Today, a good (non-Janeite) friend alerted me to the publication of yet another article about Jane Austen:
“How to Misread Jane Austen (or, For Love or Money)” by Louis Menand in The New Yorker 09/28/20
(I believe this link is now openly accessible, even without a New Yorker subscription)
I just read with great interest this serious, comprehensive article, by a well-respected public intellectual, Louis Menand, a Harvard prof. He made a number of good points, in particular in his detailed analysis of the nuts and bolts of Regency Era dollars and cents (no, make that pounds). And he didn't shy away from grappling with the Big Picture, trying to bring a fresh perspective on the central mystery of Jane Austen, which is "Why she is read so differently by readers coming from varied perspectives?"
Nevertheless, every so often, Menand popped out a statement that I believe would benefit from clarification (and in a couple of cases, correction) from my admittedly non-mainstream perspective on Austen, so here goes. I quote selectively, but obviously you will want to read Menand's full article, to see the full context of his claims:
Menand: “[Jane Austen’s surviving] letters that remain are not especially “Austenian,” and they can be a little hard-hearted and judgy, which does not match very well the image of Austen in the pious biographical sketch written by her brother Henry, shortly after her death, or in the memoir by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, published more than fifty years later, which is mainly family oral remembrance, and in which she is “dear Aunt Jane.”
The problem of misrepresentation of the real Jane Austen by his nephew is far more serious. The surviving letters indeed do not match the bowdlerized portrait of Austen both literally and figuratively provided by the 1870 Memoir. This was not because her nephew wore rose-colored glasses, however, it was because, as my research has shown, her nephew deliberately distorted his Aunt Jane, both as a person and as a writer, to the world.
This was, I further assert, a deliberate erasure of the real Jane Austen, who was a strong feminist and probably not heterosexual. But it was also personal -- it was a long-delayed revenge on behalf of his late mother, Mary Lloyd Austen, who was not kindly disposed to her sister-in-law, Jane; and, when you look at veiled portraits of Mary in Jane Austen’s fiction, most notably Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, you see that the antipathy was entirely mutual.
Menand: “Instead of asking what Austen is trying to tell us [in her fiction], we might ask what she’s trying to show us. But the answer to that seems to be: It depends on who’s looking.”
That is both accurate and highly significant, and I will explain what that means to me, further, below.
Menand: “The critical line on her, even from admirers like Sir Walter Scott, was that she was a miniaturist specializing in an exceedingly narrow sector of British society, the landed gentry. Everyone agreed that she captured that world with astonishing precision; not everyone felt that it was a world worth capturing. “A carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers,” Charlotte Brontë described P&P to a friend. “I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.”
I believe it’s much more complicated, and much more interesting, than that, both as to Scott and even more so as to Charlotte Bronte:
Scott’s 1816 review of Emma shows that he actually was the first to recognize Austen’s towering genius, especially her subtle subversiveness. Check out how, e.g., in that same review, he captured, in passing, the anti-romance hidden just beneath the romantic climax of Pride and Prejudice:
Scott: " The lady [Elizabeth], on the contrary, hurt at the contempt of her connections, which the lover [Darcy] does not even attempt to suppress, and prejudiced against him on other accounts, refuses the hand which he ungraciously offers, and does not perceive that she has done a foolish thing until she accidentally visits a very handsome seat and grounds belonging to her admirer. They chance to meet exactly as her prudence had begun to subdue her prejudice; and after some essential services rendered to her family, the lover becomes encouraged to renew his addresses, and the novel ends happily."
So much for the romantic ending of Pride and Prejudice! Scott slyly suggests that the joke is actually on Elizabeth, when she unwittingly reveals her own “prudence” to the reader, as she answers her sister Jane’s question at the end of the novel:
Jane: “My dearest sister, now be serious. I want to talk very seriously. Let me know every thing that I am to know, without delay. Will you tell me how long you have loved [Darcy]?”
Eliza: “It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”
I could not agree more with Scott, and tip my hat to him for reading Austen through an Audenesque lens.
As for Charlotte Bronte, her famous comments about Austen’s fiction were not written to “a friend” – they were written to George Henry Lewes, one of the most prominent literary critics of her day, who also just happened to become, not much later, the long-time S.O. of the next great English female novelist, George Eliot.
Oh, and I assert that C. Bronte, in complaining about the lack of passion in Austen’s novels, was pulling Lewes’s pompous leg, in just the same way that Mark Twain would do with his friend and avid Janeite, William Dean Howells, a half century later – Jane Eyre is actually crammed from one end to the other with veiled allusions to each and every one of Austen’s six published novels; and Mark Twain, I assert, lurved Austen’s writing – of course he did, because she was an inspiration to him in the Art of the Put-on.
Menand: “Still, there were readers who detected an edge. Woolf was one. “I would rather not find myself in the room alone with her,” she wrote. The British critic D. W. Harding, in 1939, proposed that Austen’s books were enjoyed “by precisely the sort of people whom she disliked; she is a literary classic of the society which attitudes like hers, held widely enough, would undermine.” The title of his essay was “Regulated Hatred.” Lionel Trilling, in 1955, called Austen “an agent of the Terror,” meaning that she is merciless in forcing us to confront our moral weaknesses.”
Harding, 80 years ago, was one of the first to “get” the real Jane Austen. However, it should be noted that his brilliant insight has still not become mainstream in Austen scholarly circles, even now in 2020.
Menand: “Today, there are two Austens, with, probably, a fair amount of overlap: the recreational reader’s Austen and the English professor’s Austen… the professor thinks that the novels are about things that people like Churchill and Leslie Stephen thought they leave out: the French Revolution, slavery, the empire, patriarchy, the rights of women…”
As Menand goes on to clarify a bit later in his essay, it’s a much more complicated readerly landscape than that. There are many recreational, non-scholarly readers of Austen who “get” what Harding got, and also see that Austen was what we today would call a strong feminist; and conversely, there are still a fair number of Austen scholars who (100% wrongly, in my view) still read Austen as a pious conservative, who was not concerned with the wider world. And by they way, I am also, as I mentioned above, firmly of the small camp that sees Austen herself as non-heterosexual, and I also see that as present in every one of what I call her "shadow stories" (a central term of my way of reading Austen's fiction, as I explained in an 2016 interview which I've linked below.
Menand: “Literature professors love the notion of texts “interrogating” things; I am a literature professor, and I have certainly used that line. But, in this case, it feels like fence-straddling. It asks us to accept an Austen who is somehow simultaneously conservative as a person and subversive as a writer. Keymer says things like “The courtship plot that structures all 6 of Austen’s published novels, though sometimes held to imply her endorsement of a patriarchal status quo, is equally a means of exploring themes of female disempowerment.” It’s hard to see how the novels can be “equally” endorsements of patriarchy and criticisms of it.”
My answer is, simply, that the apparent endorsements of heterosexual white patriarchy were a necessary cover or ‘beard’ (or else Austen could never have gotten published) for her own genuine, savage, but veiled, critique of white male oppression of women and POC. Jane Austen, as I see her, was not of two minds in this regard. However, what she was perhaps most interested in, was in teaching her female readers how to read the male-dominated world they lived in.
Menand: “[Helena] Kelly’s Mr. Knightley, in short, is a heartless landowner intent on building a private fiefdom. She thinks the reason he marries Emma is that he wants to absorb her property, one of the few parcels of land around Highbury he does not already own, into his estate. Keymer would not object to this line of interpretation, presumably—“implication, not explication, was Austen’s way,” he says—but would be reluctant to conclude that it means that Austen was a revolutionary.”
Helena Kelly learned a thing or two from me, as I explained in this blog post 4 years ago:
I also believe that Austen’s primary subversive focus was eerily prescient of the culture wars raging at this very second in the U.S. – the battle for control over women’s bodies and sexuality. Her hobby horse, revealed a dozen times over in surviving letters she wrote over the entire last 20 years of her all-too-short life, was the plague which afflicted married English gentlewoman in “normal” English marriages – bearing the heavy cross of serial pregnancy, the ever-present danger of death in childbirth, and the lack of any sort of creative life for those wives lucky enough to run that gauntlet and survive physically.
That is the essence of the shadow story of Northanger Abbey that I spoke about at the 2010 Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). Hovering over that "lightest" of Austen's six novels is the ghost of Mrs. Tilney as the symbol of all the dead or deadened English wives “murdered” by their Bluebeard-like “normal” husbands via sex -- unwilling soldiers conscripted into a domestic war they never asked to fight in, fought to perpetuate male domination.
Menand: “…Isn’t it because Austen’s texts are so indeterminate that she is beloved by people who come to her with different prejudices and expectations? And isn’t her mythic stature produced by her writing, rather than projected by her readers? Isn’t inscrutability part of the intention? That we don’t know much about Austen from her letters (or from what we have of them) suggests that she didn’t want people to know much about her, period.”
I was with Menand in that passage till that last sentence. We can know a great deal from her fiction and her letters, if we are prepared to learn how to read what I call The Jane Austen Code, as I explained in this 2017 interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G9WkpqjJPR4
Anyone who enjoys solving Will Shortz’s Thursday-Saturday crossword puzzles will really love solving Jane Austen’s literary puzzles – I believe she meant them to be difficult, but not unsolvable!
Menand: “All of Austen’s novels are about misinterpretation, about people reading other people incorrectly. Catherine Morland, in NA, reads General Tilney wrong. Elizabeth Bennet reads Mr. Darcy wrong. Marianne Dashwood, in S&S, gets Willoughby wrong, and Edmund Bertram, in MP, gets Mary Crawford wrong. Emma gets everybody wrong. There might be a warning to the reader here: do not think that you are getting it right, either.”
Half-correct. I say Jane Austen’s literary game was much more complicated (and brilliant), The above only describes the essence of Austen’s overt stories. But it turns out that in her shadow stories, all of that is topsy turvy --Catherine reads the General right; Elizabeth Bennet initially reads Darcy right, but then gets conned by his imposture of a repentant narcissist; Mary Crawford is the true heroine of Mansfield Park, etc. etc. Although it never came to pass, I believe that Austen's dream was that her readers, in being able to see both of these realities in each novel, would be better equipped to deal with the ambiguity of their own lives.
Menand: “Emma, for instance, is the only mature novel Austen named for a character, and that is because the entire narrative, except for one chapter, is from Emma’s point of view.”
NO!!! That was the only truly wrong statement by Menand that initially prompted me to write this post. Although it is almost never noted by Austen scholars other than myself, all 6 of Austen’s published novels (and also her 3 fragments Catharine, or the Bower, The Watsons, and Sanditon) are written 98% from the focal heroine’s point of view. Emma is merely the one Austen novel in which Austen foregrounds that near-exclusivity of point of view – in the others, it's there, but she seems to deliberately conceal it, hoping it would eventually be detected - but that never came to pass in the 2-century history of people reading her novels.
That is the foundation upon which Austen’s entire fictional enterprise rests. The focal heroines of each novel, and not just Emma, are almost entirely the only eyes and minds through which we know their respective fictional worlds. There are therefore two completely different ways to read Austen’s famous third person narrative voice: as largely objective, and therefore largely reliable; or as largely subjective, and therefore potentially largely unreliable.
This is precisely what enabled Jane Austen to write double stories – if the reader accepts the focal heroine’s hundreds of judgments on what they see, feel, hear, etc., then we have the overt story; but if the reader makes a concerted effort to get outside that bubble, then the shadow stories – with all their pervasive subversion of the patriarchy that I have found there – become accessible.
Best example: If Darcy actually reforms and repents, then it is a truly happy romantic ending. But if he only pretends to reform and repent, and then devotes all his energy toward conning Elizabeth into believing a fake version of his character, then it’s the ultimate cautionary tale. Both fictional worlds are contained in the same words, depending on the reader’s point of view -- an omniscient narrator or a fallible young person.
Menand: “The people who read Austen for the romance and the people who read Austen for the sociology are both reading her correctly, because Austen understands courtship as an attempt to achieve the maximum point of intersection between love and money. Characters who are in the marriage game just for love, like Marianne Dashwood, in S&S, are likely to get burned. Characters in it just for the money, like Maria Bertram, in MP, are likely to be unhappy.”
And, for all my above criticisms of Menand’s statements, I am largely in accord with the above, pithy summation, and the rest of his detailed analysis of Austen’s meticulous focus on the actual income and wealth of each of the characters.
Menand’s final words: “Does this mean that [Austen] was pressing her nose against the glass imagining a life she was largely excluded from? Or does it mean that she could see with the clarity and unsentimentality of the outsider the fatuity of those people and the injustices and inequalities their comforts were built on? We can only guess.”
The latter. But we can do much more than guess, and I will let “Mrs. Pole”, one of the persons whose opinion of Mansfield Park Jane Austen collected in 1814, explain:
"There is a particular satisfaction in reading all Miss A----'s works -- they are so evidently written by a Gentlewoman --most Novellists fail & betray themselves in attempting to describe familiar scenes in high Life; some little vulgarism escapes & shews that they are not EXPERIMENTALLY ACQUAINTED with what they describe, but here it is quite different. Everything is natural, & the situations & incidents are told in a manner which clearly evinces the Writer to belong to the Society whose Manners she so ably delineates.”
[Mrs. Pole is then quoted by Austen in third person]
Mrs. Pole also said that no Books had ever occasioned so much canvassing & doubt, & that everybody was desirous to attribute them to some of their own friends, or to some person of whom they thought highly.”
But who was this “Mrs. Pole”, and why should be trust her high praise for the accuracy of Austen's portrait of those aristocrats whom Harding (rightly) said she hated? It’s a reflection of the lack of curiosity about Jane Austen’s possible connectivity to the highest levels of English intellectual society, that it was not until 2005, when I was the first Austen scholar to ever take the time to figure out who, exactly, this “Mrs. Pole” was, who wrote such a startlingly brilliant reaction to Mansfield Park.
She was born Elizabeth Colyear, the illegitimate daughter of an Earl (like a character in one of Austen’s wild juvenilia). And she then became Mrs. Pole. But, after her husband died, the world came to know her by her final married name: “Elizabeth Darwin”, the wife of Erasmus Darwin!
She was also the inspiration for Erasmus Darwin's famous erotic poem “The Botanic Garden”, which I believe was part of the subtext of Austen’s Catharine, or the Bower. And she was also the stepgrandmama of Charles Darwin, the passionate Janeite who was a great scientist of the natural world the way Jane Austen was, as Mrs Pole implied, a great scientist of the social world.
So, as I said, we don’t have to guess – we know that Jane Austen was the ultimate social critic; and, what’s even more remarkable, she found a way to share some of her insight with her readers, for them to learn about life as she saw it, by reading these novels which function as Zen koans.
Or as Elizabeth Bennet put it, in a line that never makes it into any of the Austen film adaptations, because nobody knows what the hell she means: “We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing.”
Jane Austen ultimately was all about teaching by not teaching, what was worth knowing. And we can all agree that she not only gave us the highest quality fiction reading experience, she also taught us how to live better.
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter
P.S.: I checked my old files, and saw that Menand, in The NY Review of Books in February 1996, opined that Emma Thompson’s making Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon much more sexy and appealing as romantic heroes were “improvements on Austen’s original”. Menand further wrote that the chief problem of Sense and Sensibility that Thompson solved was “the stupefying dullness of the men the Dashwood sisters eventually pair off with”.
What I hope I’ve made clear in my above post is that Jane Austen fully intended to de-romanticize Edward and the Colonel, because, in the shadow story of the novel, they are neither of them good men, not by a long shot – Marianne Dashwood was right, not Elinor!