Austen’s Defects?

Jane Austen has been in the news this week, what with the 200th anniversary of her death on July 18, 1817. To mark the day, the TLS republished a 1913 review of an Austen biography by Virginia Woolf. Woolf has some very insightful things to say about Austen, but this isn’t one of them:

However modest and conscious of her own defects she may be, the defects are there and must be recognized by readers who are as candid as Jane Austen herself would wish them to be. The chief reason why she does not appeal to us as some inferior writers do is that she has too little of the rebel in her composition, too little discontent, and of the vision which is the cause and the reward of discontent. She seems at times to have accepted life too calmly as she found it, and to any one who reads her biography or letters it is plain that life showed her a great deal that was smug, commonplace, and, in a bad sense of the word, artificial. It showed her a world made up of big houses and little houses, of gentry inhabiting them who were keenly conscious of their grades of gentility, while life itself consisted of an interchange of tea parties, picnics and dances, which eventually, if the connexion was respectable and the income on each side satisfactory, led to a thoroughly suitable marriage. It happens very seldom, but still it does happen, that we feel that the play of her spirit has been hampered by such obstacles; that she believes in them as well as laughs at them, and that she is debarred from the most profound insight into human nature by the respect which she pays to some unnatural convention.

How very Bloomsbury! To fault Austen for being not-anti-Victorian.

Woolf can’t even keep up the criticism through the review. She thinks that Austen is at her worst when trying to depict goodness, but that she shines when she has a fool to work over: “when she is pointing out where they are bad, weak, faulty, exquisitely absurd she is winged and inapproachable. Her heroes may be insipid, but think of her fools! Think of Mr Collins, Mr Woodhouse, Miss Bates, Mrs Norris, Mrs Bennet, and in a lesser degree of Mrs Allen, Lady Bertram, Sir William Lucas! What a light the thought of them will cast on the wettest day! How various and individual is their folly!” Not to mention Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch and Lady Catherine de Bourg and so on.

And again: “Open [Austen’s novels] where you will, you are almost certain to light upon some passage exquisitely satirising the absurdities of life—satirizing them, but without bitterness, partly no doubt because she was happy in her life, partly because she had no wish that things should be other than they are. People could never be too absurd, life never too full of humours and singularities for her taste, and as for telling people how they ought to live, which is the satiric motive, she would have held up her hands in amazement at the thought.”

Does a writer who takes such vicious delight in puncturing high-born and high-placed fools sound like the kind of person who pays homage to unnatural conventions? 

Woolf knows better. Elsewhere, Woolf calls attention to “Jenny Austen,” the teenage version of Jane, author of knockabout farces, who lurks and laughs in the pages of the novels. That is exactly right.

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