Monday, March 12, 2007

Pride and Prejudice

The news that the favourite author of the British reading public turns out to be Miss Jane Austen has caused a number of eyebrows to be uplifted, not the least those of Miss Austen herself, had she been around, I suspect.
Polls, other than of the parrot variety, have never struck me as being worth the clipboards they're written on. Never have I been asked 'what is your favourite book?' 'who is your favourite author?' nor 'what part did Prince Philip play in assassinating Princess Di?'
The world has never sought my opinion on these weighty matters, although this may be my fault because, on sighting a clipboard bearing pollster wearing a fixed, evangelical smile, I run away. I will accept that the favourite British meal is now Tikka Masala since the evidence is there on the pavements of British cities late on a Saturday night.
But Jane Austen? I feel that the poll takers are possibly not pursuing their calling with sufficient diligence. On receiving the answer, rather than just ticking the box on the questionnaire (presumably Jane Austen comes above Dan Brown in the alphabet, for instance), there should be more probing questions asked. Have they actually read the books - or did they get the name from the TV series? Somehow, in many cases, I suspect the latter and, although this may have contributed to an upsurge in book sales, I bet not a lot of them were read. I think many are too proud to answer truthfully and too prejudiced by watching the television series.
Publishers lap this up, printing stuff out of copyright has an obvious fiscal advantage over having to pay a measly royalty to the author, and the potted versions on television are very well done. But Austen's books have never managed to seize my imagination and I wonder if any publisher, on receiving one of her MS today, would be tempted to put their money on it? Her first book was self-published but this was in an age when so doing carried no stigma in the book world and was a fairly common practice.
Austen devotees eulogise her wit but, for the life of me, I can't find much of it in her books and the picture she paints of her life and times is a mere pastiche where the characters move as gracefully as in a minuet - and about as excitingly. It's an unreal world she inhabits.
They are, however, undoubtedly very well written and not to be lightly dismissed. It's just that I find it hard to believe that most British readers rush to grab a copy of her work in preference to others.
Maybe I'll dust of the volumes I have and give her another go - I might be missing something. I'm not too proud or too prejudiced.



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