Persuasions Occasional Papers No. 1, 1984                                                                                                Pages 1-8

 

JANE AUSTEN’S TWO INCHES OF IVORY 

by Tad Mosel

 

At the end of her life Jane Austen’s theme was constancy: loving longest when hope is gone.  She wrote one of two great works on that subject, conceived within a decade of each other.  Hers is called Persuasion; the other Fidelio.

Fidelio deals in passions, Persuasions in feelings, a condition of all Jane Austen’s novels that annoyed Charlotte Brontë, who wrote to a friend:

“She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well, there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement,. the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with [them]. what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study, but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of Life and the sentient target of death – this Miss Austen ignores... 1

To all of that Jane Austen would have cheerfully agreed.  “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery,” she wrote in the last chapter of Mansfield Park.  “I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest.” 2

The English novelist Margaret Kennedy writes that whether Charlotte Brontë knew it or not, she was not so much attacking Jane Austen as she was disparaging the art of comedy, in which feelings are more important than passions.3   In Jane Austen’s world passions destroy feelings – absorption in a single idea limits the variety of emotional response essential to a balance in life.

Leonora in Fidelio renounces everything – her name, her sex, her clothes – until there is nothing left but the passion of her constancy.  And when the time comes, she is willing to give her life.

When Anne Elliot in Persuasion loses hope, she feels the loss not one whit the less, but she diverts the stream of her constancy into other devotions – to family and friends - to the continuation of life – and lets “concealment, like a worm i’ the bud feed on her damask cheek” – to quote another writer on the subject of constancy, a writer to whom Jane Austen has been favorably compared.

Since constancy is one of her themes, it follows that those of us who love Jane Austen are steadfast in our devotion to her.  But heeding her caution, we contain our passion in reasonable feeling.

In an age that throbs fast and full with vehement passions undreamed of by Charlotte Brontë and her stormy sisterhood, the civilized name of Jane Austen is often met with polite contempt, or jocular tolerance, or embarrassed smiles.  So we keep a low profile.  We venture forth to busy cocktail parties where we stand shoulder to shoulder with our fellow human beings, discussing the latest blue movie or the most recent pornographic novel – and then we stumble home at last to climb into bed, and under the covers with a flashlight to read Pride and Prejudice.

Therefore, I am grateful to the National Arts Club for daring to invite me here tonight - to stand up before you and my conscience and fling open yet another closet door.

I notice the flier for this occasion says, “Jane Austen could well embody the spirit of 1980, the spirit that says less is more.”  Who knows, perhaps we are all of us sitting here tonight right smack in the middle of a trend.  In 1979 when the newly formed Jane Austen Society of North America held its first dinner meeting across the way at the Gramercy Park Hotel, over a hundred souls showed up from all parts of the continent, and all the local newspapers and magazines sent reporters to verify the madness.  And in November, it has been announced, Pride and Prejudice will be seen in five installments on public television’s Masterpiece Theatre.  As exciting as that is to anticipate, in a way it’s too bad, because where can she go from there?  But for almost 175 years Jane Austen has survived everyone else’s trend, and I am sure she can survive her own.

I am not an authority on Jane Austen.  I am not a scholar or a critic.  I do not wish to proselytize.  For me this evening is simply a continuation of a previous evening spent pleasurably within these walls with a small congenial group of new friends, when I found myself talking about Jane Austen – for no discernible reason except that they let me.  And that is all I am doing now:  thank you for letting me.

I have reached the age when I realize there isn’t enough time left to read all the books I want to read.  From now on, I tell myself sternly, I must be selective.  And with that deadline, in the literal and ultimate sense of the word, I find myself reading and re-reading again and again the six novels written by this shy, energetic young Englishwoman, sitting at a crossroads down in Hampshire.

It was Tennyson and Macauley who likened her to Shakespeare.

And Sir Walter Scott wrote:  “That young lady had a talent for describing  . ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.”4

To be fair, it must be told that Mark Twain once said of a ship’s library:  “Jane Austen’s books are . absent .  Just that one omission alone would make a fairly good library out of a library that hadn’t a book in it.”5   Which makes it clear (to paraphrase Margaret Kennedy)6  that Mark Twain would not have chosen to go steamboating with Jane Austen.  But he was the only dissenting voice among men in the nineteenth century.

Leading women of the Victorian age, Charlotte Brontë and George Eliot, were occupied with their struggle for liberation and found less to appreciate in her.

In the twentieth century she has been called a Marxist, before Marx; and the Freudians have pointed out the reverse Oedipus complex running through all her work; and Rudyard Kipling coined the word “Janeite,” for which the Lord has not made us truly grateful since it perpetuates the whimsical aura that hovers over her head.

In one of the most famous twentieth-century essays on Jane Austen, Lord David Cecil wrote:  “If I were in doubt as to the wisdom of one of my actions I should not consult Flaubert or Dostoievsky.  The opinion of Balzac or Dickens would carry little weight with me: were Stendhal to rebuke me, it would only convince me I had done right: even in the judgment of Tolstoy I should not put complete confidence.  But I should be seriously upset, I should worry for weeks and weeks, if I incurred the disapproval of Jane Austen. ”7

I know a man who read that and quit drinking.

Someone (was it Virginia Woolf?) said that of all great writers, Jane Austen is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.  

But she is one great writer whose life is not difficult to summarize.

She was born in 1775, the seventh of eight children at Steventon Parsonage in Hampshire.  Some of her native fun must have come from her mother, who went off on her honeymoon in a scarlet riding habit and later arrived at her new home riding on a feather bed on top of the wagon carrying her household possessions.  She wore the scarlet riding habit for the first few years of her marriage, even during pregnancies, sitting just inside the front door of the parsonage doing the family mending, not to miss anything.  After all the children were born, the scarlet riding habit was cut down to fit her seven-year-old son Frank, who invested in a pony to go with it.

Jane Austen’s oldest brother, James, became a clergyman; her second brother, George, was subject to fits and was never referred to in the family chronicles; Edward was adopted by the rich Knight family and grew up to take their name and become a respected landowner.

Jane Austen’s favorite brother Henry was the charming drifter, the inveterate idea-man, and the incurable optimist who became, among other things, a banker, a soldier, and his sister’s sometime public relations man – against her wishes - and ended up a bankrupt, and finally, in optimistic desperation, a clergyman.

Francis and Charles, who bracketed Jane, one born just before, one just after, both became admirals and through the years have been lumped together as “Jane Austen’s sailor brothers.”

Her sister Cassandra, two years her senior, was closer to her than any other human being.  They shared a room until the day Jane Austen died, and their mother used to say that “if Cassandra were going to have her head cut off, Jane would insist on sharing her fate.”8

They were a versatile, vigorous, affectionate family able to give themselves with equal fervor and delight to God and to games.

When Jane Austen was twenty-five, her father retired and moved the family to Bath.  When Jane Austen was thirty her father died and with her sister and her mother she went to live with her brother, Frank, and his wife in Southampton.  When she was thirty-three, the three women moved to their last home, Chawton Cottage, on the grounds of her brother’s (Edward Knight) estate near Apton in Hampshire.

In 1811, when she was thirty-five, her first novel was published.  It was called Sense and Sensibility and it was a serious comedy – feelings versus passions embodied in the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne.  It is her cleverest novel, and perhaps for that reason her most facile, and, I confess, it is my favorite.  It earned for her 140.

In the remaining six years of her life, Jane Austen published three more novels:

The original title of Pride and Prejudice was First Impressions, which indicates its theme, the trouble snap judgments can cause even among sensible, feeling people.  In a letter she worried that it was “too light, and bright, and sparkling”9 and wondered if she shouldn’t alleviate the nonsense by inserting into the story a discussion, say, of Sir Walter Scott.  But on the whole, she said, she was vain enough to be satisfied with it and called it her “darling child.”  Since then Pride and Prejudice has been everybody’s favorite, even mine, now that I stop to think of it.

Mansfield Park is her most stately and elegant work.  She said she was writing about ordination, but it seems to deal more with the difficulty of maintaining simplicity in life when faced with overwhelming worldly charm.  With its upright, sober-minded heroine, Fanny Price, Mansfield Park is not claimed by many as their favorite Jane Austen novel, which is why I am always vehement in asserting categorically that it is mine.

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her” (Emma, p. 5).  Thus begins Jane Austen’s masterpiece, a character study of a spoiled young woman whom she was afraid no one but herself would like.  Emma is her most mature work, her most complicated, her wittiest, and most penetrating.  As a writer who respects his craft, I could not hold my head up before you if I weren’t able to say, with a straight face, that Emma is my favorite Jane Austen novel.

But secretly, off the record, my two favorites are the posthumous novels:  Persuasion, so aptly and beautifully titled by Henry after her death, the most reflective, touching and autumnal of the novels, and Northanger Abbey, which was actually written first, although published last, and is the youngest and funniest novel, a spoof of the gothic novels of Mrs. Radcliffe that Jane Austen loved to read as a girl.

She died in 1817 at the age of forty-one.  And it was only in the 1960s that the cause of her death was established from the symptoms as she described them in her letters during the last year of her life.  In the British Medical Journal for July, 1964, the doctor who made the diagnosis wrote: “Jane Austen did something more than write excellent novels - she also described the first recorded case of Addison’s disease of the adrenal bodies.”10

Jane Austen never married, although she is said to have been in love once with a gentleman she met at the seashore when she was twenty-five.  Unfortunately he died immediately thereafter without even leaving his name, and there are those who claim that the constancy she wrote of in Persuasion was her own.

On the eve of her twenty-seventh birthday, a young man named Harris Bigg-Wither, who was six years her junior, proposed marriage and she accepted him; only to change her mind overnight and break the engagement the next morning.  Selfishly, we can only regard that episode as a close call, because if she had married Harris Bigg-Wither, the world might have been denied the six novels, although, of course, it would have been richer in Bigg-Withers.

As it is, with five eligible brothers and a final count of nine sisters-in-law and twenty-two nephews and nieces, she was what might be called a professional aunt, and we marvel that she found time to write.

On the other hand, the driving compulsion of an artist is to practice his or her art; it is the nature of a writer to write – against all odds – even surreptiously on small bits of paper between dutues, as Jane Austen did.

Those who smile tolerantly or contemptuously at the mention of Jane Austen undoubtedly think of her as quaint and soft.  But to me she seems to feel there are only two subjects worth writing about: love and money.  Such a writer is not quaint, and we should not be soft in estimating her powers.

We can marvel at the novels, but not at the fact that she wrote them.  I think it was no whim that made her turn down Harris Bigg-Wither, but even if she had married him and produced twenty-two children of her own, I think she would still have found time to write; she would have made time, because she was an artist, and that is what an artist does.  Whatever definition from the world of comedy she would have used, Jane Austen had a passion, and duty was no match for it.  

She was not an autobiographical writer, but she wrote about her own world, for her own world to read, since for thirty-five of her forty-one years, or four-fifths of her life, her family was her only audience.

And families in country villages were her specialty;  “3 or four Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on,” she said.11  And the families were invariably occupied in marrying off their daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, the principal social business of her class.

And in a society in which marriage was the only possible goal for a woman, I think it is part of the substance of Jane Austen’s novels that her heroines only achieve marriage when they have come to accept life without it.  If marriage for its own sake was all that mattered, if a happy ending was all that was needed or wanted, then Pride and Prejudice could have ended with Book II, Chapter 11, when Darcy, the hero, proposes to Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine, exactly halfway through the novel.  Instead she refuses him, because no matter what society dictates to Jane Austen’s heroines, there are larger considerations.  Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice is the only major sympathetic character in the novels who marries for the sake of marrying, and she is an object of pity.

Sometimes her characters venture as far afield as London, Bath, Lyme Regis, Portsmouth and Box Hill, but for the most part they remain in their country villages.  As she wrote to a niece who was attempting her first novel:  “Let the Portmans go to Ireland, but as you know nothing of the Manners there, you had better not go with them.”12  She never wrote a scene involving men alone; there is always a woman present because she said she did not know how men acted by themselves.  She wrote in the language of her time, but avoided the Johnsonesque rotundities, although she admired them as much as any of her contemporaries, preferring for her own work colloquial English and making the same grammatical blunders that come easily to us still.

Death rarely intrudes; the Napoleonic wars, never.

And always, behind every sentence, the laughter.

Asked by the Prince Regent’s librarian to stretch herself and write an historical romance based on the Cobourg royal family, she replied:  “I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter.”13

On no account could she be persuaded to deviate from what she called “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.”14

Which is self-mockery rather than modesty and is often used against her by her humourless detractors.

“Poor Jane Austen!” they say.  “With her talent think what she might have written if she had had more experience in the world and known some interesting people; if she had traveled instead of being forced to live that narrow life in that repressed society.”

If worldly experience is the magic ingredient, then Jane Austen’s ubiquitous contemporary, Fanny Burney, would have been the greatest genius of that repressed society, and all the others.  She was born twenty-three years before Jane Austen and lived twenty-three years beyond her, and in between she was present on every occasion of any political, cultural, or military significance.  And she wasn’t always simply present, she participated; at Waterloo she was in the direct line of fire.  The only event she missed in the eighty-eight years she was on earth was the American Revolution.  And what is created out of such experience is a life, and Fanny Burney’s, as set down in her diaries, is a masterpiece.  But as an artist she is hardly readable today.  She was gifted and hard-working, and virtually supported herself and her husband and her son, and sometimes her father, solely on the proceeds from her writing. But as a novelist she is no more than a link between Samuel Richardson and Jane Austen, who chose to remain at her crossroads in Hampshire, scribbling her novels on small bits of paper between duties.  The quantity of experience, even the quality, is not decisive in the flowering of great talent.

Virginia Woolf said that if Jane Austen had lived longer, the inevitable worldliness that comes from inescapable fame would have broadened her view and she would have become the forerunner of Proust and James.  Be that as it may, in her lifetime she neither needed nor sought, nor missed, Fanny Burney’s sort of experience, the kind that comes to a published author.  Not that she wasn’t conscious of it; and not that it was denied her; Henry would have exulted in arranging for his sister to mingle with important people at significant places in critical moments.  But when Mme. de Staël, for instance, insisted on meeting the author of Pride and Prejudice, the author refused.  And when one of her best friends, Harris Bigg-Wither’s sister, as a matter of fact, married an uncle of Robert Southey, the poet, who was an avowed Jane Austen fan, she showed no interest in even meeting him, let alone his friends Wordsworth and Coleridge.

A lesser writer might say she didn’t even make the most of the experience at hand, the dramatic material already available in life as she knew it.  Her first cousin, Eliza Hancock, was born in India, goddaughter of Warren Hastings.  Fanny Burney, on the strength of being a published author, was a much valued observer and adviser at Warren Hastings’ sensational trial for corruption; yet Jane Austen did not pursue a family interest that amounted to a connection.

Further, Eliza Hancock married a French aristocrat who was guillotined; and for long periods of time Eliza lived with the Austens at Steventon Parsonage, initiating the family theatricals that Jane Austen used so tellingly in Mansfield Park.  But she used nothing else of Eliza’s vast and exciting history, which was not alien to her but rather a part of the intimate Austen family circle.  Eliza is supposedly the model for Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park, with all the dramatic trappings – which would have been grist to Fanny Burney’s mill - thrown away.

The society in which Jane Austen lived was certainly no help; but neither was it a hindrance, because it didn’t stop her.  She made her choices, as any artist does, according to the dimensions of her gift, for she knew exactly what she wanted to inscribe on her two inches of ivory.  I think it would be disrespecful to apologize for her limitations; it would be patronizing to love her in spite of them; and it would be fatuous to love her because of them.  I simply wouldn’t have her any other way.

And as a dramatist I hope if I am ever asked to dramatize a Jane Austen novel that I will have the stamina to refuse.  She is not like Dickens.  Reproduce his settings, dress good actors in his characters’ clothes, give them the right crotchets and twangs, and Dickens blazes to life on the stage or screen.

Not so Jane Austen.  Reproduce her settings and characters, no matter how faithfully, and there is always an element missing, something you can’t put your finger on, and that element is Jane Austen herself, an invisible presence between every word on the printed page; and when the characters are lifted off the page, she is left behind and they suffer from a kind of anemia.  I have done many adaptions in my career, and she is what I call a “voice” writer – like John Cheever, if you are looking for a perfectly wonderful odd couple.  As marvelous and distinctive as he is, when we see a Cheever story on the screen we’re inclined to wonder what all the fuss is about, because the story itself may have been captured masterfully, but he has eluded everybody.

Don’t think me ungrateful.  I intend to relish every moment of Masterpiece Theatre’s Pride and Prejudice, which I am sure will be as wonderful as all their other productions.  Two or three times a year I even stay up until four o’clock in the morning to see Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier in the old movie version of the same story.  But what usually emerges on the screen is similar to what is emerging for you now:  it is not Jane Austen, but somebody’s idea of Jane Austen.  And that can vary markedly from person to person and from time to time.

I don’t identify with Jane Austen, or with her characters or her stories, just as I don’t identify with Charles Dickens.  Reading either is like looking out a window, as opposed to looking in a mirror.  There has never been any doubt in my mind as to which writer is more interesting – and edifying.  When I look out the window at Dickens, when I re-read his novels, he is always exactly the same as the last time I looked, and so are his characters; and I love them for their durability.

But when I re-read Jane Austen, she has changed, and her characters are subtly different, for the simple reason that I have changed.  When I was young, her books were romantic and funny and read very fast.  When I reached the age of disillusionment and became ironic and scornful, she was ironic and scornful and I savored her wicked wit.  Now, when I look for serenity and wisdom, she is wise and serene.  And I don’t know how she did that, sitting at her crossroads down in Hampshire.

Jane Austen is a constant that is ever changing, a prism in the sun.  It is too bad that George Eliot did not find her interesting, because she might have been writing about Jane Austen when she suggested in Middlemarch that “woman was a problem which could be hardly less complicated than the revolutions of an irregular solid.”15

On a wall in Winchester Cathedral, hard by Jane Austen’s tomb in the eighth bay of the north aisle of the nave, a mural tablet says everything in quotation from the Book of Proverbs:  “She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness.”

And I know as surely as I know I am standing here that Jane Austen would be seriously displeased if I closed in this reverent tone of voice.

So I will do what she did, I will tell a story – a story I think she would enjoy.

Several years ago I wrote two segments for the public television series “The Adams Chronicles,” one of them dealing with John Quincy Adams’s thrilling and successful defense before the Supreme Court of the Negro mutineers aboard the slaveship Amistad.  Research showed that among the blessed Justices sitting on the bench was one Joseph Story, whose name rang a bell, recalling to mind a letter I had read, in another context, written to Admiral Sir Francis Austen, the older of Jane Austen’s sailor brothers, thirty-five years after his sister’s death.  The letter was written by a Miss Quincy of Boston, who identified her father as the Mayor of that city and the President of Harvard University.

The Amistad trial was in 1841, and in 1852 Miss Quincy wrote to Admiral Sir Francis Austen:  “Since high critical authority has pronounced the delineations of character in the works of Jane Austen second only to those of Shakespeare, transatlantic admiration appears superfluous; yet it may not be uninteresting to her family to receive assurance that the influence of her genius is extensively recognized in the American Republic – even by the highest judicial authorities.  The late Mr. Chief Justice Marshall, of the Supreme Court of the United States, and his associate, Mr. Justice Story, highly esteemed and admired Miss Austen, and to them we owe our introduction to her society.  For many years her talents have brightened our daily paths, and her name and those of her characters are familiar to us as ‘household words.’ ”16

The wording of John Quincy Adams’s defense of the Amistad survivors was, of course, a matter of record.  But when it came, to writing the scenes in the Supreme Court, I took history into my own hands and gave all the responding dialogue from the bench to Mr. Justice Story; I let him ask all the shrewd, pertinent questions and hand down the momentous opinions, confident in the belief that a justice who read Jane Austen would be the toughest and fairest man on the bench.

1Quoted by John Halperin, “Jane Austen’s Nineteenth-Century Critics:  Walter Scott to Henry James,”  Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays, ed. John Halperin (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975),  p. 8.  

2Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, vol. III of The Novels of Jane Austen, ed.  R.W. Chapman, 3rd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), p. 461.  All further quotations from Austen’s works will be from Chapman’s edition and will be included in the text.  

3Margaret Kennedy, Jane Austen (Denver: Alan Swallow, 1950), p. 97.  

4Quoted by Elizabeth Jenkins, Jane Austen (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1949), pp. 359-360.  

5Quoted by Halperin, Bicentenary Essays, p. 9.  

6Kennedy, p. 97.  

7Lord David Cecil, Jane Austen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1935), p. 43.  

8J.E. Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen (London: Macmillan and Co., 1901), p. 15.  

9Jane Austen’s Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others, ed.  R.W. Chapman, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 299.  

10Zachary Cope, “Jane Austen’s Last Illness,” British Medical Journal, July, 1964, pp. 182-183 (reprinted in The Jane Austen Society, Report for the Year, 1964).  

11Chapman, ed., Letters, p. 401.  

12Chapman, ed., Letters, p. 395.  

13Chapman, ed., Letters, pp. 452-453.  

14Chapman, ed., Letters, p. 469.  

15George Eliot, Middlemarch (New York: The New American Library, 1964), p. 43 (Ch. IV).  

16Austen-Leigh, Memoir, pp. 142-143.  

 

CONTRIBUTOR

Tad Mosel

Tad Mosel writes that he has been “stage-struck since the age of fourteen” when he was taken to see Katharine Cornell in Shaw’s Saint Joan; forty years later he paid his debt of gratitude by writing Miss Cornell’s biography, Leading Lady, published in 1978.  He was a dramatist in the Golden Age of Television in the 1950’s.  Since then he has also written for movies, and he won both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for his play All The Way Home, based on James Agee’s novel A Death in the Family.  He has taught dramatic writing at half a dozen universities, and in 1975 he celebrated Jane Austen’s bicentenary by teaching a course, Jane Austen at 200, at the New School for Social Research in New York City, where he lives.  Jane Austen’s Two Inches of Ivory is a talk he gave at the National Arts Club in 1980.