Louise Culmer wrote the following in Janeites:
"It had never actually occured to me to consider Austen as a latter day saint, and certainly not as a champion of the underdog. She was very much a woman of her class and era, and her views are those typical of both. I think it's good that she makes fun of both men and women, it wouldn't be very pleasant if she made fun of only one sex and not the other. She has little interest in servants, the only one ever to express an opinion in any of her books that I know of is Mrs Reynolds, in Pride and Prejudice. And real poverty is scarcely ever mentioned, only the relative poverty of the gentry, the 'poor' Dashwoods with their £500 a year, a sum most people in those days could only dream of. Wealth beyond imagining to the average servant or farm labourer. Her imagination is limited to the people of her own class, but she was brilliant at writing about them." END QUOTE
By the same logic, we should, e.g., judge Martin Luther King and all of the civil rights pioneers of the mid-20th century in the United States as having imagination limited to poor, discriminated-against black Americans, because, when you think about it, he must have had a massive blind spot to all the people in Africa, Asia and South America who were starving to death and/or actually enslaved during the same time period--because, relatively speaking even black Americans who lived during the mid-20th century had "wealth beyond imagining" to the average person at the bottom of the pile in the Third World---because the average black American---whose life was horrible compared to the average white
American---actually had food to eat, and shelter over his head, and was not in daily danger of dying. Everything's relative.
So unless there are some genuine Mother Teresas devoting their lives to the starving billions of our world, who take time out from their crusade to be members of this group, I suspect there is not a single person reading this message to whom the same standard of moral judgment would not apply in exactly the same way that so many readers judge Jane Austen.
Except for the one in ten thousand who actually devotes their imagination, resources, and polemical skills to defending the poorest of the poor in the entire world, we all focus on wrongdoing that affects ourselves and our peers.
To judge Jane Austen for not being an overt Mother Teresa in her writings seems absurd to me. Jane Austen, the radical feminist I have perceived, was enough of a social reformer and rabble rouser, in her own way, to set her above almost all her peers in that department in her time.
It's obvious to me from her letters that she was a compassionate person toward those less fortunate than she---but she was a pragmatist, she recognized that it was difficult enough to work toward social reform within her own milieu, without taking on the absurdly difficult task of helping the poorest of England, or the enslaved of the English colonies.
There will always be a cause more desperate than the one taken on by any
reformer, which he or she has ignored.
And in any event, when JA's novels are read with awareness that JA's central point was that point of view was decisive in perception, you realize that the servants and the very poor are invisible in her novels not because she did not care about them, but because her clueless heroines never gave a second thought to the plight of those much more unfortunate folks. That was JA's point, and that's why in particular JA has Emma making her charitable rounds in Highbury with Harriet in tow---JA is actually showing the hypocrisy of her peers who truly never gave a second thought to the those far below them in society.
JA was not Dickens, she was much subtler--there's a distinguished place for _both_ of them in the history of social reform via literature.
The causes JA took on, they're good enough for me, her morals were first rate in my book.
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