What is it about Jane Austen? We all know the basic dichotomy. You know, the division between those who dismiss her as being slight, inconsequential, fluffy, chicklit and those who read her again and again swearing that each time they do they find something new to enjoy and appreciate. But, do you know about the dissensions that rage amongst the ranks of the latter? I often wonder how a writer so loved and admired can engender such huge and ongoing debates amongst those very ones who love and admire her!
Fanny sewing in Mansfield Park (Illus. Brock, Public Domain, via Wikipedia)
Here are some of the issues Janeites debate ad infinitum:
- Fanny should have married Henry Crawford, not Edmund (Mansfield Park)
- Marianne and Colonel Brandon could never be happy (Sense and sensibility)
- Emma’s relationship with Mr Knightley is too “incestuous” to be acceptable (Emma)
- Fanny is a weak and boring heroine (Mansfield Park)
- Henry Tilney didn’t really love Catherine but married her out of honour for his father’s poor treatment of her (Northanger Abbey)
You would think, wouldn’t you, that fans of her books, those who read them multiple times, would agree at least on basic plotting and characterisation? But not so.
Why is this? That is, how can readers disagree with Austen and yet love her? Well, I would argue that it’s her wit and humour, her comedy – and the fact that her comedy is pointed, wicked even, but not bitter. Mr Collins (of Pride and prejudice), for example, is one of her silliest, most comic creations. He’s a snob, he’s tactless, he’s boring, but does he get his come-uppance? No. He ends as he always was, sublimely unaware of his failings – and fortunately (for him) married to the tolerant, sensible Charlotte. Then there’s Mr Wickham, the villain of the same novel. Far from getting his come-uppance for his dastardly deed – other than being stuck in a marriage with a silly girl – he receives help from the families he wronged:
Though Darcy could never receive him at Pemberley, yet, for Elizabeth’s sake, he assisted him farther in his profession.
Perhaps I should rephrase this. It probably is a come-uppance for Wickham to be stuck with the silly Lydia. Likewise, for Maria Bertram (in Mansfield Park) to end up as she did:
It ended in Mrs. Norris’s resolving to quit Mansfield and devote herself to her unfortunate Maria, and in an establishment being formed for them in another country, remote and private, where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment.
But these punishments are mild by comparison with what happened to “villains” in most novels of the 18th and 19th centuries. This comes about because Austen’s characters exhibit a psychological realism that is somewhat unusual for the time. Her characters aren’t archetypes. They are fully realised creations who move and act in a comprehensible way. We’ve all known (or been!) an over-emotional Marianne, a proud and reserved but reliable Darcy, a silly boy-chasing Lydia, a mine-is-bigger-than-yours John Thorpe, a too-willing-to-judge Elizabeth Bennet. To so accurately render humanity was Jane Austen’s aim, as she most clearly expressed in Northanger Abbey when she described a novel as something
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.
And this is why we Janeites keep reading – and arguing about – her.