(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Claims that Jane Austen Was Amoral

 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.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter


Anonymous said...

I am not judging her, my comment which you have quoted was in response to someone else who talked about Jane Austen being considered a 'latter day saint' by some, I replied that it had never occured to me to consider her in that light, I don't think Jane Austen was very interested in causes, but I don't think that matters, she was a brilliant, witty writer, her purpose being to entertain. Causes had no place in her fiction, it wasn't what she was about. She wrote superb novels, that's enough for me.


Arnie Perlstein said...

Thanks for clarifying your post, Louise, I agree that she was not a saint, in the sense of being a selfless martyr who sacrificed her life for others.

However, if you browse in this blog for 15 minutes, you will see that I could not disagree with you more about Jane Austen not being very interested in causes--I think she was a passionate, dedicated, even radical feminist who strongly cared about the rights and privileges of women in her society.

Your Jane Austen is only part of the picture of this extraordinary genius who speaks so strongly to our age as well as her own.

Cheers, ARNIE

Anonymous said...

I can't say I see any evidence in her books of radical feminism. All of her heroines end up married, and delighted to be so. Matrimony is the ultimate goal of all of them, even Emma, the one who is independently wealthy. There are some bad men and some silly men in her books, but there are also bad and silly women. I think she had on the whole a cynical view of human nature, male and female.


Arnie Perlstein said...

Again, Louise, you'd have to do what you probably don't want to do, and browse a bit in this blog, to get a clearer idea of why I claim JA was a radical feminist. You are reading only the surface---an amazingly complex, infinitely interesting and brilliant surface, but still, only the surface, of these miraculous "two-story" novels.

Anonymous said...

Well, having read some of your posts, I think you are readi g a lot of stuff into her books that isn't there.

I think probably a part of the problem is that Jane Austen is perceived as a very feminine writer, and you as a man want to make her seem more butch, so that it's all right for you, a man, to enjoy her books, so you imagine all this mucky stuff about Fanny and Edward really being brother and sister, Jane Fairfax having an illegitimate baby etc, because that makes her more dirty and less feminine and refined.


Anonymous said...

Also, what on earth have Martin Luther King and Mother Theresa got to do with it? i never said anything about them. i said I thought Janr Austen wasn't a saint. Why should she be? She was a very good writer. She wrote about the people of her own class and era superbly. What more do you want? Why should she be a saint?