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What Matters in Jane Austen?

19 June 2012

From the Guardian:

Jane Austen’s novels pose a challenge for criticism. Something in the texture of her writing – its conversational ease, high spirits, bourgeois-domestic subject matter – confounds the heavy machinery of the academic critical apparatus. (Confounds it, but needless to say doesn’t deter it.) Isn’t it possible to do justice to the importance of the novels without trampling all over the reader’s fresh pleasures and burying the point of the reading along with its innocence? On the other hand, a respectable critic doesn’t want to end up sounding like the “Janeites” who warble so wonderfully through Claudia Johnson’s history of Austen cults, gushing about her “indefinable charm” and “bright sunny nature”, and her life that “passed calmly and smoothly, resembling some translucent stream which meanders through our English meadows”.

Here are two readable, gossipy, involving books about Austen that more or less manage to square this critical circle (and any reader of Austen knows that gossip is no inferior indulgence, but the essence of narrative). Both critics refrain from offering new interpretations of the novels. [John] Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen? is a kind of concordance of their contents, broken up into chapters with headings such as “Do We Ever See the Lower Classes?” and “How Much Money Is Enough?”

. . . .

Johnson’s book, Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures . . . is an exercise in literary sociology, trying to pin down the meaning of a national and international obsession. Why does a cult attach precisely to the least cultish, most pragmatic of English writers?

Austen published anonymously (as “A Lady”); in her own lifetime she had no public life as a writer among writers. She had a generous critic-champion in Walter Scott, but if her work was read at all (and after her death she was out of print for 12 years) it was thought of as being on the genteel, female margins of literary culture. It’s a teasing conundrum that she could not possibly – could she? – have imagined the scale and the kind of the appreciation that was to follow. (“Did Jane Austen know how good she was?” Mullan asks at the opening of his book; a conundrum even more difficult to unpick.) By the end of the 19th century enthusiasts were making pilgrimages to “Austen-land”, imagining themselves communing with her “mind and heart”, fancying “girlish forms … walking among trees and flowers at Steventon”.

. . . .

The late Victorians, tired of sensationalism, wrote about her “magic”, and needed her to reinvest “the world with wonder”. She was carried to the remote corners of empire as a talisman of English values; hardened soldiers in both world wars hung on to her disabused clear-sightedness. Kipling writes a short story about the Janeites, mystifying them as a sort of Masonic sub-cult. But what is it about these novels that makes them into the repository for so much longing?

Link to the rest at the Guardian

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One Comments to “What Matters in Jane Austen?”

  1. The Prince Regent appreciated Jane. He had his faults and follies, but that part of him was no fool. (Although obviously the Most Awkward Fanboy Meeting Ever.)

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