“One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other”, wrote Jane Austen in Emma. Fittingly, that is the premise of episode two of Sky Arts' Passion series entitled I Hate Jane Austen.
Writer and food critic Giles Coren is the ‘I’ here, and Coren can’t get his head around why over 200 years after her death, readers and moviegoers are still so taken with Austen and her novels.
His dislike, he explains, began in school, where he holds Austen personally responsible for ruining one of his summers. Reading Jane Austen deprived him of opportunities for “partying and shagging”, but Coren’s premier objection is that Austen’s books, characters and themes are all too trifling for him. He classes her as "an average chick-lit writer of her day”, who doesn’t hold a candle to his personal literary heroes, Shakespeare and Henry Miller.
Of course Coren, who has been known to court a little controversy from time to time, says this all while doing his best to come across as the twinkly-eyed class clown in school who you can’t help but love.
His particular charm fails to work on author Joanna Trollope (who penned a reworking of Sense and Sensibility in 2013). In fact, she is totally unmoved by Coren’s limited understanding of Austen’s books, asking him at one point, “Do you know what ‘sensibility’ means?”
As it turns out, he doesn't.
Trollope succinctly dismisses his assumption that Austen is too “girly” and light, arguing instead that she is sinewy, tough and capable of brilliantly conveying the subtlety of human interaction.
Trollope also points out, in her cut-glass accent, that we should give Austen credit for correctly identifying that romantic love, money and class would continue to preoccupy the writers who followed her for centuries. Yet Coren holds firm that Austen's themes are trivial.
Author Marian Keyes has spoken about this. She believes we should stop using the term 'chick-lit' altogether. Speaking at the Hay Festival in 2015, Keyes said: "It’s simple fact that one way of keeping women shut up is to call the things they love ‘fluff’. It’s a device. And I think people probably aren’t even aware that’s what’s going on, but it’s absolutely innate in our society that anything pertaining to women will be treated with less respect and given disrespectful names.”
It’s simple fact that one way of keeping women shut up is to call the things they love ‘fluff’
She continued: “It’s definitely a pejorative term. I’m going to quote Gandhi here: ‘First they ignore you, then they mock you, then they fight you’."
In I Hate Jane Austen Coren definitely has a go at mockery. He is seen sniffing at the myriad of Austen merch and sneers over a Regency ball held by Austen fans. When getting dressed up in full Mr Darcy regalia ahead of the ball, he addresses himself in the mirror, saying that if he were to be a character in one of Austen's novels, he'd be the bad boy. Later he meets some men at the ball, neither of whom have ever read any Austen, and concludes they are right to prefer ‘proper honest novels by blokes’.
Though Coren chooses to ignore many of them, the hour-long show contains genuine insights into Austen and her legacy. The good-humoured director of Bride and Prejudice, Gurinder Chadha draws Coren's attention to how Austen shone a light on ordinary women's lives, and the barriers they existed within. Elizabeth Bennet’s love of stomping across fields seems petty to him, but Chadha points out this is a symbol of women's need for freedom.
In a pertinent moment, when Coren is invited to a reading with the Jane Austen Society of Pakistan, one woman spells it out for him. “Pride and Prejudice may be period drama to contemporary people living in London but to me it was a roadmap”, she explains.
It’s a vital point. For many women (and men) around the world, the issues in Jane Austen’s 19th-century England – class, status, the obsession with appearance, marriage, money and snobbery – still resonate, even if they don’t seem important to a privileged white man in London.
As a presenter, Coren isn’t unlikeable, and he knows exactly which feathers he's ruffling, but for someone who positions himself as anti-fluff in literature, there is much in I Hate Jane Austen that should have ended up on the cutting room floor. He tells us he doesn’t like dancing several times, and in one scene we watch Coren take an Austen-themed BuzzFeed quiz in real time. He complains that Austen wrote the same book over and over, yet the viewer is supposed to never tire of Coren’s mischievous lad act.
Time-wasting and waffle aside, I Hate Jane Austen has some timely reminders of Austen’s subtlety, innovation, nuance and wit. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Darcy learned a lesson from being too up himself – there may be hope for Coren, too.
Passions S2 continues on Sky Arts, Tuesdays, 9pm