The flash of ‘to the barricades’ anger I encountered recently, when I casually disparaged Jane Austen’s work as not great literature, in what I thought was not that serious a conversation, made me re-examine how I came to make my remark, and why the anger I encountered knocked me back on my cognitive haunches.
It is true that another impetus for delving into this subject is my recent preoccupation with literary critique more generally, but my focus here is Austen, my prejudices about her writing, and how they clash with orthodox views.
What I stumbled into, I think, is a partisan warfare some people feel obliged to fight on matters of personal opinion: ‘If you don’t agree with me on x, you must be attacking me personally!’ While I believe that adult conversation should never stray into that territory, I know it does. But literary critique not exempt from partisan skirmishes is not literary critique. Which is not to say that literary critique should be free of skirmishes, just that they should be based on stated contentions, not suppositions that saying one thing automatically implies a whole range of other things not said.
Saying of Jane Austen that her work contains a lot of bourgeois pretentiousness and flashes of Christofascism is not the same as calling Austen a pretentious Christofascist bourgeois drudge. Saying to someone who admires Austen that she was not as great a writer as has been proposed is not the same as saying: ‘You are wrong, and stupid for your opinions’; or that Austen was not a great writer.
What is required is mature, adult judgement. Because while inferences shouldn’t be assumed as intention, unstated things may be intended. Adult judgement is not petulant, no matter how many juveniles in adult bodies work to contradict that principle.
It transpires that such considerations are particularly pertinent to discussions of Jane Austen. Writing as far back as 1957, Lionel Trilling proposed:
The impatience with the common admiring view of Jane Austen is not hard to be sympathetic with, the more so because … it so often stimulates the self-congratulation of those who give it, and seems to carry a reproof of the sensitivity, reasonableness, and even the courtesy of those who withhold their praise. One may refuse to like any other author and incur no other blame from his admirers than that of lacking taste in this one instance. But not to like Jane Austen is to put oneself under suspicion of a general personal inadequacy and even–let us face it–of a want of breeding.
This is absurd and distasteful. And yet we cannot deal with this unusual–this extravagantly personal–response to a writer simply in the way of condemnation. No doubt every myth of a literary person obscures some part of the truth. But it may express some part of the truth as well. If Jane Austen is carried outside the proper confines of literature, if she has been admired in a fashion that some temperaments find objectionable, even repellent, and that a strict criticism must call illicit, the reason is perhaps to be found not only in the human weakness of her admirers, in their impulse to self-flattery, or in whatever other fault produces their deplorable tone. Perhaps a reason is also to be found in the work itself, in some unusual promise that it seems to make, in some unique hope that it holds out.
Ten pages later, in his essay on the novel Emma, Trilling tells us what that unusual promise and hope might be:
The impulse to believe that the world of Jane Austen really did exist leads to notable error. “Jane Austen’s England” is the thoughtless phrase which is often made to stand for the England of the years in which our author lived, although any serious history will make it sufficiently clear that the real England was not the England of her novels, except as it gave her licence to imagine the England which we call hers. This England … is an idyll. All too often it is confused with the actual England, and the error of the identification ought always to be remarked. Yet the same sense of actuality that corrects the error should not fail to recognise the force of the ideal that leads many to make the error. To represent the possibility of the control of the personal life, of becoming more acquainted with ourselves, of the community of intelligent love–this is indeed to make an extraordinary promise and to hold out a rare hope. We ought not to be shocked and repelled if some among us think there really was a time when such promises and hopes were realised. Nor ought we to be entirely surprised if, when they speak of the person who makes such promises and holds out such hopes, they represent her as not merely a novelist, if they find it natural to deal with her as a figure of legend and myth.
For me to be attacking anything at all, I must first do that in explicit terms. So here is a summary of why I do not regard Jane Austen’s novels as ‘great literature’.
First, and perhaps most pervasively, is the effect of the late Jane Austen cult, which repels me with its quasi-religious worshipfulness. The fact of which saw Mansfield Park forced on me at school, with the command that I never question its status as ‘great literature’.
Second, my own strong and early focus on political economy as the driver of all human activity–in this case the socio-economic assumptions and conditions underlying Austen’s fiction–convinced me that Austen’s fiction was childishly naïve and, in a contemporary context, propagandistic with a narrow, reactionary intention. This may or not be due to Jane Austen’s personal ignorance about the world, and naïveté; having never met her, and having not conducted a detailed study of what is known about her personally, I must be open to either possibility.
Third, my antipathy to Austen’s fiction was revived during a week in the West Australian outback during the early 1990s, when I read Pride and Prejudice, and was struck again by the sanctimony of her characters’ obsession with hypocritical and affected bourgeois manners and ideals.
Fourth, it is my contention that Austen’s work, as with that of some contemporaries and successors, sprang from enough naïveté and ignorance about the world to make it today no more than children’s fiction, and not a deterministic guide to social norms or conscience, the way some of her afficionados have suggested, and insist on evangelising.
In the 1970s, my living reality as a schoolboy in England equipped me very well to recognise the characters in Mansfield Park as insufferably ignorant, spoiled, cruel children. Or, at best, like my peers, adolescents from good families, but of diminished intellectual capacity when emulating what they thought of as ‘habits of adulthood’. I found in Mansfield Park not a single character who displayed what I thought of as maturity: independence of mind and sound judgement based on rationality rather than sentimentality.
Instead I regarded Mansfield Park as a pretentious, fatuous soap opera. One that we were told somehow deserved to be regarded as ‘great literature’ when Coronation Street was not. ‘Because the characters in Mansfield Park were toffs’, as one of my fellow students used to say. I was not, and am not now, fond of soap opera. I find it trite and annoying.
In the decades that followed this early antipathy to Austen’s writing, I came to reflect on her novels’ continuing high reputation in a slightly different light. Some people like their entertainment light, and still more think that the bucolic, unmistakably Christian wagging moral finger in Mansfield Park was equivalent to an exposition of virtue. Human worth attained by humility, charity of judgement, but knowing one’s station in a rigid class structure. There was nothing in it of the revolutionism by which the wicked godless French challenged this rigidity in her lifetime. Or of the brutality of the Napoleonic wars, whose purpose for the English was, at least in part, reassertion of the ancien régime to stave off a European legitimacy for the American rebellion.
Trilling disagrees with me on that point, citing de Tocqueville to argue that English class structures were in fact flattening in Austen’s lifetime. I was not there in the Regency era, but my own observations in the 1970s did not provide any evidence of an enlightened egalitarianism. People born into socio-economic distress rarely rose out of it. People born into privilege rarely thought of the poor as their equals.
With this still immature appreciation of British society in the 1970s, it was easy for me to jump to some conclusions about Austen, and about what her status implied about great literature: that Austen’s fiction was normalising the brutally repressive society of England in the early 19th century; that ‘great literature’ opposes change and does not criticise an existing order of things, or the establishment this serves; and that this made of Austen’s works, as well as similarly politically conservative literature, no more than propaganda.
A little later in life I reconsidered my trenchant view on propaganda to allow for the possibility that Mansfield Park, in being idealistically, myopically naïve, and artlessly sermonising, was in fact literature for juveniles. Aimed at weak or unformed minds. Assuming a kind of blanket imbecility and lack of erudition that was, even in her own time, a presumptuous assumption.
Curiously, without knowing of Trilling’s essay for many years to come, he identified how I might have come to my views, conceding that Austen seemed:
… to be speaking out against wit and spiritedness and on behalf of dullness and acquiescence, and thus to be condemning her own peculiar talents. Mansfield Park is an extraordinary novel, and only Jane Austen could have achieved its profound and curious interest, but its moral tone is antipathetic to the modern taste. I think that no essay I have ever written has met with so much resistance as the one in which I tried to say that Mansfield Park was not really a perverse and wicked book.
The second and only other Austen novel I ever read was Pride and Prejudice. It was the only book to hand during a week in the early 1990s I spent in the West Australian Kimberley, which includes spectacular but arid landscapes with heat like the desert during the day, and cold like Europe during the night.
Nothing in that novel changed my mind about the first, or Austen’s conceptions. Despite the fact that critics like Trilling, and perhaps because of him, have pointed out that Mansfield Park is atypical for Austen, and that Pride and Prejudice contains a much more light-hearted, charitably inclined philosophy.
This time I was drawn to thinking about what was happening in Australia’s vast territory at the time Pride and Prejudice was being written. Aboriginal nomadic tribes still unacquainted with Europeans pursuing a lifestyle unchanged for tens of thousands of years. Others being murdered or enslaved for resisting European incursions. The bulk of the European population being subject to brutal and repeated floggings. Sodomy and rape among the male prisoners, who comprised the bulk of the convict population, brutalising them in unimaginable ways. Unthinkable things happening to women who did not come as the wives of wealthy settlers and the officer corps. Not that these wives likely led lives of perfect harmony with their husbands.
Presiding over all of this, gentlefolk of exactly the kind Austen wrote about. Cruel little children in adult bodies, and with the authority to decide on life and death. With the remit to steal land and work it with slave labour. Golding’s kingdom of the flies.
I don’t argue that Austen can be blamed for crimes she did not commit, and may never have known about. But her innocence and ignorance are precisely that, and because of them, her work, in which these qualities constrained thought and action, belongs today to juvenilia. Not to any adult conception of the world. And, Trilling notwithstanding, not to any idealism with integrity rather than presumptuous petulance.
It isn’t essential to consider Jane Austen’s works to wonder about what makes ‘great literature’ great. But her example helps to clarify matters.
If we think of ‘great literature’, what does that imply about not great literature? Who benefits from such distinctions, and in what ways? Popular literature not considered great nonetheless reaches more readers than great literature without a popular following. And can it be argued at all, in the case of authors like Austen, that required reading in schools and universities counts towards a measuring of popularity in terms of book sales?
I have a simple theory: great literature is that which does not threaten the status quo, because its sting, such as it might have been, is already exhausted by history. Great literature has the appearance of having revealed some great truth, insight, or vision by means of historical revisionism. A re-writing, after the fact, of a history that no longer highlights the partisan nature of what were, in their times, contentious fights by opposing viewpoints on subject matter, style, aesthetics, conclusions, and permissibility. It is like history written by victors, in that great literature represents the winners.
Implicit in the theory is that the truths, insights, and visions of the losers are made obscure, or disappear entirely, because they found no patronage, or were not even published. Especially before the era of mass media.
When I apply that theory to the work by Austen I have read, what emerges is a possible reason for her fiction’s continuing popularity: nothing in her work forces its readers to think hard or seriously. Nothing in that work forces readers to confront their own prejudices or partisan positions in contemporary fights. The only exception is the sadly continuing battle about church and state, though I doubt Austen seriously contemplated the contemporary frontier, which is less about protecting religious freedom than it is about protecting freedom from religion for those who have neither.
I am willing to be persuaded that my theory is flawed. By reasoned argument to the contrary. I know many people who speak earnestly about the ‘profession’ of cultural and literary critique, and the greatness achieved by a few individuals in disseminating their superior discernment. I would not dismiss entirely the proposition that such superior discernment might exist, no matter that I see it very rarely.
Maybe that I see it rarely is my own fault for not looking hard enough. Or maybe it is because, like the admirers of Austen that Trilling spoke of, I am supposed to surrender uncritically to judgements based on unspoken argument or reason. That’s not, in my view critique at all. That’s just snobbery.