Jane Austen Did Not Write Epics

By Maeve Maddox

A recent film on a romantic episode in the life of 18th century novelist Jane Austen (1775-1817) has called forth a lot of commentary on the web. Here’s the blurb that prompted this article:

Becoming Jane: Author Jane Austen (Anne Hathaway) eventually became famous for writing epic novels like Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility.

In popular usage, epic is often used to denote extraordinary length or size. For example, someone might try to ask a long-winded companion to get to the point by saying: Just give me the facts. I don’t need an epic. Used to denote size, epic is almost always accompanied by proportions. Indeed, so clich├ęd is the expression epic proportions that there’s a play with that title.

Since the longest Jane Austen novel comes to only about 300 pages, the writer quoted above cannot have meant to use epic in the sense of size or length.

When speaking of novels or poems, the word epic has to do with certain aspects of the story and its treatment. The baseline epics are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, stories of larger-than-life national heroes like Achilles and Odysseus engaged in struggles involving the fate of nations or entire races. In the classic sense, epics employ high-flown language. They have lengthy casts of characters, and they often take place over the course of many years.

Some well-known novel and film epics are Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, DeMille’s Ten Commandments, Griffith’s Birth of A Nation, Gibson’s Braveheart, and Tolkien/Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The romantic misunderstandings of Miss Bennett and Mr. Darcy, played out in elegant 18th century drawing rooms, belong to a type of novel called the novel of manners.

“Manners” here doesn’t mean merely such things as opening a door for a lady or the saying of “please” and “thank you.” The novel of manners focuses on domestic matters as opposed to warfare and the realm of the male. The central character is generally a woman and such novels are often written by women, although The Forsythe Saga by John Galsworthy is an example of the genre. This kind of novel describes the way people living at a certain time in a particular place behave, how they arrange marriages, how they bring up their children, what they hope for, and what they settle for.

Although usually thought of as a distinctly British genre, the novel of manners occupies a significant place in American literature. The novels of Edith Wharton, Henry James, Kate Chopin, and Claire Messud are novels of manners.

You’ll find a useful introduction to the genre and its feminist associations at enotes.

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11 Responses to “Jane Austen Did Not Write Epics”

  • Brad K.

    I think you might have missed an interesting distinction. You mention that “novel of manners” doesn’t refer to Emily Post’s instructions for polite interaction and gestures of respect – manners. But you didn’t indicate whether “novel of manners” refers to the *manner* of the character’s lives, or what meaning the manners in “novel of manners” does carry.

    I tend to think of ‘epic’ as a sequence of a large number of scenarios, whether struggles or adventures or other “growth experiences”. Or would you consider the Children of the Earth series by Jane Auel (Clan of the Cave Bear, Valley of Horses [my favorite], etc.) to be a novel of manners?

  • Advice Network

    Maybe instead of epic, they meant iconic.

  • Maeve

    Brad,
    I’ve read Clan of the Cave Bear. With its treatment of Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon life over many years, I’d say it falls into the category of epic. The Odyssey focuses on male activities, but includes depictions of women at their weaving and laundry.

    I think I convey the meaning of “manners” in the novel of manners in these words:

    the way people living at a certain time in a particular place behave, how they arrange marriages, how they bring up their children, what they hope for, and what they settle for.

    Doesn’t this indicate that the word “manners” refers to the manner in which people live their lives?

  • Maeve

    Advice Network,
    What the writer meant by “epic” must remain a mystery.

    I don’t think it’s the reader’s responsibility to figure out what a writer “really” meant by a word incorrectly used. All we have to go on is the word on the page.

  • Matilda

    What was the title of the film that you watched about Jane Austen? I’d like to see it.

  • Maeve

    Matilda,
    The film is called Becoming Jane. I wrote a review of it which you can read on my Drama Movies site at BellaOnline.com:
    Becoming Jane is More Fun Than Fact.

    PS – I write my film reviews under the name Peggy Maddox.

  • rokshana

    I want to develop my english. If there is any scope that after coming office through email I will write last day dairy and someone or developed system will correct my sentence and para. Then I will get reply with correction.

  • rokshana

    I need a moderator who will correct my writing if possible

  • Monica

    When I saw the article quote above I had to chuckle because of my experience as a writer of original stories and also for fandom scenarios, including role-playing. In the world of role-playing “Epic” means amazing, creative, over-the-top in blowing away someone’s mind (figuratively) by the sheer genius of their work.

    I do not think this should be the proper definition by any means but thought I should at least speak my bit and mention this, in case it alters anyone else’s perceptions of the review quote.

  • BK

    um i think maybe you misunderstood the way the word was being used my friends and i often use the word epic. I think when they call her novels “epic” (not Epics) that they meant epic love, or epic story.

  • Megan

    Epic can also be used to mean “extending beyond the ordinary,” and some synonyms are “magnificent” and “glorious.” (See the dictionary.) Therefore, the author of the review is not using the word incorrectly.

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