Exploring Jane Austen through the Proud and the Prejudiced
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The fame of Jane Austen is such that, not only does she appear frequently on lists of history’s greatest authors, but soon she will appear on the Bank of England’s £10 note. Her name is almost synonymous with English literature, and her best-known work, Pride and Prejudice has sold over 20 million copies in the 200 years since it was published. Not simply a writer of stories of romance, love and marriage, Austen gave witty and incisive social commentary, highlighting the private and social realities of women in her own time. Yet it is not a ‘truth universally acknowledged’ that all readers love Austen. Throughout the years there have been many detractors as well as admirers, most notable among these have been other authors. Her style and subject matter divide literary opinions, and so we shall take a turn about these authors in their appraisal of Austen and her work, to see what we might learn about ‘the Lady’ of classic fiction.
First it’s worth taking stock of the range of emotion that Austen evokes. Her stories may be considered mild, but the reactions often are not. Perhaps the most effusive of her devotees was Rudyard Kipling. Kipling had found immense solace in her works while grieving the death of his son in combat, in 1917. This characterization of Austen as a saviour in dark places is seen most clearly in Kipling’s short story ‘The Janeites.’ The story, found in Debits and Credits, a collection of his short stories, poetry and drama, is centred on a group of World War I soldiers discussing their secret love for Jane Austen’s books, and the positive effect this had on their lives. Kipling, it seems, held nothing back in describing the the merits of Austen. His epigraph to ‘The Janeites’ reads:
Jane lies in Winchester -- blessed be her shade!
Praise the Lord for making her, and her for all she made!
And while the stones of Winchester, or Milsom Street, remain,
Glory, love, and honor unto England's Jane!
Kipling unreservedly casts Austen in the light of a saint, and saviour of England whose grave is hallowed ground, however not all were so reverential. Mark Twain could hardly be further from Kipling’s point of view, having once written of Austen:
Her books madden me so that I can't conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
Twain and Kipling indicate the gulf of opinion on the subject of Austen’s writings, and the extremities of emotion they evoke. Fittingly, the lines of contention surrounding her often can be broken down into concerns of sense, and sensibility. The sense of her work, or the merit of her subject matter is one battleground, while another lies with her work’s sensibility, in her portrayal of characters and their emotions.
Beginning with sense, Jane Austen’s stories focus largely on a small number of characters, and their daily lives. Realism was her forte, and the charm of her stories is often found in the natural unfolding of characters and the gradual changing of perspectives. With this realism however, comes all the practicalities of real life. Whether it’s the lengthy descriptions of transport and carriages in Pride and Prejudice, or the balancing of budgets in Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s stories are always grounded in reality. This apparent banality was a point of strong objection for the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Never was life so pinched and so narrow. The one problem in the mind of the writer in both the stories I have read, Persuasion, and Pride and Prejudice, is marriageableness. All that interests in any character introduced is still this one, Has he or (she) the money to marry with, and conditions, conforming?... Suicide is more respectable.
This is certainly a damning criticism on the sense in writing such stories. However, this point is not uncontested. In fact, the smallness of Austen’s stories can be said to have inspired another classic novel. The intimate look at the daily lives of a small-town in Alabama, in To Kill a Mockingbird is inspired by Harper Lee’s love of Jane Austen. She has said that in writing, she hoped to
chronicle something that seems to be very quickly going down the drain. This is small-town middle-class southern life...I believe that there is something universal in this little world, something decent to be said for it, and something to lament in its passing... In other words all I want to be is the Jane Austen of South Alabama.
Lee highlights the dignity of this subject matter both in her own writing as well as in Austen’s, because it portrays the struggles and victories of such normal lives as something noteworthy. The longevity and impact of their work is perhaps indicative of the merit of the subject matter. Indeed, Emerson’s objection to Austen is hardly surprising, given his place as a linchpin in the establishment of the American Romantic Movement. While most modern readers might now classify Jane Austen work as romantic fiction, that term has undergone a change of meaning in the last century. Indeed, in her own time Austen deliberately steered away from what was known as the Romantic movement. This movement of art, music, and literature, which produced some of history’s most acclaimed and iconic works, emphasized the supernatural and the horrifying, and put great store on the expression of intense emotion, in particular terror and awe. This brings us to our second point of contention, Austen’s sensibility, or perhaps her lack thereof.
Austen’s aversion to the Romantic movement ties in with her celebration of the mundaneness of life. Her characters develop feelings over time, and even at the height of their emotional expression rarely forsake their dignity and composure. On the other side of this is Charlotte Brontë, who was a champion of Romantic literature. Her characters express themselves in violently emotional terms, as in Jane Eyre: ‘My very soul demands you: it will be satisfied, or it will take deadly vengeance on its frame.’ This makes it unsurprising that Austen’s restrained characters were not to Brontë's taste:
[A]nything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works...She no more, with her mind’s eye, beholds the heart of her race than each man, with bodily vision, sees the heart in his heaving breast. Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete and rather insensible (not senseless) woman.
However, to juxtapose the two styles of writing does not give due merit to either approach to storytelling. Where Brontë embraces a sense of dark drama, Austen’s writing puts a great deal of emphasis on the comedic, and this is where her characterization really shines. Whether naïve or self-important, oblivious or sarcastic, her characters are constantly treading the lines of societal expectations. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, it is this understanding of propriety that makes Austen’s stories possible, and indeed, funny:
The hard core of morality and even of religion seems to me to be just what makes good comedy possible. 'Principles' or 'seriousness' are essential to Jane Austen's art. Where there is no norm, nothing can be ridiculous, except for a brief moment of unbalanced provincialism in which we may laugh at the merely unfamiliar. Unless there is something about which the author is never ironical, there can be no true irony in the work.
It is certain there is merit to both the loving and loathing of Austen. Literary criticism can deal no worse blow to an author’s reputation than to have a universal stance on their work. Her writing has had the longevity and impact to warrant discussion and analysis over the past two centuries. As for Austen herself, one suspects she would have no qualms with her hearing the words of her detractors. As she remarked in a letter to her sister Cassandra:
I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.