Adventures in Reading

Critical Austen: Claudia L. Johnson
September 23, 2007, 12:46 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Of course it makes perfect sense to break up any critical analysis on Austen by her novels, but as I am only two books in my library requests have gotten a bit out of hand! My fingers are crossed that my late fees will not cost more than my rent. Last evening I finished a good portion of Claudia L. Johnson’s Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel (1988) and I found it a challenging and intriguing read, though certainly not without issues. Though after reading her chapter on Sense & Sensibility I am nearly tempted to reread the novel before proceeding in further Austen-palooza.

Where Butler argued in Jane Austen and the War of Ideas that Austen was conservative and at times placating the patriarchy, Johnson argues for a more moderate to liberal Austen that engaged in more subversive techniques than she is given credit for when compared to her contemporary radical and progressive sister writers. While I am not sure that I would use the term subversive myself I most certainly can see where Austen suggests a liberal ideology. Johnson puts forth an interesting perception of the mood of the anti-Jacobin period (that put me in the mind of the Red Scare) and states “Austen may slacken the desperate tempos employed by her more strenuously politicized counterparts, but she shares their artistic strategies and their commitment to uncovering the ideological underpinnings of cultural myths” (27).

One topic that has particularly caught my attention (perhaps even a future paper idea) is what Johnson introduces as, “To write novels of social criticism, authors had to develop strategies of subversion and indirection which would enable them to use the polemical tradition without being used completely by it” (19). Here in steps the “short-lived character type: the freakish feminist, or ‘female philosopher,’ as she was then called” (19). Ultimately, this characterization allows for the author to appear free of any radical intent and the “freakish feminist actually frees the author to advance reformist positions about women through the back door” (20). This very much seems the modern day equivalent of saying not all feminists are combat boot wearing lesbians (or similar). In regards to the freakish feminist, Johnson says that Austen does not employ this technique though before reaching the same conclusion I do believe I will be rereading some of Mary’s passages from Pride & Prejudice.

Early in the book (and throughout) Johnson makes clear how much she disagrees with Butler. While reading Johnson I reflected on my own reactions to Butler and found they were certainly not as as stringent as Johnson’s. I struggled with some of Johnson’s critical analysis because of lack of evidence in structuring her arguments at times and an off handed manner of dealing with certain subjects. Johnson says she does not want to define Austen’s politics but then proceeds to define the politics of her contemporaries, which very much seems that Johnson places Austen on a pedastal by refusing to define the author in her book. Earlier in the book Johnson says, “she [Austen] has been admitted into the canon on terms which cast doubt on her qualifications for entry and which ensure that her continued presence there be regarded as an act of gallantry” (xiv). Ultimately I feel that Johnson at times is guilty of “gallantry” herself. I definitely will take the time to reread her introduction but after my first observation I found it rather disappointing.

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