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
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
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.
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