Adventures in Reading

Jane Austen & the War of Ideas
September 14, 2007, 4:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

To accompany my Austen-palooza I have obtained a variety of books relating to Austen, Neoclassicism, Enlightenment, and art from the library. The first of these books I picked up was Marilyn Butler’s Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975). Little did I realize exactly what I was getting myself into with the much quoted text that argues for reading Austen set in her own time as a conservative and anti-jacobin.

The one aspect Butler’s argument is based in is that during the period which Austen was writing (something she and her contemporaries would have been familiar with) no one could be impartial. This is not necessarily about politics or class critique as much as anyone publishing was establishing some moral ethic or code whether they wanted to or not. Rather, this was simply how a publication would be read. Thus, Ascarelli’s argument has no basis in, “Jane Austen probably made a mental note to stay away from partisan politics” as it would have been impossible. While reviewing earlier critics and teachers of Austen, Butler notices “What did seem surprising was their [early critics and teachers] apparent belief that the moral life should be led privately or domestically behind closed doors” (xiii), which reflects the Victorian idea of the home as a place of salvation (i.e. cult of the family, The Angel in the House) but maintains no implication of the personal (or domestic) is political.

Something Butler refers to in her book is Enlightenment feminism. Now I was previously called out for applying the term feminism to an era before the term was coined but I now find myself in good company in doing so. The idea of Enlightenment feminism is simply that the Enlightenment opinion applied to land-owning white men should be applied to women (and I assume others) as well. For example, women are as moral in nature as man. Butler then maneuvers this broader idea of Enlightenment feminism to a rich tradition of women writers. Austen was certainly not the only woman writing in this period or the first female writer. However, if one was pressed to name other female literary contemporaries of Austen it seems likely that many people could not.

This brings about one very important attribute that Butler spends some time on in her updated introduction and is a certain area of literary history that I am fascinated by. And that is why are some books held up as memorable fiction or are canonized while other books and authors are forgotten? Until the 1970s the world of literary criticism and historicism was very much a male dominated arena (as with most any other aspect of life) and thus any canonized figure was done so under masculine dominance. So why choose Austen? Arguments often favored in representing Austen as a liberal and progressive author of strong female characters include analysis of her female relationships, failed father or paternal figures demonstrating a certain moral bankruptcy of male authority, that the heroine(s) mostly choose their own husbands, etc. At the same time anything that is not said is seen as radical for not being said or is argued as being too daring for the period. Butler’s rebuttal is that “despite Austen’s own superior artistry and overt reluctance (part feminine, part aesthetic) to state opinions, she participates in a conservative reaction against more permissive, individualistic, and personally expressive novel types of earlier years” (xv). That is, many of the reasons that safe guards Austens position as a feminist writer had already been more radically presented by earlier and contemporary female writers.

Then this returns us to the idea of why Austen rather than more radical contemporaries? And this is definitely something that permeates literary history. For example, I have mentioned Mona Caird and Sarah Grand in previous posts but outside of Victorian literary (or feminist literary theory) circles these names are not known. While I have not read (though soon will be reading) Edgeworth, Butler provides her repeatedly as an example of a contemporary working outside of Austen’s conservative landscape. So how much does Austen cultivate the conservative mentality of the 19th Century? Why is she praised when the radical Edgeworth is largely ignored?

I do not have the answers to these questions but before continuing I do want to emphasize that I certainly do not believe nor do I think Butler is arguing that Austen is bad or not enjoyable. Austen is most definitely gripping and a phenomenal story teller but it seems a healthy enterprise to question why one author over another. Butler stresses that a book can not exist outside of its historical context. A message I interpret as the same book can not exist outside of its historical context. That is, if you do not understand the world, the life, the pressures upon the author going into the novel you can certainly read the novel but the reader may never understand the enormous subtleties employed in the novel.

In addition, here is a list of some contemporaries and influences of Austen that Butler mentions: Maria Edgeworth, Mary Astill, Hannah More, Marcet, Gaskell, G. Eliot, F. Burney, H. Mackenzie, A. Radcliffe, Goldsmith, C. Reeve, To. Holcroft, W. Godwin, E. Inchbald, C. Smith, M. Robinson, M. Hays, Godwin, Bage, Cowper, Scott.

And finally, a quote from Butler’s introduction to close this afternoon’s post:

Austen’s first critics and other readers picked up her novels’ signs, which they understood not because they knew anything whatsoever of her private intentions, but because her novels deviated in detail from the detail of other novels like them. Her leading characters were depicted in stylized, familiar social situations; the reader, identifying with the character, was taught a code of behaviour which was not universal, for readers of other current books knew the alternatives. Austen’s stress upon her heroine’s subordinate role in a family, upon their dutifulness, meditativeness, self-abnegation, and self-control, were codes shared with other conservative writers, especially women moralists such as Jane West and Mary Brunton. The acquiescent heroine challenges the hero or heroine of novels of the 1970s by reformists such as Bage, Godwin, Holcroft, Hays, and Wollstonecraft, who insists on thinking independently and speaking out” (xvi).

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