Literary sense left for political points

The Politics of Jane Austen
May 26, 2000

If you want proof that there is life after death you only have to look at Jane Austen, who died in 1817 but who came back as a heritage industry. Although she agreed to marry Harris Bigg Wither one evening but changed her mind the following morning, Austen's life was generally so uneventful that, by comparison, a Beckett play seems crammed with incident.

Austen herself described her art as an inquiry into two inches of ivory, which I suppose, if you do it properly, does not leave time for much else. She has made up for it since though, becoming an icon of Englishness: restrained, ironical and domestic. But what does it all mean? Does the Jane Austen industry do more than idealise Britain's past, evoking on screen and tea towel a bygone age of such tranquillity that even in the vicissitudes of love the gentry still spoke in perfect sentences?

Edward Neill thinks so, and he sets out to show that Austen is a far more radical writer than recent screen adaptations have suggested. Sue Birtwistle, one of those involved in the highly successful 1995 television serialisation of Pride and Prejudice , said the novel is about "sex and money", but Neill claims that it is actually about "the resistance to, or female integrity in the face of" carnality and cash. He also takes issue with those critics who believe that all the "creative energy" of her novels "goes into keeping kings on thrones, bishops in palaces and lesser lights in their place" whereas in fact her work "engineers an exposure of the strategies of dominance" that it otherwise seems to endorse.

There is nothing new in that. It has long been known that Austen punctured social forms and that she was not "content", as Roger Sales notes in his much broader study of her work, "to be everything to her family and nothing to the world".

Her letters abound with barbed humour declaring in one that she "was as civil (to some guests) as their bad breath would allow me" and in another dismissing a Miss Langley as being "like any other short girl with a broad nose and wide mouth, fashionable dress and exposed bosom".

In her fiction, too, Austen was not averse to being a tad subversive. Lady Susan Vernon, the eponymous heroine of her epistolary novel, Lady Susan , receives little censure for her ruthless manipulation of social conventions for her own gratification. If, as Ferdinand says in Love's Labour's Lost , the end of study is to know "that which else we should not know" then what is the justification for Neill's book?

Well, it is the way you tell it. Neill chooses to tell it as a deconstructionist. All Austen's novels deconstruct the binary oppositions that animate them; sense and sensibility "overlap", the "opposites" of pride and prejudice "are deeply associated". These rather banal claims obscure what is most interesting about Neill's work: its preoccupation with Austen's treatment of the relationship between, as he nicely puts it, "property and propriety".

Neill is a garrulous writer, and he overwhelms his readers with references that too often deflect attention from his central thesis without illuminating it. The mention of Wallace Stevens, Joel Weinsheimer and Jean Baudrillard in one sentence is typical.

In the end, what is radical about this book is not the claim that Austen was a prototypical deconstructionist but rather its diffident suggestion that she might be a good writer. If Neill had pursued this line, abandoning the shrink-wrapped vocabulary that today passes for criticism, then he might have said something new about aesthetics instead of repeating the same old story about politics.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

The Politics of Jane Austen

Author - Edward Neill
ISBN - 0 333 74719 4
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £42.50
Pages - 175

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