Jane Austen and Lena Dunham — sisters under the skin?

Pen and ink portrait of Jane Austen

I first read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in 1976, when I was in high school. In those days, the book was popular, as it has been since its first publication two-hundred years ago (January 28, 1813), but it wasn’t yet trendy. I didn’t care about trends. I fell in love — with an author’s voice, with her characters, and with the time and place in which those characters lived.  Since then, with the exception of Northanger Abbey, which I appreciated as a spoof but never liked, I’ve read Austen’s books repeatedly.

I don’t know if it’s boast-worthy or cringe-worthy that I’ve read my two favorites — Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion — at least fifteen times each. I view the books as friends. Just as I enjoy meeting my friends for lunch or a walk, during which time we hash and re-hash the same conversations about children and life, so too do I love rendezvousing periodically with Elizabeth and Anne. Austen’s genius is that, two hundred years later, both of them are real people with whom I enjoy spending time.

Vittorio Reggianini

One of the things that I love about Austen is that she’s a moralist, although never a preachy one.  Modern readers recognize the more obvious lessons she preaches:  don’t let the pride of your rank blind you to a good person’s virtues; don’t let your wounded ego allow you to seek out “the wrong guy”; and don’t think you can manage other people’s lives if you can’t even do a good job with your own.

What too many modern readers (including those who should know better) miss is that Jane Austen was also an old-fashioned, middle-class, religiously driven cultural moralist.  Austen never rebelled against the lessons she learned growing up in her father’s parsonage.  She preached many of those same lessons when it came to personal morality, only she slipped them into frothy, amusing, tart confections.

Think about it:  In Pride and Prejudice, Wickham isn’t just a vain or boastful man.  He grossly violates middle-class morality.  He begins by attempting to convince a fifteen-year-old girl to marry him, although he’s foiled in that effort.  Rather than learning his lesson, he sinks further into debauchery.  After he runs off with another fifteen-year-old girl, this time with no intention of marrying her, it’s also discovered that he routinely cheated people out of money.  Wickham isn’t just a jerk; he’s a truly evil man.  He’s not evil in a big Hollywood way, with guns and drugs.  He’s something worse:  he’s a corrupter, one who uses his charm to destroy the moral decency of lonely or foolish young women.  Austen does not redeem him at the end.  He marries Lydia, but only when bribed to do so, and Austen makes it clear that Wickham continues to be as profligate and destructive as ever.

In her most starkly moralistic novel, Mansfield Park, Austen is open, not convert, when she condemns loose modern morals. Fanny is a rather uninteresting lead character, but she deserves her role as an Austen heroine because she is unfailingly faithful to true religious teachings, both at a doctrinal level and as those moral teachings reflect upon her day-to-day life. Austen has nothing but disdain for Henry and Mary Crawford, two charming and sophisticated young people. Charming and sophisticated they may be, but they use those characteristics, not for good but, as with Wickham, to corrupt innocence. And again, as with Wickham, Austen denies them redemption. Both of them, even when they fall unwillingly in love with Fanny and Edmund, are unable to break free of their vices.

I won’t bore you with summaries of all of Austen’s novels. I’ll just note that each of them contains characters who reject middle class morality, who hurt both innocents and fools along the way, and who lack any sort of moral core that would allow them true redemption.  Austen’s major characters — Darcy, Elizabeth, Marianne, Capt. Wentworth, Emma, etc. — have foibles, but not vices.  Each grows and learns throughout the course of the book.  They go through purgatory, but are redeemed.  But the evil men, the Willoughbys and Wickhams, are irredeemable.  Austen casts them into Hell without a second thought.

Contrast Austen’s stern and unforgiving morality with Lena Dunham.  You may remember Dunham as the woman who wrote and starred in a video likening voting for Obama to losing one’s virginity.  Ick.  If you don’t have HBO, though, you’ve never come face-to-face with Dunham’s major creation, a TV series called Girls.  I watched the first episode, and it made me nauseous.  Dunham showcases a nihilistic world of unhappy, empty young women who hook up with vacuous men or, as Kurt Schlichter describes it:

Girls is about four young, aimless college grads living in New York. Think of Sex and the City, except Sarah Jessica Parker has doubled her weight, dresses like a potato sack and fancies herself the voice of some undefined generation. There’s sex and nudity – just not hot Homeland sex and nudity. This is the first show in the history of cable television where male viewers actively root for the heroine to keep her clothes on.


The characters seem to live in a minority and Republican-free bubble (though a black Republican (!) shows up as a character this season). There is no reference to religion – that wouldn’t occur to them.

Questions of traditional morality never arise – of course you should consider an abortion! Instead of facing questions of morality, the characters face questions of behavior along the lines Seinfeld parodied – who has “hand” in a relationship, or the social faux pas of the “close talker.” To put it bluntly, these are not the big questions that the great thinkers of Western civilization have pondered over the centuries.

When it comes to core values — indeed, any values — it is impossible to imagine two writers more different than Austen and Dunham.  One is a strict, traditional moralist; and the other is a modern irreligious nihilist.  Austen is pre-modern, living in a world defined by good and evil, moral and immoral.  Dunham, by contrast, has gone a step beyond post-modern, because she doesn’t even have an inverted morality, one that celebrates vice, not virtue.  Instead, she has abandoned morality entirely.

Why then do I name my post “Jane Austen and Lena Dunham — sisters under the skin?”  Because that’s what NPR would like to have young women believe.  Maureen Corrigan, who corrupts . . . er, teaches young people at Georgetown University, and who has a prominent, long-standing book reviewing gig at NPR, thinks that Austen and Dunham could be good buddies, because they’re both witty.  No, I’m really not kidding.  After discussing an orangutan that is supposedly an Austen fan, Corrigan has this to say (emphasis mine):

What does Albert the orangutan hear in Pride and Prejudice, I wonder? Maybe the same thing my students hear when I teach survey courses on the evolution of the novel. We start our voyage out with Robinson Crusoe and often go on to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy — fine, weird novels that seem to hail from a civilization a million light years from our own. Then we arrive home, on Planet Austen.

The relief in the classroom is palpable; the energy of class discussion spikes. It’s certainly not that my students mistake Austen’s world for our own. After all, her novels revolve around the make-or-break perils of a highly ritualized marriage market. Rather, it’s Austen’s smart-girl voice: peppery, wry, eye rolling — that seems so close to modern consciousness. Austen could be gal pals with Tina Fey and Lena Dunham; she talks to us directly, bridging time and custom.

Implying that Austen, Fey, and Dunham are sisters under the skin is the ultimate form of literary deconstruction. Corrigan, a product of and a contributor to our modern education system, refuses to acknowledge Austen’s actual messages about personal growth and irreparable moral failings.  Instead, the only thing she sees is snark.  And if Austen gives good snark well, then, she’s a ready-made companion for Fey and Dunham, both of whom inhabit a moral universe that would cause Austen to draw back in revulsion.

Austen was no innocent.  The late Georgian era in which she lived was a cesspool of debauchery, and Dunham certainly would have fitted well into the seamier side of Georgian England.  For all their surface charm, Austen’s books delve into such unsavory subjects as affairs, illegitimate children, gambling, premarital sex, etc.  Unlike Dunham (and even the softer Fey), however, Austen doesn’t celebrate these activities as normal, nor does she withhold judgment because “she has no right to judge.”  Instead, these people suffer.  And they deserve to suffer.  They have violated societal norms and religious strictures, and done so without compunction.  Their regret over the consequences of these acts is irrelevant, because they do not regret the acts themselves.

I don’t believe Corrigan’s position is mere stupidity.  This deconstructionist approach to Jane Austen is a deliberate effort to minimize her moral impact on modern readers.  One cannot denounce Austen for being a prude, because her work is too witty and charming to function under that label.  But one can encourage young women to ignore her moral strictures by pretending that her societal comments have as much meaning — or lack of meaning — as the empty, sad scenes that make up Dunham’s and Fey’s intellectual and creative worlds.