Reading Jane Austen: Part One



No less a writer than Sir Walter Scott (in his unsigned review of Emma in the March 1816 edition of The Quarterly Review) was the first serious (and major contemporary) critic to consider Jane Austen’s work. He was strongly supportive of her as a leading proponent of a new social realism in the novel of the time:

a style of novel has arisen … the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a concrete and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him

A generation later another influential critic (G H Lewes, born exactly three months after Jane Austen died and described in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as ‘biographer, literary critic, dramatist, novelist, philosopher, actor, scientist, and editor, remembered chiefly for his decades-long liaison with the novelist Mary AnnEvans’) followed in  Scott’s footsteps when he wrote in his article The Lady Novelists, (published in Westminster Review in 1852):

(Jane Austen is) the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end … To read one of her books is like an actual experience of life.

But not everyone was so impressed. In a letter to Lewes in 1848 (in response to his comments about Jane Eyre, where he recommended that she should read Jane Austen to help her become less melodramatic a writer) Charlotte Brontë dismissed Pride and Prejudice as offering only:

An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers – but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy – no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.

and in 1850 Emma should be read

with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought suitable – anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant.

In 1861 Ralph Waldo Emerson famously wrote in his Journal for August-September that

I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world.  Never was life so pinched & narrow.  The one problem in the mind of the writer in both the stories I have read, “Persuasion”, and “Pride & Prejudice”, is marriageableness; all that interests any character introduced is still this one, has he or she money to marry with, & conditions conforming? ‘Tis “the nympholepsy of a fond despair”, say rather, of an English boarding-house.  Suicide is more respectable.

In 1883 Henry James (in a letter to George Pellow) took his turn, seemingly dismissing her heroines, saying that they had

small and second-rate minds and were perfect little she-Philistines

though he tempered the bluntness a little by going on to say that

that is partly what makes them interesting today

In her 1947 collection The Moment and Other Essays Virginia Woolf (in Personalities) imagined what it might be like to be in a room with Jane Austen

a sense of meaning withheld, a smile at something unseen, an atmosphere of perfect control and courtesy mixed with something finely satirical, which, were it not directed against things in general rather than against individuals, would, so I feel, make it alarming to find her at home.

Four years later (and almost exactly one hundred years after Charlotte Brontë skewered Emma) Arnold Kettle focused on the same novel in his 1951 An Introduction to the English Novel. In a chapter often remembered more for his remarks on what he termed the limitations of ‘the class basis of Jane Austen’s standards’ and the argument that her ‘acceptance of class society weakens or limits her moral perspicacity’ Kettle was far more nuanced and positive, pointing out (and also incidentally echoing Scott’s comments) that

The intensity of Jane Austen’s novels is inseparable from their concreteness, and this intensity must be stressed because it is so different from the charming and cosy qualities with which these novels are often associated … On the contrary our faculties are aroused, we are called upon to participate in life with an awareness, a fineness of feeling, and a moral concern more intense than most of us normally bring to our everyday experiences … And because Jane Austen is the least theoretical of novelists, the least interested in Life as opposed to living, her ability to involve us intensely in her scene and people is absolutely inseparable from her moral concern. The moral is never spread on top; it is bound up always in the quality of feeling evoked.

(The description of Austen as ‘the least theoretical of novelists’ might well be read as an allusion to Henry James, of course, and his 1884 The Art of Fiction and other analyses of his own novels, which offer clear and persuasive insights on nineteenth century attitudes to such elements as viewpoint, narrative voice, and character – all of which, of course, are fundamental elements in Austen’s work.)

A year after Kettle’s comments first appeared Marvin Mudrick chose to write an essay on the same novel – Irony as Form: Emma (1952) – which had impact and influence on academic criticism, especially in his observation that

The myth of Jane Austen’s simplicity persists; and its corollary, that in her work the unexplicit is an error of tone; for surface must tell all.

James’ negative description of her heroines was also echoed some hundred years later in a footnote to Vladimir Nabokov’s comments on Mansfield Park (in the 1980 publication of his Lectures on Literature):

No doubt can exist that there is in Jane Austen a slight streak of the philistine. This philistinism is obvious in her preoccupation with incomes and in her rational approach to romance and nature. Only when the philistinism is grotesque, as in Mrs Norris and her penny-pinching, does Miss Austen really feel it and apply it in her artistic sarcasm.

In 1996 Emma Tennant commented on her novel Emma in Love: Jane Austen’s Emma Continued that she was not ‘taking liberties’ with Austen’s text because

Emma is known as the lesbian book in Jane Austen’s oeuvre. It has strong lesbian overtones and undertones.

thus aligning herself not only with Emerson’s apparent awareness of a hidden erotic charge – his ‘nympholepsy’ – but also the modern Queer Theory approach to Austen’s work.

And in 2013 Thomas Rodham (in his essay Reading Jane Austen as a Moral Philosopher published in Philosophy Now – Issue 94) offered a post-modern description of Austen’s work, as

… delicious romantic comedies about middle-class girls looking for good husbands among the landed gentry of Regency England.

It seems, then, that reading Jane Austen is a complex business even for other writers. Sometimes different contemporary situations and personal circumstance or experience clearly influence judgement, while at the same time there is also a clear continuity of (generally) approbation across the centuries. So how do we as readers negotiate this apparent chasm between different opinions while trying to come to some understanding and recognition of her achievement for ourselves?


If we put the current sexual fixation or emphasis to one side for a moment the arguments quoted tend to revolve around the question of how far we can view her books as essentially lightweight and hampered by a narrow materialism or how far we should acknowledge the new achievement of scrupulously observed manners and mores that establish her writing as profoundly serious and moral. It seems as if it is impossible to accept that the narrow materialism that certainly exists might be an expression of the social realism she explores but apparently does not condemn – or not condemn enough, being too comfortable in her own relatively privileged but impoverished situation.

There is another complication, illustrated by Rodham’s description of her work quoted above, which has to do with how far such things as education impact interpretation. Rodham’s vocabulary strongly suggests an alignment with Emerson’s scornful assessment that Austen’s narrative focus is essentially lightweight, concerning as it does the pursuit of marriage rather than, say, the politics of slavery – which was becoming an important issue in her time. Categorising her work as ‘delicious romantic comedies’ immediately suggests also that the narrative style also, while attractive and enjoyable, is similarly somewhat lightweight. There is almost a hidden presumption that such a style cannot encompass more serious or ‘heavier’ issues in the manner of such texts, say, as Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations . Rodham graduated as an academic philosopher, which clearly influences the focus of his reading – he inevitably foregrounds those elements of moral philosophy which can be found in her writing, arguing that:

(Yet) success for Austen’s characters depends on their developing a moral character


 … her characters are moral rather than psychological constructs. Austen’s purpose is not to explore their inner lives, but to expose particular moral pathologies

Further, the careful ambiguity of his chosen title plays with the notion that Austen might be seen as not so much a novelist but as a writer who creates plots and characters with the express purpose of using them to introduce and explore issues of moral philosophy. That is, Austen as a Regency precursor to Iris Murdoch, who was herself an important academic philosopher. Some readers might think this a little fanciful at the same time as they raise an eyebrow at the statement that Austen’s purpose is not to explore the inner lives of Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price or Anne Elliot to name but a few.

That said, Rodham raises an important question:

What’s so special about her novels that we are still reading them today?

Nabokov unintentionally offers one possible answer in his comments on Mansfield Park. Discussing the three sisters who became respectively Lady Bertram, Mrs Norris and Mrs Price, he notes that their shared maiden name was Ward – and that ‘the ward’ was a popular figure in many novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some written by luminaries such as Dickens, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. It also precisely and symbolically describes Fanny’s situation, making her fulfil the destiny of the family name. As Nabokov goes on to say

The prototype of these quiet maidens, whose bashful beauty finishes by shining in full through the veils of humility and self-effacement – shining in full when the logic of virtue triumphs over the chances of life – the prototype of these quiet maidens is, of course, Cinderella. Dependent, helpless, friendless, neglected, forgotten – and then marrying the hero.

This could almost stand as a general description of all six Austen novels, of course, which seem to fall naturally into the realm of wish-fulfilment fairy tales dressed as apparently genteel social comedies. Nabokov reinforces this argument by reminding his audience that

Mansfield Park never existed, and its people never lived

and calling it

a fairy tale, but then all novels are, in a sense, fairy tales

It is certainly possible to interpret Austen’s work in this way. She clearly chose to use the tropes of commonly known fairy tales (especially, as Nabokov suggests, Cinderella) to embed her heroines in such situations as marginalised family status and/or active hostility alongside other variations of parental neglect which are counteracted by their courage, steadfast moral principle or genuine contrition and moral growth. All of which lead to various forms of the rags-to-riches happy-ever-after ending of transformative fulfilled marriage. These fairy tale elements are, however, equally embedded in sharply observed characterisation, acerbic wit and careful social realism built around the depiction of the disparate and disproportionate economic power relationships between the classes (and between men and women) in Georgian and Regency England – that philistine materialist obsession which some readers find difficult.

So it is important to realise that, much as she uses familiar fairy tale structures at the core of her narratives, she does not write fairy tales per se (even if there is a sense of exaggerated good fortune where her heroines are concerned – though other characters do not fare so well across her work). At their core fairy tales are essentially archetypal stories with minimal characterisation and blunt actions. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who founded the discipline of analytic psychology, builds on Nabokov’s statement that novels are fairy tales by framing the latter as part of what he termed the collective unconscious from which they emerge as images and themes with universal meanings across cultures, and operate powerfully in dreams, literature, art, and religion. Because of this Jung would not be at all surprised, perhaps, that people still read Austen’s novels today.

W H Auden directly addressed their relevance to literature in a series of four T S Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent in Canterbury in 1967 (published the following year under the title Secondary Worlds, from J R R Tolkien’s 1939 essay On Fairy Stories), arguing that

Every normal human being is interested in two kinds of worlds: the Primary, everyday world which he knows through his senses, and a Secondary world or worlds which he not only can create in his imagination, but also cannot stop himself creating … Stories about the Primary world may be called Feigned Histories; stories about a Secondary world myths or fairy tales.

The consonance with Scott’s comments in 1816 is striking. Scott’s suggestion that Austen’s social realism moves the novel as form out of the purely imagined and into the actual world helps clarify the movement away from the excesses of the contemporary so-called ‘Gothic’ novelists which she so enjoyed twitting in Northanger Abbey – but which were nonetheless very much part of young Catherine’s mindset. And, of course, the imagined horrors of the Abbey which provide so much amusement at Catherine’s expense are replaced by the actual horror of General Tilney’s monstrous behaviour when he discovers that Catherine is not the wealthy young heiress he had thought.

Is it possible, then, to see her writing as comprising a mix of both these primary and secondary worlds, where that element of imagination which Auden equates with myths or fairy tales is tempered by the social realities she depicts with that sharp satirical eye that alarmed Virginia Woolf? Does this use of reassuring fairy tale elements recognised from childhood and accommodated within a critique of manners and mores therefore help underpin that critique in unchallenging (because vaguely familiar and attractive) forever relevant ways?

Marina Warner can, perhaps, support this approach from a slightly different direction. Warner has produced some of the most insightful and persuasive suggestions regarding what fairy tales are and how they work. If we look at just some of her conclusions (as in her 2018 non-fiction monograph Fairy Tale: A Very Short Introduction) we find that

Considered children’s literature for a dominant period of their history, fairy tales have gained a new stature, as inspiration both for literature and for mass, lucrative entertainment. Thematic and structural similarities continue to attach contemporary fictions to popular and ancient legends and myths. Fairy tales are one of their dominant expressions, connective tissue between a mythological past and the present realities.

And a little later she comments

It is now implicit in the term ‘fairy tale’ that the story told is not credible, that it does not command serious allegiance or faith. Fairy tales in this way face two ways: towards a past realm of belief on one side and towards a sceptical present on the other.

Put another way, then, fairy tale elements produce a narrative energy and deep-rooted emotional appeal for the reader, who becomes intensely involved in the recital of events and interactions that befall the characters – particularly the heroines – and lead to a satisfactory and fulfilling resolution. Although Austen’s stories offer a wide variety of heroines in different circumstances that testify to her powers of characterisation and plot it is relatively easy to argue that, nonetheless, her novels essentially offer much the same central story: describing how the heroine succeeds in finding and marrying an appropriate and worthy husband after negotiating a series of obstacles that threaten her happiness. Indeed, all her novels eventually reach that satisfactory happy ending which recalls more joyous fairy tales (we prefer to forget those that result in death, dismemberment, and cannibalism). Her repeated central story offers the comforting idea that some sort of natural justice prevails in the world, that the virtuous are rewarded and the sinful punished or discomfited. This might almost be a definition of what Warner calls the past realm of belief, operating within the connective tissue of a sceptical present. For some readers, as we have already seen, this can be a weakness that compromises the credibility of the outcome and overemphasises what we might term the materialistic imperative underpinning the relationships she describes and her perceived imbalance of power in her society.

As already suggested, this apparent philistinism (to borrow James’s vocabulary once more) might well be a product of acute social observation rather than an innate or class defect in the author. Austen was living at a time when the modern world we inhabit and take for granted was beginning to take shape in all kinds of ways, and the impact of the new industrial processes on everyday ‘normal’ life not only expressed itself through new social and economic structures and attitudes but also questioned the new emerging relationship between the individual and the world that was being created – and not least in its sense of instability as well as potential. Even clothed in the brightness of romantic comedy her work has a consistent awareness of fragility and the possibility of sudden darkness.


As already suggested, this fragility and threat of darker notes centres around two interrelated areas: the apparently satirical but deeply serious depiction of the questionable deficiencies of status, rank, and class inequalities; and the economic and social weakness of women.

Consider the consistency of presentation – despite their individual differences of behaviour and character flaws – of such characters as the inordinately mercenary General Tilney in Northanger Abbey; the amiable but stupid Sir John Middleton in Sense and Sensibility; the condescending arrogance of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice; the rather cold and complacent blindness of Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park; at a lower social level, the selfish hypochondria of Mrs Churchill in Emma; and the gross narcissism of Sir Walter Elliot coupled with a vast snobbery towards people he views as social inferiors and fawning anxiety towards those valued as socially superior, however vapid they may be (Lady Dalrymple, for example) in Persuasion.

As for the economic and social weakness of women, note another consistency of presentation of dysfunctional families and the failures of upbringing. Parental indifference or neglect (as highlighted in Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion, say) stand alongside the vast selfishness and indifference of male wealth, as in the appalling Mr John Dashwood (and his wife) in Sense and Sensibility, described in the opening chapter as

…not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed … Had he married a more amiable woman … he might even have been made amiable himself … But Mrs John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself; – more narrow-minded and selfish

And who in the next chapter persuade themselves that his father’s dying and urgent entreaty that the interest of his mother-in-law and sisters be protected after his death could and should be essentially ignored because

‘Your father thought only of them. And I must say this: that you owe no particular gratitude to him, nor attention to his wishes, for we very well know that if he could, he would have left almost everything in the world to them.’

(Note the skilful use of ‘them’ here rather than using names or acknowledging relationships. This moves beyond satire into anger. Austen’s control and use of language to dehumanise the women is remarkably prescient in its similarity to the current manipulations of the advertising and public relations industries in all their commercial and political guises)

The very next (and final) paragraph of the chapter reveals the outcome of this self-persuasion that reneges on his promise and much reduces the circumstances of his relatives, complicating their lives and greatly increasing their anxiety

This argument was irresistible. It gave to his intentions whatever of decision was wanting before; and he finally resolved, that it would be absolutely unnecessary, if not highly indecorous, to do more for the widow and children of his father, than such kind of neighbourly acts as his own wife pointed out.

But Mr and Mrs John Dashwood are not alone in this moral carelessness, however much they stand out among Austen’s negative characters. In their different ways we witness equally negligent characters damaged by wealth in other works, such as Frank Churchill in Emma, Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, or William Walter Elliot in Persuasion.

As we have seen, hostile critics tend to attack Austen for her concentration on the importance of marriage, especially marriage to men wealthy enough to lift her heroines out of the degradation of impoverished spinsterhood. The fact that almost every novel ends with such a marriage  (and sometimes of seemingly inordinate and not quite realistic good fortune, as in Elizabeth Bennet’s ability to override all the sensible hesitations that Darcy had in allying himself with a relatively impoverished young woman instead of seeking to increase his family wealth, power, and social influence by marrying into the aristocracy, say) feeds directly into the sense of fairy tale. But in the event it is not quite so simple and straightforward as this.

For example, in Pride and Prejudice Austen chooses to present the natural concern regarding the future of unmarried daughters through the somewhat grotesque lens of Mrs Bennet, with her melodramatic collapses and socially inappropriate and outrageous comments. The wonderfully acerbic and pithy humour of the opening sentence

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife

which simultaneously establishes the comedy and the storyline of what is to follow is almost immediately undercut by the portrait of what that might entail. Mrs Bennet is not the only target for Austen’s criticism – the final paragraph of the opening chapter makes it clear that neither parent is to be viewed with approval

Mr Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.

This picture of marriage hardly promotes the fairy tale importance of getting daughters married. Indeed, the tone suggests that Mrs Bennet’s ‘business of her life’ is as inconsequential as she is. And this sense of marriage as not being as wonderful and fulfilling as a fairy tale might suggest is reinforced by the truly grotesque Mr Collins and the picture of what married life is for Charlotte Lucas after she accepts him. Annoying as she is, Mrs Bennet is correct to be worried.

But even if the novels are accepted as essentially romantic comedies, the dangers of being unmarried and not wealthy are not presented as comic – Miss Bates and her niece Jane Fairfax in Emma are used with great seriousness. When Emma makes fun of Miss Bates’ garrulity at Box Hill she is quickly reprimanded by Mr Knightley, who does not mince his words

‘How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation? – Emma, I had not thought it possible.’

and a moment later hammers home his point in an impassioned and lengthy explanation of why Emma’s attempts to play down her actions are not tenable or excusable

‘Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation – but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! – You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her – and before her niece, too – and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her. – This is not pleasant to you, Emma – and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will, – I will tell you truths while I can …’

Within the structure of relationships and delineation and development of character in the novel this is an important moment; but the choice of vocabulary and expression here is so overwhelmingly powerful that it moves beyond Mr Knightley as mentor and arbiter of good taste to create a vivid picture of the prevailing wider social condition. Indeed, such is the force of his speech that the reader is arguably carried outside the fictional confines of the novel and into a more extended view of how society functions. It is a good example of the fact that, though every novel has an emotional story at its core, a more thoughtful and developed examination of the actual world beyond the fictional world of the story is conducted through conscious authorial decisions that extend beyond the events, interactions, and characters of the central story. Characters are not themselves interested in anything more than navigating as best they can through their own (fictional) lives and do not see themselves as representative or emblematic of any wider themes that the author may be concerned with.

An earlier conversation between Jane Fairfax and the egregious Augusta Elton reinforces this difference between story and novel. In Chapter Thirty-Five Jane outlines her plans for leaving Highbury and looking for employment

‘When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something – Offices for the sale – not quite of human flesh – but of human intellect.’

This reference to slavery (Augusta self-defensively protests that ‘Mr Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition’) is not accidental. It allows Austen the opportunity to remind her audience of the weakness and relative powerlessness of even educated and gifted women – for Jane is superior to Emma in every way except money.

‘I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,’ replied Jane; ‘governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.’

Within the novel the mention of offices and governess-trade forms part of the background social realism, part of the tools that create Auden’s Feigned Histories or Warner’s present realities and convince the reader of the concrete foundation of the story while introducing issues that shape the novel. In wider terms it seems to capture Austen’s sense of the beginning of the new entrepreneurial capitalism where the world is rapidly becoming organised in a systemic way. Despite the growth of that sense of the importance of the individual (reflected in Austen’s fiction by the way that her heroines refuse to accept as husbands those men whom they cannot love) the capitalist system essentially crushes any meaningful autonomy for those individuals who are not independently wealthy – so that Jane has to know how the system works whereas Emma never has to interact with it.

And just as with Mr Knightley’s excoriating condemnation of Emma’s behaviour towards Miss Bates, Austen’s choice of vocabulary here – especially the use of guilt and misery – suggests a significance beyond the novel. While the words certainly show Jane’s despair and frustration within the story the weight of condemnation they carry overspills to include all who have to live within this structured market. In that sense, Jane does become emblematic in much the same way that Emma’s careless gibe that so embarrasses Miss Bates is emblematic of the treatment of poorer people in Georgian society and the wider world outside the novel. Interestingly, perhaps, there is no sense in the novel of Austen’s trademark criticism of inadequate parenting or hostile family with regard to Jane, which suggests that the focus of Austen’s concern here is something other – given the context of the novel, something to do with the inequities of wealth.

So what, then, might be troubling Austen about her contemporary society that she does not, cannot, or chooses not to state explicitly?

If this interpretation of Jane Fairfax’s comments as directed towards the systemic nature of the newly emerging capitalist system she has to work within is accurate, then it offers clues as to what Austen is addressing. It has to be something deeply established in the social structure as created by the triangulation (and within the matrix) of religion, politics, and the law. It has to be something so familiar to her contemporary readers that she does not feel the need to be explicit – because it is a fact of everyday experience immediately recognisable from the characters and events of the story which underpin the novel. So what might it be that exists in the shadows of Austen’s preferred tone of romantic comedy – rather than, say, the later comedic polemic of Dickens – and yet nonetheless exerts such pressure?

The following passage from the 1769 edition of Sir William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England might offer an explanation:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs every thing; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. Upon this principle, of a union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities, that either of them acquire by the marriage. I speak not at present of the rights of property, but of such as are merely personal. For this reason, a man cannot grant any thing to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: and therefore it is also generally true, that all compacts made between husband and wife, when single, are voided by the intermarriage.

In other words, marriage – though it might offer a protection against impoverished spinsterhood – also potentially threatens the legal extinction of the wife. As Blackstone says, once married the wife’s identity is subsumed in a union of person and if the husband grant(ed) any thing to his wife this would be to suppose her separate existence – and in terms of the law he would be merely granting or covenanting with himself. In practical terms this doctrine of coverture meant that a married woman could not own property, sign legal documents or enter into a contract, obtain an education against her husband’s wishes, or keep a salary for herself. If a wife was permitted to work, under the laws of coverture she was required to relinquish her wages to her husband. In certain cases, a wife did not have individual legal liability for her misdeeds since it was legally assumed that she was acting under the orders of her husband, and generally a husband and a wife were not allowed to testify either for or against each other.

Seen against this background it is clear that Austen’s heroines must exercise great caution in their choice of husband if they are to act responsibly in their own interestsbecause if anything untoward were to happen– as with the situation Mrs Smith in Persuasion finds herself in after her husband dies, where she cannot recover any of his estate in her own right – then the consequences could be dire. It is, perhaps, a little ironic that those who complain of Austen’s philistine materialism are men whose legal power at the time – and for most of the following century – far outweighed those of the woman they criticised. Coverture existed until it was modified by the Married Women’s Property Acts of 1870 and 1882.


Lest Austen be further criticised for not being more transparent or polemical about this state of affairs – that despite her ‘new’ realism she did not produce a truly ‘social novel’, unlike Charles Dickens some twenty years later (who lambasted coverture in Mr Bumble’s famous comment in Oliver Twist that ‘the law is a ass – a idiot’) – it is worth considering how influential a writer she was at the time and well before the later academic appreciation of her achievement.

Although today she is something of a cult figure, with her work translated into over thirty languages, her books were not that successful with her contemporary audience, who (presumably) did not react favourably to such things as the qualities of independence, humour and acerbic wit of her heroines and herself. Certainly, her family were at great pains to control the public perception of her work (for example, her sister Cassandra destroyed many of the still extant letters) by developing – especially in  her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1869 biography A Memoir of Jane Austen – an assiduous family portrayal of her as a kindly spinster aunt who just happened to turn out a few books now and then as she lived a perfect reclusive life of Anglican piety. And the books she did produce were obviously ‘safe’ genteel comedies and not at all controversial, challenging, or subversive – a view which remains popular among some (perhaps many) readers today.

Because she has become increasingly commodified (she sells so well – at least twenty million copies of Pride and Prejudice alone have been sold) until her image now appears on British currency and her novels are forever being re-imagined as television series or major films, it is all too easy to assume that it was always the case. But it has been estimated that she earned only some £600 from her writing before she died – a little less than £20000 in today’s terms. Emma, which many people feel to be her best novel, only sold a quarter of the original print run; and even Pride and Prejudice was remaindered only a few years after her death.

Despite the fact that A Memoir of Jane Austen is, to modern eyes, more what in journalism would be termed a puff piece rather than a true biography, its value rests in the other fact that after its publication Austen’s work found a new audience. As B.C. Southam points out in his introduction to the 1987 collection of essays published under the title Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, 1870–1940. Vol.2, Austen’s popularity increased dramatically and led in 1883 to Routledge’s sixpenny series of her work – and began the development of that very favourable reception that continues today.

Of course, other important factors were also at play. Although Austen wrote at a time of increasing literacy (some estimates opine that literacy rates for women in England essentially doubled over the course of the eighteenth century) and at a period when circulating libraries and book clubs were increasingly popular, reading novels for entertainment – especially among the middle classes – was generally frowned upon. The novel as literary form had been gradually evolving since the early eighteenth century. Some of the best known exponents contemporary with Austen were women: such as Maria Edgeworth (who Austen praised in Northanger Abbey) and born only some seven years before Austen herself; Ann Radcliffe, the author of The Mysteries of Udolpho was born in 1764; and Fanny Burney, born in 1752, (called by Virginia Woolf ‘the mother of English fiction and famous as the author of Evelina among other works).

Indeed, some two thirds of novels at this period were written by women. And because the novel was a new kind of literature, difficult to estimate as to its value and status when set against older forms (especially poetry – for alongside the women novelists the so-called ‘Big Six’ of the so-called ‘Romantic’ era were all poets: Blake, Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth) it was regarded with suspicion. Amanda Gilroy and Wil Verhoeven in their 2001 The Romantic-Era Novel: A Special Issue: Introduction sum up the situation thus:

there was a pervasive sense that the novel was a debased form, mad, bad, and dangerous, particularly for impressionable female readers

And a little later they add:

again and again, critics see novels as polluting, staining, poisoning, or deforming the individual and the nation

So the Austen family efforts to defuse her novels of controversy can be seen in part as a successful public relations campaign. These negative views of the new literary form reflected the tenor of the times; England saw itself as under threat, battling the real danger of revolution as evidenced by events in America and France, and all too aware of the power of words. For in many ways this political turmoil was intimately bound up with and fuelled by the growth of newspapers and the upsurge in pamphlets – Bernard Bailyn in his 1965 book Pamphlets of the American Revolution estimated that there were some 400 pamphlets produced up through 1776 and some 1500-1600 pamphlets published by 1783. This is in addition to the more famous works by Thomas Paine, John Adams, and the other Founding Fathers. Equally, the French Revolution in some part was prepared for by Rousseau’s 1762 On the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Law – and some thirty years later the French Revolution itself stirred political argument in Britain, especially the famous debate between Thomas Paine’s 1792 Rights of Man and Edmund Burke’s 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Another perspective is offered by realising that Austen’s birth in 1775 was bracketed by two significant publications (Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774 and Adam Smith’s seminal economic text An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations in 1776) that in their different ways started the engine of the shift in sensibility and social practice and organisation noted earlier. Although Goethe later distanced himself from his novel (which ends with the suicide of Werther as the only way he sees to end a love triangle in which he has become embroiled) the cultural impact was Europe-wide, leading not only to a rash of copycat suicides but also to ‘Werther Fever’, where readers dressed in similar clothing to that of the hero as described in the novel and also boosted sales of prints, Meissen porcelain and perfume. It would not be too exaggerated to view this as the first stirrings of modern commercialism and the monetizing of popular taste.

Smith’s magnum opus essentially sought to argue that the hitherto prevailing economic notion of physiocracy (which argued that the wealth of nations was derived from the value of ‘land agriculture’ or ‘land development’) was no longer suitable for the emerging industrialisation of society. It had immediate impact and influence. It is argued that it helped shape government policy as quickly as 1777, when in the first budget after it was published Lord North proposed two new taxes (on manservants and on property sold at auction). And the budget of 1778 also followed Smith’s suggestions by introducing the inhabited house duty and the malt tax. The ideas dominated discussion for decades thereafter continuing through to today. In general terms, Smith’s economic theories meshed with the burgeoning new technical developments in agriculture and manufacturing to accelerate the growth of capitalist thinking about how to organise the production and distribution of goods, sparking not only the notion of ‘the factory’ (shades of Jane Fairfax) but also the transformation of the transport infrastructure to move the goods to market. Alongside these developments was the mass demographic shift from the countryside to the new industrial towns and cities – and all the social consequences that entailed.

Jane Austen plied her trade in turbulent times.

Another important factor in promoting her work after her death was the steady increase in academic appreciation of her as a significant writer through the growth of the study of English language and literature in the English universities (Scotland had long had a tradition of lectures on literature – stretching back to the 1760s). Although University College London had appointed Thomas Dale as professor of English language and literature in 1828, just a decade after Austen’s death, the role did not take on observable similarities with modern departments until much later. But the important point here is that courses demand material and careers demand closely-argued theses – and as already outlined, Austen was justly recognised as a significant writer at a seminal moment in the development of the novel form.

As suggested earlier, today she is one of those rare artists who span the whole range of what marketing men call ‘the target audience’, from the arcane heights of so-called ‘high culture’ (a term introduced by Matthew Arnold in his 1869 book Culture and Anarchy, where he defined it as “the disinterested endeavour after man’s perfection” pursued, obtained, and achieved by effortto“know the best that has been said and thought in the world”) to ‘popular’ or ‘mass culture’, generally defined as  the entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, images, and other phenomena that are within the mainstream of society. One of its expressions with regard to Austen is the emergence of increasingly popular and populated conventions where her readers can enjoy dressing up as characters from her six novels and other writings to talk with great authority on the minutiae of those texts, such as how many maidservants Isabella Knightley brought with her when she visited her family home at Hartfield.

Modern reworkings of her novels blur the distinction between these two essentially class-based perspectives. Does a television adaptation of one of her novels that uses academic research in order to be as authentic to the period about which she wrote (in technical aspects such as costume, manners, diction, spatial relationships between characters, and so on) classify as ‘high’ culture when, because of the audience figures it will undoubtedly attract, some would place it firmly in ‘popular’ culture? Current cultural theories might dispute the validity of the terms themselves or refuse to recognise any distinction between them; and some would explore the political dimension, following Gramsci’s Marxist concept of cultural hegemony whereby societies differentiate and preserve themselves ideologically through such things as access to or the quality of education offered to different social blocs; the political dimension whereby popular culture can be seen as an arena where subordinate social groups essentially fight against or resist the processes (or ‘incorporation’) that support the dominant elites. This might in part help explain Charlotte Brontë’s antipathy to Austen, who, irrespective of her straitened family circumstances for much of her life, was certainly a part of the second-rank dominant elite, the landed gentry of Georgian England.

If her family might have resisted introducing the notion of politics into her work as a stretch too far then how do we explain such passages as this from Chapter Five of Persuasion:

The Musgroves, like their houses, were in a state of alteration, perhaps of improvement. The father and mother were in the old English style, and the young people in the new. Mr and Mrs Musgrove were a very good sort of people; friendly and hospitable, not much educated, and not at all elegant. Their children had more modern minds and manners. There was a numerous family; but the only two grown up, excepting Charles, were Henrietta and Louisa, young ladies of nineteen and twenty, who had brought from a school at Exeter all the usual stock of accomplishments, and were now, like thousands of other young ladies, living to be fashionable, happy, and merry. Their dress had every advantage, their faces were rather pretty, their spirits extremely good, their manners unembarrassed and pleasant; they were of consequence at home, and favourites abroad.

Although this apparent authorial voice is mediated through Anne Elliot’s perspective (who, we are told immediately after this description, ‘would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments’) it is difficult to recall any passage in the earlier novels that approaches this measured tone of general approval of a set of characters or a statement that moves in this explicit way from the personal to the social, from the family and the houses they inhabit to the wider society which, it is implied, is also ‘in a state of alteration, perhaps of improvement.’

Despite the family resistance to admitting any controversial elements in her writing, perhaps we should recall that Austen chose, after all, to produce that writing in the new literary form of the novel, the very name of which emphasises change. And it is certainly the case that within her short lifetime the world was indeed changing. A random sample of some of the innovations across different fields of endeavour might include, in addition to Adam Smith’s 1776 seminal economic text, such entries as: the Watt steam engine started production that same year; Abraham Darby opened the first bridge made of cast iron in 1781; Andrew Meikle invented the threshing machine in 1786; in 1798 Edward Jenner created the first smallpox vaccine; Humphry Davy invented the first incandescent light by passing a current from a battery through a thin strip of platinum in 1802, followed by the first practical arc light in 1806 and the famous Davy safety lamp in 1815; two years later the world’s first locomotive-hauled railway journey was made; percussion ignition (the foundation of modern firearms) was invented by Alexander Forsyth in 1807; Robert Salmon patented the first haymaking machine in 1814; and so on.

Among another far from exhaustive list of random significant artists who were near-contemporaries we find such luminaries as: the painters Constable and Turner; the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge (and several if not all of the other major British poets of the time); the musicians Mozart and Beethoven (and one could add Haydn and Schubert) and the almost exact contemporaries Niccolò Paganini and the ineffable John Field; the German dramatists Goethe and Schiller; the philosophers Hegel and Bentham; and many others.

So Austen really was writing at a time when what we would recognise as the beginnings of so much of the modern world that we now take for granted was being created. She is often accused (perhaps a little unfairly) of ignoring the major events of the day in her work, but even so we should acknowledge that the core of her writing – as with all writers – reflects elements of her life experience transmuted into literature. All writers cannibalise aspects of their lives when creating their work and choose what and how to include them. It seems a little harsh to complain that they do not provide us with what we would prefer or expect, especially when it is equally true that all readers also bring elements of their life experience and beliefs to the act of reading  – and that this does not necessarily invalidate their insights, however much it might complicate them.

Which certainly applies to those criticisms aimed at Austen’s work by Charlotte Brontë quoted at the beginning of these comments and where important insights nonetheless impact on her overall assessment. They were actually made in correspondence with G H Lewes (as already noted) concerning his review of Jane Eyre. He suggested Brontë might profit by writing less melodramatically – ironic, given his own propensity for melodrama – and that she read Jane Austen. Set against this context, Brontë’s comments present as the impassioned visceral view of a remarkable but affronted personality rather than as a measured critical judgment based on considered analysis of the novels. They remain significant, however, as a marker of the different worlds the two writers inhabited. In one sense they could even be interpreted as a new approach to literary criticism, based on the fact that each of them was embedded in her own particular social and geographical situation and writing about different characters behaving in different ways in different landscapes.

As social comment rather than literary criticism the judgment is almost certainly something Austen would agree with – beneath the comedy of Pride and Prejudice is a very clear-sighted depiction of the various social and financial constraints on women. One thinks immediately of Charlotte Collins’ use of her garden as a means of surviving the rigours of marriage (itself a survival strategy) to her very silly and immensely self-satisfied husband.

The fact that Brontë couched her comments in topographical terms is fascinating, highlighting the fundamental differences in life experience between the two writers in both physical environment and social structure. As the Hampshire County Integrated Character Assessment (Draft March 2010 R4) points out in its comments on the evolution of the Hampshire landscape, one of the major influences was the growth of large privately-owned farming estates – and the fact that increasingly through Austen’s time the land was largely enclosed:

The effect was the emergence of a new landscape of hedged and usually rectilinear fields, creating formal landscapes from common land. It is in this period that landscape types such as regular wavy fields and parliamentary type enclosures were established.

This indeed explains the lack of open country in Austen’s novel – it did not exist. Compare this with the Brontë Society’s description of Haworth as presented on their web page:

The Pennine village where the Brontë sisters grew up was then a crowded industrial town, polluted, smelly and wretchedly unhygienic. Although perched on the edge of open country, high up on the edge of Haworth Moor, the death rate was as high as anything in London or Bradford, with 41 per cent of children failing even to reach their sixth birthday. The average age of death was just 24.

No wonder Charlotte Brontë so valued the idea of the ‘open country, fresh air, blue hill and bonny beck’ for this was what surrounded and relieved the grim reality of Haworth.

In terms of social structure – ‘ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses’ – the emphasis on topography enables us to see how the physical environment inevitably shaped the way people built their houses and lived their lives in Haworth and Hampshire. Once seen from this perspective it is clear that the negativity of Brontë’s remarks adhere more to this physical aspect of Jane Austen’s experience of the world around her than to notions of an inability to engage with it in the Romantic mode, with all its ideas of the importance of the relationship with the wild and spiritual forces of Nature and the primacy of the individual and his/her emotions and imagination. That Austen could write in that mode is seen in aspects of the character and behaviour of Elizabeth Bennet and her role in the novel. In her own way, as we read in Chapter Seven, she shares some of that instinct that wants to escape the shackles of conformity and the built environment which surrounds her both physically and mentally and to be her own person. She thinks nothing of walking three miles to see her sister:

…and Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise

This Elizabeth, one feels, would not be out of place striding across the moors or climbing Penistone Hill.

Austen, then, chooses to endow Elizabeth with exactly the kind of energy and drive that would meet with approval in Brontë’s work – and when later in the novel (in Chapter Thirty-Six) Darcy hands her his letter of necessary background explanation and revelation while Elizabeth undertakes her daily exercise we discover as she reads it that she has been away (both physically and mentally) for some time:

After wandering along the lane for two hours, giving way to every variety of thought–re-considering events, determining probabilities, and reconciling herself, as well as she could, to a change so sudden and so important, fatigue, and a recollection of her long absence, made her at length return home; and she
entered the house with the wish of appearing cheerful as usual, and the resolution of repressing such reflections as must make her unfit for conversation.

In one way or another all of Jane Austen’s novels address this problem of balancing the need for self-reflection with the social exigencies of interacting with others even when not wanting to do so, of finding a way to communicate beyond conversation, of trying to see clearly through the petty obfuscations of etiquette that so cloud perception and behaviour. In one way or another all her heroines are in large part on the fringes of this social accommodation, and even perhaps alienated from it. Charlotte Brontë is not the only one who should hardly like to live among surface elegance masking greed, malice, self-obsession – most of Austen’s heroines would agree with her; but it is as if Brontë is unable to recognise this beneath the comic frame of Austen’s work because in one way or another (another example of Austen’s clear-sightedness – or cowardice) at the end of the novels the heroines essentially conform with the social expectations of the other characters.

Indeed, one might well suspect that Brontë was unable to recognise that there is such a comic frame. Her fiction shows that, for her, life is a passionate, serious, and often grim affair. It was certainly the case later in her personal life when, in 1848, within the space of some eight months, all three of her siblings died from tuberculosis: Branwell in September, Emily in December and Anne in May 1849. It is no wonder that, as with all of us, Charlotte Brontë’s reaction to, opinion of and understanding of texts is coloured by other factors than characterisation, plot structure and language. Which brings us to another possible approach when considering how to find our way among the different interpretations of Austen’s novels.

On to Reading Jane Austen 2
© Mike Liddell 2019