Why So Many People Misunderstand Jane Austen

Notes from a fan who's seen it all.
April 5 2013 5:45 AM

I Read Everything Jane Austen Wrote, Several Times

Here are some of the many things I learned.

(Continued from Page 1)

For better and for worse, Austen has a strong didactic streak. She was—like Samuel Richardson in the century before and many of the Victorians who followed her—a moralist, who sought to tease out not only psychological truths but life lessons from her stories. And many readers still enjoy Austen’s moralism. Certainly her two most popular novels are also her preachiest. In Sense and Sensibility—which might be subtitled, In Which Sense Unequivocally Trounces Sensibility in All Things—Austen makes the case for Elinor Dashwood’s rational, fair-minded disposition over her sister Marianne’s passionate, “artistic” temperament. Austen’s argument on behalf of sense is astute and morally sensitive; we’d all do well to pay attention to its substance. But, as literature, the point-making becomes wearying; even the most well-disposed reader may grow crankily contrarian by the 14th or 15th invocation of Elinor’s moral superiority. Austen is too subtle a thinker and too fine a novelist to write a pure morality tale, though; on page after page, her moralizing is leavened by the acid—and greatly entertaining—acuity with which she exposes characters’ hypocrisy and greed and her characteristically sly observations. Of a wealthy socialite’s attitude toward Elinor and Marianne, for instance, she writes:

“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.”

Such riffs are not only the most amusing bits in the book, they are also, in an important sense, the most serious: Comedy, when it’s not slapstick, is often moral, a way of showing up what deserves to be shown up. And what gives Sense and Sensibility depth is not the lesson Austen teaches about sense—which could also be learned at Sunday school (though perhaps less enjoyably). It is Austen’s ability to penetrate minds both narrow and lofty, and to examine, with as much sympathy as shrewdness, the ways we justify our prejudices and our small meannesses.

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That same ability is evident in Pride and Prejudice, a novel that, oddly if not surprisingly, is now beloved for its Cinderella-like love story, one of the least interesting aspects of the book. It’s a remarkably unsentimental novel, and it is consistently intelligent. It is also, like all of Austen’s books, wonderfully brisk. “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” it famously begins. That observation is followed almost immediately with Mrs. Bennet, eager to marry off her daughters, upset that her husband will not visit Mr. Bingley, the single man in question. “You have no compassion on my poor nerves,” she tells him. “You mistake me, my dear,” he replies. “I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least.” Austen then gives us a fantastically sharp primer on those two people, describing Mr. Bennet as “a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice,” and his wife as a woman of “mean understanding, little information and uncertain temper” whose “solace was visiting and news.” This quick pace—epigrammatic observation followed by witty banter followed by pithy explication—continues nearly uninterrupted throughout the book, which is entirely devoid of filler or flat exposition.

Still, Pride and Prejudice is a collection of wonderful characterizations and sharp aphorisms situated adjacent to a delightful romantic plot. It is less deeply unified and, in that way, actually less ambitious than Emma. Or Mansfield Park, for that matter, which, though less perfect than Emma, is perhaps more involving and more powerful. Like Emma, the heroine of Mansfield Park is sometimes hard to like. Unlike Emma, though, Fanny Price is mousy and shy, a poor relation taken in by the Bertrams of Mansfield Park at age 10 in an act of charity conceived of by one of Fanny’s aunts. Raised alongside wealthy older cousins, Fanny is subject to neglect, some benign, some less so. Her situation compels our sympathy, but she is sometimes self-pitying—and, at times, almost dour.

Fanny has an aunt, Mrs. Norris, who, in her humorous awfulness, is one of Austen’s finest creations. She is a whirling, bustling cheapskate, the kind who “excels at dictating liberality to others” while jealously hoarding her own income. This money-consciousness is so natural to Mrs. Norris that it feels normal and just; she is scarcely aware of the insincerity it inspires. When the teenaged Fanny begins to attract attention from a desirable suitor, Mrs. Norris becomes her bitterest enemy, not so much from outright malice but because her sense of the propriety of things is nettled by the sight of the poor relation shining so brightly. She is a sharply observed study of the kind of malevolence that is masked as a love of order: the desire for things (and people) to be in their correct place, for the world to be arranged in the way that seems to her “fit.”

Fanny also has a rival, the charming Mary Crawford, of whom Lionel Trilling wrote, “she impersonates the woman she thinks she ought to be.” I actually think Mary Crawford is the bright, bubbly, and worldly person she presents. But I sympathize with Trilling. We all try to find reasons to dislike Mary because we know she is worldly—surely too worldly. She lacks Fanny’s integrity (though we can’t help thinking she’s less of a pill than Fanny). Though Austen is clearly not a big fan of Mary, she is always fair—careful to grant what is admirable and appealing, even in those characters she dislikes. And so, like Edmund Bertram, we fall in love with the pretty Mary Crawford. By her painstaking re-creation of Mary’s talk—her witty paragraph-length discourses on the absurdities of country life, the hypocrisy of the clergy, the abominations of her uncle the admiral—Austen makes us feel for Mary what Edmund feels. She once again makes us complicit.

That ability to make us complicit is essential to Austen’s art. A moralist can lecture, but a novelist must create lifelike moments that let us experience the consciousness of another. Austen does this so subtly that it can be easy to take for granted. But we notice when it flags. Northanger Abbey centers on Catherine Morland, a good-natured but naïve heroine whose unworldliness leads her to misinterpret much of what she sees. It is, quite literally, a book about reading, as Catherine’s love of gothic novels plays a role in the story. This is much-discussed among academics, but not particularly interesting to those who aren’t seeking material for scholarly articles. The novel relies heavily on an omniscient narrator, which is telling: While ingenuous Catherine is very likable (confronted with jargon she doesn’t understand, she says, “I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible”), her point-of-view can’t carry a book. It is too limited to a single note; she’s all youthful ignorance and good-hearted credulity. The omniscient narrator, who frequently interjects and interprets the action of the novel, is here not merely as a device but as a way to compensate for a thinness in the story itself.

Austen’s analysis is also less sophisticated. Though Northanger Abbey, like Persuasion, appeared after Austen died, she’d written an initial version before she was 25, which she subsequently revised. At one point, she writes that “a woman … if she have the misfortune of knowing any thing, should conceal it as well as she can”—a biting remark, to be sure, and one that contains some truth about social life (now as well as then). But it is a withering adolescent’s partial truth, exaggerated and cocksure in its cynicism. (In its tone, it is similar to Love and Friendship, the occasionally brilliant but often overdone epistolary novel Austen wrote when she was a teenager. That book, like Northanger Abbey, sends up silly “romantic” conventions like love at first sight and satirizes the kinds of people who make exaggerated professions of feeling.) The wit in Northanger Abbey only appears at first like that which characterizes Austen’s best books. “Mrs. Allen was one of that numerous class of females,” we read, “whose society can raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who could like them well enough to marry them.” It sounds at first like classic Austen—that deadpan tone—but here her wit is untempered by sympathy or special insight.

It is that special insight and sympathy—wide-ranging, philosophical and capable of fine distinctions that elude less sensitive writers—that accounts for so much of the greatness of Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility. Austen’s plots may not be serious. They don’t have to be, because her mind unquestionably is.

Adelle Waldman’s first novel, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., will be published in July. You can follow her on Twitter.

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