Austen and autism

5 Jan

Ah, it’s been a wonderful week so far – not even that. The list on the side of the page, those books I’m currently reading, have just about all changed out. Sadly “Sink Reflections” will take a bit longer – I keep pausing to put into practice what I read. But hoping that I can press on shortly so the next book waiting in the wings can take its rightful place.

So, something old has moved on to “Daddy-long-legs” – a novel that flies by and will likely hit completion yet this weekend. I remember reading this book years ago – and loving it.

Something new..that’s where all of this gets interesting.

I’ve tried reading Jane Austen before. Years ago I made the attempt more than once, especially since I have a best friend who is near fanatical on her writings. But much as I tried I would stop, usually as the result of confusion. To be honest I started questioning WHY Austen proved so hard. The language is certainly a bit more unwieldy and the references are dated. But more than that, I failed to understand the action, to the point of questioning whether I was intelligent enough to even take on the classics.

But then realizing as well with an IQ somewhere past 140, that last wasn’t likely, there had to be a more reasonable explanation.

Was it the history? Not necessarily. I’ve spent a great deal of time in studying the past. I have a BA in history which must be worth something (to date, it’s getting the most workout with using Durant’s Story of Civilization to homeschool the kids). But I have a clear enough understanding of 18th and early 19th century life to understand what a barouche might be and enough French to muddle through the phrases thrown about “Daddy-long-legs” with confidence.

Even the language isn’t difficult if you take the time to read it. In fact the descriptions are quite well-done and the turn of phrase very nicely accomplished.

The answer I think lies in my autism.

I have Asperger’s Syndrome, something formally diagnosed a handful of years back that really helped me to understand a lot about myself that I never did previously. One of those things was the terrify muddle of social interaction – the inflection, the tone of conversation being my biggest downfall. I never ‘got’ the unwritten rules of things (apologies to everyone I offended so badly in my teen years and before) and quite often missed completely the undertones in a conversation completely.

But isn’t that what Austen is about?

After reading “Sense and Sensibility” I’ll admit to a fair amount of frustration that so much of what transpired in the book could have been avoided completely if people would just SAY WHAT THEY MEAN.


Austen is rich in inflection. In undertone. And quite honestly, back when I first started to read her, I understood so LITTLE of that, I had really no hope at all in making any kind of sense of what was really going on in her books at all. Hence my frustration, and why I quit.

Over the years, especially since diagnosis, I’ve spent a lot of time in reading, in research, and yes even in therapy coming back to the same questions time and again. What are the people around me REALLY saying (or asking) when they initiate a dialogue with me. I am continually astonished at the things I’ve learned about how we communicate now.

And even more so when I pick up Austen and actually catch what she’s really saying in a complicated piece of dialogue. I am DELIGHTED by her skill with words.

And equally positive that about 2/3 of it is still flying right over my head.

With that thought in mind that means I can likely enjoy Austen again later. Moreso as I age, and grow and learn. Something to look forward to.

So I pick up “Pride and Prejudice” with anticipation and not dread this time around. I think I might actually ‘get it’ or at least enough of it to really enjoy the story. I can’t wait.

Though I can’t help but wonder…is this the reason why most people on the autism spectrum don’t enjoy fiction very much at all? It’s a mind-boggling thought. And certainly bears further analysis.


3 Responses to “Austen and autism”

  1. Krysti January 5, 2013 at 11:32 pm #

    Kristine, I’m so glad you’re able to appreciate Pride and Prejudice this time around.

    Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors, but I prefer the made-for-the-silver-screen versions now more than reading her books. They’re shorter, for one, and I enjoy watching the different actors brings these interactions to life.

    🙂 Have fun with your list! 🙂

  2. Normandie January 5, 2013 at 11:57 pm #

    Kristine, I adore Austen and always have (though they should not have suggested Emma as an introduction for fifteen year olds) because it’s comedy of manners. Same reason I enjoyed Balzac. Might I suggest that you try an audiobook of one or two of these? I used to read them yearly, just because they made me laugh. Now, listening to them, I’m having fun again. I adore having P&P and Persuasion read to me as I cook or walk. You could listen as you knit!

  3. Natalie January 14, 2013 at 12:43 am #

    Some people (I don’t know who) have speculated that Austen herself was “on the spectrum”. I read it on a list (can’t remember if it was on wikipedia or not) of famous people who might have had Asperger’s. It’s a pretty funny list in many ways because it includes pretty much all the greatest geniuses of human history -Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, Tolstoy etc, but it is interesting to think of a social novelist like Austen or Tolstoy having Asperger’s. I can see how a lot of the themes in their novels (i.e. pride and prejudice, sense and sensibility, war and peace) could relate to difficulties that they might have had in their own social lives, and perhaps a general incapacity to understand social interaction could be a driving motivation for attaining a truly sophisticated understanding of the way that humans relate to one another. I mean, but this is just a theory, if you were perfectly adapted to your social surrounds what need would you have to really think about human society and orgnaize any understanding into fiction? There is also the fact that fiction is an ordering of a disordered reality, which would appeal to many people on the spectrum… I’d be interested to know what you think…

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