Persuasions #10, 1988 Pages 53-58
Jane Austen’s England
JULIA PREWITT BROWN
Julia Prewitt Brown is Associate Professor of English at Boston University and
Forty years ago F.R. Leavis startled the literary world by putting Jane Austen down as one of four great English novelists, suggesting in The Great Tradition the paradox of her nearness yet distance from us. Much modern criticism that has followed upon Leavis’s judgement has emphasized this nearness. Lionel Trilling, for example, has shown the delineation of the modern self, with its restlessness and insincerity, in novels like Mansfield Park and Emma. Perhaps one of the great charms of Austen’s novels lies in the anachronism of seeing the modern self living in the old society. Because it is her society of course that is so distant from us. Today I should like to address the subject of that distance. How does it figure in our experience of Jane Austen and our attraction to her? This very question, I believe, comes up in a novel by D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love, in which the term “Jane Austen’s England” itself may have made its first appearance in a literary work of importance.
Now we know Lawrence was no friend of Jane Austen. He has some very unpleasant things to say about her in another context. He calls her “the mean Jane Austen,” “the old maid,” “thoroughly unpleasant,” “English in the bad, mean, snobbish sense of the word … ”1 It comes as no surprise perhaps, after such extreme denunciation, that Lawrence’s engagement with Austen was in fact a deep and complex one. The chapter in Women in Love in which this becomes evident is called “A Chair.” Here the hero and heroine, who are preparing to be married yet still undecided, go to a flea market one afternoon in search of furniture.
They wanted to see if there was any fragment they would like to buy, amid the heaps of rubbish collected on the cobblestones ….
“Look,” said Birkin, “there is a pretty chair.”
“Charming!” cried Ursula. “Oh, charming.” It was an arm-chair of simple wood, probably birch, but of such fine delicacy of grace, standing there on the sordid stones, it almost brought tears to the eyes. It was square in shape, of the purest, slender lines, and four short lines of wood in the back, that reminded Ursula of harp-strings.
“It was once,” said Birken, “gilded – and it had a cane seat. Somebody has nailed this wooden seat in. Look, here is a trifle of the red that underlay the gilt. The rest is all black, except where the wood is worn pure and glossy. It is the fine unity of lines that is so attractive. Look, how they run and meet and counteract. But of course the wooden seat is wrong – it destroys the perfect lightness and unity in tension the cane gave it. I like it though –”
“Ah yes,” said Ursula, “so do I.”
“How much is it?” Birken asked the man.
It was bought.
“So beautiful, so pure!” Birkin said. “It almost breaks my heart.” They walked along between the heaps of rubbish. “My beloved country – it had something to express even when it made that chair.”
“And hasn’t it now?” asked Ursula. She was always angry when he took this tone.
“No, it hasn’t. When I see that clear, beautiful chair, and I think of England, even Jane Austen’s England – it had living thoughts to unfold even then, and pure happiness in unfolding them. And now, we can only fish among the rubbish heaps for the remnants of their old expression. There is no production in us now, only sordid and foul mechanicalness.”
“It isn’t true,” cried Ursula. “Why must you always praise the past at the expense of the present? Really, I don’t think so much of Jane Austen’s England. It was materialistic enough, if you like –”
“It could afford to be materialistic,” said Birkin, “because it had the power to be something other – which we haven’t …”2
The flea market, as Birkin is suggesting, is England itself in the early 20th century, a kind of dumping ground of lost values in which the new generation exists in a peculiar relation of freedom. In this first stage in their discussion and quarrel concerning the chair, Lawrence makes clear that his characters can choose to take up or not take up the chair that embodies both Austen’s England and her art. And in this remarkable tribute of one novelist to another, the only thing worth saving in the rubbish heap Lawrence felt England had become is this declared symbol of Jane Austen’s world as she gave it body, an object both practical and beautiful, so beautiful in its concrete manifestation that it is irresistible and they buy it. The scene is about, among other things, the only legitimate impulse for preserving the past: beauty – beauty not in the narrow aesthete’s sense but in Plato’s sense of encompassing the good. Jane Austen’s England “could afford to be materialistic,” says Birkin, “because it had the power to be something other …”
What began to happen in Jane Austen’s day was a momentous change in the economic realm, a change in the direction in which human energies began to flow. Instead of the desire for wealth being finite, as it had been for countless centuries of agrarian society, the desire for wealth became infinite. The champions of capitalism came to the extraordinary conclusion that the pursuit of material interest and love of gain were basically benign and innocent, and would lead through “invisible hands” and the free play of market forces, to the “greatest good for the greatest number.” In the words of Keynes, it was possible for the nastiest of men, moved by the nastiest of motives, to somehow work for the benefit of us all.
Jane Austen’s novels may be seen as part of this shift in their overall investigative concern with money and how it shapes our lives. Her almost exclusive focus on the upper reaches of society came in part from an interest in exploring a group of people who had it within their power to live for something other than money or monetary survival. That they often fail to do so, how and why, is at the centre of her investigation.
The change I have referred to was underway in Austen’s world but the landed gentry did not feel its effects as quickly as the bourgeoisie, the class that brought it into being. We see frequently in her novels characters who have made money in trade, or whose parents have, and who are now settling down in landed estates to live their lives. Liberal and Marxist critics of Austen have seen this as a mark of her aristocratic materialism: that she writes about people who either drop out or want to drop out of the working, money-making world and parasitically live off of the interest from their capital. But to these characters property is the effect of accumulation, not its beginning; wealth is the effect of acquisition, not its beginning. They show a measure of freedom from money and property in subordinating it to a notion of living. That characters with enough money to live comfortably are often shown to be capable of little else shows Austen’s awareness of the new seductive power of money, not her sanction of it. All of these characters “can afford to be materialistic” because they have “the power to be something other,” whether they see it or not.
Often they don’t see it. And nowhere is their failure more evident than when they give themselves to a debased and deluded aestheticism. This is the basis of Austen’s critique of all those “improvers” of their estates. In Northanger Abbey, General Tilney, in critically surveying the view from the house where he imagines his son will live with his bride, notices an awkwardly placed tenant’s cottage within view of the parlour window that spoils the view. “The cottage goes,” he declares. In Mansfield Park Henry Crawford advises Edmund Bertram on how to improve the parsonage at Thornton Lacey: “The farm-yard must be cleared away entirely, and planted to shut out the blacksmith’s shop.” The house itself must be turned to front a meadow, he goes on to say, rather than the principal road of the village, which it was originally constructed to front. In their rage for the debased aesthetic of the picturesque, tenants’ lives were to be uprooted, houses were to turn their backs on the community, and all signs of the living, working, busy, world, suggested in the blacksmith’s shop, were to be effaced in the interests of a picture-postcard view. Austen’s critique of the improved estate shows not her committed conservatism or nostalgic clinging to an old order, as some have argued, but her awareness of the sterile aesthetic of the rich, its hidden violations and its delusions of progress.
In the cult of the picturesque and in fashionable improvement, which clearly fascinated Jane Austen, she saw a modern, restless, dissatisfied spirit, a technological rage for innovation, a kind of profit-seeking gone aesthetic. She makes clear that Crawford’s recommendations would be so expensive as to practically bankrupt Edmund were he to undertake them. The good life, with its necessary cultivation of inwardness, which was the imagined goal of the aesthetically pleasing environment, is now forgotten in the rage for mere outward perfection.
In Emma the alternative image to these gussied up properties may be found in Mr. Knightley’s estate, Donwell Abbey. Emma remarks upon its “old neglect of prospect,” how its situation is “characteristic,” expressive of its best genus loci: “It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was.” This sentence comes in the middle of a long description of Mr. Knightley’s property (one that echoes Ben Jonson’s Penshurst) that culminates in the most nationalistic utterance Austen was ever to permit herself to make: “It was a sweet view – sweet to the eye and to the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.”
Given how nationalism was to evolve in the 19th and 20th centuries, some readers might find these words disturbingly jingoistic. It could be argued that the best defence that can be made of Austen here is that Emma was written when England was under siege by Napoleon. Although this is true, we must keep in mind that the spirit of nationalism in Austen’s period was radically different from what it would become. The majority of English men and women lived by agriculture; England for them was not the abstract territory of the modern nation but the locus of a real community with real social relations with each other, not the imaginary community which creates some sort of bond between members of a population of tens – today even hundreds – of millions. As the historian Eric Hobsbawm points out, vocabulary itself proves this: in Spain patria did not become coterminous with Spain until late in the 19th century. In the 18th century it still meant simply the place or town where a person was born. With the decline of real communities to which people had been used – village, kin, and parish – a decline which occurred because they clearly no longer encompassed, as they once had done, most contingencies of people’s lives, their members felt a need for something to take their place. The imaginary community of “the nation” could fill this void.3
Highbury is one such real community. With the kind of massive irony which Austen had already shown she was capable of sustaining in Mansfield Park, Highbury is conceived of as an ideal community not because it is perfect – it has an insufferable vicar, sick people living in poverty, chicken thieves, potential violence from gypsies, not to mention a social world in which the strong prey upon the weak – it is ideal merely because it is a community. And that is all it is. The great theme of Emma is neighbourliness, brought out in many ways through constant gossip and visiting, but most subtly in the persistent giving of food that takes place in its daily life. (Mr. Knightley gives his last apples to the Bates; Emma sends them pork; Mrs. Martin makes Mrs. Goddard the gift of a goose, and so on.) The importance of farming is felt in the novel in this way and above all in the character of Mr. Knightley. Austen describes him not just as a gentleman but as a farmer: “As a farmer, Mr. Knightley had to tell what every field was to bear next year … the plan of a drain, the change of a fence, the felling of a tree, and the destination of every acre of wheat, turnips, or spring corn was entered into …”
The lives of the characters in Highbury are pressed to the earth by means of such details. Seen in this context, the cult of estate innovation and picturesque improvement is more profound than an instance of sterile aristocratic aestheticism, but a disruption of English ground and soil. In the walk through the Donwell estate, one avenue leads to a set of high pillars, a pointless piece of garden architecture that hints at some past owner’s flirtation with the picturesque. “It led to nothing,” Austen writes, but a half mile in the distance rises Abbey Mill farm “with meadows in front and the river making a close and handsome curve around it.” Austen seems to be suggesting in this scene of vista that whatever future the gentry possesses will not be in the leisurely pursuit of fashion and in extravagance, which “led to nothing,” but in farming. The image of the Abbey Mill farm is made an integral part of the scene to suggest that it is an integral part of the community.
One of the remarkable facts about the intellectual history of the 19th century, as political theorists have suggested, is how few thinkers, of either liberal or conservative orientation, adequately investigated or understood the nationalist movement, and failed to anticipate, for example, the transformation of national sentiment of the sort we see in Jane Austen into strident chauvinism and aggressive and pathological nationalism. It is interesting therefore to see how careful, intelligent, and prophetic was Austen’s treatment of national sentiment from her first to her last novel. In Northanger Abbey, she evidences little patience with the mentality by which the British Empire imagined itself the representation of Christian civilization. Here is the hero’s jingoistic defence against the heroine’s violent fantasies about his father: “Remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians.” But a few days later the father’s impetuous and barbarous conduct makes us feel the absurdity of his remarks. And the closing sentences of Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, are foreboding on more than one level:
Anne was tenderness itself, and she had the full worth of it in Captain Wentworth’s affection. His profession was all that could ever make her friends wish that tenderness less; the dread of a future war all that could dim her sunshine. She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance.
When Austen wrote these lines she knew she was leaving the hero and heroine about six months before Waterloo; the main action of Persuasion is set during the false peace. She evinces in these lines then a full awareness of the necessity of the military task, together with a full awareness of the dangerous but unavoidable mistake of valuing England’s national importance over its domestic life. In this last sentence of her last completed novel, written after a terrible war, the affirmation of marriage and the biological roots of society as against the alarm and destruction of war is almost wistful. As D.H. Lawrence would write in a letter, in the end the novelist “must speak for life and growth, amid this mass of destruction and disintegration.”
Speaking of Lawrence, you may be wondering what happened to that chair. Listening to Birkin further sing the praises of the past and denounce the present, Ursula becomes angry.
“… I hate your past. I’m sick of it,” she cried. “I believe I even hate that old chair, though it is beautiful. It isn’t my sort of beauty. I wish it had been smashed up when its day was over, not left to preach the beloved past to us. I’m sick of the beloved past.”
“Not so sick as I am of the accursed present,” he said.
“Yes, just the same. I hate the present – but I don’t want the past to take its place – I don’t want that old chair ….”
“All right,” he said, “then let us not have it … one can’t go on living on the old bones of beauty.”4
The future of the chair is now in greatest jeopardy. How is Lawrence going to resolve the ambivalence he feels about the past and about Jane Austen? Like the chair – Jane Austen’s England, the English novel tradition – Lawrence does not want it but he does not want to throw it away. The characters retrace their steps and it appears that the chair will be returned to the rubbish heap from which they retrieved it. But instead, “[t]here – in front of some furniture, stood the young couple, the woman who was going to have a baby and the narrow-faced youth …. ‘Let us give it to them,’ whispered Ursula. ‘Look, they are getting a home together.’ ”5 And so they do. This is a touching conclusion to the story, an affirmation of the biological roots of culture and the novel tradition in one. Lawrence wants his favourite characters to live outside the bourgeois family, outside of society and class, and outside of England, but in this paradoxical and self-effacing gesture, he spares Jane Austen his pessimism.
1 D.H. Lawrence, Sex, Literature, and Censorship (New York: Viking, 1959), p. 109.
2 D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love (New York: Viking, 1960), pp. 346-48.
3 See Eric Hobsbawn, Age of Empire (New York: Pantheon Books, 1987), p. 148.
4 Women in Love, p. 348.
5 Women in Love, p. 349.