Jane Austen Is Everything

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.”

The hazel-eyed woman in the mobcap is not just an iconic figure but a symbol of Literature itself. 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.

Do we read Austen to flee modernity, or to see it clearly? Why would we need to do either? 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.

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