Why Men Like Jane Austen

From soldiers in the trenches to modern Millennial guys, the secret to why dudes read chick novels. Or at least watch the movies.

The stories have female protagonists, are full of dresses and dancing, have no battle scenes whatsoever, and are wildly popular with women. And yet when our girlfriends want to watch a date movie, we men will usually agree to watch Pride and Prejudice before we’ll submit to Ever After.

Many people have tried to explain why. Without diminishing any of their explanations, I think there is an important reason today’s guys will watch Jane Austen movies, and even read the books, which may sound counterintuitive.

I think we like Jane Austen because we like stories with men in them.

Don’t misunderstand me. We don’t watch a Jane Austen movie because Indiana Jones and Jason Bourne aren’t men. But we face—and have been facing for some time now—an identity crisis with which those heroes are no help. Kay Hymowitz, in a superb article a while back, called it the man’s search for an “acceptable adult identity.” We live in a woman’s world—the home has been traditionally the domain of the woman, and nowadays the workplace is no longer the domain of the man. Growing up, I didn’t get to see my father do many explicitly “manly” things. For several years, my wife had to live with a husband who spent part of his time at work in a woman-dominated workplace, and the other part at home.

[sociallocker]Entertainment is some small outlet for our manly instincts. Most of our wives let us have Sunday afternoons to watch football (ignoring the irony that the one time we know how to be “men” is when we are entertaining ourselves). However, in entertainment, we have only two choices in terms of role models. One is escapist; to enjoy heroes whose situations do not remotely resemble our own (such as those in action movies or football games, where manliness is a matter of sudden, dramatic action and there are no women allowed). The other is an acceptance of low expectations; to enjoy “heroes” who are in normal situations we can identify with, but who are “guys,” not men (Joey and Ross, Jerry and George)—emerging adults, if you will. In real life, we have none of these luxuries—we have to be men, and we have to do it in a swordless world that seems to be full of women. We are in desperate need of heroes who know how to be men in situations like ours—in normal life.

This is quite a predicament for us. And for you women who want to date a real man…well, you see your problem.

Enter Jane Austen, the author of books that are anything but chick lit.

I contend that a key reason we like Austen’s stories is that there are real men in them who know how to be men, day after day, moment after difficult moment—in awkward situations, in thankless tasks, in rooms full of women, when their actions and even their mannerisms are constantly scrutinized and judged. “Principles,” wrote C.S. Lewis, “are essential to Jane Austen’s art. [They] might be described as the grammar of conduct. Now grammar is something that anyone can learn; it is also something that everyone must learn.” Jane Austen’s heroes have learned it—so they are role models for the rest of us in a way that few heroes can be.

Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility is my favorite example of this. He has to be a hero in excruciating social situations that would have me dying to slip away and go throw a football somewhere. (I should preface this by saying that if your only experience with the gentleman has come in the form of Alan Rickman’s awkward interpretation, you haven’t seen what I am describing. Read the book, or watch the BBC’s 2008 adaptation starring David Morrissey.)

Sir Walter Scott, a literary man’s man, appreciated this. “[Austen],” he wrote, “had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which has to be the most wonderful I ever met with. The big ‘Bow-Wow’ strain I can do myself, like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary common-place things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me.”

This ability to dramatize the ordinary for a man is precisely what makes Austen so indispensable to someone like me. David Morrissey’s Colonel Brandon captures the book’s character well. He is unspectacular at first glance; clearly lacking a desire to entertain others or draw attention to himself. Yet his sober demeanor and penetrating gaze quickly make it clear he is a man who is unlikely to judge a situation wrongly. On top of this, he is keenly aware of the feelings of others—yet this does not reduce him to indecisiveness, but instead produces a polished manner that seeks to make others feel safe and comfortable. He is an island of strong sanity in an often emotional, confusing, and tumultuous environment. As I follow Brandon’s character, I see subtleties in his small actions that betray manliness at every step—yet I rarely see him in what we might consider manly situations.

This is the Austen hero. Chesterton observed, “When Darcy, in finally confessing his faults, says ‘I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice though not in theory,’ he gets nearer to a complete confession of the intelligent male than ever was even hinted by the Byronic lapses of the Brontes’ heroes or the elaborate exculpations of George Eliot’s.” This kind of self-aware yet self-confident manhood does not impress in the way that a quick wit or a quick sword does. Rather, it inspires respect—something we too often do not know how to gain, because for the Austen hero, “manly” is not something he does, like rescuing a damsel in distress; it is something he is. There is an integrity to him that transcends situation.

Contrast this with the men Austen does not wish us to respect. Her villains are always double-dealers; presenting a façade to the world that is often more immediately impressive than the heroes’ character. Comic characters like Mr. Collins lack the sobriety and sensible temperament that mark the Austenian true man. However, perhaps the most sympathetic character to the modern “guy” is Mr. Bennet. Bennet is the only man in the household, and is ill at-ease in his role. Rather than be a man in a woman’s world, he constantly retreats to his library to read. This is his 19th-century version of playing video games—it’s an activity in which he knows who he is and doesn’t need to adapt.

The older we grow, the less likely most males are to have such a luxury. To have a good career, to win a woman, to achieve any goal we might want, we can’t be a Mr. Bennet. So after we’ve put up what we consider to be the requisite amount of resistance and agreed to watch Pride and Prejudice on our date, just sit back and relax. Enjoy the romance of Mr. Darcy, and ignore us. We’ll be fine.

This post was originally written in February 2011. [/sociallocker]

Brian Brown
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.

22 Comments

  • February 24, 2011

    victoria

    love this. rest assured I will be perusing the rest of this blog in search of more…

  • […] Why Men Like Jane Austen The stories have female protagonists, are full of dresses and dancing, have no battle scenes […]

  • February 26, 2011

    Dblade

    I enjoyed this too. A very good analysis, and it convinced me to break down and give Austen novels a try.

  • […] performance in The King’s Speech. I would hesitate to talk about the Oscars on Humane Pursuits if Brian’s terrific piece from last week on men in Jane Austen hadn’t provided me with the perfect hook: Mr. […]

  • […] Why men like Jane Austen ~ and just really, a fun blog […]

  • March 16, 2011

    a jane austen man «

    […] via humane pursuits […]

  • […] what’s been going around amongst my friends today, check out this post on why men love Jane Austen. There’s also a great post along similar lines about one of my favorite movies of all time, […]

  • […] Why Men Like Jane Austen by Brian Brown […]

  • […] a look at “Why Men Like Jane Austen” and let me know what you think about […]

  • July 18, 2011

    Harry Potter « |

    […] Why Men Like Jane Austen […]

  • […] I also learned that Rudyard Kipling was a fan, which struck me as odd, as I was under the impression that Rudyard Kipling doesn’t much like women. (I’m not implying he’s a homosexual. I’m implying he’s a misogynist. It’s weird to me that most male misogynists are not also homosexual, but there you go. On the other hand, it is not weird to me that most homosexual men are not misogynists, because what do they have to hate us for?) Then again, it has always struck me as interesting that Jane Austen is an author, and female, and wrote about “feminine” things, but has always won praise and admiration from many very manly men. […]

  • […] I also learned that Rudyard Kipling was a fan, which struck me as odd, as I was under the impression that Rudyard Kipling doesn’t much like women. (I’m not implying he’s a homosexual. I’m implying he’s a misogynist. It’s weird to me that most male misogynists are not also homosexual, but there you go. On the other hand, it is not weird to me that most homosexual men are not misogynists, because what do they have to hate us for?) Then again, it has always struck me as interesting that Jane Austen is an author, and female, and wrote about “feminine” things, but has always won praise and admiration from many very manly men. […]

  • […] is exercised in the day-to-day rather than on a distant battlefield (something I wrote about in “Why Men Like Jane Austen”).What would such things look like if they were motivated by a dedication to a place, its people, […]

  • […] Why Men Like Jane Austen […]

  • December 8, 2011

    David

    I still have not succeeded in reading Austen yet, though she is high on my list. But I do count it a significant fact that those womanly friends whom I most admire, and whom I most connect with, all appreciate and love Austen’s books intelligently, and her male characters in particular. By hearing their discussions, and by reading some like yours and remarks by authors such as Lewis, I have gained much respect for her as writer and as an observer of humanity.

    Your analysis is encouraging, as I am well aware of the lack of real masculinity in today’s Western culture. I am sick of movies being filled with “guys” and “man-children.” Where are the Charlton Hestons and John Waynes, the Jimmy Stewarts and Clark Gables, the Alan Ladds and Orson Welleses? However entertaining Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt can be, they wilt in the light of the real men who used to act on the silver screen. And the same is still often true in literature. Which is but one reason among many that I tend to prefer older books and movies, despite being a mere 24 years old myself.

  • […] 1. Why Men Like Jane Austen […]

  • […] think, goes deeper than that. For a longer look at why I think Austen is popular today, read “Why Men Like Jane Austen” from a year ago. The short version, in my view, is this: Austen writes fantasy stories set in […]

  • […] A few years ago, my friend Brian Brown noted some the reasons in a post titled, “Why Men Like Jane Austen.” […]

  • […] A few years ago, my friend Brian Brown noted some the reasons in a post titled, “Why Men Like Jane Austen.” […]

  • […] Why Men Like Jane Austen […]

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