Saturday, 12 November 2016

What Is Special About Jane Austen?

'Jane Austen didn't write romance novels as so many foolishly charge; she actually wrote astute studies of characters and their foibles, and after all, people don't really change that much down the centuries. Some are good, some bad, and most of us are a complex mixture of good, bad and indifferent.’ Those words were written in an e-mail from a fellow Jane Austen enthusiast.

What was so great about Jane? She created a gallery of interesting and totally plausible characters; she used a minimalist narrative style; she succeeded in melding emotional analysis with great psychological acuity; and this she achieved in novels of social satire that frequently make us laugh out loud. All these things she did supremely well.

Jane Austen left us Pride and Prejudice – probably the funniest and most brilliant novel in the English language. She gave us Emma - a beautifully structured novel – and Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park – deftly-written novels with so much to say about human nature. And then there was Persuasion – one of the most moving love stories ever written.

Her books feed our spirit, making us laugh while helping us understand ourselves and our fellow men. They contain a gallery of ordinary but unique, believable characters - many of them richly amusing - who demonstrate the foibles of human nature and who are (in my view) even more memorable than Shakespeare's. Her characters are timeless in the sense that they have conventional hopes and fears: we want to see problems resolved and injustice remedied.

Jane shows us that in a world where there is much selfishness, corruption and mean-spiritedness, it is still possible to find decency, humanity and good humour. She shows us too that genius is humanly attainable.

Like most great novelists, she understood the importance of a good story. Her plotting and structuring are skilful and she makes us want to turn the page.

She is a great comic writer. But her novels are also full of pain - private pain. Anyone can empathise with Anne Elliot's loss of self-worth, for example.

One of the reasons for Jane Austen’s popularity is that she makes the reader feel good. She does this in two senses of ‘feeling good’ – ‘happily contented’ and ‘virtuous‘. This latter feeling is achieved by making us sympathise and identify with those who behave well while in conflict with the ill-mannered, the mean, the greedy, the small-minded, the hypocrites and the snobs. We reach the end of a novel believing that in real life we ourselves would never be ill-mannered, mean, greedy, small-minded, hypocritical or snobbish! Ironically Jane Austen turns her readers into snobs – virtue snobs!

Matthew Parris summed up very well this aspect of Jane's appeal. He wrote (in the 2009 Report of the Jane Austen Society):

Within every true Jane Austen fan is a bit of a rebel. Not, I concede, an individual who is likely to carry through his or her internal rebelliousness into a full-scale social revolution. But a person who has, from a corner of the room, quietly observed the follies and pretensions of a decorous social order - and gone along with them, and taken part in them, and never for a moment contemplated actually kicking over the traces - yet always thought that a lot of it was rather silly and some of it wasn't really very nice. Jane Austen is herself part of that company, and it is for that company that she writes.

One aspect of ‘Virtue Snobbery’ is having a well-informed mind, particularly because we love books. There are several references in the novels to persons whose narrow minds and poor judgement expose their disdain for books. Conversely, persons who take trouble to read and study (such as Robert Martin in Emma) are admired for doing so.

In other words, Jane Austen takes us into her confidence, flattering us into believing we are as intelligent as she is.

Katherine Mansfield said 'every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone – reading between the lines – has become the secret friend of their author'. Mary Lascelles calls it a 'mood of hospitality'. Part of the charm is that the reader is invited to fill in details from his or her own experience – to imagine what the lovers said or what happened after the story ends. Partly the charm is that, as John Bayley has written (in the Report of the Jane Austen Society, 1967), we do not 'watch Jane Austen expose her heroine. We share with her and her heroine - and what a privilege it is to do so! - our common lapses into superiority, complacency, bad taste; and we also share the sense that we can know these things in ourselves for what they are, that we have an idea of what is right'.

In Sense and Sensibility, we are told that Lady Middleton ‘did not really like’ Elinor and Marianne at all. ‘Because they neither flattered herself nor her children, she could not believe them good-natured; and because they were fond of reading she fancied them satirical: perhaps without exactly knowing what it was to be satirical; but that did not signify. It was censure in common use, and easily given.’

What an interesting comment this is. Suspicion, fear and distrust of book-learning have always been common traits in reluctant readers. Because we novel-readers do not fall into the same category as Lady Middleton, this is another example of our being made to feel good, in the sense of virtuously superior. What Jane Austen has to say about the word ‘satirical’ is also tantalizingly revealing. What exactly does she mean? Probably it was fashionable to apply the word to comments such as might have been (in the case of Lady Middleton) above one’s comprehension.