Jane Austen, Anti-Jacobin

By Stove, Judy | New Criterion, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Jane Austen, Anti-Jacobin


Stove, Judy, New Criterion


In a well-known essay first published in 1948 ("Manners, Morals, and The Novel"), Lionel Trilling wrote memorably of "the buzz of implication" which belongs to each time and each culture, and which it is very difficult for those of later times and other cultures to perceive. "The buzz of implication" means

   that part of a culture which is made up of
   half-uttered or unuttered or unutterable expressions
   of value. They are hinted at by small
   actions, sometimes by the arts of dress or
   decoration, sometimes by tone, gesture, emphasis,
   or rhythm, sometimes by the words
   that are used with a special frequency, or a
   special meaning.

For in the works of an author as beloved, and as written about, as Jane Austen, one might expect that the "buzz of implication" had been thoroughly identified and analyzed. Yet this is not the case. For many modern writers, the implications of Austen's work are all about our own preoccupations ("gender" is, of course, chief among these), not those of the late eighteenth century. Yet Jane Austen herself possessed one of the most sensitive cultural ears of all time, and was mistress of the understatement. Her implications, therefore, contain much of her meaning.

What is astonishing is that her keen ear for the absurd and the obnoxious in society was developed so young. Love and Friendship, which Jane Austen wrote between the ages of eleven and fourteen, finishing it in 1790, is not only very funny. It is also a conservative polemic of considerable power. It does not take a Jane Austen to point out the absurdity of the sensibility cult of the second half of the eighteenth century: the excessive tears, fainting on sofas, etc. In Love and Friendship, Austen satirized this fashion, which she was later to treat in her more mature novels (particularly, of course, Sense and Sensibility), but she also attacked the radical selfishness which went along with the sensibility cult, from its very inception in the work of Rousseau and Goethe, and which was largely identified at the time with revolutionary politics.

This is often missed. The excellent 1997 biography by Claire Tomalin, for example, gets it 180 degrees wrong:

   [Love and Friendship] is black comedy, absurd
   and riotous, rejecting domestic virtue and
   decorum with elan and authority.

In fact, Jane Austen used the novel as a vehicle to ridicule the radical rejection of domestic virtue. Marilyn Butler perceived the book's thrust:

   Although Jane Austen's sentimentalists act in a
   way that is at the very least equivocal, for in
   practice they appear ruthlessly self-interested,
   it is no part of her intention to suggest that
   they are insincere. In her view the contradiction
   is inherent in the creed: she wants to
   show that the realization of self, an apparently
   idealistic goal, is in fact necessarily destructive
   and delusory.

Yet Jane Austen wants very much to show that her "sentimentalists" are insincere--in fact, that hypocrisy is a basic feature of being sincerely radical. Her anti-heroines, Laura and Sophia, steal money from parents while despising them, declare their attachment to a young girl while pushing her into an elopement with a fortune-hunter, and profess great sympathy for Sophia's husband imprisoned in Newgate, but cannot actually bring themselves to visit him.

Pippa Brush's introduction to Juliet MeMaster's authoritative 1995 edition of Love and Freindship (the original spelling of "Freindship" is often retained) claims that:

   Love and Freindship is a parody of a form with
   which Austen seems to have been intimately
   familiar--her ironies are so exact--and, while
   she might have been disapproving, seems to
   have enjoyed. Austen is laughing at her object,
   but that laughter is only affectionate.

In fact, she misses the political point entirely. With devastating treatment of the characters' contempt for their neighbors, family, and parents, Austen's laughter is no less savage for being expressed with restraint.

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