Like Shakespeare and Orwell, Jane Austen is a writer whose admirers all claim her for their own point of view. Janeites, as many seem to call themselves, are extremely possessive of her, complaining loudly about films and novels based on her work that are, in their opinion, all wrong. I am devoted to Jane Austen too, and have reread her novels many times to the extent that I almost think of her as a voice in my head, but I had until last week thought that I was tolerant of other readers’ claims and almost prepared to share her with them.
A few days ago I was proved wrong. January 28 is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, and some Janeites have declared it Jane Austen month. A particularly good new book, The Real Jane Austen, by Paula Byrne, was read last week on Radio 4. In response, The Guardian published an astonishing article on Wednesday headlined “Meet the real Jane Austen, the prototype Guardian gal”. Austen month, the subhead ran, “is a good time to ditch the wilful misogynist misreadings of the revolutionary novelist’s life and work”.
Austen a Guardian gal? One has to agree, of course, about ditching the wilful misogynist misreadings, but the blessed Jane a revolutionary? Claiming Austen for the Guardianistas and the revolutionary left could hardly be more absurd. How she would have laughed.
It is true that at a stretch one might call her novels rather unconventional, in that she deliberately avoided writing the gothic fiction that was so fashionable at the time. Gothic novels are extreme, exaggerated and full of shocking, improbable drama. Austen satirised them in her novels: she was determined to write, as she did, without exaggeration, wildness or improbability. There was also something unconventional in making one of her heroines, Fanny Price, unappealing. In this she might have been seen at the time as slightly avant-garde, but certainly not as revolutionary.
Austen knew a lot about revolution, perhaps more than most Englishwomen of her day. She lived through the time of French revolution (1789-99) and was closely conscious of its horrors; her much-loved older cousin Eliza Hancock was married to a Frenchman, the Comte de Feuillide, and often stayed with the Austen family, describing the terrors of Paris and her fears for her husband. He remained in France and was guillotined in 1794, when Austen was 19.
Hardly surprisingly, Austen was against revolution, and rather against the French as well. She did not mention revolution in her books at all, apart from a couple of brief references to French émigrés. “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,” she wrote in Mansfield Park.
She led a much wider life than the one described in the novels, was well informed and knew a great deal about the slave trade, and about war, poverty, scandal and lust. But she chose not to address such things in her novels, or, rather, to do so only indirectly. Whether that is a strength or not may be debatable, but it certainly makes her far from a revolutionary writer.
It is a quaint idea that Jane Austen is a Guardian gal — but it’s worth considering what might be the characteristics of GG.
Hannah Betts, the author of the Guardian article, considers the “prototype GG” to be “intelligent, assertive, humanitarian, engaged, not beyond an interest in the latest bonnet”. But that could apply to any vicar’s wife of the past 200 years, and to a great many women today who would loathe The Guardian and vote UKIP.
The real GG is surely quite different and quite distinctive. In no particular order, she is highly political, inclined to the new and experimental and usually irreligious. She is preoccupied with guilt and misery (unlike Austen) and an advocate of radical social change. She’s frank, open, outspoken, prepared to be loud and frankly a bit shouty at times. She is an enthusiastic member of the confessional culture, and inclined to celebrate vulgarity as “of the people”.
Custom, convention and ceremony have little appeal, as do the ideas of duty, discretion and self-sacrifice, and she insists on the right to follow her feelings and fight against taboos wherever possible. Nothing could be more unlike the Jane Austen of the novels. I’m not talking about the Jane Austen of real life, insofar as anyone now knows her: fascinating though that is, it’s not essential to an understanding of her novels, with her unmistakeably clear, elegant, disabused and understanding authorial voice. This Jane Austen is certainly critical of her own society, but without a radical social programme: the wretched dependence of women upon men is all too clear, as with poor Miss Bates in Emma, but no alternatives are even hinted at.
It’s true that in Persuasion the heroine comes to understand that she should have followed her own heart, but only — in truth — because the man she longed for was perfectly suitable all along. Austen makes Fanny Price question whether it is right to own slaves, but what remains is only the question. She’s not indifferent to the harshness of her society, or to the heartlessness of the rich, or their decadence at times, but there is no hint of any remedy.
What concern her most are the individual’s feelings and morals within the constraints of society as it actually is. This is partly what makes her work universal. She puts duties before rights; she values reticence, modesty, privacy, discretion and self-control; and she cherishes family values even when extremely burdensome.
Above all she values rationality, the importance of moderating feelings with reason. The best and most anguished embodiment of this conflict comes in Sense and Sensibility, with the heartbroken Marianne’s stifled scream of anguish at its centre: feeling is not always a good guide, and can often lead a person badly astray when not checked by good sense, and also by social convention.
There’s something lonely about several of Austen’s heroines: they have to negotiate their roles in society without much help or guidance, particularly as they are often constrained by discretion and good manners.
The novels are often about not saying things — so very different from our culture of confession and therapy and our indifference to privacy. Far from being revolutionary, this world-view would be considered highly reactionary by Guardianistas.
So let’s reclaim Jane Austen. Whatever she may be, she is not the prototype of Guardian gal.