Hello there. It’s been a while, hasn’t it? Life can interfere with my very best and well-meant plans, and such it is now. Two posts I have been thinking of writing remain figments of my admittedly feverish imagination. Meanwhile, I have had other things to do as well as think about.
These nettlesome intrusions have not prevented at least a tiny amount of effort on my part to become educated. I really want to do this! One of my many lacunae is 19th century English literature. Writers as diverse as Trollope and the Brontes are totally foreign to me, while Dickens is a chance acquaintance. My excuse for ignorance is that I am still, after more decades than I wish to concede, enthralled by the English renaissance, the renaissance full stop, and the classics. Euripides! Wow! That fellow strode the boards ahead of all others for about 2000 years. Two thousand! He had competition too – Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Sophocles among the Greeks, Plautus, Terence and other Romans. . .There is a post in this blog on the man, though perhaps not a very good one, but if you have not tried The Trojan Women, or The Medea, or the Iphigenia plays, or Alcestis* you too need some larnin’. Honest. Anyway I haven’t finished with the oldies, and keep telling myself to work up to the moderns. . .the 18th and 19th century moderns. Sheridan I know but. . .
So lately I have been schooling myself in the scandal of Jane Austen. When a film of Pride and Prejudice came out, I read the novel and was mightily impressed. It seemed to me – and still seems – that Austen showed herself to be the first truly modern writer. Her airy and concise style and her ironic detachment from the characters she created, made for a very good read. Her style stands up very well against later, more florid writers like Balzac, whatever their respective intellectual grunt
Lately I’ve decided to try some of her other works. Emma put me off and so did Northanger Abbey but I have got through Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility.
Were my first impressions^ justified? Well, yes. Austen wrote in a genre peopled by thousands perhaps and stands out. She still seems to me a pathbreaker. Naturally pathbreakers are riddled with faults – look at my books!** The wrinkles get ironed out by those who follow and it can be easy to criticise in that patronising way writers employ. Mark Twain ridiculed her though it is unclear if he really meant it***.
Certainly in a writing sense she does not conform to the rules of our time, and probably not of her own. As happened then, her books would likely be spiked if submitted to publishers today: on a superficial level they “tell, not show” well past a fault. To give a ccntrasting example, one of Graham Greene’s later novels, Monsignor Quixote, begins as a Spanish priest picks up a Vatican bigwig whose car has broken down, and while waiting for it to be repaired, takes the man to his home for lunch. The larder is bare apart from horsemeat, and the priest tells his cook/housekeeper to serve it up.
The Vatican fellow eats the meat with gusto, and several weeks later the priest discovers he has been made a monsignor.
This is an example of “show, don’t tell”. Greene never tells the reader that the reason for this award is that the priest showed his humility in serving what he had to his guest.
Austen does this too, but it is harder to decide when she really means it. She tells, and tells, and tells so often that any attempt to say what she “really meant” otherwise inevitably runs into opposition. What rescues her for “modernity” is the ironic detachment she shows in the telling. She mocks and scorns characters, even nice ones.
There are some negatives; there always are. Reading her books one after the other shows a sameness that is pretty much a yawn really. Mansfield Park, her most controversial, is also her most overwritten – it is perhaps twice as long as it needed to be. Sense and Sensibility could also do with a trim. Nonetheless there are sparkling dialogues well worth the effort, and Sense especially, after a slow start, is a real ripper for the most part, before stuttering to a bizarre and unbelievable conclusion that had me thinking, Nonsense and insensibility.
In Mansfield Park and Sense Austen addresses the reader directly in what today might be seen as experimental and to her might have been an attempt at seeming to be reading to her audience, as she read her books to her family. It’s nice.
Yet to me the most attractive and intriguing feature of her style is a willingness to be really mean. Here for example, the Middletons, Sir John and his Lady, who have gone out of their way to provide the heroines a place to live, and want them to come visit, often:
“. . .they kept more company of every kind than any other family in the neighbourhood. It was necessary for the happiness of both; for however dissimilar in temper and outward behaviour, they strongly resembled each other in that total want of talent and taste which confined their employments, unconnected as such which society produced, within a very narrow compass. Sir John was a sportsman, Lady Middleton a mother. He hunted and shot, and she humoured her children, and these were their only resources.”
Lady Middleton gets both barrels a short time later, as the Dashwoods (heroines) visit the Middleton mansion:
“There was nothing in any of the party which could recommend them as companions to the Dashwoods, but the cold insipidity of Lady Middleton was so particularly repulsive, that in comparison of it the gravity of Colonel Brandon, and even the boisterous mirth of Sir John and his mother-in-law was interesting.”
Austen’s remarks are often said to be “gently mocking”.
Readers of this blog know that I am partial to a French writer, Celine, who was amazing for his insights and appalling for his beliefs. Celine got his shrewd perceptions of humanity from what are sometimes styled “petit bourgeois” origins. His family had a lace shop in an arcade in Paris and his father, who worked for an insurance company, was a wannabe all his life. Their son was sent to Germany and to England to learn the local language in a strategy designed to make him successful at business. Instead, he became a doctor and one of the most notorious authors of the 20th century.
Celine’s nightmare visions of the whole of humanity sprang from hatred and envy of those above, and fear and loathing of those below. Always on the edge of being tipped into the latter, careful not to offend and desirous of joining the former, the precarious existence of the petit bourgeois in early 19th century England is strikingly brought to life by Austen. Her main characters are genteel poor single women seeking to marry a man at least able to look after them, and having very little alternative. Austen’s caustic eye never fails to judge the landed wealthy and those associated with them, finding the good among them much more rare than the morally bankrupt. These last attain their status in a plethora of ways, from fornication, adultery, and blithe materialism to profiting from slavery. Their code of values reeks of hypocritical sanctimony.
Much of the talk in Austen’s books revolves around money. No man is really eligible for marriage without a good amount of it, usually as interest income from some principal, and the fortunate woman endowed with the same is much admired and desired. So-and-so is “worth 20,000” or “has an income of 2,000 a year” is rating talk among would-be brides and their advisors.
Despite this trenchant critique of the English moneyed and landed classes of her time, Austen’s books have happy endings. The good do not die though they may get sick. They are rejected, but are lucky in it. They marry the right fellow after all. . .their morality sees them through.
Nice, innit? Austen thus ends up supporting and bolstering the society she otherwise ridicules. There is no hint that those caught up in the forms of servitude of the vast mass of English people – as servants in homes, workers in factories or fields, or desperate paupers – are anything but jolly glad to be alive; for the most part, they do not even exist. In Sense for example, the lovely widow Mrs Jennings takes two unmarried sisters from their country cottage to her home in London. They arrive, and dinner is served two hours later. Mrs Jennings has been in the country for quite some time, and whoever cooked the meal was. . .was. . .was. . .doing what while she was away? The widow tries to find employment for a sister of one of her staff, giving her a glowing reference (as she does). That’s about it.
Throughout her books, things get done by this faceless mass, who when they are seen at all seem overjoyed to serve. Horses are fed and retrieved, coaches are driven, washing is washed, needlework needled, gardens are dug and maintained, entire villages belonging to the gentry are peopled, their tithes providing income for the lesser sons of the manse who get a “living” from preaching the virtues of stoic acceptance, or so one supposes.
As a backdrop, as the stuff of her narratives, then, “the system” of Austen’s novels stinks. The beneficiaries of its hypocritical values are almost universally excruciatingly unworthy to receive its largesse. The exceptions cannot prove the rule. And yet – one and all, happy endings. The virtuous women who have resisted the evil that surround them do find the honorable man whose honesty and integrity saves them, and by implication, the world.
This is not a contradiction Austen can escape really. Yet her many admirers wish her perfect in every way, and flay any brave enough to think otherwise.
Of course the critics can get it wrong. Edward Said famously excoriated Austen’s “failure” to condemn slavery and the society it enriched, yet at least arguably Austen (who was known to oppose slavery) was showing in Mansfield Park that the slave-owning Bertram family whose estate owes its wealth and family its luxury to slave holdings in the West Indies was morally ruined by it. The heroine, Fanny Price, queries the patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram, about it, but receives no answer. It is not what is said by Austen that matters, but what happens – the family of four children corrupted by their ease and its source. The oldest son nearly dies and is a profligate wastrel; the two daughters are immoral quasi trollops, one eloping and the other running away from her husband with a man who had been unsuccessfully pursuing Fanny. Only the fourth, who escapes the clutches of an unworthy but wealthy woman, has the moral strength one can admire.
To my mind, that’s what counts. Wicked wealth has wicked consequences, yeah? Yeah. Showing not telling.
Austen’s reputation can need rescuing from her fans, too. Also in Mansfield Park is the single bawdy remark in the Austen “canon”. It is disputed.
Mary Crawford and her brother Henry come to stay in the parsonage of the Bertram estate. They had been living with their retired admiral uncle but he installed a mistress in his home after his wife died and it was no longer seemly for respectable people to stay. Of course not!
Mary and the second son of the family, Edmund, flirt. She is worldly where he is not, having been in company of seafaring men who evidently have very different ideas about what is acceptable discourse, and she tells Edmund so in the following passage:
Of various admirals, I could tell you a great deal; of them and their flags, and the gradation of their pay, and their bickerings and jealousies. But in general, I can assure you that they are all passed over, and all very ill used. Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now, do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.
This is a very clever way of showing worldliness. Mary shows that she knows what “rears and vices” together mean while giving herself the ability to deny it. A surprising number of attempts to exonerate Austen (and in the process Mary) by Austenphiles seems to me to fail, though it is true that it is easy to be anachronistic. But hey – in this case, it’s what it says on the tin.
Austen puritans allege that their darling was highly moral and would not have written this with sexual intent. One counter explanation is that it refers to flogging, because buggery was a capital offence at the time, with more hangings for it than murders in the navy, while flogging was legal.
That won’t wash really. If flogging was meant, why was it a vice instead of a punishment? Unless. . .but that would never do. And if there were more hangings for buggery than murder, it just might be because there was rather a lot of it about. It would certainly be the occasion of jokes then as now. Austen had relations who were admirals and may be assumed to have a good knowledge of salty talk. She does not shy in Mansfield Park from writing of adultery, or in Sense and Sensibility of fornication.
And her purpose in this passage is to show a low character as Mary turns out to be. Austen is not approving of buggery any more than she is of adultery by Mary’s brother, or fornication by the jilting beau of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility.
And and and! there must have been some purpose behind burning Austen’s letters and papers after her death. Her tongue was sharp and she may have had rude things to say about powerful people^^^, but she may just as well also have peppered her private correspondence with sauce.
Rule on, Saint Jane.
*Alcestis has been rendered into English by Ted Hughes. It is truly frightening.
^This is a joke. If you get it, you know more about Jane Austen than I do.
** OK, OK. Just having fun.
***Twain enjoyed jousting with his admirer and good friend William Dean Howells (Howells aptly called Twain “the Lincoln of our literature”), who was also an admirer of Austen. Twain took a very pointed stick to James Fenimore Cooper, trashing him for stated literary crimes, but only fulminates over Austen. His tongue may have been in his cheek.
^^^See Wiki for an example of Austen’s kicking against the pricks by satirising the librarian of the Prince Regent, an admirer.