Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"Moral Seriousness with Comic Drama": Austen's Legacy of Life, Love, and Laughter to Carol Shields

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

"Moral Seriousness with Comic Drama": Austen's Legacy of Life, Love, and Laughter to Carol Shields

Article excerpt

THERE CAN HARDLY BE A WOMAN NOVELIST who has not been influenced by Jane Austen's legacy of life, love, and laughter, because Austen domesticated the novel and feminized it. While Sir Walter Scott was master of what he described as the "Big Bow-wow" novel, a macrocosmic fiction reflecting male power, Austen's microcosmic novels, about "3 or 4 Families in a Country Village" (9 September 1814), reflect a woman's world in miniature--"the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour" (16 December 1816). Carol Shields writes in her 2001 biography, Jane Austen, "The novelistic architecture may have been borrowed from the eighteenth-century novelists, but [Austen] made it new, clean, and rational, just as though she'd taken a broom to the old fussiness of plot and action. She did this all alone." (1)

Because the domestic realm was also the female realm, Austen in effect refocused the novel on women. As Julia Prewitt Brown argues in Jane Austen's Novels: Social Change and Literary Form (1979), Austen "gave meaning to domesticity for the first time in English fiction. Her novels are the first to fully assert the cultural significance of marriage and family, their role in social and moral change" (1). Indeed, the private, domestic world of the home and family is arguably as important and as powerful as the public, official world of business and politics. While Austen's brothers, Francis and Charles, as Admirals of the British Navy, battled Napoleon, Jane, Shields explains, "brought to the page the only kind of combat a woman was allowed: the conquest of hearts and the overturning of domestic arrangements" (45).

Raising the frequently-asked question, "How could a novelist who writes astutely about her own immediate society fail to have mentioned the Napoleonic wars?" Shields replies that "her novels show her to be a citizen, and certainly a spectator, of a far wider world," an "intelligent witness to a world that was rapidly reinventing itself" (3-4). Austen's fiction has continuing relevance, as contemporary women writers suggest. British novelist Margaret Drabble asks the crucial question, "Does the new Jane Austen affect women writing today?" and answers, "I believe that she does" (459). Shields, too, praises the relevance of Austen's fiction: "Her legacy is not a piece of reportage from the society of a particular past, but a wise and compelling exploration of human nature. Her men and women ... are as alive today ... as they were, two hundred years ago, when she first gave them breath" (182). Shields argues, "Here, in fact, was all that was immediately knowable: families, love affairs, birth and death, boredom and passion, the texture of the quotidian set side by side with the extremities of the human spirit" (24).

Austen praises the novel as a compendium of all the best that has been thought and felt--a "work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language" (NA 38). Shields also extols the "novel's architecture, the lovely slope of predicament, the tendrils of surface detail, the calculated curving upward into inevitability, yet allowing spells of incorrigibility, and then the ending, a corruption of cause and effect and the gathering together of all the characters into a framed operatic circle of consolation and ecstasy, backlit with fibre-optic gold, just for a moment on the second-to-last page, just for an atomic particle of time" (Unless 13).

Austen's artistic rebellion is as lasting a legacy as Wellington's military victory over Napoleon, for it has transformed the nature of the novel for subsequent generations of writers. By domesticating and feminizing the novel, Austen effected a revolution in fiction. Shields's fiction has been profoundly influenced by this genteel revolution. …

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