Persuasions #11, 1989 Page 132-139
and Prejudice: Conservative
or Liberal Novel – Or Both? (A
Several years ago I gave a talk about Jane Austen to a mixed audience of Arizona high school English teachers and my colleagues from the University of Arizona English department. During the question and answer period that followed I happened to comment that a recent scholar had written that Jane Austen and her family were “Tories of the deepest dye.” I was rather surprised (I had assumed that everyone knew basically what Jane Austen’s background was) when several members of my audience were quite upset by this fact. Since I have always been rather conservative myself, Jane Austen’s conservatism had never troubled me. I certainly had never given much thought to the possible responses an ardently liberal Janeite might have to the personal conservatism of his or her favourite novelist; obviously there were troubled liberals before me at that moment who had to be soothed – a task which I accomplished rather glibly by muttering something about the ability of a great work always to rise above the narrow political and moral views of its own time. But the problem remained in the back of my mind. Most of my colleagues at the University of Arizona and my fellow members of JASNA would undoubtedly find Jane Austen herself, no matter how clever and charming, hopelessly reactionary in most of her political, religious, and moral opinions. Yet many of these same people were every bit as intense as I myself was in their appreciation of Austen’s novels. Until I unwittingly had cast it in their faces, Jane Austen’s personal conservatism, and its reflections in what I took to be the basic assumptions of her novels, did not bother them at all. Just as I had told my audience, her novels seemed to have no trouble in rising above the narrow personal views of their author. How, I wondered from time to time, did they accomplish this?
Last year I had this problem set
before me more strikingly than I had ever experienced it before, and,
by a happy
coincidence (unless one believes in what Rosemary Reuther once called a
“providence of books”) I also encountered a critical approach that
a coherent account of how the same work can give rise to both liberal
conservative interpretations without one’s either feeling obliged to
that one of them is ridiculously off the mark or, on the other hand,
that a work of art is like a big Rorschach blot and that any and all
reactions to it are equally correct.
article that compelled me to confront the question of ideology in
and especially in Jane Austen’s novels – was Mollie Sandock’s “Jane
Austen and the Political Passions,” which appeared in the 1988 issue of
Professor Sandock brings her reader “ ‘a report from the
front’ ” (83) about what current criticism has to say about political
in, or implied by, Jane Austen’s fiction.
When she discusses the work of Marilyn Butler, a major critic
that Austen’s novels embody important conservative ideas of the
time, Professor Sandock writes:
I first read Marilyn Butler’s formidably knowledgeable work, I was
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
repellent! Does Butler’s convincing
“political reading” undermine
or explode the apparently neutral “moral reading” which had formed the
of my own writing about Jane Austen? (86-87)
Sandock finds the answer to her dilemma in a new (1988) study by
Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel.
Claudia Johnson, Professor Sandock explains, agrees with Butler
Austen’s formative years, both as woman and writer, were in the
tense 1790s when almost all novels were seen to have political
either strengthening the outlook of the libertarian radicals in France
England, or that of the conservative Tories, and therefore Jane Austen
could not have been politely neutral; she had to have been aware that
presentations of unfaithful wives, stupid mothers, obedient or
daughters, and conscientious or negligent landholders, had a political
dimension. Unlike Marilyn Butler,
however, Claudia Johnson by no means sees Jane Austen as a
of the Establishment. As summarized
by Sandock, Johnson sees Jane Austen as endeavouring in her fiction to
‘depolemicize’ political discussion, especially concerning the lives of
women, and open up a broad middle ground between the camps” (87).
above view of Jane Austen’s purpose is certainly a moderate one.
Professor Sandock, however, obviously takes great pleasure in
clearly radical interpretation of Sense and Sensibility:
To Johnson, Sense and
Sensibility is not the admonition to submit to an external order
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…” is of all Austen’s novels the one “most
attuned to progressive social criticism.”
(49) (Sandock 88)
procured a copy of Claudia Johnson’s book for myself, I found (not at
my surprise) that Mollie Sandock’s summary had been perfectly accurate.
Professor Johnson clearly states that Jane Austen was no ranting
– she wished her readers to examine and to question the institutions of
society, not to destroy them (24). At
the same time, however, Johnson frankly states that her own perspective
of a modern feminist (xx) and the interpretations of the novels which
certainly show us in great detail how an awareness of the stupidity and
unfairness of a patriarchal, capitalist society permeates every aspect
Austen’s fiction. Surprisingly,
Claudia Johnson sees Pride and Prejudice, the novel which is
praised for its free spirit, as Jane Austen’s most conservative work.
Even here, however, Johnson argues that the conservatism of the
by no means a blind endorsement of tradition; it is rather “an
experiment with conservative myths, and not a statement of faith in
them as they
had already stood in anti-Jacobean fiction” (75).
Further, Johnson goes on, Jane Austen creates her conservative
myths in a
way that makes them also “the vehicles of incisive social criticism”
reading Mollie Sandock’s article and Claudia Johnson’s book, I reached
clear realization that here were two intelligent, sensitive,
readers of Jane Austen who simply thought about Austen’s fiction and,
– since they are both teachers of literature, as I am – presented her
in class in a very different manner than I did.
This, of course, is a common situation with the work of any
great author. We who teach and who write
criticism are used to presenting
different interpretations of the same work, and then with a combination
humility and arrogance that would do credit to Mr. Collins, explaining
particular interpretation is really the one with the most merit to it,
course if our reader or student for some inadequate reason or other
favour another view, we will graciously condescend to grant him
think whatever he wishes.
attitude was as superficial and sloppy as my answer to those distressed
in my audience about great works automatically soaring above the
their creators. How can Claudia
Johnson present Jane Austen’s works as basically liberal – for example:
and Prejudice is a passionate novel which vindicates personal
happiness as a
liberal moral category” (77) – while I argue that these same works are
basically conservative, that Christianity and natural moral law
permeate all of
Austen’s fiction, without one of us being dreadfully wrong?
time the “providence of books” provided me with a good working answer
this problem. For years I had been
teaching some of Plato’s dialogues in the University’s humanities
one of my colleagues, Anne Kerwin, who had her doctorate in philosophy,
recommended that I read The idea of the Good in
Philosophy by Hans-Georg Gadamer, an important German hermeneuticist.
This book helped me a great deal, and in discussing some of its
ideas with another colleague, Suresh Raval, the author of a fine book
literary theory, the latter advised me further to read Gadamer’s main
and Method. This I proceeded to
do with great enthusiasm, but not with great rapidity, I should add,
and Method is a long, dense work. But
my perseverance was rewarded; Gadamer provided me with an approach to
Austen (and to literature in general) which allows for contradictory
to the same material without sinking into subjective morasses or
nihilistic, reductionist theories which characterize much current
a work of art has the nature of a very complex game.
We play games, of course, for recreation – they are not “real,”
the sense that driving to work or fighting an illness is real.
But games do have their own kinds of realities, which generate
involvement – sometimes intense involvement – in the players. Someone who participates lackadaisically, with
interest in the quality of his own play or in the outcome of the game,
spoilsport: “Play fulfills its purpose only if the player loses himself
participates in a game, one becomes a part of the self-enclosed world
that game. Thus a game – and a work of art
– has a completeness that
is very rarely found in the chaos of actual life.
And this completeness involves the realization of a form, or a
which reveals the inner meaning of the various parts, or aspects of the
the participant: “The being of all play is always realisation, sheer
fulfillment, energeia which has its telos within itself.
The world of the work of art, in which play expresses itself
fully in the
unity of its course, is in fact a wholly transformed world.
By means of it everyone recognises that that is how things are”
art then, communicates a form or structure, and when one participates
world, one finds that form meaningful – through it “everyone recognizes
that is how things are.” How is
it then, in the beautiful, complex game called Pride and Prejudice
Claudia Johnson and I both think we see how things are but those things
different in nature?
Gadamer makes quite clear his belief
each individual’s reactions to the work might he different, if one
participates in the work it will always be the latter, not the
consciousness, which dominates:
started from the position that the work of art is play, i.e., that its
being cannot be detached from its representation [the acting of a play
reading of a novel] and that in the representation the unity and
identity of a
structure emerge. To be
dependent on self-representation is part of its nature.
This means that however much it may be changed and distorted in
representation, it still remains itself.
This constitutes the validity of every representation, that it
relation to the structure itself and submits itself to the criterion of
correctness. (109, italics
In other words, any representation of a work, or any interpretation of it, both partakes of the nature of the work itself and also necessarily changes and distorts it. Even so, the work itself always remains at the centre of things, its presence always available to help others judge each representation. Marilyn Butler, Claudia Johnson, Mollie Sandock and I are all deeply involved in “playing” the game of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. We are all, so to speak, on the same field, playing by the same basic set of rules. But just as the players of a physical game bring their own various abilities, backgrounds, and styles of play to that game – Goolagong, Evert, Austin, Schreiber, and Navratilova, all play tennis and play it extremely well, but each has her own distinctive approach and style – so each of Jane Austen’s readers brings his or her own background, her own point of view, and her own interpretive skills to Pride and Prejudice.
All of us – Butler, Johnson, Sandock, and I – give ourselves fully to the game, because understanding a work means involvement in that work. Thus we become part of the world of Pride and Prejudice, experiencing its people, its places, and its events. When we then discuss some aspects of Jane Austen’s fictional world, we all do our best to add to other readers’ appreciations of the game-world of Pride and Prejudice. Hopefully, the next time one of our readers plays it, the next time that reader creates a representation of it in his own mind, he will enjoy it even more than he has previously.
that for university people and their publishers, interpretation is a
big (a more
honest word than “great”) and serious business.
But Gadamer helps me keep my priorities straight.
The “Austen Industry,” which is the name that the recent deluge
articles and books about Jane Austen has acquired, is light years away
importance from the actual works of the author with whom they are
If the reader experiences Pride and Prejudice in a
includes an awareness of (1) traditional natural moral law and (2) a
religious consciousness which permits one to experience the battle of
the spirit alive in a contingent, materialistic modern world, then I am
If, on the other hand, a reader experiences Pride and
a manner which emphasizes an appreciation of how difficult it is for an
intelligent, sensitive female to fulfill herself in a society dominated
irresponsible, arrogant males, then Claudia Johnson is happy.
But the important thing is not the contentment level of
or myself. The important thing is that
readers continue to play the game
of Pride and Prejudice, and play it as well as they can, and
enjoy it as
completely as they can.
which view of Jane Austen’s novel is more helpful – mine or Claudia
Johnson’s – both Gadamer and common sense tell me that it is neither
cowardly nor falsely humble to reply that the reader must be his own
I honestly believe that both Johnson’s and my interpretations
the field” – that they were both generated by what we experienced in Pride
and Prejudice, as well as what has come from our personal
approaches to life
and literature. For the game of
art, specifically of Pride and Prejudice, is far more complex
physical sport. One’s experience
of a Jane Austen novel fuses with one’s experience of life, of the
general. One’s total response to Pride and Prejudice, in other
fuses with one’s total response to life.
So it is up to each reader – who, of course, has his own complex
response to the novel and to life – what parts of our various
have enough value to make them parts of his own next game.
claiming that all criticism of Jane Austen is good, and it is simply a
each reader’s deciding which parts of the critical feast it would be
delightful for him personally to consume? Not
really. Just as the creators
themselves, the authors of our literary games differ greatly in their
and in the quality of the games they produce (if you doubt this, read a
Jane West or Hannah More, or a typical Harlequin romance, and then turn
Jane Austen), so interpreters vary greatly in their interpretive skills.
Some Austen scholarship is banal. For
example, should we feel obliged to read still another lengthy
Jane Austen’s works should not be dismissed as frivolous romantic
Other critics might be so subjective or schematized in their
the reader might well decide that they are “off the field,” and not
worth bothering with. Still others
might make decent arguments for their interpretations, but as their
too far distant from the reader’s own total response to a Jane Austen
simply decides to leave them to benefit others who can come closer to
in which those particular critics react to Austen.
For example, two or three years ago I read an excellent essay
which marshalled evidence from the six novels to show that Jane Austen
wasteland novelist, a master of black irony who does not feel that true
communication between human beings is possible. The
arguments were excellent; opposing evidence was
considered and refuted. I simply
was not convinced. The description of Emma sounded to me more
Passing, Anne Tyler’s darkest novel.
I am not claiming that the writer’s arguments lack all validity.
I simply feel that most of his points do not enrich my own
Jane Austen’s novels.
like to state here once again, that although the artistic playing field
and Prejudice is quite a large
one, it is not infinite. No exact
boundaries can be drawn, but from time to time it is possible to say
particular reading is out of bounds. Stanley
Fish would object here, no doubt. Or
rather, he would argue that interpretations of the complex patterns of
a work of
literature can be limited only by a consensus of a reading community,
such a consensus can change radically as history progresses and
Thus Fish can even envisage a society where the character of Mr.
is viewed heroically; such a reading
begin with the uncovering of new evidence (a letter, a lost manuscript,
contemporary response) and proceed to the conclusion that Austen’s
have been misconstrued by generations of literary critics.
She was not in fact satirizing the narrow and circumscribed life
country gentry; rather, she was celebrating that life and its tireless
elaboration of a social fabric, complete with values, rituals, and
self-perpetuating goals (marriage, the preservation of great houses,
and so on).
Of course, as I cannot see into the future, there is no way that I can
a moron-admiring community such as the one Professor Fish envisions
possibly come about. But while the
text of Pride and Prejudice is ambiguous, say, on the degree
and the kind
of blame which should be attached to Charlotte Lucas’s desperate act of
marrying Collins, that same text quite clearly labels Collins a weak,
contemptible fool. Although any
fanatically determined reader can twist any text into a desired shape,
simply take too much effort on the part of a reader or a community of
see Collins in a radically different, positive light.
It is certainly possible, then, that there will come to exist a
of readers eager to honour fools, but such a community, I believe,
would find it
too difficult to rescue a fool such as Collins from his literary
unambiguously brands him as a fool. Such
a community would produce a generous number of its own writers to
appetite for dim-witted, foolish heroes. Such
a community would not read Jane Austen.
is enough consideration of the criticism of extremes.
Let us return to the consideration of criticism characterized by
moderation, knowledge, and sensitivity – the kind of criticism, in
words, produced by Professors Fish, Butler, Johnson, Sandock, and
We each of us enter the playing field of Pride and Prejudice
different backgrounds, different shortcomings, different skills.
We each of us experience Jane Austen’s world with different
just as we do our everyday worlds. Thus
I see a great writer with a traditional moral and religious foundation
quite capable of incorporating great areas of the modern landscape into
narrative representations of “reality,” and whose moral and religious
beliefs are profound enough and flexible enough to accommodate those
Professor Butler encounters a superb artist who has a
concealed behind her artistry; Professors Johnson and Sandock respond
sensitive female artist whose work demands that we clearly recognize
injustices and warped sexual attitudes that characterized the author’s
patriarchal society and which still thrive in our society.
contend that all four of us are “on the field.”
None of us has a magic formula which is going to give readers
“true” Pride and Prejudice. Exhaustive
historical research will not alter this fact.
As Gadamer insists, it is the nature of a work of art, as it is
of a game
or a recurring religious festival, to change with each period and with
representation – and yet to remain itself (110).
To increase our historical knowledge of Jane Austen’s period and
attempt to read her works with the eyes of a contemporary is a worthy
profitable goal (as Butler and Johnson and others have proven), as long
value of such a goal is not exaggerated. But
now that our own time has produced a kind of political hypersensitivity
readers of novels which resembles the ways in which readers in the
responded to fiction, can a critic really claim that all responses to
Austen’s fiction between 1811 and the last two decades were
unsatisfactory? This means that no one ever
Austen’s works satisfactorily until the present, since Austen’s novels
not published in the 1790s! This
surely would he a godlike claim for a modern critic to impose upon his
such a claim would not stand. As
Gadamer insists, we are radically finite.
We are and must always remain the products of our own period.
Seriously to attempt to duplicate the consciousness of a past
futile. Instead we experience a
work from the past; we enter on its “field”; we ponder the ways in
share its vision and the ways in which we differ from it.
We permit the work to challenge us – to cause us to
re-examine the values we take for granted, and the values we have let
As a part of this process, the accumulated insights which the
between ourselves and the work have generated – the results of
change and of the interpretive efforts of many individuals – are
tools in our efforts to enter the world of a work of art and to benefit
from the encounter. There really is no
possibility that we can rid ourselves of
the added, altered perspectives which the years between the original
of Pride and Prejudice and our own time have produced in us –
should we want to rid ourselves of them (429-30).
Jane Austen’s novel taps into some of the most important and
areas of our lives (for example, personal relationships, the family,
individual vs. society, the relationship of literature and life).
Thus Pride and Prejudice is fully capable of
providing us with valuable new interpretations which can result both
historical research and from more recent insights which the intervening
and our own time have produced for us. And
this process will continue; generations of readers following us will
“discoveries” which the limitations of our own period prevent us from
achieving. Death must end our
involvement with Jane Austen’s texts. But
the texts themselves will continue to be available in new ways for
It is true that the
historical “worlds” that succeed one another in the course of history
different from one another and from the world of today; but it is
whatever tradition we consider it, a human, i.e., a linguistically
world that presents itself to us. Every
such world, as linguistically constituted, is always open, of itself,
possible insight and hence for every expansion of its own
and accordingly available to others. (405,
italics are mine)
Fish, Stanley E. “What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?” in Is There a Text in This Class? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method.
New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1988 (first published in
Sheed and Ward, 1975; originally published as Wahrheit und Methode,
Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.
Sandock, Mollie. “Jane Austen and the Political Passions,” Persuasions 10
wanted to compose her own feelings