Jane Austen
Jane Austen; drawing by David Levine


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

as if she were writing in invisible ink, I believe Jane Austen uses the allusion to Cowper’s “The Task” to bring his stirring words into readers’ minds. She can thus attack the inhumanity of slavery without turning Mansfield Park into an abolitionist tract.

Perhaps, but it seems something of a leap to say on the basis of these elliptical citations that Austen was an opponent of slavery. These flights detract from the sensible things Auerbach has to say, but her detailed knowledge of Austen’s sources does give us a more complete impression of Austen’s wide and eclectic interests. At least one recent biographer, Claire Tomalin,1 like previous biographers, has seen Austen as at best “silent” on the big questions—women’s rights, slavery, war (though “her formal silence on the position of women is qualified by the way in which her books insist on the moral and intellectual parity of the sexes”), and many scholars have remarked on the scarcity in her work of references to women’s position or of apparent concern for them.

If a priggish Austen is the image Emily Auerbach wants to dispel, it is Marilyn Butler’s view of her as the inflexible anti-Jacobin, rooted in the certitudes of the eighteenth century, that Peter Knox-Shaw addresses in his interesting book Jane Austen and the Enlightenment. He explains Austen’s vague or nonexistent treatment of topical subjects, and the absence of religious references, by linking her to the skeptical tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment, which combined piety and Christian principles with the perfect freedom to question and even deride attitudes derived from the skeptical and inclusive nature of the Anglican Church, of which she was a part, a “rambling edifice” suited to internal debates and moral inquiry. Without impiousness or any intellectual conflict, an Anglican might read Hume, Adam Smith, and the various Evangelicals, and to some extent choose among the sometimes conflicting strains of thought. This is what Austen did. Knox-Shaw quotes her in a letter as saying, “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken,” and he sees this view of the subjective nature of truth not as the observation of a dogmatic anti-Jacobin but as the real subject of her novels. He is quite convincing that her skepticism is not rooted in hidebound nostalgia but are the conclusions of a woman who followed contemporary scientific as well as literary debates.

Of course open-mindedness is what you would expect of Austen; if there is such a thing as a novelistic temperament or a perfect Keatsian negative capability, it is apt to express itself as a mixture of realism about human behavior and more idealistic hopes for the state of the world. In the case of Austen and, say, the French Revolution, it is probable that she began by sympathizing with the struggle for freedom and ended by deploring the guillotine and the menace of Napoleon—like most other English people and other members of her family. It is improbable that she supported slavery; our sense of the person who wrote Pride and Prejudice would find that incredible, though as William Deresiewicz, in Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, says, “Personally, I don’t find it credible that Pride and Prejudice was written by anyone, at any age.”

Like Auerbach and Knox-Shaw, Deresiewicz finds liberal and progressive sympathies in Austen, but the point is that, like readers of Shakespeare, the Bible, or the I Ching, Austen readers can find scripture to support any point of view about her political leanings. The basic question of her Tory or Jacobin views has yet to be definitively resolved, and though no one has much of an answer about the implications of deciding one way or another, our understanding of her works to some extent depends on having an answer, or at least an opinion about her opinions.


For instance, do we see Mansfield Park “as part of the structure of an expanding imperialist venture,” as Edward Said wrote, and if so, do we read the book as an indictment of imperialism or a defense of it? Mansfield Park, almost everyone’s least favorite Austen novel, is always the object of much critical ingenuity in the hope that some new reading will make it more likable and more like her other works, or at least help us to understand what on earth can explain it. The novel is seen either as a conservative defense of the old-fashioned consanguinal family–based England—like the one Austen grew up in—against the encroaching emphasis on romantic love and female powerlessness or, by some, as a radical “condition of England” novel indicting various ills including the slave trade.

It is the “poignant study of a small, wounded soul,” as Jenkyns puts it—Fanny Price, who was brought as a child to live with her rich uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, and his family at Mansfield, and grows up to marry the younger Bertram son, her cousin Edmund, a clergyman, after being courted by a more frivolous young man, Henry Crawford. But this is to summarize with a conjugal bias. It can also be seen as centering on the rivalries and affections of sisters—there are three sets whose fates are followed. Or on brothers. Or on the vicissitudes of fatherhood. Perry’s view would suggest that the novel does become more sympathetic if we discard the “conjugal bias,” the idea that a story should be mainly about who shall marry whom, and see it as a family drama about the dilemmas of women as sisters and daughters, of men as fathers and brothers, and, as William Deresiewicz sees it, of the need for “substitution,” the art of learning to want the lot that fate has dealt you.

Many great critics have tried to come up with an explanation for the passive, priggish heroine Fanny—the adjective “insipid” was used by Austen’s mother—or, like Kingsley Amis, have uttered a moan of regret. Thinking of Mansfield Park in the light of the social changes Perry describes can go some way to reconciling the restive reader to this darkest (and some have said greatest) of Austen’s works. If we are to “believe the work,” we have to accept the author’s approval of the rigid and humorless Evangelicals Edmund and Fanny, the couple who settle for each other in the end, after each being in love with someone else, more or less.

The question of Austen’s piety remains unsolved. She has been thought by some to have become an Evangelical, one of an enthusiastic subset of Anglicans or Methodists gaining in membership at this time and associated with abolitionist causes. Her approval of this powerful movement is inferred from one remark in a letter—“I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals”—and from her seeming affection for her characters Fanny and Edmund, whose Evangelical principles are clear from their disapproval of the proposed theatricals at Mansfield Park. Knox-Shaw thinks the evidence is scant or nonexistent that Austen was caught up in the religious fervor besetting England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and indeed everything one senses about her would make it hard to believe in a fervent, born-again Jane.

But there was a range of opinion in her family. Knox-Shaw cites a poem written by James Austen, her witty oldest brother, about “Calvin’s harsh, bewildering image/And heart-appalling views,” and allies him with campaigns against the sudden conversions and doctrinal rigidity of the movement. Another brother, Henry, however, was an Evangelical. What you think about the shade of Austen’s Christianity will influence whether you think Mansfield Park, with its pious central couple, is a satire on Evangelicalism, a temporary aberration from the course of Austen’s more characteristic work, or a challenge the newly religious Austen set herself to make a “good” person interesting. Which of these is still an open question, but Knox-Shaw is convincing that

the whole thrust of the novel’s commentary is profoundly secular, that its concern with religion centres in conduct, and that human happiness is integral to its morality.

William Deresiewicz’s study of Austen’s reading of and references to the Romantic poets picks up the influences on Austen where Knox-Shaw leaves off, if we are to agree with the likelihood that Austen kept abreast of the new writing at the turn of the nineteenth century as she had done with the poets and novelists who had formed her youthful reading. His study barely mentions religion, but shows that where she had read Crabbe and Dr. Johnson, she now read Byron and Scott, and, probably, Wordsworth, and came under the influence of Wordsworthian theories of memory and emotion. He finds that Mansfield Park is dominated by the Wordsworthian use of substitution, of loved ones and objects—Fanny’s beloved mementos and the transparencies of Tinturn Abbey in her room.

Both he and Knox-Shaw emphasize that it is important to remember that Austen’s writing career was divided into two phases, the early three novels—Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey—written in the eighteenth century by a very young woman; the last three—Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion—written in the Romantic period by a mature woman, after a silence of seven years, which can account for many of the differences in tone and outlook on some issues, and more of a sense of the disappointments and compromises in any life.


The narrator of Mansfield Park says it is about “the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments.” In mocking unchanging passions that can be cured, is she endorsing fidelity or laughing at people who believe in it? Our understanding of Austen’s intentions is complicated by her habitual, ironic tone. Critical arguments surrounding authorial intention are always something of a problem, because they presume that an author actually executes his intentions, and critics tend to forget that the gap between what a writer plans and does is enormous. And any writer is aware that critics sometimes seem to have very little sense of how a work is actually written or believe inevitable things that are in fact arbitrary and conscious choices, like point of view, or even characters’ names; and treat as arbitrary things that are really determined, compelled by the writer’s experience or personality. Austen critics are obliged by the dearth of information about her to cling to small bits of information—a single reference in the letters to the slave trade or Evangelicalism, for instance, losing sight of the rather loose way in which an author’s reading and her work are connected.

Reading the passage in Sense and Sensibility where Marianne expresses her belief in a first and only love, we assume that the narrator’s tone of mockery reflects Jane Austen’s view of romantic love and of Marianne’s gullibility. The narrator, she who contributes the aphorisms and asides, and the tone of mockery, has widely been assumed to be Austen herself, as close as any writer can come to speaking in her own voice; and the acerbic charm of that voice is one reason people have tried to look behind the narrator to find the writer herself. Austen’s tone, however, has often puzzled. Does she, as some think, say the opposite of what she means when she puts words in the mouth of the skeptical narrator? Does she satirize things she thinks need making fun of or things she is drawn to, alternatives critics disagree on? Does her mockery reveal or disguise her real feelings? Knox-Shaw writes that her “great technical innovation…her scarcely perceptible and sometimes deceptive erasure of the line between narrator and character, does point forward to” James Joyce.

When Richard Jenkyns speaks of “the person of Jane Austen,” he means the writer herself, not necessarily the narrator of her novels, though these are usually felt to be the same. He means the presence of the writer, as opposed to the narrator or persona in the text. We have the sense as we read that there are three of us in on the reading process—ourself, the narrator, and the author—like Freud’s idea that there are four people in bed. Perhaps the “real” Jane Austen, so noncommital in her books, somehow reveals herself, or at least her intentions, through the formal decisions she makes in writing her technically brilliant novels. Her remark about the little square of ivory on which she worked, usually taken to be an expression of spinsterly modesty and diffidence, was as likely to be an expression of her interest in Aristotelian unities or some other formal consideration.

Her technical brilliance is the focus of Richard Jenkyns’s “appreciation.” He points out that the famous aphorisms that begin Pride and Prejudice2 are meant as a pair, statement and “balancing contradiction,” a formula from Anglican liturgy and familiar to Austen from a lifetime of churchgoing. The rest of the first chapter is an extended dialogue, a little play, a tour de force derived from Austen’s interest in theatricals; to know her attitude is perhaps to shed light on the theatricals in Mansfield Park, disapproved of by Sir Thomas Bertram, Edmund, and Fanny herself, but beloved by Austen. Jenkyns is especially interesting on the form of Pride and Prejudice—its carefully constructed mirror-image chapters and its reliance on techniques borrowed from the theater.

An understanding of how Austen got her effects could bring us closer to an understanding of her writing than if we were to consider content alone. It is through the patterns and pairings, the formal divisions (chapters, etc.), proportion of dialogue to indirect discourse, length of scenes, and the placement of surprises that the reader discerns the writer’s intention, and reading this way places the reader in an unconscious dialogue not with the characters but with Austen herself—the artist making choices—and this, notwithstanding the critical fashions of the recent past—is one of the most enjoyable activities of reading. Jenkyns’s focus dissolves a little into a more general discussion of Austen biography, historical background, the motivation of the characters, and so on, but often helpfully: “I am surprised,” he says, “that so many people assume that the attitudes of Edmund and Fanny to theatricals are straightforwardly Jane Austen’s own,” and goes on to demonstrate why we can assume they were not.

One could wish him to go on with his formal explorations. Can we improve our understanding of Mansfield Park by looking at what scenes Austen chooses to dramatize? When the docile Fanny refuses Henry Crawford, a suitor her adopted family thinks more than suitable for her, Austen’s interest is clearly not in Henry’s proposal to Fanny, which happens offstage (though Austen often dodges romantic proposal scenes), but in Fanny’s defi-ance of Sir Thomas, her adopted father and benefactor, a scene of several pages. What is the structural function of the removal to Portsmouth or of Fanny’s Wordsworthian ruminations on landscape?

Saving the discovery of a new trove of Austen family letters or a lost manuscript, the lot of the Austen scholar is not enviable. Given her very small oeuvre and the probability that nearly all is known that is to be known about her world, finding new facts about her will not be easy. Interpretation is all. There is mining and refining to be done in the texts—naval references in the works of Jane Austen, treatment of religion in the works of Jane Austen, etc. There are astute deconstructions like Perry’s; but the readerly impulse to understand the author remains unsatisfied. We know that the modest human being who worried about her bonnets is not the passionate and clever narrator of her books, quite, but who was she? Prig or rebel, Tory or Jacobin, the woman remains opaque. Yet the bond readers often feel with the writer of beloved works seems to transcend the works themselves. The relationship between the writer and reader, between us and Jane, is ultimately an indissoluble component of reading, and it is this that makes us keep searching.

This Issue

June 23, 2005