Persuasions #3, 1981 Pages 21-22
WALTER MURDOCH AND JANE AUSTEN
by Margaret Diane Stetz
During the 1920’s, in the midst of the Jane Austen revival, some of the most ardent appreciations of her work were published not in England or America, but in Australia. In a number of reviews and essays, Walter Murdoch (1894-1970) repeatedly took up the cause of the writer in whom he found “the greatest genius.” 1 Unlike the Bloomsburyan novelist-critics who were among Austen’s supporters in England, Murdoch did not suffer from a sense of rivalry with the writer whom he professed to admire. E. M. Forster could proclaim himself “imbecile about Jane Austen,” yet gently chide her for being “feeble and ladylike”; Virginia Woolf could call Austen “the most perfect artist among women,” but still regret that she “never trespassed beyond her boundaries” or touched upon “not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid.”2 Both Forster, in A Room with a View, and Woolf, in Night and Day, had been in the difficult position of competing with Austen, of trying to equal her as writers of social comedy, and their later reservations about her may have been rooted in envy. Walter Murdoch, however, a Scottish-born professor of English at the University of Western Australia who moved easily between scholarship and journalism, felt no such jealousy. To him, she was a “first-rate” artist who had “seized what is perennial in human nature, and in so doing ... laid hold on eternal life” (p. 21).
Readers in search of cogent discussions of Austen from an unusual source would do well to track down Murdoch’s Collected Essays, published by Angus & Robertson in 1938. Of special interest in the collection are “On Whiskers and Eternity” and “Aunt Jane,” both essays inspired by the appearance in 1924 of the first five volumes of the Oxford edition of Austen’s novels. Like Forster and Woolf, Murdoch wrote for the educated but “common” reader, rather than for the specialist; in these essays, which first appeared in Melbourne newspapers, his aim clearly was to stimulate both widespread reading of Austen in general and sales of the Oxford edition in particular – a set that commanded the impressive price of five guineas with, in the Commonwealth, “a little added for Australia’s sake” (p. 172). Thus, he declared it a cause for celebration that “Oxford, which has given us to many monumental editions of the great classics of Greece and Rome, should give us a monumental edition of Jane Austen; and that an Oxford scholar should edit her with the same scrupulous care … as if she were Herodotus; and, indeed, a greater than Herodotus is here” (Ibid.). His only quarrel with the project was with its attempt to place Austen in a historical context, for he saw her as “not concerned with what is local and temporal, but with what is universal and eternal in human nature” (pp. 174-75).
In this spirit, he drew an interesting comparison between Trollope and Austen as novelists of manners, calling the former a “photographer of the period” and the latter a painter “not of the life of any particular time; but of life” (p. 23). But Murdoch was most eloquent when defending Austen against the traditional charges of narrowness and complacency – echoes of which could still be heard beneath the Bloomsburyans’ faint praise. Budding Australian Janeites must have come away cheered by the ending of “Aunt Jane”:
So far from being devoid of the sense of wonder, she is never tired of wondering. Men and women are to her the most wonderful little creatures; how otherwise can you explain the unending zest with which she watched and chronicled their doings? Moreover, she is first and foremost a satirist; her ironic comment on life implies a standard by which she judged life and found it worthy of satire. You must not suppose that, because her characters are obtuse, she herself is so. She has been assumed to have no philosophy, because she never airs it. She has created a world, from which she herself stands smilingly apart, in a Shakespearian aloofness (p. 175).
1 Walter Murdoch, Collected Essays (Sydney and London: Angus & Robertson, 1938), p. 21. Subsequent citations from this edition.
2 Virginia Woolf, “Jane Austen,” The Common Reader: First Series (N.Y.: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1925), pp. 148-9.