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"Slightly Imbecile for Jane Austen"

"A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen" edited by Susannah Carson


In a piece called “Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen,” Lionel Trilling addresses the two kinds of admiration for Jane Austen. He quotes none other Henry James, who admired Miss Austen, and who indeed had a moral and artistic affinity with her. Mr. James proclaimed that her reputation had exceeded her intrinsic interest and was unwarranted. He blames: “the body of publishers, editors, illustrators, producers of magazines, which have found their ‘dear,’ our dear, everybody’s dear Jane so infinitely to their material purpose.” In the more recent past, Dr. Leavis expresses his impatience with Miss Austen’s admirers while he honors her work. The same essential notion emerges in the work of Dr. Mudrick and D.W. Harding. Mudrick describes “a mere mass of cozy family adulation, self-glorif [ication] … and nostalgic latterday enshrinements of the gentle-hearted chronicler of Regency order.”

For some part of A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen, an admirable collection edited by Susannah Carson, the issue of the “ownership” of Jane Austen – who has the right to admire her the most – rears its rather ridiculous head. The fact that there exist in parallel two main thrusts of Jane Austen love, the one where the charm of setting and sweetness of outcome rule, which I call the visceral, and the other dominated by academic research, and which deals with the more recondite, esoteric matters of exegesis and comparative aesthetics, which I will term the cerebral. For those of us who look for patterns, tricks, and subtle effects in our fiction, Jane Austen is a magnificent delight, over and over. And yet, how much less magnificent can Austen be to the devoted “lay” reader, who returns to her favorite novel, knowing that once again, the delights can be depended on? This is ridiculous, as I said. I can quote from a critic: “Long life, good health, and much prosperity to the reader who simply enjoys the narrative.” And I myself, have no qualms whatever to acknowledging a deep, visceral love for the Austen oeuvre, and it coexists quite nicely, thank you, with my delight in her subtler shadings, those lovely and beautifully-expressed barbs that skewer, and those ineffable expositions of psychology and human nature. I like “dear Jane” too.

So I guess, there you have it. True devotion to Jane Austen should be reserved (according to some) to those with the background, taste, credentials, and temperament to understand the literary merits, and shunned by the rest. Fat chance, and rightly so. I must admit to liking her work first and foremost for the ruthless candor of her observations of Regency hypocrisy and cant. At least they look and sound like hypocrisy and cant to us now. She strikes as far ahead of her times when portraying human motivation and real longing. The quality of her individuals never flags, never fails to ring exactly true, no matter the character’s state in life. Others enjoy Jane Austen – perhaps revere is a better word – for her portrayal of manners, her tight, quiet plots, her felicitous heroines, and her fulsome heroines. Why not? I like all those things, too, and admit to a good measure of reverence myself. Apparently I’m in decent company.

E.M. Forster famously opens an essay on Jane Austen, “I am a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen … She is my favorite author! I read and reread, the mouth open and the mind closed … The Jane Austenite possesses little of the brightness he so freely ascribes to his idol. Like all regular churchgoers, he scarcely notices what is being said.”

E.M. Forster was no neophyte when it comes to judging a fiction’s quality, bit I read his words impressed by his visceral, rather than his cerebral, enjoyment. Isn’t this what Henry James, and professors Mudrick and Harding object to? These issues present perhaps the high water mark to the flood tide of her reputation. Implicit within the arguments is the acknowledged truth, a “truth universally acknowledged,” that Jane Austen, that peerless portraitist and storyteller, that purveyor of gentle manners cloaking a barbed, prickly sarcasm, ranks at the very top of artists writing English narrative. Yes, right there with Shakespeare. We find we can hardly blame critics and scholars for their apparent proprietary feelings toward her. We all feel that way.

I stared out wanting to review this collection. Ms. Carson, the editor, leads the festivities off with a fine, thought-provoking essay of her own. The work carries the subtitle “33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen.” The collection does not lack for star power. Besides Forster’s need-I-say-hardly “imbecile” views, we get perception, insight, circumspection, and appreciation from Eudora Welty, Martin Amis, Kingsley Amis, Lionel Trilling (twice), W. Somerset Maugham, Anna Quindlen, Louis Auchincloss, Janet Todd, Amy Heckerling, Margot Livesey, Jay McInerney, and Virginia Woolf. Contributions from lesser-known scribes add light and weight, as well.

We do have a mix here, between the cerebral and the visceral, and perhaps nowhere is the visceral more in evidence than Martin Amis’s wish for a twenty-page extension to Pride and Prejudice to get a detailed description of the Darcys’ wedding night, “with Mr. Darcy, furthermore, acquitting himself uncommonly well.” The cerebral, however, is everywhere.  And I reserve the highest rank for Harold Bloom. 

Mr. Bloom treasures Persuasion above all, as do I. He compares Anne Elliot to Rosalind of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, saying they are the two heroines who carry almost omniscient understanding of the stories. He says of Anne and Rosalind, “Their poise cannot transcend perspectivizing completely, but Rosalind’s wit and Anne’s sensbiliy, both balanced and free of either excessive aggressivity or defensiveness, enable them to share more of their creators’ poise than we ever come to do.” Mr. Bloom goes on to cite others’ elegant points, and to make his own, about the deep understanding and unceasing and unspoken communication between Anne and Captain Wentworth. These points, and the truth, that Anne outshines Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet in understanding, sympathy, and virtue, helped clarify for me the lovely features of this masterwork, to which Mr. Bloom ascribes “extraordinary aesthetic distinction.” He avers to feeling sad after each rereading, but I must say I never felt so tinged. The joy is, I admit, more alloyed than that accompanying Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, but not at all because we value the heroine less. Appropriately enough, Mr. Bloom describes the novel as having a “canonical persuasiveness.” 

We all read Jane Austen for different reasons. Whether you value her satisfying plots, her persuasive characters, or her sparkling wit, you will find 33 new perspectives, all from artists themselves, for reading and appreciating her work all over again.

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