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.

These two new biographies follow that tack. They're both solid, readable accounts, sticking close to Austen's life and milieu. Claire Tomalin's is more fun, and better written, though it sometimes seems hastily thrown together and desperately digressive. Tomalin is not herself a writer of fiction, but she has a novelist's imagination and playful insight. When she does comment—sparingly—on Austen's work, or lightly speculate on the formative weight of her social and cultural influences, she's usually absorbing and acute.

David Nokes's book is more tightly composed. Focusing exclusively on Austen's life and the lives of her relatives, Nokes never engages the fiction and barely refers to the social and cultural context. Strangely, he believes that he is doing iconoclastic work: "I have had the temerity not only to write about Jane Austen, but to do so in a manner which challenges the familiar image of her as a literary maiden aunt . . . to present her . . . as rebellious, satirical and wild." In fact critics and biographers have been presenting Austen as rebellious, satirical, and wild, and also as cold, anal, and malicious, for half a century. The former qualities can be found subtly insinuated in a biography by Jane Aiken Hodge, and the latter in one by John Halperin, neither of whom Nokes mentions or cites. Nokes loves triumphantly to repeat this line from one of Austen's letters: "If I am a wild beast, I cannot help it. It is not my own fault." But he leaves out the sentence before it: "I am rather frightened by hearing that she wishes to be introduced to me." Austen was responding to someone's wish to meet the rumored author of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice; with her usual combination of unwild insecurity and confident self-deprecation, she was envisioning herself as an animal on display in a cage.

Nokes's life is often perceptive, and it has a rich narrative density, but his details tend to pile up into a blearing mélange. A British don, he has a high Oxbridge tone, which together with a quaint eighteenth-century literary affect can be wearying: "She did not greatly repine at the absence of titled acquaintances." (And I do wish that starry-eyed, or distracted, American publishers would make their increasing ranks of British authors explain, to those of us who did not attend Harrow, the meaning of being someone's "fag" and similar heartwarming public-school expressions.)

Both biographies include abundant excerpts from the letters, with all their mundane descriptions couched in revelatory style, and also their flashes of embitterment.

Pictures of perfection as you know,
make me sick & wicked.

They called, they came and they sat
and they went. [on a visit from some
local gentry]

Her hair is done up with an elegance
to do credit to any Education.

I do not want people to be very agreable, as it saves
me the trouble of liking them a great deal.

Mrs. Hall of Sherbourn was brought to bed yesterday of
a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright—
I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.

Such intimate snippets of perception bring us as close to the living, breathing woman as it is possible to get—maybe, in the last quotation, closer than we'd like to get. But in Austen's day dying infants were a tragically common occurrence. Then, too, women were often exhausted to death, and families impoverished, by continual child-bearing. Behind Austen's apparent cruelty was a hardness, and behind that perhaps a genuine outrage.

The person is in both biographies, but anyone curious about Austen the writer will have to go elsewhere. That's a shame. Austen's style is one of English literature's marvels. Her repartee is sometimes as dazzling as anything in Sheridan, and is one reason that her perpetual hope of seeing exciting theater was disappointed whenever she went. Here's an exchange from Pride and Prejudice between Elizabeth and Darcy, starting with Darcy.

"There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome."

"And your defect is a propensity to hate everybody."

"And yours," he replied with a smile, "is wilfully to misunderstand them."

And there are the superfine irony and the balletic insight, as in these two passages from Emma:

Human nature is so well-disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of.

She did not repent what she had done; she still thought herself a better judge of such a point of female right and refinement than he could be; but yet she had a sort of habitual respect for his judgment in general, which made her dislike having it so loudly against her; and to have him sitting just opposite to her in angry state, was very disagreeable.

As Virginia Woolf once declared, it's hard to catch Jane Austen in the act of greatness. But Woolf was too much the aesthete, too much the gifted borderline solipsist, to do so. For Austen captured the way the mind works by following it out into the world. Her expository prose is on the verge of dissolving into dialogue, and her dialogue about to condense into expository prose. Consider these two passages, the first from Mansfield Park and the second from Sense and Sensibility.

"It often grieves me to the heart—to think of the contrast between them—to think that where nature has made so little difference, circumstances should have made so much. . . ."

Two ladies were waiting for their carriage, and one of them was giving the other an account of the intended match, in a voice so little attempting concealment, that it was impossible for him not to hear all.

Actually, the first passage is exposition and the second dialogue; I changed a pronoun and the tense in the former and a pronoun in the latter. I hope I've persuaded you. Even in the most elaborate expository passage the cadences seem almost spoken. Austen's sentences operate inwardly and outwardly at once—they go into a quiet corner of the mind and out into the busy world.

And just as Austen's characters are completed by their relations with other people, her sentences cannot function alone. Like her self-deceived heroines, they are usually a little blind. They bear hints of their own impending amplification, qualification, contradiction. That semantic instability drives us from one uneventful-seeming statement to the next; we feel propelled by a coming displacement of meaning ("she was quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more"). Austen's whole style is an evanescence laid solidly and matter-of-factly on the page like plates on a table.

That's especially plain when her sentences burst with male-style certainty—"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" (the celebrated first sentence of Pride and Prejudice). Austen ironized such propositions into insubstantiality—"However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood ... " (the less celebrated second sentence). She set the blaring horns of social and psychological certainty against the piccolo of minute observation; and we hear the music in her meaning rather than in the physical sound of her words.

BOTH these biographies contain, of course, the well-known bare essentials of Austen's life: early broken hearts for both Jane and her elder sister, Cassandra, followed by a double spinsterhood in which they were virtually "wedded to each other," as their mother put it; a mysterious romance in a seaside town that may or may not have taken place; relentless writing and revision; timid, belated attempts to publish; late success and threadbare financial independence as an author who nevertheless remained virtually anonymous to the reading public until after her early death.

Less well known are the remarkably strong personalities in Austen's family. Her aunt Philadelphia, cut off from her inheritance by tightfisted relatives, voyaged to India in search of a husband who might save her from the poorhouse, or worse. (She found one.) Eliza, Philadelphia's daughter, was an extraordinary woman, and almost definitely the product of her mother's adulterous affair with Warren Hastings, the governor-general of British India; though Hastings never legally acknowledged Eliza, he helped her with money and with his connections until he died. As a result of Hastings's generosity, but also because of her intrepid nature, Eliza moved in the highest social and political circles in Paris and London. She married a dubious French count, journeyed back and forth between England and France during the French Revolution, barely escaped the Terror, and returned to live in England, where she married one of Jane's brothers after the guillotine took her unfortunate first husband's head.

Jane had six brothers, who, as Eliza did, brought news of the world into her avid imagination. One was a clergyman possessed of modest literary ambitions and mediocre talent. Another one, Eliza's husband, was a London banker who rose high before crashing into insolvency, and then he, too, entered the clergy. Two brothers went into the navy, traveling around the world on matters military and colonial; both of them eventually became admirals. Austen especially loved and even identified with one of her seafaring brothers, Frank—think of Persuasion's ideal union of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, whom she in large part based on Frank. She admired men of action and at one time considered writing a life of Napoleon. (That would have been something.)

Though economically dependent on her family for most of her life, Austen was valued by her parents and siblings as a productive member of the household. She was no madwoman with a quill. Her country-curate father, a kind, educated, benevolent, and shrewd man, encouraged her to become a professional writer when he saw that she was not going to marry. He took the initiative of approaching a publisher on her behalf—the first step toward Jane's entrance into the literary world. It was a time of increased opportunity—if not respectability—for women writers, and for leisured women readers, and Jane's father thought he saw a way for his precariously supported daughter to make a living. Jane's mother, who herself wrote deftly witty poems to amuse the family, heartily agreed.

Jane read her often wildly wicked and satiric fiction aloud to her admiring parents and siblings as she created it. (She also loved singing popular songs while accompanying herself on the piano.) This social cradle for her fiction partly accounts for its social vitality, and also for her characters' repartee. Her family must have sensed a will operating in the house that was perhaps steelier, more driven, and more ruthless than the male Austen wills plying imperial seas. Jane may have been stigmatized as an "old maid," but her stubborn fidelity to her own nature saved her from betraying her art.

AUSTEN was a satirist above all, with tragic and romantic moods. She had a flawless ear for moral counterpoint, for the hidden chords of how things ought to be and really were. She pitched her delicately endangered sentences, her psychology, her dialogue and drama, to some invisible key way at the back of her language, just as Mozart pitched his compositions to a frequency beyond human range, way at the back of his music. That's why even her clumsiest turns of plot, or her characters' foggiest motivations, are accommodated like straggling notes by a larger harmony.

Of her two other brothers, one was adopted by distant relations, taken from the Austen home and eventually made the heir to a large fortune and estate; the other, born retarded, was sent when very young to a nearby village, where a family was paid to take care of him. Such opposing circumstances, arbitrary and disruptive, must have clinched the satirist's vocation, along with her beautifully contingent style. They might also help to explain why, for Austen, preserving social forms was as necessary as unmasking them.

That simultaneous tearing down of conventions and institutions and keeping them intact is finally what is so healing (a good word, badly misused) about Austen. It runs parallel to her exquisite balance of inner and social lives. After all, her novels, mostly filled with bad marriages, end with marriages that are perfect—so perfect that they seem like ideal rebukes to the reality of marriage in her fiction. A whole world is put into question, remains stable and whole, but is left dangling. After the First World War, shell-shocked veterans were advised to read Austen's novels for therapy, perhaps to restore their faith in a world that had been blown apart while at the same time respecting their sense of the world's fragility. Americans who are intelligent and skeptical, but who are frazzled by pundit-unmaskers, by academic see-throughers, by Hollywood exploders of social forms, may be drawn to Jane Austen for a similar reason.

Or, as Kipling has a character put it in "The Janeites," a story about a group of soldiers in the First World War who keep hold of their sanity by organizing a secret Austen cult and cherishing the way Austen carefully molds life's replenishing smaller motions: "There's no one to touch Jane when you're in a tight place."

Lee Siegel teaches literature at the New School for Social Research, in New York City. His articles have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and other publications. He is a contributing editor of Artnews.
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