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

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Jane Austen's Judgment on Upper Class Men

In response to my claim that Jane Austen's political views were a lot closer to George Bernard Shaw's than is commonly understood, Nancy Mayer wrote the following in Austen-L:

"I do not think that JA issued a blanket denunciation of the upper classes. That would be a silly thing to do since she found people of all ranks and status acting in selfish, stupid, and wholly self-interested manner."

Nancy, JA did indeed find these sorts of shortcomings in all groups, but she, like any good scientist, observed that pretension, greed, hypocrisy, and cruelty were especially prevalent among the upper classes in her world, particularly among the men.

As I have opined countless times before, JA ascribed moral fault more severely to those who were more privileged and powerful, and was willing to mitigate her judgments somewhat on those who were less privileged and powerful. Because she understood that power corrupts, she looked at the powerful to find the most corruption.

If you claim that JA's judgments landed equally hard on all fools and knaves, then how do you explain what she wrote to Martha in 1812, at the advanced age of 36, when she has reached the stage of moral judgment reflected in the novels:

"I suppose all the World is sitting in Judgement upon the Princess of Wales'sLetter. Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband -- but I can hardly forgive her for calling herself ``attached & affectionate' to a Man whom she must detest -- & the intimacy said to subsist between her & Lady Oxford is bad -- I do not know what to do about it; but if I must give up the Princess, I am resolved at least always to think that she would have been respectable, if the Prince had behaved only tolerably by her at first. --"

JA is willing to support the Princess even though the Princess has behaved badly in some respects, because JA hates the Prince. And....most importantly, JA blames the Prince for his awful behavior toward the Princess when they first wed, which drove the Princess into despair and desperation, looking for love and affection that the Prince was not going to ever give her.

So this famous example demonstrates that JA allowed mitigation to those less powerful, particularly women, for their sins, but JA cut no slack to powerful upper class men like the Prince.

I personally believe this is a sound way to make moral judgments, because there _are_ degrees of badness. And what JA hated above all was the _system_ of laws, customs, religious dogmas, etc. which all conspired to make rich, upper class men the absolute despots over England, from the national political level all the way down to the personal, familial level. If there is any universal theme in JA's writing, both fiction and letters, this is it. For the hundredth time, Henry Tilney's famous rant...

‘“If I understand you rightly, you had formed a surmise of such horror as I have hardly words to — Dear Miss Morland, consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained. What have you been judging from? Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians. Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you. Does our education prepare us for such atrocities? Do our laws connive at them? Could they be perpetrated without being known, in a country like this, where social and literary intercourse is on such a footing, where every man is surrounded by a neighbourhood of voluntary spies, and where roads and newspapers lay everything open? Dearest Miss Morland, what ideas have you been admitting?”’

...was 100% ironic. JA did believe that every manner of injustice and atrocity occurred _in_ _England_ itself--and it was worst of all in the bosom of the nuclear family, the legalized tyranny of husband over wife! And what was worst of all was how that injustice and atrocity wsa normalized, indeed even praised, as The Way Things _Should_ Be.

And so when she saw women behaving badly, she recognized that they were often doing what they had to in order to level a playing field that had been unfairly tilted against them from Day One. So, I think JA had, somewhere inside, a soft spot for "Lucifer" Lucy Ferrars, because Lucy was born with zero opportunities for advancement, other than what she could create through her own native wits. Whereas JA had no soft spot whatsoever for John Dashwood or Sir Thomas Bertram. But note that JA's morality is not perverse. JA does not allow Lucy to take advantage of good people, instead she allows Lucy, like a mythological harpy, to take control over the most evil people in her world--the Ferrars family. Lucy's breathtaking _coup_ actually benefits the Dashwood women. Poetic justice if there ever was such a thing in JA's novels.

And so, with all that in the background, I believe that an intelligent, sophisticated, emotionally stunted upper class man like Henry Higgins--a man who giddily inflicted casual cruelty on women without realizing it--would have been a particularly fascinating character to her. And, in reverse, I think Higgins may very well be Shaw's modernized version of Darcy. I think Shaw "felt" JA's class and gender-based rage seething just under the light bright and sparkling surface of P&P, and gave it his own twist.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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