and ultimately, a real appreciation of her art.

Lest you worry that the men read Austen in a vacuum, we are almost immediately informed that one of the long-time friends is also a longtime Austen reader (and fan); only one is a newbie. Both of their wives are encouraging of their new endeavor. They use Nabokov’s lectures to help with Mansfield Park (did all of you know about this resource?) And the men really get Austen. One comments that Mr. Collins is so skillfully set up that, by the end, readers are laughing every time he shows up, let alone every time he speaks. Terry addresses the age difference between Elizabeth and Charlotte, Jane Austen’s view of Charlotte’s choice, and his own, very different view of it. Throughout their readings of Pride and Prejudice and later, Mansfield Park, both men reflect deeply and lightly on the texts and connect the principles to what is happening in their own lives. The reader, then, is entertained on multiple fronts simultaneously.

Though we might appear to have differing perspectives, the gentlemen and I had similar thoughts on several occasions. When Ursula LeGuin pops up in a letter, I was immediately reminded of Grigg’s (Hugh Dancy) interest in her in the Robin Swicord film of The Jane Austen Book Club. Then, within just a few pages, Terry tells Steve that he and his wife should see the film! Steve watched the bio of Jane Austen on the DVD, which means he must have seen our own Claire Bellanti! Terry compares Austen to Oscar Wilde at one point. My AP class the very week I read that passage planned to don shirts they designed themselves with the profile of Wilde battling with the profile of Austen. Under Wilde, text reads: “Women are a decorative sex.” Under Austen, “Only stupid men are worth knowing after all.” My brilliant teenagers saw the same satirical bent in these two writers that Terry did! And these guys cry at the happy parts of the novels, and celebrate Jane Austen’s birthday like we do, too.

They’re also very funny. After observing that Jane Austen heroines are “classy women who combine high intelligence with inner strength and virtue,” Steve contrasts them with what he calls “the opposite of a Jane Austen heroine.” One example might be the woman on her cell phone who seems to be in need of some immediate group therapy. Given that I was at the gym while I read this section of the text, I found the comments particularly amusing. I am often shocked (and remember, I work with teenagers, so very little should shock me) by the deeply personal discussions I overhear people having on their cell phones (when they should be working out too hard to have meaningful conversation). I had never really connected my frustration with that type of self-centered and simultaneously not self-aware behavior with my respect for the Jane Austen heroine (not as much Marianne Dashwood as the others) who shows some propriety. But it makes sense.

Many of the observations in the letters make sense. Terry comments that as he ages, he is “less amused by fictions.” (Pride and Prejudice makes the cut nonetheless). Steve calls Mary Crawford “Elizabeth Bennet’s evil twin—Elizabeth without the conscience.” Now perhaps we all feel a bit better about being drawn to her. Jane Austen is so great, one letter tells us, because she is the “absolute master at presenting love as a function of the mind.” The men disagree politically, but, rare as this seems to be in our world, they are still close friends who respect each other’s intellect and morality (isn’t that how it should be?!). Steve and Terry, then, offer wisdom that includes, but is not limited to, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, and they do it with spunk, irreverence for some subjects, and reverence for Austen, which is, I think, as it should be.

One of my masters advisors, Professor Richard Kroll of UC Irvine, passed away last February, much too young. I think if he had read Two Guys Read Jane Austen, he would have commented in his distinctive, straightforward way: “This is a very smart book.”

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Published in: on January 11, 2010 at 8:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

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