Recently I while I was at work I (I do direct care for adults with developmental disabilities) I was flipping the TV channels to find something of interest for the client still up and watching TV (he was engaged primarily in working on a puzzle but does look up and watch the TV on and off too) as the car racing he had been viewing ended. I came across the BBC series of Pride and Prejudice and left it there for a bit. I myself didn't care what was on, as long as it wasn't terribly loud as it was late and I was at the end of my 56 hour shift (I work from Friday afternoon through 11pm Sunday nights and sleep at the residence of the clients I work with). The other staff person working came through and made some off hand comment about how he doesn't like Jane Austen or the Brontes' writing much but was impressed that the did so much considering they were limited to the parlor/home whereas the male authors of the period had the whole world to explore/experience to inform their literary efforts.
At the time I couldn't formulate just what precisely made his comment seem so condescending to me, but after giving it thought here is my response. First let me make clear that my co-worker is male, college educated and is currently working on getting certified to teach high school English in the state of KS. I also am college educated, and have a MFA in creative writing, a background in English and Theater, and love reading novels of all sorts. Over the years I have read Jane Eyre a number of times, and most of Jane Austen's novels as well as lots of other British and American Lit from the 18th and 19th Century. First of all, I don't particularly feel that having a wider range of personal experience to you due to gender necessarily makes your writing better, more worthy of reading by a modern reader, or "important" artistically. Secondly I think that Austen is one of the best writer's I've ever read because she's sarcastic, funny, and observant of human behavior and relationships. She writes with very clear, economic prose, what might take another writer pages more to convey. Also, while I'm not a Austen scholar I don't know that her life was all that circumscribed, unlike the Brontes' who had the misfortune to die really young. What makes Austen still popular, I believe is that she writes about how little people really understand each other, how missperception based on seeing the world from ones own point of view limits the ways that we connect to each other. I also, don't know that to write about subjects such as romance, love, or marriage is a lesser choice of subject matter than to write about the pursuit of a great white whale. They are different choices. They may seem to be gendered choices, but is this really a limitation of the author, or a limitation of the edifice of scholarly tradition in western culture? Basically it comes down to the fact that I think it galls my co-worker that more people are still interested in the stories based on Austen's work than for example a novel like Tom Jones by Henry Fielding which he prefers.
So, anyway in addition to these thoughts about gender and subject matter and artistic merit I have been reading Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen and throughly loving it. While I do find the extreme naivete of the main character Catherine Morland a bit tiring, I also have to keep in mind that unlike some of the other Austen heroines she is only seventeen and as been reading far to many gothic novels and so keeps trying foolishly to have reality be like one of her books. Basically the modern eqivilant of watching lots of horror films or reading ghost stories and then seeing pycho killers or angry spectres around every corneer. Also they way in which Austen parodies and pokes fun at the conventions of the gothic romance so popular as a form is delightful. Much in the way that the Lemony Snicket's series of books, a Series of Unfortunate Events, subverts aspects of the gothic novel, so too does Northanger Abbey. If you haven't read it, I would reccommend it much the way a good freind of mine recently pushed me into reading it for the first time.