Delicious descriptions from Down under: Jane Austen on politics
I was going to label this post “Jane Austen and plus ça change” but then decided to be provocative, because Austen is regularly criticised for not discussing politics, what was happening in her time, in her novels. Of course, I disagree that novelists have to specifically write about the political background to their stories. Those living in her time would have known, for example, about the Napoleonic Wars and their impact on society, about ongoing discussions regarding slavery, parliamentary power, free trade, and so on. Austen didn’t need to explain that background, and those issues weren’t the matters that she wanted to write about. She had something bigger in mind – human nature.
Nonetheless, I was tickled when reading one of her juvenilia pieces, Catharine, or the bower*, the other day, to come across the following**:
the Conversation turning on the state of Affairs in the political World, Mrs Percival, who was firmly of opinion that the whole race of Mankind were degenerating, said that for her part, Everything she believed was going to rack and ruin, all order was destroyed over the face of the World, the house of Commons she heard did not break up sometimes till five in the Morning, and Depravity was never so general before; concluding with a wish that she might live to see the Manners of the People in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, restored again. “Well, Ma’am,” said her Neice [Catharine aka Kitty], “but I hope you do not mean with the times to restore Queen Elizabeth herself.”
“Queen Elizabeth,” said Mrs Stanley, who never hazarded a remark on History that was not well founded, “lived to a good old age, and was a very Clever Woman.” “True, Ma’am,” said Kitty; “but I do not consider either of those Circumstances as meritorious in herself, and they are very far from making me wish her return, for if she were to come again with the same Abilities and the same good Constitution She might do as much Mischeif and last as long as she did before-.”
Of course, this doesn’t address specific political events or situations, but it suggests (to me anyhow) that politics and history were topics of conversation in Austen’s neighbourhood, and that she was well able to satirise the quality of that discussion. It also demonstrates Austen’s ability to describe and satirise her characters through their own mouths!
Oh, and despite – or in addition to – my comments above, I would argue that Austen’s novels can have a political reading, can show how political debate and events were shaping her world, but that’s a topic for a different post.
*Written in 1792, her 17th year
**This rather idiosyncratic-looking text is based on the original manuscript in the British Library from the Oxford World’s Classics edition published by Oxford University Press (on my Kindle)