A Writer Who Is Good for You

After the Great War shell-shocked veterans were advised to read Jane Austen, "perhaps to restore their faith in a world that had been blown apart," the author writes, "while at the same time respecting their sense of the world's fragility"
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MY wife is an admirer of Jane Austen but not, like me, a devotee. She recently informed me over breakfast that since I started going back to Austen's novels, I have become more polite but less sincere.

Her concern was the kind of thing Lionel Trilling must have had in mind when he wrote that the responses to Austen's work were nearly as interesting and important as the work itself. He went on to say that the reader trying to decide for or against Austen was "required to make no mere literary judgment but a decision about his own character and personality, and about his relation to society and all of life." Not liking Jane Austen's darkly streaked social comedies, Trilling believed, put a person under suspicion "let us face it—of a want of breeding."

Though Trilling found such an attitude "absurd and distasteful," he was the one who so extravagantly defined it. When he started admiring the "cool elegance" of Austen's surname, one felt almost embarrassed by the self-exposure. Yet it's hard to disagree with his assessment of Austen. No other author goes with such casual intimacy as she, for all her delicate soundings of formal social relations, into the vulnerable spot where society touches the root of self. And few authors are at the same time so quietly fearsome and so intensely consoling.

Who's afraid of Jane Austen—that uncanny panoptic miniaturist who captures all the degrees of vanity, snobbery, and self-deception, that piercing dramatizer of encounters between emotion and convention, private hopes and public constraints? The very thought of finding herself alone with Austen intimidated, of all people, Virginia Woolf. Describing what it might be like to be in a room with her, Woolf imagined

a sense of meaning withheld, a smile at something unseen, an atmosphere of perfect control and courtesy mixed with something finely satirical, which, were it not directed against things in general rather than against individuals, would, so I feel, make it alarming to find her at home.

Jane Austen Henry James, in whose fiction manners are often nonblunt instruments of destruction, could be condescending about one of his strongest influences, though he acknowledged her genius. Austen's heroines had "small and second-rate minds and were perfect little she-Philistines," he thought. "But I think that is partly what makes them interesting today." And Austen irritated Emerson: he found her novels "vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society." All that her characters cared about was "marriageableness." "Suicide," the great Transcendentalist proposed, "is more respectable."

No one, it seems, has ever been neutral or aloof about Jane Austen. From the time of her death, at the age of forty-one, in 1817, possibly from either Addison's or Hodgkin's disease, she has been a contested figure. Her beloved sister Cassandra destroyed many of her letters and made excisions in others, prompting biographers to suspect that she was trying to suppress evidence either of some deep depression or of unseemly malice or spleen. Brief memoirs of Austen written by her descendants amount to hagiographies. Her great-nephew edited and bowdlerized the first edition of her letters in 1884, claiming that "no malice lurked beneath" Austen's wit, which is like saying that no alcohol lurks in claret.

By 1896 the word "Janeite" had come into the language as a term signifying literary fervor and adoration. To read some Janeite expressions of enthusiasm, one would think that Mansfield Park was the name of a local soccer team. Anti-Janeites accused their opponents of a lack of virility. (They especially disliked what they thought were Austen's portrayals of men as gossips without vocation.) Later, in the 1940s and 1950s, some critics tried to save Austen from her Janeite admirers, claiming that Austen's sense of decorum, of the forms of politeness and tact, were what the Janeites most prized but what Austen, with lethal irony, most wanted to subvert. She composed with a "regulated hatred," as one of these writers put it—a steady, subtle corrosiveness toward smothering conventionality. She was not, as Henry James had once mocked the Janeites' benign conception of her, "our dear, everybody's dear, Jane."

A HUNDRED years after "Janeite" entered the language, Jane Austen is everywhere. It's a good bet that the highly entertaining, often intelligent and moving, and always inadequate film versions of her novels are more popular than the novels themselves. But there's no doubt that more people are reading her since the craze began.

Of course, contemporary women are likely to identify with smart, vital, and strong-willed heroines like Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse. And there must be no lack of female empathy for the hemmed-in Fanny Price, for the heartstrong Marianne Dashwood and her self-suppressed sister Elinor, for the wise, sad, unfulfilled Anne Elliot. But some people must cherish Austen now simply because she trained her attention on a patch of living that, for the most part, has been abandoned in American imaginative writing. We are surrounded by consequential social circumstances, but we have few writers who can make sense of society without reducing it to an explanation. In his aversion to Austen, Emerson was true to his own inclinations. Too much Emerson—too much grandiose withdrawal, too much self-indulgence masquerading as self-creation—is probably the deepest cause of the Austen revival in this country.

Because she wrote at a time of rapid social flux, Austen offers an unexpected illumination of our situation. In late-eighteenth-century England the beginnings of industrial democracy were dismantling the old organic forms of community and throwing identity into question. An aristocracy of birth was giving way to an aristocracy of wealth. Modern commerce, with global ambitions, was creating a fluid, contingent, modern sense of self. Roles were changing, roots were tearing, the definition of the individual was evolving. It was then that Austen wrote great English novels. Now they are great American novels.

That's not to say that Austen approached the changing arrangements in her society and culture directly. She famously—or infamously—didn't. She has even been faulted for barely referring to the dramatic historical events she lived through: the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the expansion of colonialism. The literary scholar Edward Said has accused her of giving approval in Mansfield Park to slavery; according to Said, Austen makes the restoration of order at the Bertrams' plantation in Antigua the foundation for their eventual moral renovation at home. Yet Mansfield was where, in 1772, a court passed down a decision prohibiting the holding of black slaves in England. Austen decided to set an estate called Mansfield in a novel that makes the quiet, ungrasping decency of Fanny Price, its humbly born heroine, a reproach to the upper classes' rapacious masculine activity. Austen's ultrasensitive social and moral antennae could, among other things, obliquely register, and pass stern judgment on, history's distant rumbling.

AS an unmarried and almost penniless woman, Austen seized on laughter to live. Her outer life was entirely uneventful as far as we know. Her biographers therefore have had to lean heavily on her letters—in which the humor of battered pride and obstructed genius ranges from satiric to redemptive to cruel—and to resort to filling in space with descriptions of her family and accounts of her surroundings.

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