Jane Austen: not ‘great literature’

Jane Austen Festival

The flash of ‘to the barricades’ anger I encountered recently, when I casually remarked of Jane Austen’s (1775-1817) 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 as a narrative genre more generally, but my focus here is Austen, my prejudices about her writing, and how they clash with some popular opinion.

What I stumbled into, goes further than ‘Janeism’—a term that implies a Jane Austen fanaticism which can also be used disparagingly.  There appears to be a wider social and cultural trend towards 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 it seems to me that 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.

So, for example, 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.  Much less that Austen aficionados are those things.  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 landmark writer.

What is required is judgement.  While inferences shouldn’t be assumed as intention, unstated hints at inferences may be intended.  Judgement, particularly in public discussion, ought not to be given to petulance, no matter how many perpetual adolescents in adult bodies work to contradict that principle.

Writing as far back as 1957, American literary critic Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) 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.

Portrait in black and white of Lionel Trilling smoking a cigarette.
Lionel Trilling.

Ten pages later, in his essay on the novel Emma (1815), 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 critiquing 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’–

  1. The effect of the late Jane Austen cult, which repels me with its quasi-religious, obeisant worshipfulness.  The fact of which saw Mansfield Park (1814) forced on me at school, with the command that I never question the very premiss of the syllabus: that this is an example of ‘great literature’ against which all other writing can be measured.
  2. 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 Weltanschauung was childishly naïve and, in a contemporary context, propagandistic with a reactionary, patronizingly paternalist overtone.  Austen may not have been that simple-minded in life, but it is her fiction we are considering here.
  3. My personal 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 (1813), and was struck again by the sanctimony of her characters’ obsession with hypocritical and affected bourgeois manners and ideals.
  4. It is my contention that Austen’s work, as with that of some contemporaries and successors, sprang from enough mimicry of bourgeois naïveté and ignorance about the world to make of it in her own time an establishment propaganda narrative, and, today, no more than children’s fiction, certainly not a deterministic guide to social norms or conscience in either era, the way some of her aficionados suggest.

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 soap opera populated with pretentious, fatuous aristos, and the occasional ‘commoners’ knew their place.  A soap opera that we were told somehow deserved to be regarded as ‘great literature’ while Coronation Street was not; the latter was already a long-running soapie about working class Mancunians.  ‘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 tedious and annoying.

In the decades that followed, I came to reflect on Austen’s 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, and serving that structure’s ends.  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 rebellion in the American colonies.

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 made me think that any enlightened egalitarianism flowing from 19th century developments in Britain and the world did so only grudgingly and sparsely in an England still beset by a bewildering class divide.  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 normalizing the brutally repressive society of England in the early 19th century; that ‘great literature’ opposes change and does not criticize an existing order of things, or the establishment this order 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 sermonizing, was in fact literature for juveniles.  Aimed at weak or unformed minds.  Assuming a kind of blanket imbecility and lack of erudition that was, and remains, at the core of what we call pop culture.

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.  There was a lot of time to read and write with none of the distractions of urban habits.

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 living in brutish conditions in which sodomy, rape, and violence was rife, and not just among the convicts.

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 the lives and deaths of others.  With the remit to steal land and work it with slave labour.

I don’t argue that Austen can be blamed for crimes she did not commit, and of which she may have been entirely unaware, but her silence or ignorance about similar debasements in England makes of her work a kind of juvenilia divorced from an adult conception of the world.  Trilling’s comments notwithstanding, Austen’s fictions were untethered from idealism with integrity rather than reflecting only a presumptuous, class-based narcissism.

Wax likeness and painting of Jane Austen
A modern wax likeness of Jane Austen, and a painting, likely based on a drawing by her sister, Cassandra.

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 contemporary popular following.  (Can it be argued that required reading in schools and universities counts towards making some works popular by number of mandated sales?)

I have a simple theory: orthodox views on great literature are focused on works which do not question or threaten the status quo, because the ‘sting’ of great literature, such as it might have been in its own time, is already exhausted by history.  Great literature has the appearance of having revealed some great truth, insight, or vision.  But only by the revisionism of re-writing history to obliterate the economic, political, and social tensions of the times in which the stories are set.

There is also the matter of literary register, style, and aesthetics evident in a writer’s prose.  In that regard I don’t hesitate to agree that Austen was a capable storyteller.  But the same can be said of Barbara Cartland or Joan Collins.  No one is rushing to describe their works as great literature.

Implicit in my theory is that the truths, insights, and visions of the obliterated classes are made obscure, or disappear entirely, because they found no literary patronage, or were not published at all.  Especially before the era of mass media.  Imagine, for example, the very idea of black or Indian toffs in Austen’s milieu, the way they have been recently written into the genre.

When I apply my theory to the Austen novels 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 economic, political, or social fights.  Slavery is mentioned parenthetically, and the sadly continuing battle about church and state more directly, 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 exceptional insight might exist; 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 critique at all.  That’s just snobbery.

Worse, it suborns the toxic populist political device of artificially creating enmity based on simple disagreements that should be easily accommodated in a pluralist society.

Originally drafted in 2018, this essay was resurrected, edited, and amended in December 2021, when I again encountered Janeism.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.