Austen – What the Critics Say (New)

Austen

Early Critical Responses to Jane Austen – Mary Waldron

 

  1. Initially reviewers treated Austen’s work, like the majority of novels of the time with a degree of contempt …so there was still a necessity for fiction to be didactic: to preach an obvious moral lesson, lest it be damned as “trivial escapism” or condemned as “moral depravity”.

 

  1. “a distinct change to the novel genre and to novelists” – Waldron – seen as serious / changer the way people think about women – vehicle – didactic (more than diversion)

 

  1. “…an agreeable lounge … from which both amusement and instruction may be derived… happily blends a great deal of good sense with the lighter matter of the piece”

 

  1. a trifling story… our fair readers” – contemporary critic – attitudes in general are changing – but was S&S a “serious endeavour”

 

  1. “…novels used for political propaganda… both radical and conservative… all attracted criticism from some commentators, often on the grounds of improbability or sensationalism.” – was A wary of being overtly political Was A ever guilty of “improbability or sensationalism”? “Austen’s first published novel… seemed by comparison rather bland and unexciting.”

 

  1. Is S&S a political novel in the mould of Caleb Williams by William Godwin? …a three-volume novel written as a call to end the abuse of power by what Godwin saw as a tyrannical government. Intended as a popularisation of the ideas presented in his 1793 treatise Political Justice Godwin uses Caleb Williams to show how legal and other institutions can and do destroy individuals, even when the people the justice system touches are innocent of any crime.

 

  1. Walter Scott – “heightening the excitement by including well-worn stereotypes… Austen contrived to rid her fiction of these” – romantic simplifications / more realistic than romantic – Marianne isn’t a cartoon – she’s a well-drawn non-stereotypical character

 

  1. “more exclusively concerned with the moral lesson to be gained” – Waldron

 

  1. “…the character of Marianne and Elinor are flattened into lifeless representatives of the opposing virtue and vice apparently inherent in the title… and towards the end comes the inevitable assurance of the moral usefulness of ‘these volumes’ to ‘our female friends’: ‘they may learn from them, if they please, many sober and salutary maxims for the conduct of life.’”

 

  • Early reviewers reduced the novel to “the level of heavily didactic stories based on popular conduct books”

 

 

  • Scott 1815 “…a new kind of novel had ‘within the last fifteen or twenty years’ been coming into fashion, ‘presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of the imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him’. But he doubted whether they had succeeded.

 

  • “…though such novelists as West, Hamilton, Edgeworth and others strove to foreground ordinary family life, they on the whole seemed unable to resist heightening the excitement by the inclusion of well-worn stereotypes. Scott perceived that Austen had contrived, exceptionally, to rid herself of these.”

 

  • “She had, [Scott] asserts ‘produced sketches of such spirit and originality, that we never miss the excitation which depends on a narrative of uncommon events… The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader.’”

 

  • …Scott finally falls back on the moral issue: ‘the youthful wanderer may return from his promenade to the ordinary business of life, without any chance of having his head turned by the recollection of the scene through which he has been wandering’ – as much as to say that the novels are harmless, but nothing much more.”

 

  • “‘The fair reader may also glean by way of some useful hints against forming romantic schemes.’ …the reviewers fall back on instruction as its most valuable object.”

 

  • Posthumous Reviews – Richard Whatley 1821: “…imaginative literature, especially narrative, is more valuable than history and biography, in that it deals with what is probable, rather than actual events, which have no general application. Readers of novels he says, are being presented ‘with a kind of artificial experience’ which is capable of affording them deep insights into human nature. Two things, however, are necessary for success; the probability of the narrative must be absolute – no coincidence or deus ex machinacan be allowed; and any moral instruction must come obliquely to the reader’s consciousness to be effective.”

 

  • “Unlike [contemporary novelists such as Hannah More and Maria Edgeworth], Austen appears to stand aside and allow readers to ‘collect’ any moral lesson for themselves, never deviating from the strict probabilities of everyday experience; nor does she set up models: “Miss Austen does not deal in fiends of angels.’…the conclusions of the novels deliberately leaves moral questions unanswered, as they so often are in real life.”

 

  • The novel must henceforth be taken seriously; Jane Austen’s devotion to the ordinary, recognisable, often chaotic doings of everyday life had shown, perhaps for the first time, how fiction could not onlyenthral without seeking to astonish, but also enlighten without the need to preach.”

 

Critical Responses 1830-1970 – Nicola Trott

 

  1. There arose a resistance to the Janeite School (“Aunt Jane”)of critics who regarded Austen as a writer of comedies of social manners… “demands that Austen be regarded, not as a social comedian, but as a morally significant author…

 

  1. F R Leavis“…no longer the exquisite watercolourist of society, but beginning to have a critical purchase on it… her intense moral preoccupation… with the problems that life compels on her… that make her a great novelist… These changes in attitude seem to be marked by a turn from Life to Work, and form woman to writer.”

 

“Impertinence, vulgarity, inferiority of parts” – Marianne’s thinking on LS – Ch22 (pp96) – A radical / conservative / regressive

 

“…deep in hardened villainy… most irremediable of evils …depravity of mind” – on Willoughby after sending a cold hearted letter to Marianne

 

“…were I rich enough I would instantly pull Combe down and build it up again in the exact plan of this cottage” – W ch14 – talking to the ladies about romantic notions of cottages – A bursts W’s romantic bombast – which is potentially dangerous

 

“man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains,” Rousseau asserts that modern states repress the physical freedom that is our birth right, and do nothing to secure the civil freedom for the sake of which we enter into civil society – Romantic – informed the French Revolution

  1. “The shift in appreciation coincided with the advent of the modern novel… a critical stance on Austen was acquired, it might be said, just as the criticism of English literature itself became an academic discipline.”

 

  1. Gilbert Ryle’s1966 “Jane Austen and the Moralists” – “attributes to the novelist a ‘moral system’. … the understanding of the fiction as fundamentally moral.”

 

  1. Alistair M Duckworth: “Austen’s ‘Burkean concern over the… continuity of the social structure’… ‘the estate as… a metonym for other inherited structures – society as a whole, a code of morality, a body of manners, a system of language.’”

 

  1. Watt 1883: “realism of presentation and realism of assessment.”

 

  1. F R Leavis– 1935: “‘the inaugurator of the greatest tradition of the English novel’, which is distinguished from its French or aesthetic equivalent by the ‘moral intensity’ with which it arbitrates between life and art.”

 

  1. Dilemmas for late 19thC / Early 20thC critics : Was Austen artistic as well as imitative? Was Austen universal as well as parochial?

 

  1. The great fault-line in 19thCentury Austen commentary was between Janeites and anti-Janeites … devotees Vs “critic-antagonists sceptics”

 

  • Virginia Woolf: “Whatever she writes is… set in its relations not to the parsonage but to the universe.”

 

  • “The contrary view, that she is the sexless spinster of the ‘parlour’ or the parishhas been taken by all Austenphobes, from Charlotte Bronte to Edward Fitzgerald to Mark Twain.”

 

  • Austen’s own famous self-representation: “painting on little bits of ivory”

 

  • “If modern criticism sees the back of the complaisant (or complacent) humourist of Victorian England, then modern criticism brings to the fore the moral and critical writer of didactic fiction.

 

  • For Simpson, ‘Criticism, humour, irony, judgement not of one that gives sentence but of the mimic who quizzes while he mocks, are her characteristics… [She] began as Shakespeare began, with being an ironical censurer of her [literary] contemporaries’; yet ‘manifested her judgement of them not by direct censure, but by the indirect method of imitating and exaggerating the faults of her models.’”

Critical Responses Recent – Rajeswari Sunder Rajan

 

  1. “…the idea of a political Austen is no longer seriously challenged, since the widespread influence of Marilyn Butler’s authoritative Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975)located her in the mainstream of intellectual ideas following the French Revolution…

 

  1. “…Where Austen stands on a number of contemporary issues – the Revolution, war, nationalism, empire, class, ‘improvement’, the clergy, town versus country, abolition, the professions, female emancipation; whether her politics were Tory, or Whig, or radical; whether she was a conservative or a revolutionary, or occupied a reformist position between these extremes: these are among the questions with which recent Austen scholarship has been deeply engrossed.”

 

  1. “In positing a tradition of ‘woman’s writing’ there is a danger of homogenising very different writings within an exclusively gendered concept. This is the case in the thesis of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s hugely influential book ‘The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979), which draws an invariant contrast between the ‘decorous surfaces’ and the ‘explosive anger’ beneath themin the works of a number of nineteenth-century woman writers in England and America, as a result of their authors need to resort to covert strategies of subversion and opposition.”

 

  1. “…the question of her feminism has become a central issue for a number of reasons, among them her historical location (her near contemporaneity to Mary Wollstonecraft is not a fact easy to overlook), the centrality of female protagonists in her fiction and the thematic preoccupation with courtship and marriage as the central predicament of women’s lives in her novels.”

 

  1. “Brown (1979) attributed to Austen a ‘feminine consciousness’which allowed her to show how ‘women find ways to develop and assert their womanhood despite the restrictions placed on them.’ In identifying a ‘domestic’ rather than an ‘heroic’ form of feminismin Austen’s novels, Brown offered a comparative historical perspective that considerably clarified this matter for subsequent feminist criticism.”

 

  1. “Kirkham (1983)… identified the parallels between Austen’s position on women’s rights and Mary Wollstonecraft’s, finding in them an identifiably ‘Enlightenment’ feminism.”

 

  1. In her book on Austen Johnson (1988) argued, first for the existence of a tradition of women’s political novels in the eighteenth-century, and, second, for the play in their work of ‘flexible’ rather than ‘partisan’ sympathies on various issuesincluding gender distinctions, aligning Austen with these positions.”

 

  1. “Johnson is also interested in the ‘act of female authorship’ and the strategies of ‘indirection’that this demanded at the time.”

 

  1. “The central thematics of heterosexual ‘love’ in Austen’s novels seemingly places them squarely within a conservative acceptance of the normative social institutions of courtship and marriage.”

 

  • “…from the very first her readers could not have failed to see that Austen’s anti-romantic, pragmatic, frequently satirical representations of romantic lovecomes from the recognition of the middle-class woman’s lack of alternatives to marriage. Her privileging of ‘good’ marriages as narrative resolution (and even as mortal imperative) is therefore explicitly edged with a critique of patriarchal social norms. Most contemporary feminist critics foreground this aspect of Austen’s critique, over the view of her as a conservative in the representation of the social orders of marriage and family.”

 

  • “Radical feminist criticism has sought to find covert but more subversive sexual politics at play in Austen’s fiction.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Feminist Revolution in Austen Studies, 1796-1990

  1. “…Austen’s novels were – on the surface at least – fairy tales that seemed to reinforce the values of the patriarchy.”
  2. …in Patricia Meyer Spacks’s ‘The Female Imagination’ (1975), an analysis of the unique ways “the life of the imagination emerges in the work of women writing prose directly as women”. Spacks claims Austen “defines in fictional terms the delicate emotional balancing point on which women must poise between commitment to others and preservation of their selves.”
  3. Unlike more radical feminists who often have little good to say about the apparent acquiescence of Austen’s heroines to their conventional roles in society, Spacks believes that for these fictional women marriage is not simply an acceptable compromise. Instead, it becomes a conscious “relinquishment or subdual of their childishness” – a way to demonstrate their maturity.” Austen’s heroines begin as real adolescents and grow to womanhood during the course of the novels. In Spacks’s view, Austen’s fiction demonstrates that “female adolescence” can be “a time of development, not of giving up”.

 

  1. Moers… ‘Literary Women’ (1796)… Austen was speaking truth to the power of the patriarchy.”

The condemnation of W – “deep in hardened villainy” – if A not arguing against the P – not trying to throw it up – she is critiquing it – W the villain of the Patriarchy – represent aspects of the P – its callousness, how easily abused it is by men, how careless of woman who are trampled beneath it – we are made to hate W – the case of W’s villainy is v strong – emotionally (empathise with M) & intellectually

 

  1. Julia Prewitt Brown – ‘Jane Austen’s Novels: Social Change and Literary Form’ (1979)… wants to turn on its head the critical tradition that seeks to patronize Austen by celebrating her technical accomplishments while dismissing the importance of her chosen subject, the experience of women’s everyday lives. Brown says Austen “gave meaning to domesticity for the first time in English fiction,” demonstrating “the cultural significance of marriage and family”.

“Misery such as mine has no pride. I care not who knows that I am wretched.” – Marianne Ch 29–after seeing W’s letters – M’s distress backed up by E – why is Austen showing us this destruction of a woman? Expose the importance of Marriage – validate real woman’s experience. Reader is genuinely moved by M, convinced by E.

 

  1. Brown (1979)… Rather than being merely highly finished comedies of manners, the novels provide “a foreground of social and moral change, conceived with an irony that ultimately reflects its tensions”.
  2. Although keenly aware of the importance of the individual’s need to operate within social boundaries, Austen did not simply accept as givens the laws, customs and social norms of her society. Rather, Brown says, Austen’s “very intent isto illustrate their functions, reveal their strengths and weaknesses, essentially explain or criticize their presence”.

Social boundaries accepted? The existence of Lucy Steele counters the “radical” aspect of S&S – why make a female character who is seeking to better her lot a negative character (a la Becky Sharp) – “illiterate, artful and selfish” –  a deeply conservative argument – the joke is ultimately on the establishment represented by E F’s conservative and cynical family

 

  1. “…ironic comedies or works of satiric realism… Brown (1979)… Austen uses these methods to reveal the importance of marriage and domestic relations for women who can be independent spirits and hold personal values that sometimes push the limits of convention or highlight the shortcomings of accepted social norms.”
  2. In Austen’s work domestic issues do not occupy “a corner of the world” (Brown 1979) but are the centre of it. She is important in women’s history because, building on the tradition of the novel indelineating “female consciousness” …until Austen – and for a time afterwards – female consciousness remained relegated to the by-ways of history, including literary history.”
  • Brown (1979)… she became the first major woman author to “reveal the influence and importance of women in her class” and “articulate the unspoken-for values of her sex”.
  • Margaret Kirkham – ‘Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction’ (1983) …develops a strong case for Austen as a conscious feminist. …argues that Austen was steeped in the tradition that produced Mary Wollstonecraft, intensely concerned with establishing the rights of women to be treated as men’s equals both socially and intellectually. …relates “Austen as literary artist and innovator to her declared position as feminist moralist and critic of fictional tradition.”
  • Kirkham (1983)… it is now possible to see Austen for what she really is… a feminist sympathizer who uses irony to launch a scathing critique of her own society for anyone capable of reading beneath the surface of her highly polished stories. And only if one understands how feminism shaped Austen’s work, Kirkham concludes, can one really appreciate it.
  • “…Austen’s novels were – on the surface at least – fairy tales that seemed to reinforce the values of the patriarchy.”
  • …in Patricia Meyer Spacks’s ‘The Female Imagination’ (1975), an analysis of the unique ways “the life of the imagination emerges in the work of women writing prose directly as women”. Spacks claims Austen “defines in fictional terms the delicate emotional balancing point on which women must poise between commitment to others and preservation of their selves.”
  • Unlike more radical feminists who often have little good to say about the apparent acquiescence of Austen’s heroines to their conventional roles in society, Spacks believes that for these fictional women marriage is not simply an acceptable compromise. Instead, it becomes a conscious “relinquishment or subdual of their childishness” – a way to demonstrate their maturity.” Austen’s heroines begin as real adolescents and grow to womanhood during the course of the novels. In Spacks’s view, Austen’s fiction demonstrates that “female adolescence” can be “a time of development, not of giving up”.
  • Moers… ‘Literary Women’ (1796)… Austen was speaking truth to the power of the patriarchy.”
  • Julia Prewitt Brown – ‘Jane Austen’s Novels: Social Change and Literary Form’ (1979)… wants to turn on its head the critical tradition that seeks to patronize Austen by celebrating her technical accomplishments while dismissing the importance of her chosen subject, the experience of women’s everyday lives. Brown says Austen “gave meaning to domesticity for the first time in English fiction,” demonstrating “the cultural significance of marriage and family”.
  • Brown (1979)… Rather than being merely highly finished comedies of manners, the novels provide “a foreground of social and moral change, conceived with an irony that ultimately reflects its tensions”.
  • Although keenly aware of the importance of the individual’s need to operate within social boundaries, Austen did not simply accept as givens the laws, customs and social norms of her society. Rather, Brown says, Austen’s “very intent isto illustrate their functions, reveal their strengths and weaknesses, essentially explain or criticize their presence”.
  1. “…ironic comedies or works of satiric realism… Brown (1979)… Austen uses these methods to reveal the importance of marriage and domestic relations for women who can be independent spirits and hold personal values that sometimes push the limits of convention or highlight the shortcomings of accepted social norms.”
  • In Austen’s work domestic issues do not occupy “a corner of the world” (Brown 1979) but are the centre of it. She is important in women’s history because, building on the tradition of the novel in delineating “female consciousness” …until Austen – and for a time afterwards – female consciousness remained relegated to the by-ways of history, including literary history.”
  • Brown (1979)… she became the first major woman author to “reveal the influence and importance of women in her class” and “articulate the unspoken-for values of her sex”.
  • Margaret Kirkham – ‘Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction’ (1983) …develops a strong case for Austen as a conscious feminist. …argues that Austen was steeped in the tradition that produced Mary Wollstonecraft, intensely concerned with establishing the rights of women to be treated as men’s equals both socially and intellectually. …relates “Austen as literary artist and innovator to her declared position as feminist moralist and critic of fictional tradition.”
  • Kirkham (1983)… it is now possible to see Austen for what she really is… a feminist sympathizer who uses irony to launch a scathing critique of her own society for anyone capable of reading beneath the surface of her highly polished stories. And only if one understands how feminism shaped Austen’s work, Kirkham concludes, can one really appreciate it.

Points of contention (A-E):

  1. the woman’s quest for freedom and the preservation of her selfhood
  2. At the heart of Austen’s fiction is the quest for freedom
  3. conscious mediator
  4. satire of the outsider
  5. continual attack upon the privileged in the voice of the oppressed.
  6. Austen intended her books to be clear reflections of the society she lived in mirrors that were neither distorting nor tinted with grey
  7. subversive time bombs so heavily disguised as to pass unrecognized by any of her contemporary re-viewers or readers
  8. Austen as a safe novelist
  9. as a conduit for the conservative ideology of her time
  10. a warrior of ideas
  11. attribute her iconoclasm to emotional instability
  12. wanted her work to be taken seriously. Hence, she had to be careful not to appear radical
  13. Austen was skeptical of conservative ideology, Johnson says, but she had to express her skepticism obliquely
  14. irony, double plotting, contrast – especially between overtly doctrinaire precepts and lived experiences
  15. the use of unempowered characters
  16. exercises in stylistic and generic self-consciousness
  17. a dark and disenchanted novel that exposes the seamy underside of the principal icons of conservative ideology, property, marriage, and family
  18. not a staunch advocate for maintaining the patriarchal hegemony that kept women subordinate and dependent

 

A

 

LeRoy Smith, one of the first men to deal with feminist issues concerning Austen, is decidedly less strident in his portrait of her in Jane Austen and the Drama of Women (1983). Rejecting both the notion that Austen was essentially conservative and the more radical view of her as a subversive, Smith looks for a way to reconcile these competing views. He is convinced that Austen is keenly aware of the problems women faced in a patriarchal society and that her protest against this treatment exists in her novels. He believes, however, that one can better appreciate her work if one sees “the woman’s quest for freedom and the preservation of her selfhood” in her novels as “an intense version of human experience in general.” “At the heart of Austen’s fiction is the quest for freedom: each man or woman’s wish to choose his or her own acts and thereby become a person.” Austen is dismayed by the restrictions she sees placed on women, and her novels explore the problems women encounter in contemporary society. But she does so, Smith insists, to provide a positive resolution to social strictures by seeing the world as a place where “the growth of sensitivity and candour points the way to mutual understanding, respect and accommodation between her male and female principles.”

 

 

B

 

In contrast to Smith’s more mediated stance, Alison Sulloway takes the notion of Austen as extremist radical about as far as anyone in Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood(1989). Somewhat curiously, this position is actually a departure from the more centrist stance she takes in her 1986 article “Jane Austen’s Mediative Voice,” in which she argues that Austen is actually a “conscious mediator” between those who simply accepted notions about women’s inherent inferiority and proponents of women’s equality and right to independence. In her book, however, Sulloway seems determined to highlight Austen’s radical qualities. Interested primarily in explicating the nature of Austen’s fiction, Sulloway posits that Austen and other women of her generation were writing a new kind of satire, essentially different from that produced by men of the Augustan age. This “satire of the outsider” displays subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) rebellion against prevailing ideas that women were by nature subservient, sinful, and not particularly bright. In this feminist and (unacknowledged) Foucaldian critique of Austen’s fiction, Sulloway stresses the novelist’s continual attack upon the privileged in the voice of the oppressed. She ranges freely among the novels to find examples of what she considers Austen’s principal theme, tracing the intellectual and cultural background of the controversy surrounding the nature and social role of women, which percolated between 1780 and 1820, to show how keenly Austen was aware of this debate and how strongly she sided with the radicals. All of Austen’s work contains “not only themes of women’s potential evolution,” but also “themes of the Wollstonecraftian revolution”. Sulloway believes Austen has hidden herself in her heroines, and that their story is both hers and that of her sisters. But she has done this with great discretion, Sulloway insists — so great, in fact, that “only now have a few readers begun to recognize the explosive qualities embedded in her fiction”.

 

C

 

Given her rather bold assertions, one might expect some discomfort with Sulloway’s argument, especially from the more moderate feminists outside America. The Australian critic Jocelyn Harris generally a supporter of feminism, suggests in her 1993 review of Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhoodthat there is much good to learn in Sulloway — but that her failure to acknowledge precisely what she borrows from some earlier feminist critics and where she disagrees leaves one wondering just how original her contribution to Austen studies really is. Perhaps the strongest rebuke came from the British scholar Deirdre Le Faye, who was generally critical of the entire feminist revision in Austen studies. In her Review of English Studies(1993) review Le Faye suggests Sulloway simpoly is not well read in Austen studies, nor a good reader of Austen. “Jane Austen intended her books to be clear reflections of the society she lived in,” Le Faye says, “mirrors that were neither distorting nor tinted with grey.” The thought that she meant them to be “subversive time bombs so heavily disguised as to pass unrecognized by any of her contemporary re-viewers or readers” is ludicrous.

 

 

 

 

D

 

Finally, one book among the dozens written during this period deserves special mention. If Marilyn Butler’s Jane Austen and the War of Ideasrepresented the conservative response to early feminist, postmodern and radical revaluations of Austen’s achievements, certainly Claudia Johnson’s Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel(1988) is the important feminist rebuttals to Butler’s argument. Johnson who would go on to earn an international reputation in feminist studies demonstrates in her first book that she possesses an independent spirit, a keen intellect, and an exceptional talent for amassing information to support a complex argument. Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel openly challenges the critical tradition that celebrates Austen as a safe novelist. Johnson directs particularly harsh remarks at the work of R. W. Chapman, whose edition she says seems to be “animated by an impulse markedly more antiquarian than scholarly”. She believes Chapman has done even worse damage to Austen’s reputation by treating her as a conduit for the conservative ideology of her timerather than granting her “her dignity” and acknowledging her as “a warrior of ideas“. But Johnson is not much happier with critics who celebrate Austen as a subversive, largely because many of them attribute her iconoclasm to emotional instability.

 

E

 

Johnson applies a historical approach to Austen’s fiction in order “reconceptualise the stylistic and thematic coherence” of her work and explain its relationship with “a largely feminist tradition of political novels”. She calls for a gendered response to Austen’s work, since gender mattered much to Austen’s contemporaries. Johnson insists Austen was a careful and professional novelist (not a dilettante or unconscious artist) who wanted her work to be taken seriously. Hence, she had to be careful not to appear radical; but at the same time she was too keen an observer of society not to be affected by the inequities she saw around her, especially when it came to women’s position in society. Austen was skeptical of conservative ideology, Johnson says, but she had to express her skepticism obliquely. To avoid charges of radicalism she employed techniques such as irony, double plotting, contrast (especially between overtly doctrinaire precepts and lived experiences), and especially the use of “unempowered characters— that is, women” as the centres of her narratives.

 

Johnson pays special attention to the relationship of Austen’s novels to political fiction written by women who were her older contemporaries, suggesting that in some ways Austen relies on these works in her narratives. Johnson’s readings of Austen’s early fiction stress that they are “exercises in stylistic and generic self-consciousness” rather than “expressions of personal belief’. Northanger Abbeyis a highly charged political text that “clarifies and reclaims” gothic conventions “in distinctly political ways”. The powerlessness of females in gothic fiction is “transferred to the daytime world of drawing room manners”. Similarly, Sense and Sensibilityis a “dark and disenchanted novel” that exposes the seamy underside of the principal icons of conservative ideology, property, marriage, and family“. Johnson admits that Pride and Prejudice is more conservative and less reformist than other works, but even in this novel Austen allows conservative principles to succeed only when the upholders of the status quo prove worthy. In fact, Johnson says, Pride and Prejudice is a “provisional experiment” with established forms of order “in order to transform them into the purveyors of ecstatic happiness”.

…Johnsons insists Austen was no radical. At a time when the structure of the family and the place of women in society were important topics in social debate, Austen adopts a middle ground: cautious in recommending change, but clearly not a staunch advocate for maintaining the patriarchal hegemony that kept women subordinate and dependent.

F – Gilbert & Gubar’s

 

Austen’s role in shaping women’s consciousness about power relationships in a patriarchal society is the subject of quite a few studies during this period. A truly influential commentary on this topic appears in Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (1979), an exploration of strategies women writers used to operate in a tradition formed and dominated by men. Gilbert and Gubar explore how Austen uses recurrent “images of boundaries and enclosures,” tropes common in the work of womenliving at different times and working in different genres. They contend these “self-imposed novelistic limitations” help Austen “define a secure place” as a writer, “even as she seemed to admit the impossibility of actually inhabiting such a small space with any degree of comfort.” But they believe Austen thought it necessary for women, whom she considered “too vulnerable in the world at large,” to “acquiesce in their own confinement”. Because she seems to be willing to subjugate herself and her gender, Austen seems safe for male readers, who see her as a supporter of traditional social norms. But Gilbert and Gubar note that women, too, are among the worst offenders in celebrating Austen’s willingness to accept this second-class position for women in society.

 

Gilbert and Gubar see Austen in a different light. “Although she has become a symbol of culture” — meaning traditional, patriarchal culture — “it is shocking how persistently Austen demonstrates her discomfort with her cultural inheritance, specifically her dissatisfaction with the tight place assigned women in patriarchy and her analysis of the economics of sexual exploitation“. Austen is “centrally concerned with the impossibility of women escaping the conventions and categories that, in every sense, belittle them“. Gilbert and Gubar notice in Austen’s early fiction “her alienation from her culture“. Further, they believe Austen was suspicious “about the effect of literary images of both sexes” and resorts to “parodic strategies to discredit such images“. But because she appears on the surface to follow patriarchal cultural norms in her fiction, her “revolt against the conventions she inherited” has gone almost unnoticed.

 

G

Along the same lines, In The Dilemma of the Talented Heroine(1978)  Susan Siefertexamines a number of nineteenth-century fictional heroines  who do not seem to fit prevailing stereotypes of the “ideal woman” — the  passive, intellectually feeble female that needs a man’s protection and guidance. Siefert is interested in exploring how these women reconcile their personal aspirations with the demands of a society that does not acknowledge or value them. She discovers that two of Austen heroines — Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse seek “an acceptable compromise between their individual aspirations and societal expectations“.

 

Judith Lowder Newton’sWomen, Power, and Subversion: Social Strategies in British Fiction, 1778—1860(1981) also examines literature that deals with ways women exert power within a patriarchal society. Focusing on the relationships between the sexes and the economic aspects of Pride and Prejudice, Newton concludes that Elizabeth Bennet is able to achieve some level of power and independence only by separating herself from the dominant values of her society.

 

Other Starting Points from Critics

 

  1. Judith Wilt’s “Jane Austen’s Men: Inside/Outside ‘The Mystery'” (1981) examines several of Austen’s male characters, particularly the Handsome Stranger who has strong appeal for women. Through these figures and others, she says, Austen attempts to capture the special angst that characterizes maleness, the drive to be somebody,and explains how Austen’s women are drawn to (or repelled by) her male figures.

 

  1. In Women Writing About Men(1986), Jane Miller explores Austen’s treatment of father figures in her novels. Noting that men play an important role in women’s fiction, Miller cautions that “the men in women’s novels are not just men, but men seen from a woman’s perspective“. Miller’s readings stress… “That dependence, which was economic, political, social, physical and emotional is spelled out in painful detail in Jane Austen’s novels… To read Jane Austen’s novels as realistic and optimistic,” Miller says, “is willfully to skate over the sense she gives of the constraints on women, the ignominies involved in any decision they make“.

 

  1. Lee Edwards’s Psyche as Hero: Female Heroism and Fictional Form(1984). Acknowledging that the concept of the hero is a male construct, Edwards is interested in showing how female heroes like Emma challenge the equation of heroism with aggressive behaviour, subvert “patriarchal structures,” and level “hierarchy’s endless ranks”.

 

  1. In another examination of the status of women in marriage, “Pride and Prejudiceand the Belief in Choice: Jane Austen’s Fantastical Vision” (1984), In the novel, Caywood says, Austen “systematically demolishes a number of socially approved stereotypes of ideal feminine behaviour and virtue” and “questions the value of traditional female accomplishments“.

 

  1. Kate Fulbrook’s Women Reading Women’s Writing(1987) –The thesis of Fulbrook’s “Jane Austen and the Comic Negative” is that what makes Austen most interesting as a woman writer is her ability to use the comic as a means of social critique. Fulbrook says Austen “turns her hostility on the complacencies of power in both its cruel and hypocritical manifestations with a cynical irony that evidences a rare understanding of the roots and ends of power“. Austen creates a world in which women and men can be equals and where love rather than economy determines happiness. This is a radical vision for Austen’s day

 

  1. Rachel Brownstein in Becoming a Heroine: Reading About Women in Novels(1982). Brownstein is interested in exploring what might be called the concept of heroineship…Brownstein explains howher heroines are ostensibly freed from stale conventions by their superior intellect or self-awareness, but at the same time constrained by the society in which they live. While Brownstein does not view Austen as a mother of the modern feminist movement, she does point to some ways in which the novelistturns on its head the notion that women are interesting only in the years when they are marriageable but not yet wed. And while Austen’s heroines find they “must separate from other women” in order to achieve self-realization and self-actualization, Brownstein notes that eventually the heroine in every Austen novel “must also learn that she is like her sisters and her mother“.

 

  1. Anthea Zeman’s Presumptuous Girls(1977), a feminist-inspired discussion of what Zeman calls the serious woman novelist – to be distinguished from the popular or romantic woman novelist. Serious women novelists, she says, “made it [their] business to depict the state of play” in the age during which they wrote. They are “not engaged in secret revolutionary work”, but instead are exploring new possibilities for women while chronicling con-  temporary limitations.

 

  1. In Sex and Subterfuge: Women Novelists to 1850(1982), Eva Figes argues that Austen’s contribution to the evolution of the novel as an art form lay in her ability to bring a degree of realism to the genre that had hitherto been lacking. Austen turned to her advantage many of the apparent limitations that novelists had experienced in portraying women as heroines. Breaking from the tradition of the passive heroine created by many of her predecessors, Austen created young women who were actively engaged in shaping their own destinies and who were in possession of a degree of common sense that earlier heroines seemed to lack.

 

  1. Although not radically feminist in her assessments, inWomen in the English Novel, 1800—1900(1984) the poet and critic Merryn Williams goes out of her way to argue that Austen was a “free spirit” who “delighted in using her mind, and she could not endure any relationship between two people who were not mentally equal“.

 

  • Jane Spencer, says in The Rise of the Woman Novelist(1986) that Austen is an inheritor of the didactic tradition. Hence, in several of her novels she is concerned with the way her heroineslearn from others to accept their proper role in society.

 

  • Mary Anne Schofield and Cecilia Macheski’s Fetter’d or Free? British Women Novelists, 1670—1815(1986), a collection of essays examining the relationship of individual women novelists to the conventions of their age. Were they bound by them, ask the editors and contributors, or were they “free to invent a female rhetoric, to express a self-hood, and to develop economic independence?

 

  • In Fetter’d or Free? British Women Novelists, 1670—1815(1986) Gary Kelly argues that, in exploring relationships between self and society, Austen shows tendencies toward reform of social conventions to accommodate individual development and expression. Although she was not a radical, Kelly says, Austen demonstrates in her fiction that the novel could serve as a political tool; in this, she “revolutionized-the potential of the novel as an instrument of ideological warfare”.

 

  • In Tradition Counter Tradition: Love and the Form of Fiction(1987), an examination of the marriage plot in English and American fiction, Joseph Allen Boone explains how Austen balances competing ideological forces, but ultimately asserts a conservative position that marriage is both inevitable and good. Although her heroines are allowed great freedom, they are always contained within an ordered society. “Austen creates the illusion of an ordered world that is contained and complete,” Boone says, “and insofar as her text reproduces this ideology, she stops short of questioning the necessity of marriage as the primary ordering desire of society itself’.

 

  • Linda Hunt suggests in A Woman’s Portion: Ideology, Culture, and the British Female Novel Tradition(1988) that Austen struggles to reconcile her commitment to psychological realism with the ideal of femininity she inherited from her culture. Hunt believes Austen found much to admire in the elevation of woman’s rational capacity; her works emphasize the possibility of women’s contributing to society rather than remaining in subservient and dependent roles. Austen’s heroines are complex creations, not stereotypes, Hunt insists; they increase readers’ interest and challenge some of the negative stereotypes about women.

 

  • Mary Poovey – The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer(1984) -Living in an age when the dominant male-directed ideology suddenly seemed open to challenge Austen chose to question patriarchal attitudes without falling into open rebellion, as Mary Wollstonecraft did. Instead, Poovey says, Austen’s posits the existence of “separate spheres’, public and private. In the private sphere women can be self-assertive and work “in the service of moral reform“. Austen recognized that traditional expectations for women, embodied in the concept of propriety, were in great need of reforming – but she did not want to destroy the existing social order completely. Hence, Poovey argues, she “turned her creative energies to the reformation of propriety in the hope of finding within its codes an acceptable form for a woman’s desires and a reinforcement for the social order she cherished“.

 

  • Nancy Armstrong in Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel(1987) …a highly charged political reading of the rise of the novel and suggests that women writers actually exerted real power in creating the idea of the middle class and its values through the medium of domestic fiction. “The rise of the novel,” Armstrong says, “hinged upon a struggle to say what made a woman desirable”, and this quality transcended class boundaries.

 

  • In Desire and Truth: Functions of Plot in Eighteenth-Century Novels(1990) Patricia Meyer Spacks …demonstrates how Austen handles power relationships in a more subtle way than any of her predecessors — with such subtlety, in fact, that many critics have been baffled about whether she intends to uphold conventional values or challenge them. “Austen consistently describes the subordination of female to male,” Spacks says, “but I am not so sure she affirms it”. Her real achievement lies in her ability to “demonstrate [the] rich fictional possibilities” inherent in the “double awareness of power and community as simultaneous if conflicting human impulses“.

 

Theorists & Traditional Critics 1976-90

 

 

 

  1. John Odmark (1981) – When one understands the context in which she wrote, it becomes clear that Austen’s ironic stance is intended not to suggest that the values of her society should be rejected; instead, irony is meant “to guide the reader, usually along with the heroine, in learning to perceive and discriminate among grades of moral quality.”
  2. George Levine (1988) – “disruptive forces” – Austen is essentially a conservative who believes that life is by its nature ordered and designed, and her heroine is a defender of the old order against the forces of disruption.”
  3. Handler & Segal (1990) – Austen was decidedly ahead of her time in recognizing the inconsistencies and inadequacies of the social construct of marriage, and that she delighted in pointing out the problems inherent in the dominant values of her society.
  4. Lillian Robertson (1979) – Austen is not quite a full-fledged revolutionary; rather she is a “restrained but exact social revolutionary, accepting a coequal hegemony of gentry and bourgeoisie and upholding the daring, fundamentally bourgeois custom that human worth is not a matter of birth butof individual merit, of culture.” Embodied in … “the central contradiction in Jane Austen’s work is the tension between the ideal of marriage for love and the social reality of gentry life.”
  5. Marxist critic David Aers (1981) – Austen reveals herself as a Tory ideologue who “closes up her imagination against critical alternatives”. As a consequence… her works “fail to transcend the narrow limitations of her historical class.”
  6. Igor Webb (1981) – Austen’s novels are a defence of “the idea of the landed system” and traditional concepts of family and marriage which were being threatened by upheavals in society caused by the Industrial Revolution. …Austen operates (perhaps unwittingly on occasion) to support the oppressive political and social system of which she was a part.
  7. Mary Evans (1987) – paints Austen as a radical who insists that individual behaviours can shape the social order, and that capitalism, while exceedingly tempting, need not be the only means of organizing society… Austen realizes before Marx or Freud that “people construct the world” – whether for good or for ill.
  8. Edward Ahearn (1989) – points out the condition of women in that society, noting how Austen – a radical despite the surface conservatism that seems to emerge from a casual reading of her fiction – accurately and sensitively describes the plight of her heroines in a society where women were seen as little more than a form of property that might increase the estates of their husbands.
  9. John Halperin (1984) – the caustic, frustrated spinster: sees Austen as a girl from a family whose means were not quite sufficient to provide her the financial security and social prospects she felt she deserved. Unable to find a suitable marriage partner, she decided to vent her spleen by exposing the foibles and injustices of the social order that left her unmarried all her life… “her wit, her irony, her cold-blooded judgement, her irreverence, her occasional malice”… a “confirmed parodist and cynic”… both “serious and angry” …and “one does not become less cynical with the passage of time.”
  10. Park Honan (1987) – despite Austen’s own profession that she was content to work on a small canvas and concentrate on people in isolated country villages, larger social and political events helped shape her fiction in ways most critics have not noticed. …He argues that events such as the American and French revolutions are integrated into the fibre of Austen’s texts, and the Napoleonic Wars form a backdrop for a number of the novels. In most cases, Austen’s ostensibly simple love stories are actually political tracts aimed at promoting social and cultural values in an age of serious unrest… Sense and Sensibility is simultaneously Austen’s first real foray into “the small scope genteel women have in society” and an inquiry into “the nature of love itself”… the novels “remind us of society’s economic basis.”
  11. Warren Roberts (1979) – What is fascinating about Austen is that while she chose “not to discuss directly the events that so disturbed her world” she “incorporated many of her responses to those events in her writing” introducing in her novels “a tension that reflects and indeed is part of the history of her time”… He finds that whilst Austen is generally positive towards social change, on some issues she could be decidedly negative – and one such issue is feminism, which Roberts says was associated in her mind with extreme radicalism.
  12. Jan Fergus (1983) – Austen “manipulates her reader’s responses to didactic and moral ends”… the didactic impulseis present in the later fiction as well, where “Austen’s desire to educate the judgement and sympathy of readers” is carried out in “increasingly more sophisticated and effective methods for realizing her intentions.”
  13. P G M Scott (1982) – “It is quite easy to make out an image of Austen’s work as a repository of dark insights and bitter feelings lapped under the clever handing of a comic surface. And quite false.” But neither is she genial. “With her we have a keenly critical intelligence which is also more than just critical – censorious and frustrated.” …one of the few artists who “have looked at reality, at life as it actually is and people as they are, undistorted, unromanticised.” Few writers possess Austen’s “degree of moral realism” or her ability to “turn a light so searching into the human heart.”
  14. Alistair MacIntrye (1981) – describes Austen as a classic moralist, celebrating her for promoting virtue in her fiction
  15. Marilyn Butler (1975) – Although Austen gives her heroines “character and rationality” her plots “rebuke individualistic female initiative” and “imply that the consummation of a woman’s life lies in marriage to a commanding man” …Austen’s novels all promote traditional values, although “she is as critical of the current practice of her class as she is admiring of the ethical theory that sustains it.” Because her satire of the gentry of her day is at times quite sharp, it is sometimes “tempting” to “see in her a critic of the old system, and perhaps in modern terminology a progressive.” Butler cautions that “this would be to get her emphasis quite wrong.”
  16. Anne Mellor (1990) – Mellor claims many women intellectuals, Austen among them, responded negatively to the tenets of Romanticism, especially the “celebration of the creative process and of passionate feelings”. Influenced by ideas from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Austen was more prone to value women of sense rather than feeling. If Austen had any tendencies towards Romanticism… it is because she “celebrated the education of the rational woman, and an ethic of care” not the more egocentric, sentimental romanticism promoted by male Romantics.