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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Jane Austen the True Christian

The discussion of Jane Austen's letters continues in Janeites:

Diane Reynolds wrote: "None of this means either that JA hated her family, the weak or people or that she was in some way defective: she hated the cruelty wrought on people and the hypocrisy about it. She skewers the cruel, the blind, the selfish, the arrogant, the mean."

Diane, I would rewrite the above by taking out the words "her family":

[Diane] "None of this means either that JA hated the weak or people or that she was in some way defective: she hated the cruelty wrought on people and the hypocrisy about it. She skewers the cruel, the blind, the selfish, the arrogant, the mean."

I took out the words "her family" because someone being in her family did _not_ give them an exemption from being the butt of her satire, outrage, sarcasm, etc., when they behaved in a cruel, hypocritical, blind, selfish, arrogant, mean, or "ungentlemanly" manner. At different
times in these letters, and equally so in her novels, she skewers each of her parents (especially her mother), each of her brothers (especially Edward and James), their wives (especially Elizabeth and Mary), and often puts on a flattering false front in her letters to Fanny Knight, because Fanny, budding social snob, did not earn JA's honesty. And she
depicts CEA as being not so much blind as intentionally turning a blind eye to such wrongs. And JA did this because JA felt strongly that it was wrong to allow these social sins to pass unchallenged. Meek stoic acceptance of injustice was not JA's way.


Ellen Moody wrote: "People will say outrageously insulting and painful things to one another, humiliate one another and no one does anything about it. They all sit there as if it's just fine. Well to Austen it was not just fine. None of this was just fine. "

That is exactly correct, in my opinion, but JA took that stance not only about verbal sins of this kind, but also about society-wide mores and laws such as serial pregnancy in marriage. Henry Tilney's famous rant against Catherine Morland's overactive imagination is _not_ meant to be taken literally, but as massively ironic! To JA's feminist eye, it is _Henry_ who is clueless, it is Henry who thinks it's just fine that women were treated so terribly in ordinary English marriage and, in Ellen's words "no one does anything about it". It is Catherine who (unwittingly, just by being herself) awakens Henry from his deep moral
coma, and into a realization that a good husband is proud of his wife's reading Gothic novels and of using her imagination to grasp complex social realities, and to question those which are based on cruelty, selfishness, and blindness.

JA is showing that it did not require a university education in order to see what is in front of one's nose. That so few Janeites, even today, are aware of this crucial irony underlying Henry's rant, is part of the reason why JA's letters have rarely been read deeply enough to detect the same rich vein of social criticism.

My understanding of the Jesus of the Gospels is that he was fearless in exposing the cruelty, hypocrisy, blindness, selfishness, arrogance and meanness of powerful people in his world, and that is what gave him such power that even the mighty feared him. " “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.” I think JA aspired, in a literary realm, to the same power. She recognized that the power of the pen was enormous, and she strove to exercise her enormous literary gifts in service of a socially conscious vision, that was particularly
protective of women. Hence I see her novels as a kind of female Torah.

Cheers, ARNIE

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