Reflections on life, marriage, and a young woman who is constantly learning how much there will always be to learn!

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Sense and Sensibility

Not many of my readers may be interested in one of my old college essays:o) But I was recently thinking about my study of Jane Austen--the subject of an entire tutorial (LOVED it!) as part of my English major--and was prompted to read through some of my old papers. This one demonstrates my angst when I read critical analyses of Austen and found the critics trying to advance THEIR own ideologies by superimposing motives onto Ms. Jane.

Is it being simplistic to suggest that Jane Austen was just writing about LIFE and didn't have any feminist (or male chauvinist) or political motives up her pen?

(If you do read this, please excuse the wordiness:oP This was written before I took my "style" course and learned that wordiness is NOT a virtue.)

What was Jane Austen thinking when she sat down to write Sense and Sensibility? To what purpose did she write? From what perspective was she writing? These questions are never directly addressed by the author herself, to general satisfaction, in the remaining records that we have of her. Because of this, many authors and literary critics have attempted to answer them for us, with, unsurprisingly, numerous different conclusions.

When attempting to analyze Sense and Sensibility, many have emphasized a broad societal context. Literature critic Duckworth’s impression of Jane Austen’s time is “...a period of social change in which ‘external structures’, social hierarchies, codes of behaviour, are under threat.” (Jones, 131) He bases his literary criticisms, therefore, on the authority of knowledge of Austen’s historical time-period. This view leads many scholars to view Austen’s works in light of various issues of the time – such as women’s rights - and to consider how she might have been attempting to address these issues through her writing. Whole studies have been accomplished on this pretext, seeking to unlock the mysteries of Austen’s authorial intent, by systematically examining and measuring the societal influences that Austen must have encountered in her culture.

Raymond Williams, in his book The Country and the City, describes early nineteenth century England as “ an acquisitive, high bourgeois society at the point of its most evident interlocking with an agrarian capitalism that is itself mediated by inherited titles and by the making of family names...The social confusions and contradictions of this complicated process are then the true source of many of the problems of human conduct and valuation, which is concerned with the transmission of wealth...”. Williams then goes on to characterize Austen’s novels as critiques of the results and character of a society controlled by materialistic concerns.

Marilyn Butler notes in her book Jane Austen and the War of Ideas that “...Technically, the striking thing about her novels is that indeed that they do not mention the French Revolution and barely allude to the Napoleonic Wars.” Many other critics have also observed that Austen did not choose to address overt politically charged events in her writing. There are varying degrees of puzzlement associated with this omission.

Feminist critique places Austen’s writing in yet another context: Gilbert and Gubar write in their book The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary Imagination, “Austen’s propriety is most apparent in the overt lessons she sets out to teach in all of her mature novels...Dramatizing the necessity of female submission for female survival, Austen’s story is especially flattering to male readers because it describes the taming not just of any woman but specifically of a rebellious, imaginative girl who is amorously mastered by a sensible man. No less than the blotter held over the manuscript on her writing desk, Austen’s cover story of the necessity for silence and submission reinforces women’s subordinate position in patriarchal culture...”

While all these various literary critiques make for interesting reading, they seem to dismiss the real reasons that might have prompted Jane Austen to write a book such as Sense and Sensibility. Austen was, after all, a very young, little-known woman at the time, without the immediate prospects of making a large sum of money through her effort. She did not have the inducement to attempt to please a certain audience. Might it be accepted, then, that she would probably be inspired to write of things dear to her own heart, and relevant to her own life experience? It seems very possible that she sought to record through her stories, simply her observances of the nature of life and people moving about in her daily world, mixed with some amount of wistful idealism. It seems likely that, instead of chasing broad-based controversial societal issues (or the modern perception of what should have been urgent issues), or introducing some grandiose ideology, Austen wrote according to her very own strong sense of personal belief and conviction. The messages in her stories are based on her personal creed for her life.

Marilyn Butler states that “The crucial action of her novels is in itself expressive of the conservative side in an active war of ideas.” (Butler, pg 294). Perhaps Austen was, in a very real way, contributing to the greater societal debates by putting out ideas that would later cause controversy and, consequently, become the subject of extensive examination. However, it can be argued that her writings were meant to be understood in a relatively simple and straightforward manner. Her perceptions, though acute and even profound, are clearly presented. She offers her world-view, concerning the nature of man, and the objective standards by which he should seek to live. She illustrates these beliefs in the lives of people, though fictional, who represent the types of people with whom she was personally acquainted, or who her imagination could readily bring to life.

This is not an anti-intellectual argument, to the contrary: it is a most reasonable explanation for what might compel a young woman such as Austen to create fiction novels. Being well-read and possessing a clear, fresh writing style, Austen herself was not anti-intellectual, and not opposed to promoting ideas. She certainly comments on her culture, and is sometimes most unsubtly critical of it. But her stories were probably not crafted with the precision of a neurosurgeon to incorporate all the tenets of certain complicated ideologies that critics now attribute to her. If, in actuality, they were...she was quite an expert in every philosophical study; a genius beyond what even the literary critics have yet acknowledged.


Anonymous The Happy Feminist said...

I have enjoyed each of Jane Austen's books at one time or another. And I have long been intrigued by the fact that women bloggers of all stripes seem to love her (Amanda at Pandagon talks about Austen quite a lot, for example).

You are quite right that we should be wary of ascribing a modern political or cultural sensibility to Jane Austen. That's why modern readers of Mansfield Park find themselves saying,"What?!?"

But I think the fact that Austen is "unsubtly critical" of her culture is in itself feminist. Despite the surface light-heartedness of her books, it is always very clear that women's dependence on men in Austen's England frequently causes women's poverty or humiliation or both. Consider the ousting of Elinor, Marianne, and their mother from their own home. Consider the "old maid" characters who were suffered by their relatives but suffered constant social slights and petty humiliations from not having a home of their own. Consider the terror of having one's whole position in society dependent on whether one manages to catch the eye and the whim of a man. And if a woman makes a mistake (like getting pregnant out of wedlock or running off with the wrong man), she may be consigned to dire poverty for the rest of her life and have no means to do anything about it. Sure, things generally turn out well for Austen's heroines-- but she doesn't whitewash the undercurrent of terror (for women) underlying the courtship process.

Although there are certainly feminist elements in her books (to the extent I've described), we don't know what solutions Austen would have proposed for fixing the problems in society. So I agree we can't know to what extent Austen would or would not have approved of modern feminism, but I don't mind claiming her as a kindred spirit!

11:04 AM, April 02, 2006  
Blogger Becky Miller said...

I'll have to come back and read this after I've read S&S...I'll probably start it today. My best friend and I are reading all the way through Austen, and she said I should read S&S next. And I told her to read Persuasion next.

On Friday I linked to a quote from C.S. Lewis praising Austen! I found that delightful.

8:43 AM, April 03, 2006  
Blogger Erin said...

HF- I think most non-feminists (myself, anyway!) would agree with you that there were problems with the way Austen's society was organized, such that property could not be passed on to daughters. Those legalities weren't devestating IF a daughter was married, but were detrimental to widows and unmarried daughters. Austen herself was an unmarried daughter her entire life, so surely had some conception of the problems inherent in the legal system.

What bugged me about the analyses I read, was that most of them worked very hard to place Austen's works entirely into various idealogical contexts.

As an English major, I encountered literary critics or scholars ALL the time who were obviously motivated--not by genuinely trying to discover authorial intent--but by their own viewpoints to ascribe motives to certain writers. This is a plague within the "English world", and is not helped by college professors (particularly within the liberal arts) who like to spout revisionist theories.

If we're going to study authors and history, let's do it honestly!

12:04 PM, April 04, 2006  
Blogger Erin said...

Becky- the Lewis quote is great!

12:05 PM, April 04, 2006  
Blogger The Happy Feminist said...

I agree, Erin! I think it's a common tendency for people try to remake admired figures from the past into their own image. I am sure I assume much more feminism in Austen than is warranted.

It is amazing how much we all seem to love her no matter what our ideological orientation-- even the menfolk love her once they get over the idea that she just writes Harlequin romances.

3:05 PM, April 04, 2006  

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