I must admit that, fan as I am of Jane Austen (of her wit and clear-eyed observation of humanity), I have sometimes been conflicted about whether she is, as this post title asks, conservative or progressive.
She was innovative in terms of the history of the novel – her sure use of the third person omniscient narrator and her psychological and social realism were progressive for her time. But, what about her plots and their resolution? The fact that her heroines tend to marry well? Or, well enough, anyhow. I have often felt ashamed about my sorrow that sensible Elinor in Sense and sensibility did not “catch” as wealthy a husband as her emotional sister Marianne did. It’s not the money so much, but the fairness of it! Elinor deserved … but, she got what she deserved didn’t she? The man she loved!
But, I digress. The point is – and this is what seems to put some readers off – that Austen’s heroines always do marry, and they always marry within their class or slightly higher. They don’t throw it all to the wind to follow some passion; they are usually materially “sensible” even though they also determine to follow their heart. And so, there’s the conundrum. Austen’s heroines are independent of mind enough to hold out for a marriage of affection, but they don’t cast their net outside their kind. They seem to affirm the status quo.
However, as I also wrote in a recent post, I and many others see Austen as a protofeminist: while her plots and their resolution can be seen, superficially, to be conservative, there is something else going on. And this was presented from a fascinating perspective the other night by academic Glenda Hudson who spoke at the public library. Her topic was “Sibling love in Jane Austen, revisited” and was an updating of an article she published in 1989. She explored the role of sibling love and incest in Jane Austen – not that “actual” incest ever occurred in her books, but some of the highly sanctioned relationships, such as Fanny and Edmund in Mansfield Park, and Emma and Mr Knightley in Emma, have incestuous overtones (that are consciously articulated in the books).
Hudson claims that Austen promotes the value of fraternal (sibling) love in her novels – and defines this love as being based on shared moral and intellectual values and ideas. She argues convincingly that in many of Austen’s novels this idea is extended to encompass conjugal love, and that marriage in Jane Austen is presented as a meeting of like minds, as an egalitarian partnership between two people who, through the course of the novel, have come to love and respect each other. In fact, she argues that, through these marriages, Austen redefines gender roles in marriage.
Here is a description of Fanny with her brother, in Mansfield Park:
Fanny had never known so much felicity in her life, as in this unchecked, equal, fearless intercourse with the brother and friend [brother William] who was opening all his heart to her, telling her all his hopes and fears, plans, and solicitudes … An advantage this, a strengthener of love, in which even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal. Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connexions can supply … (Mansfield Park, Ch. 24)
Here is Edmund, realising at the end that Fanny just might be the one for him. It is interesting in to look at in light of the above, since Edmund and Fanny were, from the time Fanny was 10 years old, “children of the same family”:
… it began to strike him [Edmund] whether a very different kind of woman might not do just as well, or a great deal better: whether Fanny herself were not growing as dear, as important to him in all her smiles and all her ways, as Mary Crawford had ever been; and whether it might not be a possible, an hopeful undertaking to persuade her that her warm and sisterly regard for him would be foundation enough for wedded love. (Mansfield Park, Ch. 48)
Hudson’s conclusion is that Austen is both conservative and radical – that she confirms the validity of the traditional family in what was a changing world, but that her vision of that family incorporates something new. I found this argument pretty convincing – but then, of course, it doesn’t take much to convince me that Austen was ahead of her times in thought and writing.