Saturday, 9 December 2006

Looking for Jane

Suppose you are one of those people who doesn’t know everything there is to know about Jane Austen, but would like to. When you’ve read, twice, everything she wrote, and a few of the hundreds of books about her (including Claire Tomalin’s, 2000, and Peter Knox-Shaw’s, 2004), what you need is a biographical summary short enough for you to actually remember most of it. Where should you look?

The Oxford Companion to English Literature has a perfunctory 860 words about Jane, the Encyclopædia Britannica has a rather gossipy 2,490, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, as you might expect, has a magisterial 19,660. All these require a subscription to obtain access to their online editions so there's no point in giving links to them.

But Wikipedia provides a crisp and enjoyable page. Rather oddly, it carries a tag, dated August 2006, to the effect that “To meet Wikipedia's quality standards, this article or section may require cleanup”; I have no idea what this means.

I quote from the article:
Twentieth century scholars rank her among the greatest literary geniuses of the English language, sometimes even comparing her to Shakespeare. Lionel Trilling wrote in an essay on Mansfield Park: “It was Jane Austen who first represented the specifically modern personality and the culture in which it had its being. Never before had the moral life been shown as she shows it to be, never before had it been conceived to be so complex and difficult and exhausting. Hegel speaks of the secularization of spirituality as a prime characteristic of the modern epoch, and Jane Austen is the first to tell us what this involves. She is the first novelist to represent society, the general culture, as playing a part in the moral life, generating the concepts of "sincerity" and "vulgarity" which no earlier time would have understood the meaning of, and which for us are so subtle that they defy definition, and so powerful that none can escape their sovereignty.”


Sir Walter Scott put it rather more succinctly: That young lady has a talent for describing the involvements of feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with.

Mark Twain's reaction was revulsion, the silly old fool:
Jane Austen? Why, I go so far as to say that any library is a good library that does not contain a volume by Jane Austen. Even if it contains no other book.


And Charlotte Brontë completely missed the point, saying cattily:
Anything like warmth or enthusiasm, anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works… She ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood ... What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death--this Miss Austen ignores ... Jane Austen was a complete and most sensible lady, but a very incomplete and rather insensible woman, if this is heresy--I cannot help it.


But then Charlotte and her sisters were queens of sentimental piffle. Jane was not a Romantic: passionate emotion usually carries danger in an Austen novel: the young woman who exercises twice a day is more likely to find real happiness than one who irrationally elopes with a capricious lover.

Rudyard Kipling felt differently, going so far as to write a short story "The Janeites" about a group of soldiers who were also Austen fans, as well as two poems praising "England's Jane" and providing her with posthumous true love.


This, in the National Portrait Gallery, London, has been described sniffily as “a somewhat rudimentary coloured sketch”. It is the only undisputed portrait of Jane Austen, done by her sister Cassandra.

2 comments:

Chris said...

Am I to be surprised that Miss Austen's detractors are Americans? I am not in the least surprised. We Americans are a sort of collective Mr. Darcy. We have "[sic] been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son (for many years an only child), I was spoilt by my parents, who, though good themselves (my father, particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable), allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing; to care for none beyond my own family circle; to think meanly of all the rest of the world; to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own." -Pride and Prejudice, J. Austen

It takes a rather more mature person or society to be able to look at itself clearly and while Mr. Darcy did have some success I am afraid that America has yet a long way to go.

Thanks for the refreshing dose of Austen. It comes at a time when I need reminding of what romance there is in realism.

Tony said...

Thank you, Chris, for your perceptive comment, and particularly for the quotation. As you say, Mr Darcy came good in the end.

Maybe it was only Mark Twain who was rude about Jane; I wouldn't have though many other literate Americans feel the same about her.

I don't feel qualified to contribute to either of your interesting blogs, but I shall be very happy if you have anything to add to mine from time to time.

All the best.