Reclaiming Jane

Posted by Tory Historian Thursday, March 08, 2007 ,

Today, our readers will be intrigued to learn, is International Women’s Day. What better day there is to write about one of the greatest woman writers in the English language, one who was, moreover, according to Professor Marilyn Butler, a conservative in her outlook.

In her “Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries” Professor Butler contrasts Jane Austen with Maria Edgeworth, the latter being a representative of the Enlightenment while Miss Austen harks back to a different set of ideas. While appreciating that changes are happening in the world she describes, Jane Austen, nevertheless, glorifies the old-fashioned community of the countryside with a responsible “leader” at the head of it.

Nor does she think highly of individuals following their own instincts, ideas or understanding. Her heroines achieve happiness only when they accept the judgements of the world. Then again, as Professor Butler refers to glancingly, the world, as represented by Sir Walter Elliott and Lady Russell (well-meaning, though the latter is) or by the Bingley sisters is not precisely accurate in its own judgements.

This is the problem with Jane Austen: it is immensely difficult to fit her into any category. She is largely conservative in her social attitudes but many of her own judgements are too radical even for modern film and TV producers.

Tory Historian is a great Jane Austen fan, having read all her novels several times, most of the early pieces and fragments, a couple of biographies, critical studies (most of them inadequate) and some of the letters. Therefore, the Mills and Boonification of Jane has not been to Tory Historian’s taste.

This is rather a new development in that back in the days the BBC had Sunday tea-time serials, which were not high-profile, there had been several extremely good adaptations of the Austen novels.

Once the “Classic Serial” became a flagship programme, everything has changed. The high-profile films have not helped. Those clever, witty, extremely hard-hitting novels have been turned into romantic mush.

The final insult is the latest film, which turns Miss Austen’s own life into mush. Young(ish) Anne Hathaway, last seen being unable to sustain the supposed main part in “The Devil Wears Prada” is smirking on posters as she is “Becoming Jane”. One wonders what she was before that.

Miss Hathaway tells us that she spent a month in London, reading all Jane Austen’s letters in the British Library. This may even be true. But why is it that neither she nor the film’s director or designer have managed to notice that young ladies of the period did not wear décolleté dresses during the day or go around bare-headed, as shown above in the drawing made by Cassandra Austen of her sister.

At the same time there has been an extraordinary promotion of Miss Austen’s male characters. According to all recent dramatizations, the novels are nothing but love stories with both members of the main couple being of equal importance. Several male actors have acquired the status of a sex symbol by playing in an Austen film or TV serial.

It seems that the modern film-maker finds it impossible to grasp that those novels are about women. The men are secondary, little more than marriage objects. Even when they are of importance in the community like Mr Knightley in “Emma”, they are seen entirely from the heroine’s point of view.

The famous TV series of “Pride and Prejudice” with Jennifer Ehle as Elizabeth Bennett and Colin Firth as Mr Darcy starts with the young men riding into town (Meryton, one assumes). This places them at the centre of the subsequent plot.

Nothing could be further from the novel, which is about the Bennett family and, famously, starts with them discussing the recent arrival of Mr Bingley about whom they know very little but whom they suspect to be extremely eligible.

“Pride and Prejudice” is a clever picture of contemporary society. Unlike some Victorian novelists, Jane Austen has a clear idea of money. Mr Bennett has £2,000 a year and has been unable to increase that income or to save money for his daughters, largely because of his abdication of responsibility.

Mr Bingley has £4,000 or £5,000 a year and has not yet settled down. His sisters have an income of their own, so their father must have made quite a fortune in his business in the Midlands, something that they do not want to remember.

Mr Darcy is, of course, the representative of the old aristocracy, related to all sorts of people, the owner of a handsome estate that, unlike Mr Bennett, he pays attention to (though when exactly is hard to tell) and has £10,000 a year. This is to be viewed more like turn-over in a modern business rather than clear profit, as the money has to be used for the upkeep of Pemberley, the household, the estate as well as his lifestyle.

No-one can accuse Miss Austen of being a snob. She may not think young girls should follow their own inclination, not being capable of making the right decision, but neither is she exactly enamoured of snobbish creatures like Lady Catherine de Burgh or her toady, Mr Collins.

In the end, it is being a gentleman or one of a gentleman’s family that counts, as Elizabeth famously tells Lady Catherine. But a gentleman has to do his duties as well as enjoy privileges. Mr Bennett is a sad failure in this respect as are numerous other “gentlemen” in the novels. It is the new, rising class of naval officers who are shown to be the real gentlemen in “Persuasion”, not the vain, selfish, stupid baronet, Sir Walter Elliott.

One could go on like this and, possibly, there will be an article in the soon to be published next issue of the Conservative History Journal. At present, all Tory Historian can suggest is that all those who really love Jane Austen’s novels should unite in “reclaiming Jane” from the terrible mush that she has been consigned to recently.

5 comments

  1. fr Says:
  2. I must shamefully admit that I have not read the book but, from the films I have seen, I get the impression that Mr. Bennett's problems stem from the estate being entailed away from his family because of the lack of a male heir. That would mean he couldn't sell land to rationalize the business or mortgage to raise capital. Investing in improvements would be a waste as his daughters would not inherit. Fair play for Mr. Bennett.

     
  3. Firstly, I cannot recommend the book highly enough. It is much better than the films you have seen, fr.

    Secondly, the Bennett estate was entailed, but Jane Austen also makes a comment that Mr and Mrs B have never really bothered to economize or to improve their income in order to save and provide the girls with a better income.

    Thirdly, land is land and it should be looked after. Jane Austen makes that quite clear. Mr Bennett quite obviously, pays no attention to what goes on and spends his time in his library. One must assume that the steward or the bailiff runs the estate and, more than probably, creams off some of the income. This is an assumption, of course, but we know that he pays precious little attention to the welfare of his daughters of or of the household in general.

     
  4. John Barnes Says:
  5. I confess I find Marilyn Butler's thesis more interesting than convincing. JA is too considerable a figure to be pigeon-holed. Probably a moderate Tory at heart, but like Shakespeare too good an observer of mankind to do less than justice to any of the characters she analyses.

     
  6. Anonymous Says:
  7. The idea the Mr. B. may be deemed a failure for not busting a gut to pay for his surfeit of women, while they ditz about chasing marriage objects, seems to encapsulate the hypocrisy at the heart of Feminism.
    That women may have equal rights to men's but yet men have a "responsibility" to pay for women is absurd.
    These reason JA is my favourite female author is because unlike most other female writers her men are more than mere objects, in as much as any woman can be bothered to understand men.

     
  8. That is a very odd comment to make, Anonymous. What has feminism to do with the novel under discussion? Jane Austen is describing a world in which women could not work and could not own property themselves, once they were married. It was, undoubtedly, Mr Bennett's duty to ensure that his daughters (they didn't just happen, you know) and his wife were provided for after his death. There is no question but that Jane Austen believed that. What were the alternatives? And what exactly were those girls to do but to get married? You appear to be so eaten up with hatred of "feminism" that you see it everywhere. Your dislike of women writers appears to prevent you from understanding what the novels are about.

     
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