Stop it right there.
I just want to make it perfectly clear that I was firmly resolved not to write this blog. Indeed, I was absolutely crystal that I was determined never to touch this subject again. Not even so much as with a barge pole.
In fact, for days (weeks) I have promised myself that I would not, not, not address this issue again.
But I have to say this. I must. (Mainly because for the past three nights I’ve been keeping myself awake with the arguments over it and I want some sleep…)
The other evening, there was a thing on the BBC about Mrs. Dickens’ Christmas, hosted by one Sue Perkins. Which I, because I happened to have been reading all day and wanted a break, watched.
I expected not to like it. I was wrong. It was fascinating.
And among the extra-ordinary things which Perkins revealed was that Dickens treated his wife abominably. I mean, the man was a complete ________. [Feel free to fill in the blank with your most offensive choice of language.]
Anyway, the guests included both Claire Tomalin, Dickens’ biographer, but also a most thoughtful psychiatrist who pointed out the parallels between Dickens’ own life–where he treated his wife with such cruelty once she had borne him ten children and was middle-aged and, well, fat, and his fawning reverential treatment of younger virginal women–and the characters in his books which mirror this outlook. Perkins used as an example of the former, Mrs. Gamp, the fat, ugly, gossipy midwife in Martin Chuzzlewit–a character which Dickens penned shortly after moving out the the marital bedroom and shortly before he broke up the family home and took the children from their mother.
I still admire Dickens’ work. Very much so. But despite the fact that Perkins is a foodie and a comedienne, this was serious stuff and I appreciated the rather startling insights offered into Dickens’ work. Very very much.
Fast backward to a couple of weeks ago, when that absolutely splendid historian, Amanda Vickery, whose research into the lives of Georgian women I admire so very much, did a programme for the BBC on Jane Austen’s current popularity. Which, let’s face it, is pretty much a craze these days.
Vickery explored the fall and rise of Austen’s popularity through the last two hundred years–which was fairly interesting. Though her first novel, Sense & Sensibility had been well received in 1811 and she’d made a profit of some £250, by 1820, for example, three years after Austen’s death, her books were out of print. The remaining copies were remaindered and sold off cheap as chips.
The preferred authors of the 1820s were Scott and Edgeworth and Radcliffe. And then came the Brontes and Dickens–and Charlotte Bronte’s dislike of Austen is well-known and well-documented.
But then, Austen’s great-nephew decided to bring the old dear back into fashion and he wrote a pretty saccharine Victorianised version of her life and had the portrait by her sister ‘softened’ and hey presto! As Vickery and Professor Katheryn Sutherland remarked, “St. Jane of Chawton” was born–looking like a soft-headed, well-fed version of the rather pointed, pinched and peevish person with dark circles under her eyes as drawn by Cassandra Austen, which is the only real portrait of Austen that exists.
But then the programme wandered off into how her popularity had built during the First World War and eventually we had Andrew Davies talking about how he’d injected the testosterone into Pride & Prejudice and how she was all about young people, etc.
We were also treated to F.R. Leavis’s view that Austen is among the five great English novelists and that–for serious readers–must be why she’s so popular.
(Which can only be utter crock! Because two of the other five of Leavis’s greats are Joseph Conrad and Henry James. And nobody, but nobody, is reading them any more. And certainly not enjoying them. Except possibly me. But we’ll leave that for the moment.)
And it’s at this point I want to start shouting at the telly. (And where I now know I want Sue Perkins…and her willingness to delve beyond the pretty.)
Because let’s face it, five out of Austen’s six novels are tales of wish-fulfillment.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong in this. There isn’t. But in every book but Emma, we have the poor or poorer heroine through her beauty, charm or wit, being lifted out of her life of penny-pinching and old-maid-hood by the handsome rich bloke who will marry her, provide well for her and treat her kindly.
It’s what she wanted for herself. It’s what she longed for for her sister Cassandra. Who wouldn’t want that compared to a life of penury?
But wait. There’s more.
Because Austen’s novels also display a side of Regency life which is far less pleasant and far more sobering than stories of tight breeches and wet shirts. These novels are case studies of sustained verbal and emotional abuse.
And what’s more, they’re written from the inside.
Take a good look at the slighting, vicious, grasping behaviour and conversation of the Ferrers women in Sense & Sensibility. Their comments about the Dashwood girls, made in their presence, tell us emphatically, “You are poor, you are nothing. You are dirt and you are disposable. And I will grind you under my heel.”
Look too at the verbal abuse meted out to Anne Elliot in Persuasion–chiefly by her sisters and father. They’re appalling, frankly. Cruel. Vicious. Heartless. Catty. Snobbery unconfined and unredeemable. It’s a wonder the girl wasn’t a basket-case.
And finally, rest your gaze on the heinous treatment Fanny Price suffers in Mansfield Park.
She is slighted, demeaned, teased, nagged, harrassed, belittled, mocked, bullied, slapped, deprived. And always, always she’s told she should be grateful for it and how lucky she is and how disobliging she is not to do exactly as is asked of her–however morally dubious the request is. Indeed, however much Bronte might hate the comparison, I would posit that Fanny Price and Jane Eyre have more than a little in common–certainly the childhood abuse they receive at the hands of their relations.
Make no mistake, these books are Mean Girls circa 1812.
And these scenes are so good, so genuine, there’s no way that Austen wasn’t writing from experience. She was.
She knew what it was to be poor, to wear the same gown three years in a row while everyone else bought new, to be slighted, sneered at, overlooked, excluded, to have to take out the ashes herself, and to be told she should be grateful for the roof over her head.
But none of this, however prevalent in her novels, is a view of Austen we want to embrace or even acknowledge somehow.
Maybe it makes us squirm too much–the thought that someone we allegedly love and revere–the beloved Aunt Jane we all make-believe we had–should have so obviously suffered such soul-destroying unhappiness, such casual cruelty and been so little valued by those who should have supported her.
Perhaps that’s why Pride & Prejudice remains the favourite of her novels today. Because it’s the Regency made palatable and friendly. Because in it this theme of the utter worthlessness of a woman who lacks money is less pronounced, and those who voice such sentiments are only the flapping old trout Lady Catherine de Bourgh (clearly a figure of fun) and the Bingley sisters, who lack the edge of a Mrs. Ferrers or a Mrs. Norris.
And with that we can be easy. We can substitute rose-tinted Regency-dress balls for a thoughtful examination of her life and Regency England through the prism of her work. We can look away from the scenes of recurring domestic abuse and pretend they didn’t happen and they certainly didn’t happen to dear Aunt Jane.
But if that’s the case, then maybe we don’t really value Jane Austen at all.
And that just plain sucks.
And now, I do vow and declare on my father’s dress military spurs, I am not going to write about Austen again. Not for a long, long time.
Or, as Sir Thomas Wyatt once wrote, “My lute be still, for I have done.”
With best wishes for a happy and healthy 2012…