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 in Pride and Prejudice. Besides challenging our understanding of some canonical early-nineteenth-century fiction, Perry notes that in understanding the novels, “social historians and literary critics often pass over sibling or parental relationships as irrelevant to the ‘real story,’” because today we assume that a story should be about the founding of a conjugal couple, a marriage.
Have we been misled “by the conjugal bias intrinsic to twentieth-century concepts of evidence and research methods”? In Perry’s view, previous definitions of the family have been based on incorrect inferences from statistical norms and prescriptive conduct manuals. Statistics taken from public records of marriages and births ignore “many of the other filaments in the web of kinship that located people psychologically in the period,” because there are no published records of such filaments—a maiden aunt, like Austen living with the family, for example, would not appear in any record. And where modern readers assume that a novel will contain a love story, the main story the author had in mind might in fact be about a bad or good brother, a long-lost relative, fathers separated from daughters, a devoted aunt, or some other aspect of the birth family (with mothers often missing or unimportant, as in Austen). Such elements were more important than love stories in the novels Austen read, like Tristram Shandy or The Castle of Otronto.
Perry takes special issue with the influential scholar Lawrence Stone, who, in The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (1977), established a view she feels is misleading, of an evolution toward “companionate marriage,” meaning a marriage of intellectual equals, which in turn encouraged better education for women. Rather, as in the 1950s American ideal (the target of Betty Friedan’s later analysis), the better-informed wife and mother was supposed to devote herself to husband and children. Perry questions not so much whether this happened as whether it was a positive development. “Stone’s male-centered fantasy,” she remarks, “assumes that educating women to be companions for men was the best thing that ever happened to them,” but ignores the hidden disadvantage that in this role many women became isolated from their biological families, lost status as sisters and daughters, and were more dependent than ever, but now on their husbands.
This loss of female authority was accompanied or explained by other social factors that were not in women’s interest: the growing “dispersion of communities, and the growing power of individualism,” and changes in property laws and marriage settlements that left sisters and daughters less well provided for than they had been, and with little legal leverage. Inheritance issues drive most of Jane Austen’s plots and subplots; and because she was on the cusp of changes that would increasingly commodify women and virginity for the marriage market, trends masked by conventions of romantic love, she came to seem to some later readers as somewhat hardhearted in the practicality of her views, for instance (in Perry’s example) her implicit mockery in Sense and Sensibility of Marianne Dashwood’s “ardent belief in a first and only love,” a belief that would have made no sense in an earlier period, when a third of all marriages were second marriages, after the death of a spouse, but was fashionably new in Marianne’s day.
Perry’s elucidation of the plots of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century novels in the light of these broad social changes goes a long way toward explaining why many of them do not move us today; the reunion of long-lost fathers and daughters, for instance, or the intense relation of brother and sister no longer seem especially affecting. The long-lost relative plot simply had more emotional force when the “consanguinal” family rather than the “affinal” family was the principle focus of emotional life (though, thinking of The Mill on the Floss or Silas Marner we can see that such consanguinal plots appear at least as late as George Eliot). It may be that the marriage plot itself has seen its day, and in these times of redefined families, plots will change—there is already a spate of family novels and novels about friendship that do not resolve in marriage.
Understanding social changes undoubtedly helps us to understand the meaning of events in Austen’s novels, but it is still not clear, or at least not agreed upon, what her own attitudes were toward such matters as slavery, the woman’s lot, and the French Revolution, and her politics continue to preoccupy. Darryl Jones remarks in his account of Austen criticism that “ownership of Austen [has] been claimed, often in absolute terms, by a number of powerfully conflicting interpretative communities, from fans to scholars” (and, one might add, filmmakers and dramatists, sequelizers and novelizers). Some critics, following an influential study by Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975), and Edward Said’s famous attack on her politics in Orientalism (1978), have taken her to task for ignoring real-world issues, and seeming to accept, say, the economics of slavery, and, therefore, being complicit in it. As Jones summarizes the Butlerian view, she was
a post-1789 Burkean Tory, asserting (or shoring up) a traditional conservative sense of national and familial identity in direct reaction to the spread of Enlightenment and Jacobin thinking into English political discourse.
But critics have reacted in Austen’s defense, feeling that she, to continue with Jones’s summary,
displays undeniable marks of sympathy, if not actually of overt affiliation, with the Enlightenment-feminist tenets of 1790s Jacobin thinking as notably embodied by Mary Wollstonecraft, and thus offers variously powerful or bitter critiques of contemporary English social and political institutions.
For Emily Auerbach in Searching for Jane Austen, this view of Austen the politically correct emerges everywhere, for instance in Sense and Sensibility in the scene where Edward Ferrars’s foppish brother Robert picks out a bejeweled toothpick case with great deliberation, and Auerbach feels that
this passage perhaps hints at the devastating effects of “empire” on those who decadently reap its rewards without possessing any awareness of the labor and injustice supporting their own luxurious lifestyle.
We can believe, or not, her view that Marianne Dashwood, in the same novel, is named after the iconic French Marianne, symbol of the Revolution. Scholarly efforts at clarification of Austen’s political sympathies are sometimes accompanied by efforts at reconstruction not of Austen but of her readers, as where Auerbach’s stated purpose is to dispel popular notions of Austen as limited and priggish, and to redress “two centuries of putdowns and touch-ups.” Though one would have thought these notions had long since been outmoded, she shows that, surprisingly enough, they persist, not only among readers of the recent past but in present-day students and readers as well, perhaps even, judging from her apologetics, Auerbach herself.
The rescuing impulse sometimes leads her farther afield than she needs to go, as when she wonders whether Austen “repeats the word alter so often in Persuasion because she wants readers to keep in mind Shakespeare’s sonnet: Let me not to the marriage of true minds”—a sonnet which is not mentioned in Persuasion but is quoted in full in Auerbach. Or “How unfortunate that Jane Austen…died two decades before the birth of Mark Twain…. What might she have said (ironically, no doubt) of him?,” followed by three pages of jocular speculation about Twain and Austen as soulmates, “perhaps winking at each other when they think no one is looking.”
Though Auerbach’s discussion of the many details of Fanny Price’s reading in Mansfield Park may convince us that Austen was the meaningfully allusive author we would prefer, she often exceeds the boundaries of legitimate inference to the point of wistful hope: “Perhaps had Maria and Julia Bertram read this lengthy poem they might have joined their reflective cousin in questioning the source of their wealth” [italics mine]. How odd is our way of talking about the hypothetical future actions of people who do not exist.
When in Mansfield Park Fanny Price, who is also quite well read for an eighteen-year-old, quotes a line of Cowper’s “The Task,” Auerbach feels that “it simply seems too coincidental that the poem also includes a ringing indictment of clerical abuses, [and] an attack on the immorality of slavery,” and