Jane Austen’s Ivory Cage

When I was working on my doctorate at Oxford, I lived in a large Victorian house with about 10 other students. My room was on the ground floor at the back; in the room above me lived a Canadian woman named Lenore—after the “rare and radiant maiden” in Poe’s “The Raven,” she once told me, though her mail was addressed to Margaret. She wore square, black-framed glasses, lots of lipstick, and old-fashioned lace-up boots. Though she was straight, she had what was generally considered to be a lesbian haircut (shorn at the sides and thick on top), and she was also impressively tech-savvy. One evening, she announced that she was going to the computer room to “log on,” a phrase literature students didn’t often utter in 1992.

One afternoon, I answered the house phone and heard Lenore’s panicked voice on the other end of the line. She was at a conference, and she’d forgotten her paper; would I mind faxing it to her? When I got to the grad student lounge and started feeding the pages into the creaky fax machine, I started to read them out of curiosity. When I found she was a Jane Austen scholar, the fact that she was both technically skilled and supremely disorganized somehow seemed to fit. Her thesis was about goudt in Austen’s novels. The malady, I learned, used to be known as the “disease of kings” because people thought it was caused by a rich diet. Most of the time it begins with intense pain in the big toe; then the feet start to ache and burn. Until then, I’d always thought of gout as something old people grumbled about in the past, like dropsy or goiter, but as Lenore explained in her paper, it’s still around, and it’s one of the most excruciatingly painful diseases imaginable. Gout makes your feet so sensitive that even the touch of a bedsheet is agony (18th-century artists drew Gout as a red demon that bit your toes, or stabbed them with a burning poker). Austen herself didn’t have gout, and her only gouty character is an incidental Mr. Johnson in the unpublished epistolary novel Lady Susan. But according to Lenore, it was always there in the background, like the Napoleonic Wars. By the time the last page of the fax had gone through, I’d come to the conclusion that Lenore was bats.

Personally, I’d been swept up by French poststructuralism and other fashionable aspects of critical theory. My impulse was to look forward to new currents in philosophy and thought, rather then looking backward, or limiting my ideas—as I saw it then—to a particular author, period, or theme. These days, I think Lenore probably made the smarter choice. If I had to do my doctorate again, I’d choose something just as specific. The best way to understand anything in general, I’ve learned, is by going as deeply as you can into the particular. This was something Jane Austen knew well; she famously likened her work to painting with a “fine brush” on “a little piece—two inches—of ivory.” I know the pleasure, now, of looking at that little piece of ivory for long enough to become absorbed, as Austen did, in the details of a miniature world.

A lot of people say that reading Austen puts them in a stupor. It puts me in a stupor too, but it’s a stupor I love. No matter how many times or how recently I’ve read her novels, as soon as I pick one up again, I’m immediately and reliably drawn back in. I spent a recent summer rereading Austen for a class I was planning to teach in the fall. In late August, shortly before the class began, I downloaded audio versions of the novels to the course website. To check that the files worked properly, I started listening to Sense and Sensibility—and it felt as though an Austen devil was biting my big toe. The next thing I knew, I had a full-blown case of Austen fever and didn’t recover until I’d listened to all six novels again, end-to-end.

The students in my class, 90 percent of whom were women, loved all the Austen-themed groups and activities they found on the Internet. They turned up every week with their “I ♥ Mr. Darcy” tote bags and “Team Bingley” laptop skins, and told me about their favorite Austen-themed graphic novels, fiction spinoffs, and social networking games. They sent me links to Austen blogs, Austen tours, and an Austen app that delivers a witty quote to your iPhone every day. One girl gave me a tin of Austen Band-Aids.

I’d have found such things just as delightful when I was their age, but now it feels too late. I was 16 or 17 when I discovered Austen, and my feelings about her have changed over the last 30 years. It’s difficult, today, for me to see the point of anything that’s extraneous to the work itself. When I was 18, my favorite of the six novels was the charming Gothic fantasy Northanger Abbey. Now it’s Mansfield Park—the “problem novel” that even die-hard Janeites find difficult to enjoy.

Critics such as Lionel Trilling have argued that the book’s problems all stem from the passive reticence of its heroine, Fanny Price. Timid Fanny isn’t everyone’s idea of a strong female protagonist, for sure, but neither is she the prim, irritating little goody two-shoes that Trilling makes her out to be. Still, when the time came for me to introduce my students to Mansfield Park, I wasn’t sure—knowing how much they’d loved feisty Elizabeth Bennet and bold Emma Woodhouse—what they’d make of mousy little Fanny, who spends the first half of the book crying in her bedroom, too scared to light the fire or ask a servant to light one for her.

My students, as it turned out, both loved and pitied her. “I will be honest: I feel immensely sorry for dear Fanny,” wrote one young woman on the class blog. “I found that I was able to sympathize with Fanny very easily,” wrote another. “She has a beautiful character in my opinion.” Another wrote: “I can understand her crying a lot, and being timid. Though I have never been in a situation like hers, I would probably be the same way.” One wrote, “I feel like Fanny is relatable to a lot of people in a way that the other women of Austen’s novels might not have been.” The only real problem they had with Mansfield Park was when strait-laced Fanny, who thinks it’s sinful to put on a play in which one of the characters has an illegitimate child, marries her cousin. This, to my students, was a far worse transgression than having a child out of wedlock, especially since Fanny and Edmund have been raised in the same home. “Even though I know that it is accepted in their time, I still think it’s really weird and awkward that Fanny has a crush on Edmund,” wrote one. “It leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.” Another was more explicit: “Fanny should have married Henry. I know Jane Austen was going for this big romantic idea of true love or whatever but … Edmund was virtually her brother. No. Just no.”

Otherwise, the novel was well received. Most of the students said they identified with Fanny because they were introverts themselves and, like her, uncomfortable with self-exposure. I, too, identified with Fanny when I first read Mansfield Park, and for similar reasons. Now, however, I wonder whether the kind of pleasure we get from reading about girls like her—quiet girls who blush easily and dislike attention—might not have something a little spurious about it, something even masochistic. Austen makes it clear that humble Fanny, who sees herself as so undeserving, is far more interesting and intelligent than her privileged cousins Maria and Julia Bertram, whose constant desire for attention seems shallow and immoral. Fanny’s shyness makes her less prone to seeking out other people. Plus, she’s learned from watching her cousins that attention leads to trouble. Much better, thinks Fanny, to read books or work on her embroidery than make smart conversation or try out a new style of hat. Nobody in the story knows it (least of all Fanny), but she is a gem. But everyone reading the story knows it, and this being Austen—and not, say, Edith Wharton—we can hotly anticipate the comeuppance of everyone who’s overlooked or mistreated her, especially her busybody aunt and stuck-up cousins. Identifying with Fanny lets us enjoy a kind of sham self-abasement. But unlike her, we know it’s only temporary: we know there’s a big payoff coming.

This isn’t to say that I find the novels any less interesting or less addictive than before, just that I no longer find them romantic. As a cynical, clear-eyed adult, I see them not as nostalgic fantasies, but as finely wrought vignettes of unacknowledged suffering. The world of Jane Austen’s heroines—that “two inches of ivory”—is so small that everything matters almost too much, which is precisely what the world can feel like to an 18-year-old girl. When I was a teenager, my world was circumscribed to home and school. I was awkward and self-conscious, spent hours worrying about what to wear, and ruminated anxiously about the meaning of every social exchange, especially if it was with a boy. The tiniest breach in teenage etiquette could have all kinds of terrible repercussions, but the pain it caused couldn’t be expressed. Responses had to be regulated at all times. At 18, most girls live in a world of secret anguish. This is why young women such as my students can identify with Austen’s heroines—because they live, for the most part, in a similarly limited world.

If you’d asked me at that age why I loved Austen, I’d have talked about her novels’ sense of yearning, the romance, the men who see through showy appearances and fall hopelessly in love with the shy, sensible girl in the background, the one with the intelligent eyes. This, too, is what my students said. For the most part, they enjoyed Mansfield Park for the same reasons they enjoyed the other Austen novels we’d read—because they take you back to a time of refinement and elegance. My students loved talking about the grand country houses, the balls with half-hour-long dances, the old-fashioned courtship rituals, the families, the dresses, the weddings. I tried to tell them Jane Austen was all about pain, but, unsurprisingly, they refused to listen. “I myself prefer a novel that gives me an escape from the sometimes crude realities of this world,” wrote one girl. Another claimed: “Reading Jane Austen’s work simply makes me happy.”

In my own case, instead of thinking about the excitement of young ladies going to Bath or London for the season, I think of what it must be like for them the rest of the year—throughout those bleak, empty days with nothing to look forward to except a walk to the post office in the rain. These poor women spend pretty much every day at home until, if they’re very lucky (and pretty), they marry and move into somebody else’s house, and the whole thing starts again. They may have one or two female friends they can visit, and perhaps a horse to ride, but most of their days are spent waiting for something to happen. The long days are spent reading aloud, sewing, writing letters, or playing the piano. On the outside, in Austen’s novels, very little happens; on the inside, a great deal happens, but it’s rarely pleasant. People are constantly judging one another according to invisible, almost inseparable distinctions that are as thin and fragile as a porcelain teacup.

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