On the bicentenary of her death, Jane Austen is still everywhere, often where one least expects to find her. Most of her devotees will have their own story; mine occurred in a Manhattan courthouse, with its stale-coffee smell and atmosphere of anxious boredom, in the midst of jury selection for a criminal trial involving a double homicide. Upon learning that I taught British literature, the defendant’s attorney—a woman who spoke with intimidating speed and streetwise bluntness—skipped the usual questions (how much did I trust police testimony, had I ever been a victim of a violent crime) and asked instead whether I taught Jane Austen. Puzzled by her indirection, I answered yes. A theatrical flash of disgust crossed her face: I was, evidently, one of those people. At which point the presiding judge interrupted to say: “Careful, counsel. Some of us here like Jane Austen.”
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As Austen’s own Emma Woodhouse put it to her querulous father, “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.” But in the case of Austen, that misunderstanding seems to have an urgency that isn’t attached to any other canonized, pre-20th-century literary figure. The disagreement has been amplified as her fame has grown, and her fame may never have been greater. This year sees her unveiling by the Bank of England on a new £10 note, replacing Charles Darwin (and before him, Charles Dickens); she is the first female writer to be so honored. Meanwhile, the scholar Nicole Wright’s revelation that Austen was appearing as an avatar of sexual propriety and racial purity on white-supremacist websites made national news on both sides of the Atlantic. A few years back, her 235th birthday was commemorated with the honor of our times, a Google doodle. The wave of film adaptations that began in the 1990s may have receded, but it left in its wake a truth as peculiar as it seems to be, well, universally acknowledged: Austen has firmly joined Shakespeare not just as a canonical figure but as a symbol of Literature itself, the hazel-eyed woman in the mobcap as iconic now as the balding man in the doublet.
The Shakespeare-Austen comparison is in fact an old one—first mooted by the academic and theologian Richard Whately, in 1821, and echoed later by Tennyson and Kipling—yet it’s inexact. Iconic as she’s become, the reasons for her status often stir up zealous dispute. Is Austen the purveyor of comforting fantasies of gentility and propriety, the nostalgist’s favorite? Or is she the female rebel, the mocking modern spirit, the writer whose wit skewers any misguided or—usually male—pompous way of reading her? (For her supremacist fans, Elizabeth Bennet would have a retort at the ready: “There are such people, but I hope I am not one of them.”) Any hint of taking Austen out of her Regency bubble brings attacks. When the literary theorist Eve Sedgwick delivered a talk in 1989 called “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” some male social critics brandished the popular term politically correct to denounce Sedgwick and her profession. Six years later, when Terry Castle suggested a homoerotic dimension to the closeness between Austen and her sister, Cassandra, the letters page of the London Review of Books erupted. In other precincts, business gurus can be found online touting “what Jane Austen can teach us about risk management.” Not only is my Austen unlikely to be yours; it seems that anyone’s Austen is very likely to be hostile to everyone else’s.
Such is the nature of possessive love. Austen’s proudly defensive comment about her Emma—“a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”—has become the signature attitude of her critics, who tend to be obsessed with protecting Austen from her admirers and enumerating the bad reasons to like her. Both E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, when they reviewed the famous 1923 R. W. Chapman edition of her novels, were able to admit to their admiration only after taking swipes at a different kind of fan. “Like all regular churchgoers,” Forster said of the usual Austen reader, “he scarcely notices what is being said.” For her part, Woolf smirked at the notion of “25 elderly gentlemen living in the neighborhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult offered to the chastity of their aunts.” Club, meet the members who don’t want to join.
Their asperity suggests a question, one that grows more apparent, and more profound, as we enter the third century After Austen: How modern is Austen—and are we still modern in the same way? Is it a fantasy of escape that draws readers to her fables of courtship among the precariously genteel, or is it the pleasure of recognition, the sense that she is describing our world? Other classics either have become antiques in need of explanation, or are obviously in a world—a world of technology and money and big, alien institutions—that feels familiar. Austen, with her 18th-century diction, village settings, and archaic social codes that somehow survive all manner of contemporary avatars and retellings, is strangely both.
Two centuries is a long time to be contemporary, long enough for us to wonder what exactly keeps her so. It’s the oldest and most perplexing of her critical challenges, and the question her close readers are least able to resist pondering. In an article left unpublished at his death in 1975—the bicentenary of Austen’s birth—the critic Lionel Trilling wondered, with considerable suspicion, why students still turned out in droves for classes devoted to her. His answer was their yearning to escape their modernity: Austen, he observed, is “congenial to the modern person who feels himself ill-accommodated by his own time.” What Trilling didn’t mention is that slightly more than two decades earlier, he had famously argued the opposite: that her novels “are, in essential ways, of our modern time.” Austen has that trick of slipping out of focus, of seeming to be vanishing into the historical background even as she’s coming closer to us. That felt like a problem in the age of cold war, and the puzzle of her relevance is unavoidable in this doom-haunted, angry, febrile moment 200 years after her death: Do we read Austen to flee modernity, or to see it clearly? Why would we need to do either?
There are a few ways to address this puzzle, and in the interval between Austen bicentenaries, two ways in particular have become influential among scholars who make Austen their subject. The first would have us explore the context of Austen’s own moment, and read her as her contemporaries might have—to de-prettify her novels and show her immersion in the world, with all its political messiness and social friction. The second takes the prettifications at face value and asks how they happened. Its interest is in the history of Austen after Austen, in how she’s been understood, manipulated, adapted to speak to different times. Both are historical endeavors, but one pulls us back to Austen while the other pulls Austen toward us; the former tends toward metaphors of archeology or espionage—unearthing, decoding, uncovering—while the latter is a more garrulous activity, interested in unexpected meetings and expanding connections.
This bicentenary gives us readable examples of each. Helena Kelly’s Jane Austen, the Secret Radical pulls no punches in its insistence that Austen’s readers have forgotten, or don’t know, the conditions that gave the novels their shape and significance: property and inheritance laws that kept women in perpetual dependence on male relations; enclosure acts that remade, and privatized, the British landscape; economic dependence on commodities produced by slave labor in Britain’s colonies; and, above all, the militarized and paranoid environment in Britain after the French Revolution, with its suspension of habeas corpus, its policing of political expression, its quartering of troops on potentially restive subjects. Taken as a whole, these conditions made Austen, in Kelly’s account, a revolutionary like Thomas Paine or Mary Wollstonecraft. But she was a revolutionary writing in code, for readers who would know “how to read between the lines, how to mine her books for meaning, just as readers in Communist states learned how to read what writers had to learn how to write,” according to Kelly, who teaches at Oxford. “Jane’s novels were produced in a state that was, essentially, totalitarian.”
This analysis is meant to be bracing. It derives from a diverse tradition of scholarship, by critics such as Marilyn Butler and Claudia L. Johnson, that attempts to place Austen in the politics of her day. It is also riven by a paradox. The closer Kelly gets to the historical particularities of Austen’s time, the more she reaches for anachronistic comparisons to a time nearer to ours. The idea of Austen writing in a “totalitarian” regime, producing something like samizdat, is deliberately provocative, but it’s a provocation that clouds historical precision even as it tries to make vivid her historical moment. Impatient with 200 years of sentimentalizing—some of it, Kelly argues, intentional, on the part of Austen’s family—Kelly gives us what turns out to be a distinctively modern Austen, someone who is always on the right historical side (that is to say, ours), with an unerring moral compass that flatters our sensibilities. Behind a spoonful of sugar, Austen wants us to see the violence of the colonial plantation, abetted by Anglican apologists. Behind the joining of estates in Emma, Austen wants us to see the exclusion of itinerant populations from sustenance. Behind the flirtatious soldiers quartered in Meryton in Pride and Prejudice, Austen wants us to hear the fall of the guillotine.
To get to this Austen, Kelly takes the liberty of imagining. Each chapter starts with a fantasia based on a surviving letter of Austen’s, in which “Jane” (Kelly’s preferred name, to suggest the then-unknown young woman rather than the canonical author) reacts with moral sensitivity to a small scene. Writing on Northanger Abbey, Kelly begins by evoking the disgust a 24-year-old Jane would have felt at witnessing the violent morning sickness of her sister-in-law Elizabeth, newly pregnant almost immediately after the birth of her first child. The scene is plausible and vivid; it leads to an illuminating discussion of the perils of 18th- and early-19th-century obstetrics, and the shadow of female mortality hovering over sex in Austen’s time. It is helpful to remember that beyond the happy couplings of Austen’s endings there lurked the lying-in, the dangerous ravages of delivery, the fears of postpartum complications and infection.
Helpful because, as Kelly knows, concerns like the ones she invokes—the blithe male brutality of sex itself, the greed of landowners dispossessing their localities of the commons, the bayonets glinting on the rifles carried by the visiting militia—are actually marginal in Austen, silenced by the novels’ decorum. To see them requires a kind of paranoid gaze, looking for clues and hidden signs, and a willingness to imagine Austen as a dissident as much as a novelist. To be sure, the text does send out some signals. Kelly is particularly deft with names: the Frenchness of Darcy—a thinly disguised D’Arcy—with its tang of aristocrats facing bloody revolution; the metallic surnames of Sense and Sensibility (Steele, Ferrars) evoking the clink of money; the recurrence of famous names from the history of abolition (Mansfield, Norris) in Mansfield Park.
There is a satisfaction in conceiving oneself to be in possession of the codebook. Yet Austen’s own plots—with their caddish suitors hiding unsuitable pasts, covert engagements that give rise to social chaos, ciphers and riddles that lead to misunderstanding—figure secrecy as a moral flaw, which might give a sleuthing critic pause. (“Oh!” says Emma, “if you knew how much I love every thing that is decided and open!”) There is also, finally, a letdown in learning that the encoded message is actually by now accepted wisdom: against money-worship, against the trafficking of women, against exploitation. Radical once, perhaps, but commonsense now; gritty and serious, but disappointingly familiar.
Austen’s appeal has always, instead, been a matter of surfaces, of a style to be admired rather than of a cipher to be cracked. Her sentences can leave readers in a swoon, with their controlled wit, their many-edged irony, their evident pleasure in their own mastery—and in the masterful way they negotiate or transform less graceful realities. (“You must learn some of my philosophy,” Elizabeth Bennet tells Darcy: “Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.”) Such deft playfulness gets eclipsed in reading these surfaces as a layer to be dug under for a more subversive depth. “Forget the Jane Austen you think you know,” Kelly insists. Kelly may depict a politically and ethically congenial Austen, but forgetting the Austen we know turns out to mean forgetting the allure of an art that seems more mysterious than any particular critique it might be hiding.
Devoney Looser, on the other hand, wants to write the forgotten history of that allure. The Making of Jane Austen is more entertaining than any reception history has a right to be, simply because of the oddities that Looser, an English professor at Arizona State University, restores to view. Divided into four overlooked cultural zones where Austen was reimagined in the 19th and 20th centuries—illustrations; theatrical and early film adaptations; political appropriations; and school texts—her book relishes its most piquant juxtapositions. Looser highlights the Italian-born Rosina Filippi, whose 1895 adaptation of Austen’s dialogues for amateur theatricals stressed the feisty independence of her heroines. She exhibits a Marathi-language version of Pride and Prejudice, published in 1913, written in the hopes that India might one day adopt British Regency social codes. She pauses over the 1932 stage play Dear Jane, about Austen’s life, whose co-stars Eva Le Gallienne (as Cassandra Austen) and Josephine Hutchinson (as Jane) were known to be offstage lovers. In each case, as Looser shows, Austen is slow to enter a different medium, but once introduced into it, she quickly dominates.
As a corrective to so much existing work on Austen’s reception, which has featured the opinions of critics and writers, this is brilliant stuff. Turning to Trilling’s austere, regretful 1975 essay, Looser reads it as a typical example of a literary scholar bewildered by a popularity whose impetus derives from outside the purely literary. What if Trilling had realized that his students had likely been raised on school viewings and televised reruns of the Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier Pride and Prejudice? Compared with Trilling’s airless pondering, Looser’s sensitivity to changes in the cultural atmosphere around Austen is refreshing.
The point is that a school of Austen criticism willfully ignorant of her many cultural manifestations is likely to be, to use a phrase of Emma’s, solemn nonsense. But what do those manifestations prove about Austen? Here Looser is as wisely reticent as Austen herself. They prove no one thing, Looser admits, either aesthetically or politically. Two centuries of Austen’s legacy reveal her to be “all over the political map”: She is brandished as an icon on suffragette banners in 1908, and used at the same time as a badge of affiliation by male club members anxious to preserve gendered social barriers. In Looser’s history, she is potentially anything to anyone. Aesthetically, she can look neoclassical or romantic, gentle or acerbic. Like a canny or lucky organism, Austen has thrived in any number of ecological niches, and Looser refuses to judge the extent to which those niches have done violence to her novels in order to make them fit. Far more generous and circumspect in its account than Kelly’s, Looser’s book might inspire us, like Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price when struck by the growth of a hedgerow, simply to wonder at change and adaptation itself: “How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!”
Where do these books leave us? One critic reads the novels; one reads anything but. One presents a single, but secret, Austen, rooted in the rough soil of her time; one gives us a volatile, protean Austen, amenable to any condition or climate. As histories of Austen they could not be more different, but neither, it seems, can address the question of Austen’s perennial and stubbornly perplexing appeal: What is it about her art that still inspires argument, retelling, adulation, commercialization, when other big worthies of the past slowly vanish? Is there something like an Austen Effect, obvious and yet also obscure, long-lasting and yet adaptable to new media and historical situations, that speaks to our sense of our modernity? Where might we look to find it?
Another of this year’s Austen books suggests an answer: the new Oxford World’s Classics Teenage Writings, a collection of three notebooks of her adolescent writings, co-edited by Kathryn Sutherland, one of a handful of true experts in Austen’s manuscripts. Novel-writing is an adult-only game, rarely amenable to youthful prodigies like an Ingres, a Mozart, or a Keats. But if anyone in the form’s history comes close, it is Austen. From the age of 11 she showed a fantastically precocious understanding of the novel’s usual rules, because already by then she was parodying them. Her earliest juvenilia are insouciant send-ups, each of a slightly different aspect of the fictional form of her time. Various kinds of prose technique (long, descriptive passages, novels in letters) and assorted kinds of stories (foundling plots, mystery plots, tales of star-crossed lovers) are rendered ridiculous in what is already her recognizably exact voice. On the period’s stereotypically virtuous suffering heroines, she offers this, likely written in her early teens:
Beloved by Lady Harcourt, adored by Sir George & admired by all the world, she lived in a continued course of uninterrupted Happiness, till she had attained her eighteenth year, when happening one day to be detected in stealing a bank-note of 50£, she was turned out of doors by her inhuman Benefactors.
Or this, possibly written as early as age 11, on the cousin-lovers familiar from sentimental fiction:
They were exceedingly handsome and so much alike, that it was not every one who knew them apart.—Nay even their most intimate freinds [sic] had nothing to distinguish them by, but the shape of the face, the colour of the Eye, the length of the Nose & the difference of the complexion.
Laugh lines like these exploit the comedy of precision, a riposte to the windy generalities of fictional clichés; and from the beginning virtually everything about fiction for Austen was a cliché, or a genre, a kind of unconscious expectation that she could expose or pierce. The insight and skill are remarkable, but even more so is the absence of any self-revelation. Austen seems to have had none of the usual adolescent impulse toward autobiography. Instead she displays a preternatural self-possession. Nothing is too giddy, or too self-important; no dreaminess or yearning or complaint intrudes. What personality makes itself felt is composed of intellectual delight—the pleasure of the mind’s exertion, directed toward a family audience.
In her published novels—she wrote a first draft of Pride and Prejudice in her early 20s, and her last novel, Persuasion, as she turned 40 (a year before she died)—that avoidance of the personal was refined into a method capable of more than parody. It is a recurrent problem for biographical criticism of Austen’s novels that Jane Austen, the unmarried woman who spent much of her adulthood living on the not particularly lavish charity or hospitality of male relations, is nowhere present in them. You will find no wittily sardonic yet sympathetic aunts who happen to write fiction in the interstices of the day’s other duties, no talented and unmarried daughters of deceased clergymen negotiating with London publishers from a Hampshire cottage. Instead, her pages present young women destined, with various degrees of initial willingness, for the marriages they eventually deserve.
Which is to say that the exuberance of her juvenile parodies, a way of turning the self’s delight in its own powers outward, is in the novels given to Austen’s extraordinarily vibrant protagonists. They share nothing of Austen but their enjoyment of their own powers, particularly their intellectual powers. They are, to use a word of Austen’s, spirited. That has always been their appeal. Spiritedness has its many moods, but it is never just physical, nor is it resentful, brooding, interiorized. It is vibrant, quick, sensitive, willing to collide with the world yet also self-sufficient. Take Elizabeth Bennet, when she overhears Darcy telling Bingley that she is “not handsome enough to tempt me”:
Mr. Darcy walked off; and Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings towards him. She told the story however with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in any thing ridiculous.
Elizabeth, the young parodist. No wonder that Darcy later admits to first admiring her for “the liveliness of your mind,” or that we see his sister, Georgiana, feeling “an astonishment bordering on alarm at her lively, sportive manner of talking to her brother.”
The pleasure that spiritedness provides, as everyone who reads Austen discovers, tends to feel self-evident; her spirited characters stand out because they enchant us. But all pleasures have their politics, even the seemingly personal pleasure of watching her lively heroines assert themselves. There is something pagan about spiritedness as a virtue; it is the usual translation of the Greek term thumos, which for Aristotle meant the energetic defense of one’s personal dignity—quick to feel injury, quick to respond, courageous about one’s principles, active in the expression of one’s self-respect. (It is no coincidence that many of Austen’s most devoted readers, such as Gilbert Ryle and Alasdair MacIntyre, have been philosophers steeped in Greek thought.) Even Austen’s less witty protagonists, like Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price and Persuasion’s Anne Elliot, carry a sense of self-sufficiency and a devotion to their self-conception that make them more than just models of rectitude. As for Elizabeth and Emma, they exude a kind of self-generated joy. Flawed and blinkered, their spiritedness is still a form of personal flourishing—an energetic defense of the very idea of having a self. It qualifies them for that most clichéd, and yet most profound, of Austen’s words: happiness.
This is in fact the ethic, painted in many different period-appropriate colors, that saturates the examples of Austen adaptation in Looser’s book, from the declamations of late-19th-century elocution handbooks to the many Elizabeths of stage and screen. But it is also crucially, as Kelly would no doubt insist, embedded in the history of Austen’s own moment. Spiritedness is a way of understanding oneself as having rights. It experiences those rights as a joy, as a sense of blossoming, of freedom; but also as something often in need of quickly roused defense. It is the style of the revolutions—American, French—encroaching on Austen’s Britain, put in the mouths of intelligent young women who know their own worth. “I am only resolved to act in that manner,” Elizabeth tells her aristocratic antagonist Lady Catherine de Bourgh, “which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.”
Elizabeth’s is a declaration of rights; she demands the pursuit of happiness. The echoes of famous documents of the late 18th century are there, but harmonized by a personal style one might love and not just admire: The spirited self, joyous even in the act of refusal, is a pleasure to watch in action. The radical formal twist in Austen, however, is that these spirited characters are monitored with steely objectivity, inside and out, by her impersonal omniscient voice, one that never explicitly judges but that still exposes their misapprehensions and solipsisms. Someone is always watching, and that someone is the Austen voice itself, detached from any merely personal Jane Austen. There is the characters’ self-assertion, brilliant and enjoyable; and there is observation and implied assessment, keeping that self-assertion balanced with an objective world of shared values.
No one has made spiritedness more compelling, and no one has taken more care to hedge it with such perfect control. At different historical moments, one side or the other of that equation has been emphasized—sometimes the ironic wit keeping characters under surveillance, sometimes the spirited relish with which those characters defend their rights—but the equipoise has demonstrated remarkable durability. The balance between self and society is the core dream of a liberal world: a place where individuals might be both sufficient unto themselves and possessed of rights accordingly, but also bound to one another in a pact of mutual correction. Call it civil society, as both a joy and a duty. Austen is, as Kelly would put it, a fantasist about her moment—but that fantasy is also still ours.
For how much longer? Is it possible to imagine a world that no longer finds such a fantasy gratifying or necessary, a world that no longer reads and reimagines Jane Austen? If and when that time arrives, we will know that her comic ideal, of spirited, rights-holding individuals living in social concord, no longer seems appealing, or viable, and that her idea of what it means to be an individual is no longer recognizable. In this 200th year After Austen, there are plenty of signs, none of them a pleasure to consider, that such a day may not be far off. For the moment, we’re left in relation to Austen where Mr. Knightley started with Emma, looking on anxiously and thinking: “I wonder what will become of her!”