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Jane Austen’s Militant Comedy

Jane Austen

by Douglas Bush
Macmillan, 205 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Sanditon

by Jane Austen. Another Lady
Houghton Mifflin, 329 pp., $8.95

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. It is an ambitious work and superbly controls a large cast—but one in which the prosaic hero and heroine do not, so it seems to me, sustain the moral intention or only do so fitfully.

Bush describes one or two of Mrs. Q. D. Leavis’s arguments published years ago in Scrutiny on the relative failure of this novel as “strained,” whereas I would say that they are exceptionally penetrating about the act of writing. She is very suggestive about a possible source of personal animus in the creation of Mary Crawford and in her view that there are long patches of flat and unsuccessful transcription from an earlier epistolary attempt.

The dimmed and distant effect of much of this novel, the impression it gives of low spirits in its presentation, is due I think to its being retold from letters.

There is the dead air of paraphrase; even the famous and very actual chapter of Fanny’s visit to Portsmouth is weakened by serving as a device for getting around the climax by more letter writing and accidental news. Mrs. Leavis’s arguments have the advantage of showing Jane Austen hesitating as she moves to the brink of a changing intention and a deepening of her subject. A novel grows out of its versions that have failed.

But to go back to Portsmouth—Austen’s hatred of Regency London and the morals which had descended from the cult of sensibility to the pursuit of raffishness is also influenced by genuine eighteenth-century feeling for formalized Nature and against the nakedness of the Town; yet Portsmouth brings this out more passionately than London could. The noise and glare, the vulgarity and the sense of prison are personally felt. Fanny Price’s awful family tell this story.

The one extraordinary and enlarging experience is the almost mad poetic excitement about the new ship Fanny’s brother is to command. The scene is unique in Jane Austen’s writing in bringing home to one the manly, adventurous danger of the rough fortune-hunting outside world Steventon depended on. There can be no doubt that a vigorous elation was deep in her own determined nature; just as her young flirtations were, her early love of the burlesque and family theatricals—so boisterously enjoyed by all the clever Austens at Steventon and so strangely condemned, when youth had passed, in Mansfield Park. Mr. Bush is very good on the symbolism and meaning of the novel, but it is only in my most sentimental moments that I can stand Fanny and her father-brother-husband, Edmund. What vegetables!

On this subject Professor R. F. Brissenden, in Bicentenary Essays, has read into or around Mansfield Park some of the ideas that are present in Pamela or Clarissa about the property power of the family and its self-insurance against the primitive claims of incest. In the play scene, Crawford flirts in a dramatic situation which “invokes the spectre of illicit sexuality and incest”:

The alliance between Edmund and Fanny has distinctly incestuous overtones [not all of which are immediately apparent]; and it is these, I believe, that give the relationship between these two rather ordinary people its underlying power. Not only does Mansfield Park have a wider range of social significance than any of Jane Austen’s other novels, but it has also much greater psychological depth and complexity. This is why the marriage of Edmund to Fanny is something more than a conventional happy ending; it is a union which affords satisfaction at a number of levels, not all of which are directly apparent.

Maybe, but maybe not. Edmund is a stick and Fanny is the new kind of passive and sentimental heroine; even as sublimated incest, the effect is one of insipidity rather than of power.

Professor Brissenden is much nearer the mark, it seems to me, when he speaks of Fanny as finding her liberty and status in a home suited to her nature—if in a somewhat teeth-gritting way—and in a world which is restless and changing in a way she does not like. But one must always remember that literary influences are prevalent in Jane Austen’s language: the evocation of a euphoric brotherly and sisterly ideal is characteristic of the rhetoric of preconjugal love in many novelists of her time. We can pursue the subject in another essay by Kenneth Moler, who goes into the question of Fanny’s two languages: her bookish, schoolroom speech, which is perhaps what creates what other critics have called the elegiac tone of the book, and the slightly breathless, unfinished style which the novelist so brilliantly caught in young girls. Fanny, like most girls, has two minds.

There seem indeed to be two Jane Austens, in unsettled relationship, in Mansfield Park. (One can even see Fanny as rather sly.) The play scene contains the essence of Jane Austen’s originality and vivacity as a novelist. The play expresses her sense, as a psychologist, of people acting a part, tempted, even driven by their fantasies. They speak out of self-imagination in their changing roles: she is (to go back to Lewes) the dramatic ventriloquist, and can indeed ventriloquize her characters’ moral sense in love and in the self-interest which is never far removed from it. The thing that gives her comedies their edge is not simply her belief in sense and order, but in something harder: necessity. Salvation lies, for her, as for Emma, in ceasing to act out false parts. She lacked invention. From the technique of the drama come her economy, her rejection of description, her gift for reversing character and situations, the subtle levels of irony in her narratives: even her underhand indifference to point of view when it suits her. This is, of course, striking in Pride and Prejudice and Emma; but it is obvious too in novels where the irony is gentler.

Andrew Wright, who wrote in the Fifties an excellent book on the structuring of her novels, writes now in Bicentenary Essays on the heroic translations that have been made in Russian, Romanian, Spanish, Chinese, and German in which the terrifying niceties of Jane Austen’s manner (whether offhand, edged, or effusive) have escaped the translator. Except in America, she does not travel. She is too soaked in Englishness and English literature to be caught—a most malign histrionic, especially when quiet. Among other essays, Professor Reuben A. Brower’s “From the Iliad to Jane Austen, via The Rape of the Lock” is an extravagant excursion among the echoes of writing, but is home safe by the time he gets to Pope.

It is impossible to say much about Another Lady’s modest attempt to complete the unfinished Sanditon. There has often been a suggestion that Jane Austen was here breaking new ground. She was certainly always topical—she was up to date on the subject of the improvement of gentlemen’s houses in Mansfield Park, and nothing was newer than the invention of the seaside resort, the cult of sea bathing, and the behavior of assembled hypochondriacs. As a thorough Tory she loved to have a dig at a fad. Owning estates and mansions is here replaced by building towns and making money out of lodgings. The eleven chapters written by her amble along pleasantly enough; but they have only one voice, which was very likely always so in Jane Austen’s first drafts. The book might easily have become merged into a very different novel that would certainly have included the talkative, plausible, manipulating young hero from London. There are possibilities in him. Anyone trying to add to Jane Austen is bound to slacken her temper and her idiom and to make her sound old-fashioned, and that, like all the great novelists, Jane Austen never was.

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