Here's a box of chocolates; it is your duty to eat them.
November 11, 2014 7:25 AM   Subscribe

People like order in their lives. This does not go down well with those who feel that social restraints of any sort are a bad thing, but these people are a distinct, if very noisy, minority. Most of us want social rules of some sort – not oppressive ones, of course – but rules that govern the way we conduct ourselves towards others. We want people to queue correctly.

We like it when people don’t chew with their mouth open. We love it – although we may be cowed into not saying this – when an able-bodied person gives up a seat to somebody who is clearly frailer. Personally, I like it when anybody gives up a seat on a train to anybody else, frail or not. (Novelist Alexander McCall Smith discusses Jane Austen's Emma in The Daily Mail.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (35 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
That "chewing with your mouth open" analogy should have come with a trigger warning (my younger brother used to do that 30 years ago when we were growing up, and I think he still does).
posted by surazal at 7:31 AM on November 11, 2014


Some things do not change, and that includes certain essential facts about human nature.

I don't like where this is going

But the greatest of all the lessons she teaches us is this: everybody wants to find somebody to love and, if possible, to marry.

I could forgive him if he stopped with "love," I can grant that an emotion might be biological, but a specific type of relationship rather less so.
posted by LogicalDash at 7:46 AM on November 11, 2014 [3 favorites]


There's something adorable about that distinctly British style of cultural absolutism that simultaneously venerates the most mundane details of social behavior while also being unable to conceive of any other perspective. That's the sort of quiet hubris that rolls the engines of empire right over the bodies of incredulous natives!
posted by belarius at 7:57 AM on November 11, 2014 [36 favorites]


Jane Austen is one of our most popular contemporary novelists... ...That is why I, and a number of other writers including Joanna Trollope and Val McDermid, accepted an invitation to write new versions of these novels.

Not really following the logic there. She's still relevant to the contemporary scene, so we need new versions?
posted by Segundus at 7:58 AM on November 11, 2014 [4 favorites]


Most of us want social rules of some sort – not oppressive ones, of course – but rules that govern the way we conduct ourselves towards others. We want people to queue correctly.

Argh, my pet peeve is queueing correctly. My town has several large immigrant populations and I noticed that a couple of these groups don't queue, they'll rush a queue and all of them try to push their way to the front, even if people are already lined up. But that is how things work in their native culture.

What the FPP is talking about here, is etiquette. I personally prefer the take of Miss Manners, who says that etiquette is a set of social conventions intended to reduce interpersonal friction in social environments. The only thing worse than a breach of etiquette, is someone calling attention to a breach of etiquette and thus causing more friction.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:02 AM on November 11, 2014 [13 favorites]


I love the Austen-style social order and restraint. You can be who you are, but tactfully so, and deliberately so. Think before you act.

Emma... has to come to terms with social and psychological reality,

This. This is why I love Ms. Austen... she explains the virtues and the faults of her characters with a brisk detachment; she clearly describes the social constraints due to the context; given this, the flaws are meant to be worked-around via an appropriate pairing or clever social engineering, nothing more. It always seemed so... healthy.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:04 AM on November 11, 2014 [3 favorites]


What an odd article. Everything he says is trite prevarication: money shouldn't matter, but it's useful, but we shouldn't judge people on that basis, but it does help to have it, but we don't like to admit it. If he's actually attempting to convey a viewpoint in all that he's covering it up with as much wishy-washy guff as is humanly possible.

If I were Mr Cameron or Mr Miliband, I would take a short turn round the room, or a walk in the garden. I suspect they would find it very helpful. Jane Austen tells them that, but I am not sure whether they are listening. They should.

This is possibly one of the most facile things I've ever read. If I didn't know better I'd think the man was a simpleton.

She also tells us that sisters and friends are a good thing.

Oh, wait, that's the most facile thing I've ever read. What insight.

We love it – although we may be cowed into not saying this – when an able-bodied person gives up a seat to somebody who is clearly frailer.

Bizarre. Who is it he thinks is oppressing or silencing people who admire considerate behaviour? It's the Daily Mail's sense of baseless grievance made flesh. And, lord knows, not doing any favours to Jane Austen by associating her with this witless drivel either.
posted by sobarel at 8:26 AM on November 11, 2014 [17 favorites]


Jane Austen was not adorable. Jane Austen did not write rom-coms. She was not Miss Manners. Jane Austen was one of the most rigorous moralists in the history of literature. Alexander McCall Smith cannot channel her.
posted by acrasis at 8:29 AM on November 11, 2014 [22 favorites]


That's the sort of quiet hubris that rolls the engines of empire right over the bodies of incredulous natives!

See also: Shakespeare in the Bush

Oddly enough, I was just reflecting this morning, while listening to some segment on NPR, how irksome it is that love of Jane Austen has become synecdoche for being a cultured, well-read person. Because Jane Austen just makes my teeth itch.
posted by drlith at 8:29 AM on November 11, 2014 [4 favorites]


You just used "NPR," "irksome," and "synecdoche" in the same sentence. I think you're covered.
posted by officer_fred at 8:43 AM on November 11, 2014 [37 favorites]


Was this supposed to be like, profound deep thoughts or something? It's kinda like "water is wet" level of intellectualism.

"I could forgive him if he stopped with "love," I can grant that an emotion might be biological, but a specific type of relationship rather less so."

Eh, back in the day marriage meant that you didn't end up a dependent servant being treated like crap for the rest of your life with no hope of escape. Marriage was a requirement for oh, LIFE. I don't think we can judge the standards of Austen in the same way as today, when women can have jobs and shack up with impunity.

"She's still relevant to the contemporary scene, so we need new versions?"

I still prefer Clueless and Emma Approved to this dull excerpt, thanks.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:57 AM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


This Message Has Been Brought To You By The Conservative Party.

Now, get back to work, you lot.
posted by briank at 9:02 AM on November 11, 2014 [6 favorites]


But, but... Queuing!

*maintains stiff upper lip*
posted by arcticseal at 9:25 AM on November 11, 2014 [3 favorites]


Many people have experienced breakthroughs in problem-solving during their walks - I thought this was sort of common knowledge? I could write a whole "ode to walking" comment here but -- I have to get ready to go out for a walk!
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 9:27 AM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Oh and queuing is a beautiful thing.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 9:27 AM on November 11, 2014 [4 favorites]


Alexander McCall Smith has apparently been reading a different Jane Austen than me. Northanger Abbey is basically the Mean Girls of 1818, and that it why I love it.
posted by nonasuch at 9:37 AM on November 11, 2014 [4 favorites]


What the FPP is talking about here, is etiquette. I personally prefer the take of Miss Manners, who says that etiquette is a set of social conventions intended to reduce interpersonal friction in social environments. The only thing worse than a breach of etiquette, is someone calling attention to a breach of etiquette and thus causing more friction.

Etiquette is wonderful and its decline is something I really regret. Basically the only reason I watch Downton Abbey now is for the Dowager's comments when someone does something rude. (And the wonderful clothing.)
posted by longdaysjourney at 9:38 AM on November 11, 2014


Oh and queuing is a beautiful thing.

Indeed.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:41 AM on November 11, 2014 [8 favorites]


Yes, Mr Smith, we're all thieves and magpies, yadda yadda yadda, you really don't need to rationalize ripping off Austen for a buck (or a quid, i suppose), but you'd better do it well, because it wasn't just the conventions of Victorian classism and etiquette that make Austen timeless, it's that she was an awesome writer.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:06 AM on November 11, 2014


I thought it was amusing that he claims to have made it so modern, and then the excerpt uses words like "headstrong" and "governess". Maybe those words are still in common use in England, but to me they sound very quaint and old-fashioned storybookish.
posted by bink at 10:11 AM on November 11, 2014


Eh, back in the day marriage meant that you didn't end up a dependent servant being treated like crap for the rest of your life with no hope of escape. Marriage was a requirement for oh, LIFE. I don't think we can judge the standards of Austen in the same way as today, when women can have jobs and shack up with impunity.

I agree entirely. Whereas McSmith believes that everyone wants to be married if possible, and regards this as an eternal truth of the human condition. He's actually pretty explicit about that. If it's not immediately obvious it's only because he padded out the space between the two lines I quoted with vaguely moralistic inanity.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:20 AM on November 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Ugh, if you're getting to get your life lessons from Emma, Austen's most claustrophobic and unyieldingly constrained work, then yes, you might take home these ideas. If you never read anything else by her.

If you ignore the fact that in Pride and Prejudice, the heroine rejects the notion of a life of wealth, or even comfort, without love. Twice. Although she is told that doing so will be the ruin of her. (And at the end, the mistake she realizes is not that she was wrong to have done so, but that she had misjudged one of her suitors.)

If you ignore the fact that in Northanger Abbey, along with a lot of fun poked at gothic novels, Jane Austen's least typical heroine of all is ultimately rewarded simply for being the nicest person around, which ultimately proves more important than the social games playing out around her.

No, let's push aside all that and look instead to Emma, which says don't try to rise too high above your station. Which says you should really marry your brother-in-law and move into your father's house. Yeah, then you might believe Austen was only about social order above all else and marriage being the be-all and end-all.

All you have to do is throw away everything else she wrote.
posted by kyrademon at 10:41 AM on November 11, 2014 [4 favorites]


words like "headstrong" and "governess". Maybe those words are still in common use in England, but to me they sound very quaint and old-fashioned storybookish.

Headstrong is in fairly common usage, but governesses and housekeepers are rare species these days. The well-to-do have nannies. Nothing about the extract reads as modern in the slightest, even if Emma is driving a Mini.
posted by sobarel at 10:48 AM on November 11, 2014


The queuing differences between NYC and Texas are many and profound, I can tell you that.
posted by emjaybee at 10:48 AM on November 11, 2014


Jane Austen's characters, even the poor ones, could all afford servants. That tells you something right there.
posted by Obscure Reference at 11:31 AM on November 11, 2014 [5 favorites]


That didn't even address any issues interesting enough to make it worth finishing.
posted by Hizonner at 11:46 AM on November 11, 2014


My favorite adaptation of Austen remains the Lizzy Bennet Diaries, especially for how it responded to the changes in women's circumstances. The vast majority of Austen interpretations I've run across treat: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" as if it was a statement of fact, not a heavy irony on multiple levels, and ignore completely that Darcy had to change in order to be acceptable to Lizzy.
posted by Deoridhe at 12:50 PM on November 11, 2014 [4 favorites]


Oh and queuing is a beautiful thing.

Indeed.


That is the single most civilized goddamn thing I have ever seen.
posted by echo target at 12:54 PM on November 11, 2014 [4 favorites]


I believe it is the Spanish who queue using lists instead of arrays: you don't take a place on a line, you just keep track of the person in front of you.
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:19 AM on November 12, 2014


This is sort of the mirror-image of Auden's lines on Jane Austen:
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.
Alexander McCall Smith would agree, but he doesn't find it shocking because he regards the economic basis of society as a Jolly Good Thing.
posted by verstegan at 4:45 AM on November 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


We love it – although we may be cowed into not saying this – when an able-bodied person gives up a seat to somebody who is clearly frailer.

Bizarre. Who is it he thinks is oppressing or silencing people who admire considerate behaviour?


I think what he's trying to say is that people may be cowed into not saying anything when an able-bodied person doesn't give up a seat to someone frailer. That is, they don't say, pointedly, "I love it when someone gives up his or her seat," for fear of being abused. They'll just tut inwardly instead.

One can imagine a Daily Mail reader grappling with these repressed urges on a regular basis. Also, that young man hasn't taken off his hat, damn his eyes.
posted by rory at 6:53 AM on November 12, 2014


There's something adorable about that distinctly British style of cultural absolutism that simultaneously venerates the most mundane details of social behavior while also being unable to conceive of any other perspective.
Honestly, from where I stand, having only slowly got to identify myself in middle age as British as well as all the other things, cultural absolutism is one of the least typically British traits around.

I'm not about to read the article since I find McCall Smith both banal and spiteful as a writer (having avoided exposing himself as such by 1/ using a faux-naive simplistic style without a lot of resonance and 2/ locating some fiction in a context where his biases against the familiar don't come into play. It's a lot more evident when he's writing about Edinburgh.)

Hand on heart and I know I'm being snobby, but the little Englander thing is more of a class defect - lower middle, like The Mail - than a British one. IME.
posted by glasseyes at 9:16 AM on November 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


McSmith believes that everyone wants to be married if possible

Isn't he divorced?
unsurprisingly
posted by glasseyes at 9:19 AM on November 12, 2014


Tutting is another beautiful British thing. Towards the general vicinity of AMS, I say: Tut.

Or rather I glare it, vocalisation superfluous.
posted by glasseyes at 9:26 AM on November 12, 2014


Emma was my least favourite until I read a description of it as a horror novel in disguise, and now it is one of my favourites for the slow dreadful crushing of Emma's potential in domestic tyranny by her father, her suitor and the village she's trapped in. It is a psychological terror tale, drowning in feminine strictures with shrill-edged desperate humor.

I'd read Gillian Flynn's rework - the closest I can think of is Rebecca for the emotions, but it's the way it's presented in a charming witty cage that makes Emma sublime.

Austen is laughing and laughing in literary heaven reading McCall's reworking.
posted by viggorlijah at 6:27 PM on November 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


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