In A Fine Brush on Ivory, his “appreciation” of Jane Austen, Richard Jenkyns remarks that in Austen scholarship there are “pressures which cause ordinary critical circumspection to break down,” and principal among them is “the peculiar affection in which the person of Jane Austen is held by many readers.” This affection is not altogether explained by admiration for her genius, nor is it entirely a symptom of nostalgia for her orderly, decorous, vanished world (though there is a Web site, www.pemberley.com: “your haven in a world programmed to misunderstand obsession with things Austen”). What does explain this “peculiar affection” for Jane Austen?
The impulse to know personally this elusive, even mysterious, writer has led critics to approach her work in mostly biographical or historical ways, often in defiance of other critical fashions, especially the various formal approaches that have dominated modern literary criticism. The conciliatory Jenkyns suggests embracing two contradictory principles: “first, that it is worth finding out what we can about [a writer’s] life, partly as a check on what we believe his purposes to have been, partly in the hope of illuminating aspects of his work which we might otherwise have missed; and second, that ultimately we have to believe the work itself.” Neither of these ideas is universally acceptable to all modern critics, but several recent works profitably follow the former direction.
Despite its social sciences language, Ruth Perry’s sturdily named Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture, 1748–1818, looking at eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction, adds considerably to our understanding of the psychological and social conditions of Austen’s world, especially where she modifies many present-day assumptions about early-nineteenth-century marriage and the family, in the light of which we might easily misread Austen’s work. Perry argues that by Austen’s day, earlier “kinship orientation based on blood relations” was in the throes of changing to “a kinship axis constituted by conjugal ties,” that is, the family you married into was becoming more important than the one you were born into. Women who found themselves on the cusp of this broad social change in real life, and the heroines of fiction, depended on marriage for the happiness and the financial security that might have formerly come from their birth family. She finds evidence that in Austen’s day, moreover, manners and morals were becoming more strict and women’s place more restricted and precarious than at previous periods in English life, the alteration explored in Austen’s books. The world was becoming Victorian.
At the same time there were changes in the management of inheritance. Wealth, which had often been distributed more equitably among family members of both sexes, was now, with the newly prevalent system of primogeniture, transmitted vertically from eldest son to eldest son, leaving daughters and younger sons at the mercy of the heir. This is a situation often seen in Austen’s novels, one familiar instance being Mr. Collins’s hold over the Bennets …