Adventures in Reading


Critical Austen: Claudia L. Johnson
September 23, 2007, 1:56 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

While Johnson and I may have gotten off on a rocky start with Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel, her analysis of Austen’s novels Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility, are beautifully done and are wonderfully challenging. During class discussion of P&P the instructor introduced the idea of Darcy’s social awkwardness and in retrospect this perspective alleviates much of the dislike towards Darcy. This is also a perspective it seems the BBC adaptation plays on. Johnson, however, disagrees and writes Darcy up as the shallow and prideful man he is until he is challenged to change at the end of the novel. So why two such different opinions that, if you think about it, drastically alter the novel? It all comes down to a very brief exchange at Rosings while Elizabeth Bennet plays the piano and her and Darcy begin to exchange their usual quips. It all depends on how you read the exchange but both opinions seem to have an equally strong argument.

Pride & Prejudice is Austen’s fun novel that everyone loves and even Austen articulated could use more depth. Johnson presents the case that the liberal aspect of P&P is the theme of the pursuit of happiness (despite this liberal outlook Johnson does remind her reader that P&P “most affirms established social arrangements without damaging their prestige or fundamentally challenging their wisdom or equity” (74)). From here, Johnson believes that all of P&P is an “experiment with conservative myths, and not a statement of faith in them” (75).

Within her P&P section, Johnson states that the characters of “Lady Catherine and Mrs. Ferras are parodies of male authority” (88). This passage gave me a lot of thought as I posted about Lady Catherine being a strong female character even if she embodies qualities and attitudes the audience dislikes. It is certainly an interesting perspective that gave me pause for thought, but it is an example of one more of my frustrations with Johnson lacking in support of some of her conclusions. Going back and rereading this section and scanning the bibliography I can find no evidence that Johnson presents to support her claim. An argument certainly exists that these female characters not only support but embrace conservative and patriarchal attitudes, but even that claim would need to be supported.

Two other interesting points that Johnson posits are that while rank and power may be chastised by Austen, the reader still never doubts the “their prestige and wonder” (89), and Johnson acknowledging “True, marriage seems at times to be the way an author ends her novel, not the way she represents what could or recommends what should happen in life” (91).

Johnson spends a good deal of time discussing the Eliza stories in her S&S section. Eliza was the sweetheart of Colonel Brandon who was forced into marrying his brother, divorced, and had a child out of wedlock and would die very much a fallen woman. Her daughter, also Eliza, would be passionately and briefly involved with Wickham who left her in circumstances similar to her mother’s (though the reader can assume that the second Eliza’s situation will not be as dreadful as that of her mother’s thanks to Colonel Brandon). The Elizas’ stories as well as Marianne suggest a parody with prior fiction’s relationship to killing off romantically scorned or abused women. While Eliza’s mother dies it is not immediately or a direct result of love and neither the second Eliza nor Marianne perish as a result of love.

Here Johnson spends some time exploring the misogynistic side of literature and Austen’s response to it in S&S. As Johnson puts it, “Indeed, it is only because that larger world around them is so menacing in the first place that the manners of young ladies are of such consequence” (50). While Johnson does not use this terminology, it seems Austen is challenging a world of male privilege and its ideal consequences for young women. In fact, this representation of the facts can be read as the man’s tale: “the fact that the tales of dying heroines here are inset stories told by interested men highlights the pornographic, but utterly conventional, ways in which heroine’s stories, appropriated by men, are made to suit established social arrangement” (68).

Austen would then successfully challenge this attitude because she allows Marianne and Eliza the second to survive as well as not immediately killing off Eliza the first. Though, as the Elizas’ are peripheral characters (and particularly as the surviving Eliza never makes an appearance (and is only represented by Brandon and Willoughby – both men) Austen certainly seems to be suggesting if not subversively challenging the notion. Both Brandon and Willoughby are also guilty of the death by love idea as Brandon does reminisce if only the first Eliza had died sooner and Willoughby does show up on Marianne’s death door to reflect on his affect on Marianne. (How tangled it all gets!)

This post’s image is from Scholieren.com, an image I randomly found through Googling for “jane austen women politics and the novel.” Overall I found it quite the wonderful image of a woman diligently at work.

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2 Comments

I think Austen is inimitable, and P&P remains one of my all time favorites. Just wondering what you think about the modern versions of Austen’s work, like The Jane Austen Book Club. I’ve just seen the movie and read the book, and have written some thoughts…like to have your comments.

Comment by artidkc

I have not even started to read any of the sequels to Austen, unfortunately. Though with all the Jane Austen Book Club hubbub I really ought to get on the ball. I was thinking of picking up Old Friends and New Fancies by Brinton before too much longer.

Comment by bookchronicle




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