Jane Austen and ...

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Jane Austen and the Black Hole. Chapter 8

Chapter 8

The judgement of Jane Austen’s peers and successors

“Mrs Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a fright. - I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”

- Letter of Jane Austen to Cassandra (1798)1

“Miss Blachford is agreeable enough; I do not want People to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”

-Letter of Jane Austen to Casssandra (1798)2

“& at the bottom of Kingsdown hill we met a Gemtleman in a Buggy, who on minute examination turned out to be Dr Hall - & Dr Hall in such very deep mourning that either his Mother, his Wife or himself must be dead.”

- Letter of Jane Austen to Cassandra (1799)3

“Only think of Mrs Holden’s being dead! - Poor woman, she has done the only thing in the World she could possibly do, to make one cease to abuse her.”

- Letter of Jane Austen to Cassandra (1813)4

“What should I do with your strong. manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow? - How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”

-Letter of Jane Austen to her nephew James Edward Austen (1816)5

As the above quotations illustrate, Jane Austen could bring a hard, critical eye to bear on others and indeed upon her own work. At this point in our disquisition it is useful to take stock and consider the judgements on Jane Austen delivered by her peers and by her successors. It is appropriate to do this now before we consider the progress of the juggernaut of British imperialism and corporate greed up to the present day and the accompanying failure of social criticism and restraint. Jane Austen’s work represents a pool of highly moral quietude that resolutely ignores the dreadful times in which it is set. We have already seen the passion that the times evoked in kindred literary spirits and indeed in poets who numbered among Jane Austen’s favourites. What did her countrymen - particularly writers and politicians - think of her work and did any perceive and attempt to resolve the apparent paradox of highly moral writing that makes no reference to the horrendous immorality of the times?

Jane Austen’s contemporaries

Jane Austen’s novels were not published under her name in her lifetime and those of her novels that were published appeared towards the end of her all too short life. Accordingly general criticism, positive and negative, was limited. James Austen-Leigh points out in his A Memoir of Jane Austen (1870) that Jane Austen was not directly involved with the literary scene of the day. Thus James Austen-Leigh writes:

“Jane Austen lived in entire seclusion from the literary world: neither by correspondence nor by personal intercourse was she known to any contemporary authors.” 6

The critical feedback she obtained came from family, friends, family connections and occasionally through second-hand reports from others. Thus we know from her letters the pleasure that approbation brought her and she refers in her letters to a variety of people who have made nice comments about her work. As we have already seen, she was particularly chuffed by the approbation of Warren Hastings:

“Lady Robert is delighted with P. & P - and really was so as I understand before she knew who wrote it - for, of course, she knows now. - He [Henry] told her with as much satisfaction as if it were my wish. He did not tell me this, but told Fanny. And Mr Hastings - I am quite delighted with what such a Man writes about it. - Henry sent him the Books after his return from Daylesford - but you will hear the Letter too ... I long to have you hear Mr. H.’s opinion of P & P. His admiring my Elizabeth so much is particularly welcome to me.” 7

Through Henry’s physician she was taken on a tour of Carlton House in 1815 and received the warming intelligence from the Prince Regent’s Librarian, the Reverend James Stainier Clarke, that the Prince liked her work so much that he kept a set of her novels in each of his palaces. She dedicated Emma to the Prince in appropriately lavish language.8 From her correspondence with the Reverend Clarke (who had suggested a novel about the Royal Family) we obtain refreshing opinions of Jane Austen about her own work written in a typically matter-of-fact and precise fashion. [This correspondence is reproduced in Heath (1961)]. Thus in relation to Emma she writes:

“I am strongly haunted by the idea that to those readers who have preferred Pride and Prejudice it will appear inferior in wit, and to those who have preferred Mansfield Park inferior in good sense.” 9

In relation to the suggestion of writing an historical novel Jane Austen is precise and to the point:

“You are very kind in your hints as to the sort of composition which might recommend me at present, and I am fully sensible that an historical romance, founded on the House of Saxe Cobourg, might be much to the purpose of profit or popularity than such pictures of domestic life in country villages as I deal in. But I could do no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or at other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced that I should totally fail in any other.” 10

A review of her work in 1818 pins down her succint description of the world known to her and the embarrassing precision of her descriptions of our social foibles:

“In imagination, of all kinds, she appears to have been extremely deficient; not only her stories are utterly and entirely devoid of invention, but her characters, her incidents, her sentiments, are obviously all drawn exclusively from experience .... Her merit consists altogether in her remarkable talent for observation; no ridiculous phrase, no affected sentiment, no foolish pretension seems to escape her notice. It is scarcely possible to read her novels, without meeting with some of one’s own absurdities reflected back upon one’s conscience; and this, just in the light in which they ought to appear.” 11

While “cut off from contemporary authors” Jane Austen must have been known to many of them. Thus Sir Walter Scott says in his diary:

“That young lady has a talent for describing the involvement of feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I have ever met with. The big bow-wow strain I can do myself, like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment is denied to me.” 12

Scott appreciated the precision of her Art, its merits and faults:

“The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are often not elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader. This is a merit which it is very difficult to illustrate by extracts, because it pervades the whole work, and is not to be comprehended from a single passage....[the merit] consists much in the force of a narrative conducted with much neatness and point, and a quiet yet comic dialogue in which the characters of the speakers evolve themselves with dramatic effect. The faults, on the contrary, arise from the minute detail which the author’s plan comprehends. Characters of folly or simplicity, such as those of old Woodhouse [Emma’s father] and Miss Bates [Emma’s endlessly loquacious acquaintance] are ridiculous when first presented, but if too often brought forward or too long dwelt upon, their prosing is apt to become as tiresome in fiction as in real society” 13 and “There is a truth of painting in her writings which always delights me. They do not, it is true, get above the middle classes of society, but there she is inimitable.” 14

Other 19th century writers were to give Jane Austen mixed reviews and the reader is referred in particular to Halperin (1975), Heath (1961) and Southam (1976a,b) for detailed accounts of such criticism.15 In a detailed review, T.B. Macaulay (as we will see elsewhere, a thoroughly decent and morally responsive man) was a great fan of Jane Austen and comments on her importance and upon her avoidance of high-blown emotions or the obsessive passions that he calls “humours”. By way of example he refers to “the insane desire of Sir Edgerton Brydges [brother of Jane Austen’s friend Anne Lefroy] for a barony to which he had no more right than to the crown of Spain.” Macaulay gives great praise indeed:

“Shakespeare has had neither equal nor second. But among the writers who, in the point which we have noticed, approached nearest to the manner of the great master, we have no hesitation in placing Jane Austen, a woman of whom England is justly proud... A line must be drawn, we conceive, between artists of this class, and those poets and novelists whose skill lies in the exhibition of what Ben Jonson calls humours... Seeing that such humours exist, we cannot deny that they are proper subjects for the imitations of art. But we conceive that the imitation of such humours, however skilful and amusing, is not an achievement of the highest order; and, as such humours are rare in real life, they ought, we conceive, to be sparingly introduced into works which profess to be pictures of real life. Nevertheless, a writer may show so much genius in the exhibition of these humours, as to be fairly entitled to a distinguished and permanent rank among the classics. The chief seats of all, however, the places on the dais and under the canopy, are reserved for the few who have excelled in the difficult art of portraying characters in which no single feature is extravagantly overcharged.” 16

It is a shame that Jane Austen was cut off from literary intercourse, the more so since she was a keen and critical reader of contemporary literature as we have seen in the previous chapter. We can sense this loss in her girlish desire to see her favourite poet Crabbe in the flesh at the theatre in London as revealed in her letter to Cassandra from Henrietta Street: “I was particularly disappointed at seeing nothing of Mr. Crabbe.” 17 One of her contemporaries, her nephew James Austen-Leigh, does allude to the societal absences in her novels in a generalized way:

“She was always careful not to meddle with matters with which she did not thoroughly understand. She never touched on politics, law, or medicine [sic], subjects which some novel writers have ventured on rather too boldly, and have treated, perhaps, with more brilliancy than accuracy. But with ships and sailors she felt herself at home, or at least could always trust to a brotherly critic to keep her right. I believe that no flaw has ever been found in her seamanship either in “Mansfield Park” or in “Persuasion”.” 18

James Austen-Leigh in a further commentary on the novels praises “the fidelity with which they represent the opinions and manners of a class of society in which the author lived” and provides a succint summary of the philosophical position in her novels:

“They were certainly not written to support any theory or inculcate any particular moral, except indeed the great moral, which is to be generally gathered from an observation of the course of actual life - namely, the superiority of high over low principles and of greatness over littleness of mind.” 19

This reflects the position of Richard Whately who appreciated Jane Austen’s low-key moral approach and the fidelity of her approach to reality - indeed an Aristotelian coupling of precise observation and reason:

“Miss Austin has the merit (in our judgement most essential) of being evidently a Christian writer: a merit which is much enhanced, both on the score of good taste, and of practical utility, by her religion being not at all obtrusive.... The moral lessons of this lady’s novels, though clearly and impressively conveyed, are not offensively put forward, but spring incidentally from the circumstances of the story; they are not forced upon the reader, but he is left to collect them (though without any dificulty) for himself: her’s is that unpretending kind of instruction which is furnished by real life; and certainly no author has ever conformed more closely to real life, as well as in the incidents, as in the characters and descriptions. Her fables appear to us to be, in their own way, nearly faultless.... We know not whether Miss Austin ever had access to the precepts of Aristotle; but there are few, if any, writers of fiction who have illustrated them more successfully... Her minuteness of detail has also been found fault with; but even where it produces, at the time, a degree of tediousness, we know not whether that can be justly reckoned a blemish, which is absolutely essential to a very high excellence.” 20

G.H. Lewes writing in 1852 agrees with Macaulay:

“First and foremost, let Jane Austen be named, the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end. There are heights and depths in human nature Miss Austen has never scaled nor fathomed, there are worlds of passionate existence into which she has never set foot; but although this is obvious to every reader, it is equally obvious that she has risked no failures by attempting to delineate that which she had not seen. Her circle may be restricted, but it is complete. Her world is a perfect orb, and vital. Life, as it presents itself to an English gentlewoman peacefully yet actively engaged in her quiet village, is mirrored in her works with a purity and a fidelity that must endow them with interest for all time. To read one of her books is like an actual experience of life: you know the people as if you had lived with them. The marvellous reality and subtle distinctive traits noticeable in her portraits has led Macaulay to call her a prose Shakespeare....There is nothing of the doctinaire in Jane Austen; not a trace of woman’s mission; but as truthful, charming, humorous, pure-minded, quick-witted, and unexaggerated of writers, female literature has reason to be proud of her.” 21

The exquisite prose of Jane Austen failed to impress Charlotte Brontë. In a letter to G.H.Lewes in 1848 she criticises Jane Austen for the lack of precise description of the material reality of the limited world she dealt with:

“What did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confining houses.” 22

Charlotte Brontë in a further letter to Lewes (1848) rails passionately against his proposition (as recorded by Brontë) that while “Miss Austen is not a poetess, has no “sentiment”....no eloquence, none of the ravishing enthusiasm of poetry” should nevertheless be acknowledged as “one of the greatest artists, of the greatest painters of human character, and one of the writers with the nicest sense of means to an end that ever lived”:

“Can there be a great artist without poetry? What I will call - what I will bend to, as a great artist - cannot be destitute of the divine gift. But by poetry, I am sure, you understand something different to what I do, as you do by “sentiment”. It is poetry, as I comprehend the word, which elevates that masculine George Sand, and makes out of something coarse something godlike.” 23

In a letter to W.S. Williams in 1850, Charlotte Brontë again passionately adverts to the lack of passion in Jane Austen:

“I have likewise read one of Miss Austen’s works, Emma - read it with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable - anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant. She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are unknown to her... what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of death - this Miss Austen ignores; she no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man, with bodily vision sees the heart in his heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete and rather insensible (not senseless) woman....” 24

G.H.Lewes is still highly laudatory in an 1859 essay but admits concern with the limited pallette of Jane Austen’s work:

“Miss Austen’s two-inch bit of ivory is worth a gallery of canvas by eminent R.A.s, but it is only a bit of ivory after all.” 25

Julia Kavanagh (1862) addressed the limited social, emotional and descriptive range in Jane Austen’s work but, unlike Charlotte Brontë, regarded these limitations as positive merits:

“The grand, the heroic, the generous, the devoted, escaped her, or, at least, were beyond her power; but the simply good, the dull, the lively, the mean, the coarse, the selfish, the frivolous, she saw and painted with a touch so fine that we often do not perceive its severity. Yet inexorable it is, for it is true. To this rare power Miss Austen added another equally rare - she knew where to stop. Two qualities are required to write a good book: to know what to say and what to withhold. She had the latter gift, one which is rarely appreciated: it seems so natural not to say more than is needed! In this respect she must have exercised great judgement, or possessed great tact, since her very qualities are those that lead to minuteness.” 26

Richard Simpson in about 1870 was concerned with the lack of concern for social issues and the lack of connection with the ordinary person in Jane Austen’s work:

“She had no interest for the great social and political problems which were being debated with so much blood in her day. The social combinations which taxed the calculating powers of Adam Smith or Jeremy Bentham were above her powers. She had no knowledge how to keep up the semblance of personality in the representation of a society reckoned by averages and no method of impersonating the people or any section of the people in the average man.” 27

Simpson (1870) further perceived an emotional constraint, a regulation of feelings by reason:

“Miss Austen seems to be saturated with the Platonic idea that the giving and receiving of knowledge, the active formation of another’s character, or the more passive growth under another’s guidance, is the truest and strongest foundation of love. Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion all end with the heroes and heroines making comparisons of the intellectual and moral improvement which they have imparted to each other. The author has no fear of the old adage, “Wise lovers are the most absurd.” ” 28

Goldwin Smith in 1890 approaches critical analysis of Jane Austen’s work in the same vein as James Austen-Leigh and it is well to note his straightforward, philosophically minimalist views before we consider the mountain of profound, intestinal, deconstructionist, statistical and psychoanalytical assertions generated by her 20th century critics (and which surely would have amused Jane Austen immensely):

“Criticism is becoming an art of saying fine things and there are really no fine things to be said about Jane Austen. There is no hidden meaning in her; no philosophy beneath the surface for profound scrutiny to bring to light; nothing calling in any way for elaborate interpretation... Jane Austen’s characters typify nothing, for their doings and sayings are familiar and commonplace. Her genius is shown in making the familiar and commonplace intensely interesting and amusing. Perfect in her finish and full of delicate strokes of art, her works require to be read with attention, not skimmed as one skims many a novel, that they may be fully enjoyed. But whoever reads them attentively will fully enjoy them without the help of a commentator.” 29

Non-English opinions of Jane Austen

At this point it useful to gather some non-English opinions in order to distance ourselves from any parochial sentimentality. The reader is referred to Southam (1987) for a detailed compilation of criticism over the period 1870-1940, including the opinions of American writers. 30 Joseph Conrad, not an Englishman, was the author of passionate, powerful stories set in the heat, danger and colour of the tropical East. We cannot be surprised in the least with his comment in a letter to H.G. Wells in 1913:

“What is all this about Jane Austen? What is there in her?” 31

A similar cultural gulf appears in the opinions of Samuel Clemens (1835-1910), better known as Mark Twain, whose democratic sensibilities were evidently profoundly offended by her writing, as revealed by the following snippets:

“Jane Austen’s books, too, are absent from this library [on a ship]. Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it” (1896). 32

“I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop before I begin” (1898). 33

“It seems to me a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.” (1909). 34

“When I take up one of Jane Austen’s books such as Pride and Prejudice, I feel like a bar-keeper entering the kingdom of heaven. I know what his sensations would be and his private comments. He would not find the place to his taste and he would say so” (anecdotal account of a conversation in 1909). 35

Henry James was also dismissive, Jane Austen having left him unsatisfied:

“Jane Austen, with her light felicity, leaves us hardly more curious of her process, or of the experience in her that fed it, than the brown thrush who tells his story from the garden bough; and this I freely confess, in spite of her being one of those shelved and safe, for all time...” (1906). 36

“Who could pretend that Jane Austen didn’t leave much more untold than told about the aspects and manners even of the confined circle in which her muse revolved? Why shouldn’t it be argued against her that where her testimony complacently ends the pressure of appetite within us presumes exactly to begin?” (1914). 37

The judgement of the eminent American writer Edmund Wilson (1945) is authoritative:

“There have been several revolutions of taste during the last century and a quarter of English literature, and through them all perhaps only two reputations have never been affected by the shifts of fashion: Shakespeare’s and Jane Austen’s.” 38

The French woman Léonie Villard appreciated the female aspect of Jane Austen’s work at the level of the socially-conditioned heroine and commences her Jane Austen: Sa Vie et Son Oevre (1924) with a vulnerable image:

“Smiling and very much alive, sometimes half-concealing her grace beneath a veil of shyness, or cloud of melancholy, a young girl is invariably the heroine of a novel by Jane Austen.” 39

However Villard quickly gets to the heart of the matter: unlike “romantic” novelists such as Fanny Burney (author of Evelina and Cecilia and a friend of Cassandra Austen’s cousin Cassandra Leigh, daughter of Theophilus Leigh, Master of Balliol), Jane Austen recognizes in her writing the biological and social realities that qualify or condition the “love” of sensible women:

“Having fallen in love at the first sight with a handsome stranger, Evelina ... is simply in love with love...The truth which Jane Austen is the first to bring forward is that the majority of women regard love in quite another fashion. Studying woman’s soul from within, she does not hesitate to paint it as it generally is. Ruthlessly she despoils it of the imaginary qualities in which man has decked it when he formulates conclusions which cannot be either disinterested or due to direct observation...The genius of Shakespeare alone, up to this point, had divined the fact that even the greatest, noblest, tenderest love in a woman does not necessarily exclude all practical considerations, all links with everyday reality.” 40

On Jane Austen’s Art, Villard quotes Jane Austen herself, writing to her nephew James Edward Austen: “What should I do with your strong, manly, vigorous sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit of ivory (two inches square) on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour.” 41 Villard concludes that Jane Austen’s work “is that of a miniaturist or illuminator” and provides the following judgement:

“If the artist’s chief triumph lies in concealing the effort of creative activity so well that his work seems absolutely spontaneous, Jane Austen must be ranked among the greatest literary artists, the greatest “artificers” of letters ... The next qualities to admire are the exact symmetry always given to the story itself, the perfection with which the means employed are adapted in order to arrive at a particular effect ... In this symphony of family life, with its slender joys and cares as light as thistledown, every component part belongs to the whole, and brings its quota to the effect of all ...” 42

However in her final words Villard (1924) comes to the heart of our present disquisition - the gulf between the serene lives of the people of Jane Austen’s novels and the real world:

“They are happy and fortunate, and take their good fortune as their due, and accept without demur, without “useless repining”, the fact of the necessitous lives around them. Their serenity, their infinite contentment with themselves and their lives, separates them, by a great distance, from ourselves who have learned that which their common-sense outlook had not even then even suspected - for we have learned the need for social justice and the brotherhood of mankind.” 43

20th century English writers

There is a very large literature of criticism of Jane Austen’s work 44 and for excellent compilations of such criticism the reader is referred to a number of works, notably those of Watt (1963), Halperin (1975) and Southam (1987).45 It is useful at this point to glimpse some of the opinions of 20th century writers who had substantially discarded the sentimentality and prejudice of the prior imperialist era.

Virginia Woolf was conscious of the deceptive ordinariness of Jane Austen’s characters, the fierce dedication of her “fans” and the loss to literature occasioned by her early death:

“Anybody who has had the temerity to write about Jane Austen is aware of two facts: first, that of all the great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their Aunts” (1923). 46

“The balance of her gifts was singularly perfect. Among her finished novels there are no failures, and among her many chapters few that sink markedly below the level of others... Vivacious, irrepressible, gifted with an invention of great vitality, there can be no doubt that she would have written more, had she lived, and it is tempting to consider whether she would have not written differently” (1924). 47

A loyal band of “Janeites” continued to grow in the 20th Century, warmed no doubt by the straight-forward judgements of writers such as R. Brimley Johnson (1924):

“She wrote books because she loved books, and for no other reason. She did not study human nature, but loved men and women; and her realism sprang from loyalty to her friends.” 48

Johnson (1924) gives credit to Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), novelist, printer and bookseller, as an author with similar motives to those of his reader and successor Jane Austen, a love of books and a desire to write more accurately about real people of his experience. He ascribes a “passion for truth” to Jane Austen:

“Her passion for truth, in fact, appears in individual character-drawing, is inspired by individual circumstances, when the author feels in her bones that her people are really alive. It is not the realism or passion of the reformer - of life or of art. Her ideal in man came to be the ardour and confidence of Captain Wentworth that “seemed to foresee and to command his prosperous path”; just as his ideal in woman was “a strong mind, with sweetness of manner”.” 49

In 1927 the witty Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) attacked the Janeites, the growing band of Jane Austen “fanatics” and has a reasonable judgement about Jane Austen’s achievement:

“Jane Austen? I feel that I am approaching dangerous ground. The reputation of Jane Austen is surrounded by cohorts of defenders who are ready to do murder for their sacred cause. They are nearly all fanatics. They will not listen. If anyone “went for” Jane, anything might happen to him. He would assuredly be called on to resign from his clubs... I do not even agree that Jane was a great novelist. She was a great little novelist. She is marvellous, intoxicating: she has unique wit, vast quantities of common sense, a most agreeable sense of proportion, much narrative skill. And she is always readable. But her world is a tiny world, and even of that tiny world she ignores, consciously or unconsciously, the fundamental factors. She did not know enough of the world to be a great novelist. She had not the ambition to be a great novelist. She knew her place; her present “fans” do not know her place, and their antics would without doubt have excited Jane’s lethal irony.” 50

J. Bailey (1931) gives voice to the sentimentality of Jane Austen’s fans in the following:

“The extraordinary spread of the cult of Jane Austen would have surprised nobody more than herself. What it has been can be crystallized in a single word. Fifty years ago she was Miss Austen. To-day she is always Jane.” 51

R. Brimley Johnson (1924) similarly brims with affection for the unaffectedness of Jane Austen’s writing and concurs with the views of Villard (1924):

“Can we doubt that the genius of Jane Austen had its birth in the love and the criticism of books; that it matured through her love of man? ... Hers is not “Art for the sake of Beauty” or even “Art for Truth’s sake”; but is “above all Art for the pleasure she took in certain aspects of life.” She has no desire whatever to “edify” or “instruct”.” 52

However R. Brimley Johnson (1927) is quite well aware of the unruffled normality and lack of violent drama in Jane Austen’s work:

“It is a remarkable fact, characteristic of Jane Austen’s lack of sensational emotion, that no death occurs, of characters actually present, in any of these novels. The influence of death, indeed, is strongly felt by Frank Churchill [in Emma]; but this is the only occasion in which death occurs during this story.” 53

In a 1937 poem the poet H.W.Auden (1907-1973) addresses the commonsense in matters matrimonial of many of Jane Austen’s female characters:

“You could not shock her more than she shocks me;

Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.

It makes me most uncomfortable to see

An English spinster of the middle class

Describe the amorous effects of “brass”,

Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety

The economic basis of society.” 54

Auden is clearly much more perceptive than H.G.Wells who rudely declared (1938):

“The English Jane Austen is quite typical. Quintessential I should call her. A certain ineluctable faded charm. Like some of the loveliest butterflies - with no guts at all.” 55

We will return to H.G.Wells later to deal with his equally careless treatment of History.

Kingsley Amis (1957) was sensibly contemptuous of the “cringing self-abasement” of Fanny in Mansfield Park and asserted of Jane Austen “that her judgement and her moral sense were corrupted” in this her best work in his judgement. He declares that “Edmond and Fanny are both morally detestable” and that their endorsement by the author “makes Mansfield Park an immoral book”. [Fanny’s feelings] “are made odious by a self-regard utterly unredeemed by any humour” and “the character of Fanny lacks self-knowledge, generosity, and humility ... it is a monster of complacency and pride who, under a cloak of cringing self-abasement, dominates and gives meaning to the novel.” 56 C.S. Lewis (1954) adjudges her as exhibiting “cheerful moderation, She could almost have said with Dr. Johnson, “Nothing is too little for so little a creature as man.” If she envisages few great sacrifices, she also envisages no grandiose schemes of joy. She is the daughter of Dr. Johnson: she inherits his commonsense, his morality, even much of his style.” 57 B.C. Southam (1977) sums up her literary position thus: “it is with Jane Austen that the novel takes on its distinctively modern character in the realistic treatment of unremarkable people in the unremarkable situations of everyday life.” 58

Jane Austen and the feminist perspective

Women in 1800 had a very subordinate place in a society that was very tough for the underclass.59 Fay Weldon (1984) in Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen provides a grim picture of England at that time and particularly of the lot of women: the heavy physical demands of survival and the dangers of childbirth, abortion and disease, including sexually-transmitted disease in cities such as London where 1 in 7 women was a prostitute. 60 Women of Jane Austen’s class had gentler lives but childbirth was a common danger as instanced by the untimely deaths of Frances Austen (Charles’ first wife) and Elizabeth Austen (Edward’s wife).

Economic considerations imposed the central consideration for the young women in Jane Austen novels: find a suitably prosperous husband and preferably one that you can love. A young gentlewoman without means or a dowry could become a governess or, like Philadelphia Austen and Mary Buchanan (later Hastings) (née Elliot), go out to India or elsewhere to find a husband. Current attitudes to women can be gauged from the following 1794 advice for young ladies:

“You must first lay it down for a foundation in general, that there is inequality in the sexes; and that for the better oeconomy of the world, the men, who were to be the lawgivers, had the larger share of reason bestowed upon them.” 61

The following poem by Alexander Pope (a poet evidently admired by Jane Austen) conveys the same “sexist” flavour:

“Nothing is so true as what you once let fall,

“Most women have no Characters at all.”

Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear,

And best distinguish’d by black, brown or fair.” 62

As pointed out by Villard and others, Jane Austen’s heroines generally maintained a dignified, intellectual position in a male-dominated world. At one extreme we have Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice who maintains a dignified position through wit and irony but even she admits to being tempted by the glories of Pemberley. At the other end of the spectrum we have Fanny Price in Mansfield Park who maintains her position in a resolutely moral but subordinate and self-effacing fashion. 63 A powerful message in Jane Austen’s novel is the triumph of self-possession and intelligence over the arbitrariness of fortune, authority and prejudice. In Jane Austen’s microcosms this courageous intelligence is the staff of her heroines but the message is empowering for everyone. This view has been cogently expressed by Sulloway (1989):

“Because Austen wrote as though hostile relationships between adults and children, rich and poor, socially established or obscure - that is between the empowered and the disempowered - are paradigms for the female predicament, to say nothing of the human predicament, as indeed they are, she has now become the woman for all seasons.” 64

The Jane Austen industry

The foregoing gives an outline of the reactions of highly accomplished men and women of letters to Jane Austen’s work. However a substantial industry of Jane Austen scholarship (that has greatly expanded in the postwar years) ranges over history 65, literary criticism 66, word usage 67, sociology (including religion) 68, music 69, Juvenilia, letters and completion of unfinished works 70, feminism 71 and lifestyle and urban/rural landscape 72 (these being in many cases overlapping categories). Brief inspection of some of the more eclectic of these works gives something of the flavour of the industry. Hudson (1992), Sibling Love and Incest in Jane Austen’s Fiction, picks up on the consanguinity (most notoriously Edmond and Fanny in Mansfield Park) and non-consanguinous familial “closeness” (e.g. Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility) and then runs with the ball. 73 Wallace (1983), Jane Austen and Mozart. Classical Equilibrium in Fiction and Music, deals with elements of literary and musical expression, namely equilibrium, balance, proportion, symmetry, restraint, passion, sobriety, bacchanalia, happiness, sadness, morbidity, wit and lyricism. By way of example, among other comparisons he compares Pride and Prejudice with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 (K 271). 74 One of the more unusual of such works is Burrows (1987), Computation into Criticism, which involves quantitative analysis of word usage by Jane Austen. One of the findings of Burrows (1987) is that of 2,342 words uttered by the regal Lady Catherine De Bourgh (in Pride and Prejudice), 5 are “we, us or our” whereas of 2,034 words uttered by Admiral Croft (he and his wife being an inseparably affectionate couple in Persuasion) 50 are first person plural pronouns. 75 Suggested further areas for profitable trans-Atlantic Jane Austen scholarship (especially at the Science/Literary Deconstruction interface) could be “Jane Austen and the psychological consequences of early weaning”, “Jane Austen, celibacy and literary constraint”, “Mood, perception and hormonal cycling revealed in Jane Austen’s letters” ...

Jane Austen and 19th century sensibilities

Jane Austen cannot surely be blamed for the social insensitivity of her later readers. But that disclaimer cannot deny the likelihood that the civilized and moral world of her novels helped to establish a paradigm for perception of British society and its ruling class as noble, highly moralistic and exquisitely decent in social interactions. She has surely made a very substantial posthumous contribution to the glorious mythology of the British Empire and the English Way that is still deeply rooted in world culture. A limited number of 19th century examples will suffice.

Disraeli had apparently read Pride and Prejudice 17 times and we could reasonably conclude that he was “sold” on Jane Austen and her world. This was the man who in his support for the Corn Laws had a direct involvement in the Irish Famine (of which more later). 76 From a 20th century post-Holocaust perspective there is something transcendently awful in a Jew being involved in genocide. Thus sensitive Jews would have a particularly profound horror of the massacre of the 200 Arab villagers of Deir Yassin in 1948 by the Irgun Zwei Leumi to which the later Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin belonged at the time. 77 The Irish famine, assisted by the callousness and greed of Benjamin Disraeli and his colleagues, swept away as many as 1 million people and sent 1.5 million more overseas from “Erin’s Island”. 78

No doubt Winston Churchill, very much a 19th Century man for all his 20th Century exploits and distantly connected to the Austen tribe, would have been introduced to Jane Austen’s novels in his youth. Churchill must remain our hero for his resolute warnings about the Nazi threat and his participation in its extirpation. However we must encounter Churchill later in relation to Gallipoli and the consequent Armenian Genocide, the survival of the British Empire, hatred for Indians, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the fall of Singapore, the man-made Bengal Famine of 1943-1944 and the laundering of British history (Chapter 15). Churchill comments:

“I decided to read a novel. I had long ago read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and now I thought that I would have Pride and Prejudice... What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars. Only manners controlling natural passion so far as they could, together with cultured explanations of any mischances.” 79

I reiterate that Jane Austen’s chosen, highly-circumscribed Art form has certainly not set out to hide or deceive - indeed the opposite is quite clearly true. Yet the tranquillity and unruffled decency of her highly moral world as perceived and relished by Imperial participants from Disraeli, through Kipling to Churchill has contributed to the noble self-image of those involved at the top end of what was in reality an immensely destructive and imposing colonial Empire. This in turn has contributed to the extraordinary “Austenizing” of British Imperial history that is the subject of the following chapters.

2008 Postscript

The fundamental messages of the WW2 Jewish Holocaust (6 million dead) and of the WW2 Holocaust in general (30 million Slav, Jewish and Roma dead) are “zero tolerance for racism” and “never again to anyone”. Yet 160 years on from Benjamin Disraeli and the Irish Famine, racist Zionists running Apartheid Israel support the invasion, occupation, dispossession, disempowerment, mass imprisonment and ethnic cleansing of the ongoing Palestinian Genocide; deny the Armenian Genocide (1.5 million killed); and support the Bush-ite US Iraqi Genocide (4 million excess deaths, 1990-2008) and Afghan Genocide (3-7 million excess deaths, 2001-2008). 80 Also see shocking revelations of Jewish Israeli anti-Arab anti-Semitic sentiment 81. For many more opinions on Jane Austen’s writing see “Jane Austen Antipodean Views”. 82


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