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

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Margaret Doody's misguided review of Margaret Kirkham's Pioneering, Prescient & Spot-On 1982 book Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction

Ellen Moody wrote earlier yesterday and today in Austen L:

"I've found a review of Kirkham's book by Margaret Doody...Doody also thinks Kirkham's whole discussion over-reliant on this parallel, a distortion caused by Kirkham's desire to say something new. Many of Kirkham's ogres (Richardson, Johnson) are not ogres at all; to defeat Marilyn Butler's reading of Austen as reactionary you need to close read the novels....Anyone interested in the review, I could send it on by attachment. Doody may seem a bit harsh, but she is correct."

And I disagree with Ellen in every way, I find Doody's review as wrong as it can possibly be about the most important aspects of JA's writing. I wonder if Doody has changed her mind about these things since she wrote these book reviews 26 years (and hundreds of essay of feminist criticism of JA) ago. Doody in this article is really "Marilyn Butler Lite".

First Doody takes an extended potshot at Jan Fergus's book _Jane Austen and the Didactic Novel_ and faults Fergus for not making a strong case for Fergus's central claim that "Austen's intentions" were "primarily didactic." I have not looked at Fergus's book in a while, but in general I have found her to be pretty sensitive to JA's feminist undercurrents. And the point that Doody does not get is that Fergus’s central claim is clearly correct.

I suspect that Doody was stung by Fergus's opinion of the relative worth of Richardson's novels vs. Jane Austen's novels, from the following barb thrown by Doody at Fergus:

" It never seems to have occurred to this critic for even a moment that there are some readers-some now alive-who think Sir Charles Grandison a greater novel than Pride and Prejudice. I do not mean that Fergus ought to share such a view, merely that she should be capable of acknowledging its possibility. But the earlier works are simply treated as outdated Model T novels."

There's a reason why only literary scholars still read Sir Charles Grandison, and why everyone reads Jane Austen, but Doody wants Fergus to waste time explaining why. Anyone who has attempted to read more than 20 pages of Sir Charles Grandison can see the answer with their own eyes--Richardson needed an editor to cut 2/3 of his endless verbosity, so as to get the worthy material at the core of his novels.

But now let's get to what Doody says about Kirkham's book, with my comments interspersed:

[Doody] "It is absurd to assert that the author of Pamela and Clarissa had no sympathy for female rebellion. Kirkham believes that Austen rejected Grandison and patriarchs together: [Quoting Kirkham]"She does this by showing patriarchal figures as at best defective, like Mr. Bennet, and at worst vicious, like General Tilney" ...Ah, but what about the vexing case of Mr. Knightley? On this Grandisonian figure Kirkham is nearly silent."

[Me]: Doody is the one who has missed the boat, and even if Kirkham's analysis of Richardson is not elegant, Kirkham has gotten to the heart of the matter, which is JA's rejection and covert satire of patriarchal sexism. And then what irony that Doody throws Mr. Knightley in Kirkham's face, as if Doody has proved that JA was a big fan of Knightley. But I have repeatedly argued that Knightley is the very epitome of the sexism that JA satirized covertly. And those who recall what I wrote a few months ago in that regard will also recall that I argued repeatedly that Knightley is a portrait of Samuel Johnson, and that it is not a flattering portrait, when viewed from the proper angle.

[Doody again] "The case against Dr. Johnson is even harder to make. Johnson, in Kirkham's view, was until late middle age an unreconstructed Tory patriarchalist and a despiser of women. Chief proof is his approbation of Richardson. By 1779, however, in his Life of Milton, a regenerate Johnson shows that he "had himself benefited from the moral debate engendered by the novel" (p. 16). Kirkham has evidently not read Johnson's Irene, the work of his youth, a play in which the central moral debates and action are given to the women, who are independent moral agents as well as the central characters. It is hard to believe in Kirkham's gallery of ogres. The arguments are repeatedly shaky."

[Me]: And I say that in 1982, Kirkham, working from scratch with almost no prior scholarship to give her comfort, was an incredible pioneer in grasping the feminism at the core of JA's writing. She deserves only praise for her courageous and brilliant insights.

[Doody] "Any jocular reference by Austen to another writer is to be taken as a symptom of deep dislike. Kirkham really wants Austen to be a pure Wollstonecraftean feminist."

[Me]: Because JA was even more than a Wollstonecraftean feminist, she was even more radical than that! But Doody is, as I said, “Marilyn Butler Lite”, and so she draws the line at the “crazy” notion that JA might have been a strong feminist.

[Doody again] "She goes as far as she can in insisting that Austen probably read Wollstonecraft: "the young woman of Cassandra's sketch looks as though she might" have read the feminist's works. 'Jane Austen may well have profited from consideration of both novels [Mary and Maria: or, The Wrongs of Woman], which would not have been unattainable in Bath" (p. 37). There are "similarities . . . worth noting": Marza touches on whether or not a woman, who has no legal or constitutional rights, may be said to have a country. In Northanger Abbey, the laws and customs of England are overtly held to protect a wife ... but the ironies of the novel undermine this and raise doubts as to how far all is well in the Midland counties of England. In Maria the heroine is literally imprisoned by her husband; she says, "Marriage had bastilled me for life...." In Mansfield Park, Maria sees Sotherton as a "dismal old prison . . ." (p. 37) The awkward tracing of such "similarities" ignores the texture and tropes of novels of the period, as well as a whole history of fiction and of social ideas that had affected Wollstonecraft in her turn."

[Me] Again, Doody is dead wrong, Kirkham has actually gotten to the heart of the deep complex allusions to Wollstonecraft by JA, for which Kirkham deserves the highest praise. Doody is the one ignoring what JA had to say _in her novels_!

[Doody one last time] "Kirkham refuses to acknowledge the variations of feminism or social thought among women writers of the conservative and liberal as well as radical positions. Writers such as Charlotte Smith and Jane West are scarcely referred to; Austen seems to exist on an ideological island previously settled once and once only by Mary Wollstonecraft. "

[Me, one last time] And again, Doody blames Kirkham for not covering the entire field of Austen's feminist allusions, at a time when no other Austen scholar (other than the brilliant Allison Sulloway in the mid Seventies). I will rectify Kirkham’s excusable failure to cover everything, and show, as I have very recently written, Charlotte Smith was as big a source for JA as Wollstonecraft--and I am certain Kirkham would agree with that statement!

Cheers, ARNIE

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