I don’t have the computer skills, let alone the patience, to set up my own blogsite. So I am especially grateful to the editors of First Things for their ecumenical hospitality in opening their cyber-pages to voices other than their own during this month of August. In my first foray into this webbed conversation earlier this month , I mentioned that I’m not much of a novel reader, even in the best of times, and especially not during the dog days of August. But a pleasant spell of ten days I just spent in San Francisco visiting my family (made after California’s heat wave broke!) gave me a chance to rediscover Jane Austen, not least because she is my mother’s favorite author: For not only does the Oakesian matriarch own all six of the Austen novels in the elegant Oxford edition, but Park Honan’s marvelous biography, Jane Austen: Her Life , occupies a prominent place on her bookshelf as well¯which I gobbled up (naturally) even more avidly than I did the novels.
Honan has also published reliable biographies of Matthew Arnold and William Shakespeare , both of which come close to meriting that ever-receding ideal term “definitive.” The Shakespeare biography was especially skillful in working up a full-bodied portrait of the man from Stratford, given the (alleged) dearth of evidence that everyone keeps claiming afflicts the Shakespeare biographer; for under Honan’s ministrations the evidence proved to be more plentiful than one might initially suspect. At first glance, this skillful biographer would seem to have chosen an impossible subject in Jane Austen as well; not so much for dearth of evidence as for lack of drama. For like Immanuel Kant and Emily Dickenson, Austen’s life strikes the uninitiated reader as so, well, uneventful . She stayed at home, worked most days at her writing desk, never married, and bequeathed to us her more-than-remarkable literary legacy. What more is there to say? Actually, though, her life was quite saturated in drama; and I was surprised to discover how much sheer turbulence and intensity there was in her life: her loves, her family, and her world¯it all makes for absorbing reading.
She was one of eight children, all of whom, unusual for that time, survived into adulthood. Like their father, two of her brothers, James and Henry, were ordained in the Church of England; and two, Frank and Charles, joined the Royal Navy. Remarkably, both navy men rose to the rank of admiral, including first admiral for Frank (who had earlier served in the War of 1812¯a fact that later caused him some embarrassment when he visited the United States).
Clearly there was something remarkable about this family. But what most struck me about the Austen domestic background was not so much the high achievements of most of the siblings but the moral universe into which they were all raised. It was an outlook on the world that not only went unchallenged at home but was the presupposition of all of England in the eighteenth century, and was utterly determinative for Jane’s fiction, as Honan succinctly summarizes:
Her father was a mildly amiable and courteous guide. . . . To judge from the clerical practice of later Austens, he was less eager to denounce errors than to teach truths. She heard that religion was the basis of civil society. She absorbed a strict Christian and Stoic morality. Talents and achievements are as dust, she learned, and education is nothing if it does not lead to “self-knowledge,” since we are corruptible, easily tempted and likely to err, selfish and self-deluding, responsible for our unhappiness and destruction. Happiness depends not on egotistical feats but on being useful and doing one’s duty. Jane’s father made these views so unmistakably clear and also rational that she would read sermons with pleasure and find a very compatible teaching in Dr. Johnson.
This moral outlook influenced the children in obvious ways, but Honan points out how early came that morality’s strictly literary influence on Jane. The future novelist was very lucky in that regard because she had, early on, a venue in which to try out her fiction: When she was still in early adolescence, her brothers James and Henry (the two future clergymen) were college students at Oxford, where they founded an undergraduate periodical bearing the whimsical name of The Loiterer . As might be expected, it was mostly an organ for the brothers to sound off on topics of the day, but they also tried their hand at fiction. More crucially they invited their sister to contribute her own imaginative efforts to its pages, for which their example proved decisive, as Honan shrewdly notes:
Jane Austen found her brothers’ work useful and inspiring: James and Henry in separate, detached stories were helping to bring the comedy of manners into the era of political revolutions. They showed that evil may be related to vulgarity and behavior; and that the root of social evil lies in our insensitivity to other individuals [this is the key to the plot of Emma especially]. They avoided “big scenes” and showed that in the daily, ordinary encounter between individuals we learn what we need to act rightly. Even with his political interests, James shows that moral values depend on character¯and that not plot, setting, action, drama but character day by day is the key thing in any story. It follows, for both James and Henry as it does for their sister in her best work, that our behavior with people close by is the true field of “morality,” and that happiness and well-being in life depend on the need for self-observation or clear insight into the self. Her admiration for [her brothers’ fiction], her interest in human behavior, . . . her moral intensity and love of elegance, jokes, puns, ludicrous situations, ironic remarks and even her delight in accurate language and in the touching impossibilities of popular fiction were fed by her brothers’ Oxford journal.
The Russian Formalists of the early twentieth century rightly pointed out that her novels exclusively follow the Cinderella plot: A young woman falls in love with a man of superior social standing and has to wait for him to make the first declaration of love¯to be followed, even more excruciatingly, by the hoped-for offer of marriage. Moreover, in true Cinderella style, every novel ends happily, for the offer is both made and accepted. But that more-than-obvious fact only highlights the essential poverty of the Formalist observation. For although Austen can be legitimately claimed as the formal forerunner of the vulgar romance fiction now clogging whole sections of the world’s bookstores, her own novels far transcend the very genre she is supposed to have inaugurated¯and precisely because of the moral vision that came from her upbringing and which has now, it would seem, all but disappeared in the wake of Sitcom World.
She could manage that neat trick of transposing the Cinderella plot into six undoubted masterpieces because her chosen marriage theme gave her the perfect background for analyzing character and investing her stories with remarkable drama. How could it be otherwise, given the almost absolute necessity for a woman in Regency England to find a suitable mate and the consequences that befell her if she made a bad choice? And what with the stylized rituals of behavior that governed society at the time, how could a marriageable young woman assay gold from dross? How might she distinguish reality from appearance, or authenticity from artifice, when society ran on the machinery of artifice to begin with? Operating inside these constraints, Austen’s talents allowed her to analyze the complexity of human behavior, the subtle variations of motivation, and the difficulty of judging true character from false in a world of deceptive appearances. For an unmarried woman could easily be led into a disastrous marriage based on her poor reading of a young man’s character¯which itself would mean a ruined life for her, although rarely for him. In other words, Austen took Plato’s insight¯that politics will lead to disaster unless it can distinguish truth from its simulacrum¯and domesticated it. And is that not an artist’s chief claim on the attentions of future generations: to teach us how to distinguish the true from the deceptively true?
Nor is Austen concerned merely with the personal fulfillment of the domestic hearth, for behind almost all her plots lurks the question of property , to which a young woman’s propriety was also indissolubly linked (that fascinating etymological link between the two words property and propriety gets its ultimate elucidation in her novels). No wonder, then, that her novels have become such a field of interest for Marxist and feminist critics. OK, I grant I have read very little of this quite obvious stuff, but surely the interest of such critics cannot be wholly without foundation. In that regard, I happen to agree with Martin Amis, who said of her many fans: “Jane Austen is weirdly capable of keeping everybody busy. The moralists, the Eros-and-Agape people, the Marxists, the Freudians, the Jungians, the semioticians, the deconstructors¯all find an adventurous playground in six samey novels about middle-class provincials .”
Not to mention the feminists, whom Amis oddly left out of his list. Notice he also left out another set of moralists (unless one thinks the Marxists have a monopoly on social morality), those concerned with the social background more or less taken for granted in her novels: the class divisions of Regency England (only 1 percent of the population owned land), the Napoleonic Wars, and the slave trade. Both the war with imperial France and the slave trade are directly relevant to Austen’s moral universe, for the Royal Navy her brothers joined was complicit¯and deeply so¯in keeping France at bay and the slave trade in the New World flourishing. As it happens, brother Frank (twenty months older than Jane) strongly disapproved of slavery, even though the navy protected it until well after Jane’s death, in 1817. In fact, he explicitly linked its evils to “the conduct of land-holders or their managers in the West India Islands,” a line he penned three years before his sister wrote of Sir Thomas Bertram’s holdings in Mansfield Park .
But well beyond the vile uses to which the navy was put by the Crown in keeping the slave trade literally afloat, and well beyond its legitimate uses in defending English liberties against Napoleon’s imperial designs, life on a ship was incredibly harsh. In his letters back home, Frank reported that food on board, even for officers, consisted of little more than maggoty biscuits that tasted like jelly made from calves’ feet. Officers were hated by the seabees and could be murdered in their hammocks, and little wonder either, as Honan reports: “Twenty lashes for minor naval infringements were common: fifty exposed your bones. When three sailors were sentenced to 440, 500 and 600 lashes, mates flogged at upright corpses.”
So my desultory San Francisco reading of Jane Austen’s miniaturist masterpieces against the background of Regency England forces this question: Just what can a private moral vision accomplish? Maybe Reinhold Niebuhr is right when he says in his aptly titled book Moral Man and Immoral Society that what counts as moral in the private sphere can find no purchase in the social sphere. The nineteenth century, as everyone recognizes, became more and more aware of the social evils that make only a tangential appearance in Austen’s novels. But despite the real gains in social morality that came in the wake of the abolition of the slave trade, despite the rise in the status of women, despite the benefits that came from the enactment of child-labor laws and the establishment of the welfare state, did not the nineteenth century also bequeath to us those proposed “solutions” to social ills that led to mass starvation in Russia and China, to the utopian nightmares of communism and fascism, to wars unending, and¯in those societies that actually managed to abolish most social evils¯to a hedonism that is undermining society from within?
I don’t suppose Jane Austen could have foretold any of this, still less that her novels tell us how to resolve this tragic dilemma. But within her own chosen sphere she has become, by almost universal consent, one of mankind’s greatest moral teachers. That we have so readily forgotten her lessons must surely have something to do with why the world is now in the state it is in.
(Access contributors’ biographies by clicking here .)