Adventures in Reading

Enlightenment v Neoclassicism
September 10, 2007, 10:57 pm
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Now that I have concluded Pride & Prejudice I would like to spend some time looking at important movements in Austen’s period. Before I get ahead of myself I would like to clarify that Enlightenment is a philosophy and Neoclassicism is a period (think of an umbrella term) that the philosophy of Enlightenment was built upon and heavily regarded in. Enlightenment, particularly in England, is very much a result or reaction against the absolute monarchy in France as well as the Rococo artistic movement. A quick recap of some Rococo art includes a representation of opulence, wealthy living, and a frivolous lifestyle. Visually the art could at best be called naughty and I have heard compared to the French phrase frou frou, which is an onomatopoeia for the swishing sound of skirts on dancing women. The art of the period offers a representation of the lifestyle being maintained by a very small class at the great expense of the peasantry.

Thus, Enlightenment is in reaction to the despotism or absolute monarchy of the French king and of the Rococo’s emphasis of the flesh. An interesting note is that as well as many objects created in the Rococo being of smaller size it was very much encouraged that people attempt to be petite as well.

Socioeconomically in this period the middle class is beginning to boom across Europe. This class of people are traders and merchants (i.e. Bingley’s father) who earn their living. The middle class’s accumulation of wealth meant that a greater amount of power was being shifted from the aristocracy to them. This is true in politics, education as well as the arts. Overall the middle class is have a great effect on public life. Looking back at the Enlightenment philosophy, it is perhaps easiest to remember as the term suggests bringing light into darkness. The period prior to the Neoclassical was viewed as having no moral compass or no sense of what is right or wrong. Some of the characteristics of the movement include the rationality of nature and the disbelief in random creation (i.e. Darwin and evolution). However, one important idea to keep in mind is this philosophical movement is very much entirely described and argued by middle to upper middle class, white men. While this certainly does not make the philosophy obsolete but the universal appeal can certainly be argued as limited.

A parallel idea to the rationality of nature was the application of rationality to man. Thus people can be subjected to logic and reason too. Some of Austen’s characters can easily be interpreted as being reserved and are apt to seem emotionless until Austen allows for the reader to break through a multitude of layers. I have been spending time lately wondering how much of human reserve is a result of our own rules of etiquette and decorum. That is, if nature has rules that control it how comparable are our self-described rules to control people. This seems more obvious when we peruse laws but warrants closer examination at how important saying please and thank you are in enforcing humans as rational beings. Of course this sense of logic and reason applied to people in this period still analyzes men and women differently. Of course Enlightenment carries over into all factions of the world including religion as in this period one ought to be curious how spirituality evolves for people are who assumed to be rational and who are assumed to be capable of thought.

Democracy is also embraced in this period under the idea of all men are created equal. Considering this statement one needs to seriously recognize that as with Greek democracy not all people are created equal and most people certainly do not have access to all the same privileges as other people. In this time period free men with money had equality. These men (who are all created equal) can improve themselves through reason and logic and can certainly repress some physical needs (i.e. eating) while perfecting others (i.e. fitness). Perhaps one of the most important ideas of this is that man can govern himself and does not need a king or at least does not need an absolute monarchy. Self-governance in all areas of life becomes an important feature and many men view themselves as atheists, agnostics, anti-theists, or simply anti-religious.

I have started Sense & Sensibility but before beginning on a new novel their are two very important features of Austen’s novels I care to elaborate on. At least one of these terms I have referred to previously but both warrant attention: Firstly, primogenitur, which is the right of the first born male to inherit everything from his father. This is why Darcy(the only son) is so immensely wealthy and Colonel Fitzwilliam (the youngest son of an Earl) has nothing and must worry about a suitable financial match in the marriage market. Entailment is somewhat related to this but is a contract that land cannot be sold, broken up, etc. and must pass through inheritance. This combination of primogeniture and entailment is what causes the Bennet’s such stress in Pride & Prejudice as Mr. Bennet’s property is entailed and must be passed to the next male heir (Mr. Collins in this case) in the family tree. This creates terribe tension in a variety of Austen’s novels as the reader begs to ask what happens to characters who’s estates are entailed away?

So what is the point of this? Well, it very successfully keeps the land in the hands of the few. From my reading of Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate & Charles Dickens Knew entailment was originally proposed as an idea that would continue on forever regardless of circumstances. This was disputed and become more of a contract that would last for three generations before having to be signed again. Pool does suggest that forcing, for example through finances, signatures was not unknown. Despite any of the perks of entailment it did demand that the heir live on the property, work the land, collect the income, distribute (in some cases) income to other family members, make investments, maintain the estate, and while all of this is going on the heir is really nothing more than a life tenant or trustee caring for the property until, well, until he dies and the next heir steps in to fulfill the same role. Entailment in England finally came to conclusion during World War I.

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