A Thoroughly Modern Austen
"Jane Austen Changes Her Mind" by Christopher Clausen, in The American Scholar (Spring 1999), 1785 Massachusetts Ave. N.W., Fourth Floor, Washington, D.C. 20036.
It sometimes seems that the most popular serious novelist at the close of the 20th century is an author of the early 19th: Jane Austen (1775-1817). All but one of her six novels have made their way to movie theaters and television screens in recent years. Something about Austen's well-regulated bucolic romances, in which the woman gets not only her man, but an estate and a fortune as well, is charming readers and audiences on an impressive scale.
Critics, however, have had difficulty pinpointing just what that "something" is. They have interpreted the social commentary of Austen's tales to represent everything from radical feminism to "systematic conservativ[ism]." But for all that diversity, there has been remarkable consensus that all of Austen's novels are consistent in whatever social ideology they display.
But Clausen, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University, argues that Austen's last novel, Persuasion (published posthumously in 1818), "represents an unprecedented shift of direction." Persuasion is still quintessential Austen in its plot and the value it places on the happiness of a match well made. But where her other novels hold marriage from or into the landowning, fortune-holding gentry as the standard for success, Persuasion promotes different, more modern manifestations of that happiness. …