“None has approached her in the economy of art,” said G. H. Lewes in his famous essay on Jane Austen written in 1859—an essay which put lasting new life into a reputation that had strangely languished. Economy has not been the merit of the immense amount of Jane Austen criticism written since, and this is evident in the nineteen bicentenary essays, by English and American academics, edited by Professor Halperin. By 1900, he says, admiration had reached surfeit and criticism had come to a halt, but it has revived again in the last twenty-five years with “considerable virtuosity.”
It certainly is an industry and begins to suffer from overreading; but, as Douglas Bush says in his graceful clearing-up guide to Jane Austen’s life, times, and the novels one by one, the common reader is incurable. He still goes to her for delight, not for her craftsmanship or her view of society, certainly not for her epistemology, ontology, or her relation to bourgeois values, Freud, and so on. The snug Janeites may go to her for shelter from the modern world, but the rest of us who live in the open as best we can at once respond to the very English irony, the Johnsonian orthodoxy, and the brisk militancy of her comedy. She has our no doubt limited notion that character is fate and that manners are weapons. We are ready to pink and be pinked. When Lewes spoke of her powers of “dramatic ventriloquism” he explained why, even in a totally collapsing world like our own, her faceless characters are still recognizable. And especially her women, whose status is now so changed, but who live because they last as persons. About her refusal to dwell on the “guilt and misery” in loose sexual morals, Mr. Bush remarks:
the novels are full of the guilt of what may be more corrosive and injurious, the common human faults of selfishness, insensitivity, insincerity, and the like. One special kind of misery, which afflicts the innocent, is a young woman’s living with the thought of a loved man lost to her—the experience, brief or prolonged, of all the heroines. And although Jane Austen does not philosophize about sex, her decorous heroines are more or less intense embodiments of forces more fully and truly human than, say, the primitive female daemons of D. H. Lawrence could understand.
Mr. Bush’s book is sane and discriminating in his references to the vast Jane Austen literature. He knows the ceaseless work and the rewritings by which she made herself a formidable artist and far more than a copybook moralist. He is certain that her rectitude and principles were not drawn from the conventional pieties of her class but that her nature was deeply religious; as for class-consciousness—where is it not a force?. One may disagree here and there with him—I do not follow him in all that he has to say about Mansfield Park. It undoubtedly foreshadows the Victorian novel …