Re-reading Austen

I’m reading Jane Austen again. As a habitual re-reader to the point of vice, Austen is one of the authors to whom I have returned more often than I can count. One reason I read her so often is a hope that, by a process of osmosis, I might absorb her habits of precision into my own prose. I often pick up her books when, as now, I’m writing a novel.

It happens that the edition I’m reading is a box set published for the chick lit market, with pretty feminine covers and blurbs that emphasise the romance plot of the books, complete with quotes from famous romance writers. Fair enough, I guess. Austen novels and the associated TV series and films are a staple of the contemporary romance industry, and the popular Regency romance genre spawned by Georgette Heyer carries the Austen gene into witty fantasy, disposing of her realism altogether.

Austen’s books are comedies in the classic sense of the word: an orderly world is rendered unstable by some intervention and then, by the end, order is restored with the coupling of the protagonists, sorted out in precedence of morality, class and income. Yet, for all their stereotypical romance structure – girl and boy meet, strike impediments, overcome them, and at last are united in matrimony – I’ve never been able to quite understand why Austen is considered the presiding muse of romance. No-one is more hostile to the idea that ‘love conquers all’ than Miss Austen.

Her books are, from beginning to end, all about money: the economic status of her characters frames and governs every aspect of their lives. In Austen’s novels, the etymological connections between ‘propriety’, ‘proper’ and ‘property’ are made painstakingly clear. Almost the first thing you know about any Austen character is their income. In Pride and Prejudice, Mr Bingley is ‘a single man of large fortune, four or five thousand a year’, while Mr Darcy is noted as having ten thousand. Catherine Morland, the heroine of Northanger Abbey, is the daughter of a man with ‘a considerable independence, besides two good livings’. The plot of Sense and Sensibility turns on the impossibility of Mr Dashwood leaving any part of his estate to his second wife and daughters, a situation which is described in detail. And so on.

Her books all concern the landed gentry of early nineteenth-century England, representing the interests of a privileged class that made its fortunes on exploitation. Austen is quite specific about this, referring to colonial or English estates, or fortunes made by capturing enemy ships during war. She is by no means so vulgar as to equate the possession of money and class with virtue. Some of her funniest portraits are of rich aristocrats who fail her moral test: the absurd vanities of Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliott in Persuasion, or the monstrous Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice.

Austenish virtues are very Protestant: intelligence, modesty, courtesy, self-control and prudence. She is clear that these aren’t innately limited to a certain class – they can even belong to the yeoman farmer Martin in Emma – but upbringing and education means that inevitably the possibility of possessing such virtues in toto belongs, as Woyzeck comments in George Büchner’s play, to those who can afford them.

Her unsentimental prose outlines a circumscribed society. The world outside is present merely as background, although the details are telling. Mostly we see the wider world as an aspect of property: the tenants who must be visited on a well-managed estate, or the colonial plantations in the Caribbean that must be prudently ordered in Persuasion or Mansfield Park. When this exterior world is not properly owned or ordered – as in Fanny’s dolorous visit to her Portsmouth family in Mansfield Park, or when Harriet encounters Gypsies and has hysterics in Emma – it is a glimpse of barbarism, a threat to the most cherished notions of moral and social propriety.

In these novels, untempered ardour is a scandal. The woman who casts aside financial or social considerations for love, like Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, is a disgrace. When Mrs Gardiner tells Elizabeth to moderate her admiration for Wickham, it is not because he is not considered a most desirable man – at the time, anyway – but because he has no money. (Wickham turns out to be as bankrupt morally as he is financially, but another attractive man, Colonel Fitzwilliam, also lets Elizabeth know that marriage is out of the question because of his lack of inheritance.)

Austen is a most determined anti-Romantic, in every sense. For her, romance is all about prudent behaviour, and at its root this prudence is fiscal and pragmatic. Her novels remain, as Edward Said commented, ‘provocatively rich’, glinting with ironies and sly subversions that only deepen on revisiting them. But as escapist models of romantic passion? I must have missed something.

Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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