Persuasions #10, 1988                                                                                                            Pages 83-89

Jane Austen and the Political Passions



Department of English, Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana 46383


At first glance, the word “political” might seem as strange as the word “passions” when applied to Jane Austen in the title of my talk.  But there is a fascinating debate going on among scholars and historians today about Jane Austen’s politics, and I would like to bring you a “report from the critical front.”

To some twentieth-century readers, it might seem far-fetched even to bring up the question of Jane Austen’s politics.  Many of Jane Austen’s readers have assumed that her novels do not deal with political events – some people claim to like her works because she does not deal with such matters!  This common view of Jane Austen assumes that she was unconcerned with the political events of her day, or at least unconcerned with writing about them.  She lived through the French Revolution and England’s ensuing wars with France, the Napoleonic Wars, the industrial revolution and social upheavals in England, but she, a clever, retired spinster, lived at home and limited her concerns to three or four families in a country village.  Somehow she ignored the French Revolution even though it touched her family (her cousin’s first husband was beheaded), and she was not concerned with the wars with France although two of her brothers were fighting in the navy: the fictional world she creates or echoes was not a world in turmoil.  Some version of this view has been held by critics and general readers alike.  Winston Churchill, for example, held this view: “What calm lives they had, those people!  No worries about the French Revolution, or the Napoleonic Wars.”

Furthermore, Austen sometimes seems to make fun of “politics” as something that men discuss in a pompous way while the real action is going on elsewhere – and the real action is personal, not political.  In Northanger Abbey, for instance, the naive Catherine Morland accompanies Henry and Eleanor Tilney on a walk to Beechen Cliff.  They have been talking about picturesque landscape; Henry has been instructing the young girl, trying to educate her eye, and then the subject gradually changes:


Delighted with her progress, and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline, and by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, and inclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence.  (NA 111)


Apparently, windy pronouncements on “politics” are not part of the real business of life, which has more to do with Catherine and Henry than with crown lands and government.

Many twentieth-century critics have held that while Austen is indeed not concerned with temporary political or historical questions, she is concerned with eternal or universal moral questions; they have interpreted her and venerated her as a moralist.  Her novels are not simply stories of girl meets boy, but stories of moral struggles and difficult moral triumphs.  In Jane Austen, small things stand for large things: details of ordinary family life and social life involve right or wrong moral choices.  In this moral understanding, Austen is not talking about how to catch a husband but about how to live as a rational and moral being.  Catherine’s problem is not how to attract Henry, but how to see clearly what life is really like in her world and how to judge correctly the people she meets there.  Similarly, the question facing Elizabeth Bennet is not how she can snare a man with ten thousand a year, but whether she can learn to use her intelligence in the right way, and not misuse it as she begins to do and as her father has done – but whether she can learn to see and judge what is really going on outside of her and within herself.  In this “moral reading,” Austen is not crassly concerned with class and property as good things for a young woman to marry into; the well-run estate is not simply a source of wealth but something that stands for an ordered world, reflecting a greater order.  People who care for their estates, like Darcy as the benevolent head of Pemberley, are showing respect for an entire inherited system of values and principles of which the estate is the visible symbol.  People who neglect their estates, like Henry Crawford, demonstrate that they are abdicating membership in a way of life ultimately based on a divinely inspired order.

Recently, however, I have begun to read scholars and critics who throw these universal-sounding moral interpretations of Jane Austen into some doubt by putting her works into their historical context and arguing that the novels are part of a fierce political debate which arose in reaction to the French Revolution.  Recent scholars like Marilyn Butler, Tony Tanner, Claudia L. Johnson and others have argued that no novel published in Jane Austen’s time could be “a-political” – novels that seem like innocent love stories to us were really part of a liberal vs. conservative debate, and all readers at the time would have understood that clearly.  Some scholars, most notably Marilyn Butler, look at Austen’s contemporary situation and conclude that she is a Tory ideologue – a conservative defender of conservatism, a defender of the system in which a very few people physically own chunks of the planet because they are born to do so, and everybody else is subservient to those few in a system of interlocking hierarchies.  Butler, and to a lesser extent Tony Tanner, believe that as England reacted to the French Revolution, Austen wrote novels which assumed and defended the present economic and political position of the English landed gentry.

In this view, Austen’s novels do not ignore politics: they are part of what Marilyn Butler calls “the war of ideas” which raged in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, especially in the 1790s when Austen began to write.  Butler claims and effectively demonstrates that no literary work, especially no novel, could be a-political in the 1790s:


… at the period when Jane Austen began to write, literature as a whole was partisan, in England as well as on the Continent: so were the other arts, as Kenneth Clark observes in drawing a general parallel with painting.  “Doctrine was found in works which seem to us very harmless.  We may think that The Marriage of Figaro was written solely to give us pleasure, but in 1785 it was considered a political bombshell, for from 1780 to 1790 every play and every ballet was interpreted in a political sense.”3


Citing published reviews and unpublished letters of Jane Austen’s day, Butler demonstrates that novels were indeed read as political documents; even a poem on gardening, if it showed a suspicious fondness for wildness, would be reviewed with specific reference to the French revolution and the civil laws of England.

How can novels, how can love stories especially, have political content?  Broadly, a novelist can portray a world in which people are naturally benevolent and good – a world which implies that people do not need to be kept in line by strong repressive governments or by strict obedience to inherited principles.  If people are naturally good, they should be as free as possible.  If the promptings of a heroine’s heart spontaneously show her what is right – if she can tell at first sight that a young woman is a true friend or that a young man is her soul-mate because of the instinctive sympathy she shares with him – if the private internal promptings of individuals are trustworthy, then society does not need a heavy system of authority: people can naturally rule themselves.  But a novelist can also portray a different sort of world.  If people’s first impressions are wrong, if characters delude themselves with private imaginings and need to learn to submit to shared, external standards instead of wayward individual impulses, then human nature looks different: people are flawed, fallen, always liable to go wrong unless they submit to some kind of authority other than their own wishes.  If this is the case, government too must be strongly authoritative and dependent upon tradition and long practice.  There can be plots in which a character escapes from the artificial constraints of a repressive society, and there can be plots in which a character learns to defer to and take a place in a just social order.  Besides these broad plot outlines, Butler also points to stock characters and buzzwords that indicated the political beliefs of the author and would be apparent to every contemporary reader.

Marilyn Butler gives many examples of once-popular “jacobin” and “anti-jacobin” novels, and she attempts to place Jane Austen squarely within the conservative camp.  She discusses Jane West’s A Gossip’s Story as a typical Tory or anti-jacobin novel, and she points out unmistakable parallels between that novel and Sense and Sensibility.  In Mrs. West’s novel, two sisters, Louisa and Marianne, illustrate the right way and the wrong way for a young woman to think and act.  The thoughtful, self-controlled Louisa has “an informed, well-regulated mind,” while her younger sister Marianne is proud to claim a nature “tremblingly alive to the softer passions.”  Marianne resists a staid suitor whom she finds unromantic, although father points out his solid virtues: “I am told he is a kind master, an indulgent landlord, an obliging neighbour, and a steady active friend.”  That is not enough:


“He is not, indeed he is not, the tender, respectful sympathizing lover, which my heart tells me is necessary for my future repose.  He does not love me, at least not with that ardent affection, that deference, that assiduous timidity – But you smile, Sir?”  (99)


Marianne prefers the dashing Mr. Clermont, who saves her from a runaway horse and who shares a “wonderful coincidence of opinion” with her in all matters of taste and art.  But her heart has misled her: such love brings her only misery, while her patient, prudent, long-suffering elder sister looks forward to quiet happiness, Butler concludes,


What seems more interesting, however, even than so many apparent echoes of a name, a scene, a speech, is the strong generic resemblance between Jane Austen and Mrs. West.  The coincidence of outlook is more important than the trivial alleged borrowings.  Like other conservative moralists, Mrs. West denigrates the individual’s reliance on himself.  She shows for example how dangerous it is to trust private intuition or passion in forming judgements of others ….  The same discovery – that objective evidence should be preferred to private intuition – is made by a succession of Jane Austen heroines, Catherine Morland, Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse.  (101)


To Butler, the only difference between Jane Austen and her politically conservative sister-novelists is that she is a better artist, a “born novelist” who can disguise the doctrinaire outlines of her cautionary tales better than the others; Sense and Sensibility simply is the same novel as A Gossip’s Story, only better written.  Butler points out that the novel with paired protagonists was especially popular in the mid and late 1790s when Mrs. West’s novel was published and Sense and Sensibility was begun.  She claims that all novelists who chose the contrasting paired heroine format did so “in order to make an explicit ideological point” (182) – it was an inherently political form, chosen to demonstrate the right way and the wrong way, and Jane Austen used it just as Jane West did.  “The entire action is organized to represent Elinor and Marianne in terms of rival value-systems, which are seen directing their behaviour in the most crucial choices of their lives” (184).  Marianne insists upon being a law unto herself: “She believes in an innate moral sense, and since man is naturally good, his actions when he acts on impulse are likely to be good also” (187).  She therefore has no doubts about herself or about Willoughby, and she is of course proved wrong.  She must adopt Elinor’s self-control, self-distrust, restraint, civility, and deference to the established order: “It is the role of Marianne Dashwood, who begins with the wrong ideology, to learn the right one” (192).

When I first read Marilyn Butler’s formidably knowledgeable work, I was worried because it seemed that the novelist I have read and loved for many years was in fact writing in defence of a system of inequality and privilege which I find repellent!  Does Butler’s convincing “political reading” undermine or explode the apparently neutral “moral reading” which had formed the basis of my own writing about Jane Austen?  If I try to say that Austen is not writing about money and land, but that she is using money and land to stand for a whole system of inherited values and religious beliefs, then political readers can say that this underlying system, too, is conservative ideology.  These moral and religious ideas themselves support the hierarchical rule of the landed gentry: apparently God wants some people to be the Master of Pemberley, and he wants other people to be women who by nature are not capable of inheriting power or property, and still other people to be servants who appear on the shadowy margins of Jane Austen’s world and do not merit stories of their own.  But a very recent book has suggested a way out of my dilemma.

Claudia L. Johnson’s Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel, published earlier this year, suggests a reading of Jane Austen’s politics which may help me out of my difficulties of discovering my favourite novelist to be defending ideas which appall me.  Professor Johnson agrees with Marilyn Butler and others that the novel was fiercely partisan in Jane Austen’s day, and that no contemporary reader would approach fiction a-politically.  She agrees that there was a group of doctrinaire conservatives resolutely writing “anti-jacobin” novels, and that the question of the behaviour of young women in novels was relentlessly politicized.  But she draws a very different picture of the way Austen’s works fit into this “war of ideas.”  Broadly, her Jane Austen is not a Tory apologist; she is seeking a middle ground and examining rather than simply repeating or proclaiming the conservative plots, characters, key words, and assumptions that appear in her novels.  To Johnson, Jane Austen is not simply repeating the inherited ideas of her class (Johnson points out that twentieth-century readers have “elevated” her class), but she is carefully examining and testing those ideas, and she is particularly aware of the ways in which conservative ideology works to the detriment of women.

Johnson feels that scholars like Butler have oversimplified the complex political debate in the novels of the 1790s and have drawn blunt, broad, inaccurate lines to include Austen so squarely in the conservative camp: “Most of the novels written in the ‘war of ideas’ are more complicated and less doctrinaire than modern commentators have represented” (xxi).  These commentators have not sufficiently appreciated the covert social criticism of the position of women even in generally conservative women novelists.  In Johnson’s view, Austen was writing not to defend conservative principles, but to “de-polemicize” political discussion, especially concerning the lives of women, and open up a broad middle ground between the camps.

Johnson points out that in Catherine, or The Bower, Austen makes fun of the rabid concern for the political consequences of young women’s social behaviour.  The heroine’s fussy aunt, Mrs. Percival, is sure that because Catherine has heard a silly young man’s declarations of love, civilization as we know it is in deep trouble:


“– Oh! Catherine, you are an abandoned Creature, and I do not know what will become of you … if you are really sorry for it, and your future life is a life of penitence and reformation perhaps you may be forgiven.  But I plainly see that every thing is going to sixes & sevens and all order will soon be at an end throughout the Kingdom.”

“Not however Ma’am the sooner, I hope, from any conduct of mine, said Catherine in a tone of great humility, for upon my honour I have done nothing this evening that can contribute to overthrow the establishment of the kingdom.”

“You are Mistaken Child, replied she; the welfare of every Nation depends upon the virtue of it’s individuals, and any one who offends in so gross a manner against decorum and propriety is certainly hastening it’s ruin.”  (MW 232-33)


This is a caricature of the attitude which Butler ascribes to the conservative camp and to Austen: here Austen pokes fun at it.

Johnson points out further that the conservative novelists of the 1790s followed Burke in seeing the patriarchal family of the landed gentry as the school and the bastion of morality.  They depart from the social criticism of earlier eighteenth-century novels of Fielding and Richardson: they do not depict “gluttonous and sycophantic clergymen, tyrannical fathers, wastrel eldest sons, or comic plots favoring the romantic energies of the young over the inflexibility and greed of the old” (8).  But Jane Austen does.

Claudia Johnson draws a very different picture from Marilyn Butler of the political implications of Sense and Sensibility.  Johnson feels that a typical conservative novel like A Gossip’s Story is not doing the same things as Jane Austen’s novel.  West’s novel indeed “tirelessly reiterates the moral difference between two daughters, one good, decorous, obedient, and contentedly married to a modest country gentleman her father appoints, and the other bad, self-willed, and doomed to a connubial infelicity of her own choosing” (23).  But Sense and Sensibility, on the other hand, seems to set up antithetical contrasts and simplicities only to dismantle them throughout the course of the narrative.  It dismantles these simple contrasts by “suggesting that the differences are more apparent than real” (24).  The two sisters are not opposites, and they are “deluded in identical ways about their equally shadowy, weak, and unworthy suitors” (24).  There are things very wrong with the social system of the landed gentry in this novel, the system that makes young men dangle about for years waiting for relatives to die, and being like Elinor won’t save a woman from the results of this pernicious system.

To Johnson, Sense and Sensibility is not the admonition to submit to an external order that Butler sees; it is instead an exposé of the way “those sacred and supposedly benevolizing institutions of order – property, marriage, and family – actually enforce avarice, shiftlessness, and oppressive mediocrity” (49).  Johnson claims that this novel, which so many have read as “a dramatized conduct book favoring female prudence over female impetuosity,” a conservative tract, is of all Austen’s novels the one “most attuned to progressive social criticism” (49).

Conservatives had asserted the political importance of the family as the institution which inculcated moral affections and channelled self-interest in socially constructive and cohesive ways (50).  But in Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen shows the patriarchal family in a very different light.  The beginning of the novel makes us experience the inheritance of money and estates through sons rather than daughters as arbitrary, rather than “natural,” and we see the effects of this male-centred system on a group of displaced women, the Dashwoods.  The portrayal of the family life of John Dashwood, the Middletons, and the Palmers makes it clear that


the family, far from being the mainspring for all moral and social affections, is the mainspring instead for the love of money, the principal vice in Sense and Sensibility, and in so much progressive fiction … the family very severely restricts, rather than enables and broadens, acts of generosity, and all considerations – even promises to dying patriarchs – can be dropped by appealing to the future needs of the toddling male heir.  (53)


Instead of a call to self-restraint and duty, the novel now appears to be a sharp criticism of England’s social arrangements.

These distinctly varying political interpretations of Jane Austen’s works make me want to immerse myself in history and read hundreds of the novels and reviews of her long-forgotten contemporaries involved in the passionate political debate in England which followed the French Revolution.  The critical debates of scholars today do a valuable service for us as twentieth-century readers: they help us read Jane Austen’s novels with the eyes of her contemporaries.



Works Cited


Butler, Marilyn.  Jane Austen and the War of Ideas.  Oxford: Clarendon Press-Oxford University Press, 1987, 1975.


Johnson, Claudia L.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel.  Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988.


Tanner, Tony.  Jane Austen.  Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986.

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