What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved, by John Mullan, Bloomsbury, 342 pp, £14.99
In the autumn and winter of 1847/48 Charlotte Brontë became involved in a short exchange of letters with the influential writer and critic George Henry Lewes (posthumously better known as the companion of George Eliot). Lewes had given Jane Eyre a sympathetic review in Fraser’s Magazine and had also written privately to its author, offering advice on what he perceived to be her strengths and weaknesses as a novelist. Brontë was grateful for his kindness and encouragement, but expressed herself puzzled at the models of literary excellence he presented her with. “Fielding and Miss Austen,” Lewes had written, “are the greatest novelists in our language.” In a letter of January 12th, 1848, Miss Brontë replied:
Why do you like Miss Austen so much? I am puzzled on that point.
What induced you to say that you would rather have written “Pride & Prejudice” or “Tom Jones” than any of the Waverley Novels?
I had not seen “Pride & Prejudice” till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book and studied it. And what did I find? An accurate daguerrotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers – but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy – no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses. These observations will probably irritate you, but I shall run the risk.
Having received a quick reply from Lewes, who one must assume enjoyed such polite literary jousting, Brontë returned to the charge on January 18th.
You say I must familiarize my mind with the fact that “Miss Austen is not a poetess, has no ‘sentiment’ (you scornfully enclose the word in inverted commas), no eloquence, none of the ravishing enthusiasm of poetry ... [yet she is] one of the greatest artists, of the greatest painters of human character, and one of the writers with the nicest sense of means to an end that ever lived.
In response, Brontë expressed herself ready to accept the justice of the last of Lewes’s tributes (“the nicest sense of means to an end”) but doubted that there could really be “a great Artist” who did not have poetry. What Austen did well, she felt, was to paint an accurate (daguerreotype) picture of the behaviour and concerns of ladies and gentlemen of refined manners but limited vision, proper, prim, buttoned-up people with little passion, typical southerners perhaps, such as one might expect to meet among the gentle landscapes and manicured parks of Surrey or Sussex. If you found no inspiration in Miss Austen’s pages, she admitted, “neither do you find there windy wordiness”; rather everything was “very subdued, a little contracted, but never absurd”. Austen herself had been pleased to admit on occasion that she was much concerned with detail and elaborated her scenes, as it were, in miniature: her phrase “[t]he little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour” has been much quoted by critics. But we should not think she actually believed that her fine brushwork produced little effect: the polite self-deprecation surely invites polite dissent.
Nor should we think that Austen could not do the open country, fresh air, blue hills and wuthering heights the Brontës saw as the necessary psychic geography of the great (romantic) novel. Almost certainly she could, but preferred not to. There can be no neat dividing line between what we might suppose to be the characteristic sensibilities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but there can be little doubt that Austen (1775-1817), who lived through the earlier phase of the romantic movement, was temperamentally rather less inclined to value passion, enthusiasm and emotional extravagance than the good sense, reason and detachment often seen as more characteristic of the century in which she was born.
Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811 but perhaps substantially completed more than ten years earlier, dramatises the opposition between the values of intelligence or good judgment and “sensibility” ‑ “sensitivity” we might now say; Brontë says “sentiment” ‑ through the contrasting characters of Elinor Dashwood and her younger sister Marianne. Dr Johnson’s dictionary (1755) glossed the word as “quickness of sensation” or “quickness of perception” but in the fourth edition of 1777 he added as a new meaning “delicacy”. In a scene which takes place a few months after the Dashwood sisters and their mother have been forced to leave their family home of Norland, Edward Ferrars tells them he has visited the house only a month past:
“And how does dear, dear Norland look?” cried Marianne.
“Dear, dear Norland,” said Elinor, “probably looks much as it always does at this time of year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves.”
“Oh!” cried Marianne, “with what transporting sensations have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted, as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven as much as possible from the sight.”
“It is not everyone,” said Elinor, “who has your passion for dead leaves.”
This, and the immediately succeeding passage involving a further exchange between Marianne and Edward, is written in a vein of high comedy that recalls the clever but wordy satirical novellas of Thomas Love Peacock. But Marianne – though she is indeed here and elsewhere in the novel somewhat a figure of fun – is not just that. She is beautiful, quick-minded and warm-hearted; and as she becomes the deceived victim of an unprincipled man we are expected to, and do, feel for her. Yet throughout the novel a very strong contrast is drawn between the two sisters: Marianne oscillating between wild transports of joy and ‑ more often ‑ depression and hysteria, Elinor maintaining an outward calm, thinking, managing and nurturing; Marianne scornful of her sister’s supposed emotional coldness, Elinor supporting others while keeping her bitter personal disappointments private; Marianne tending towards contempt for those less sensitive than herself, Elinor grateful for kindness wherever she finds it; Marianne the romantic individual wedded to her own whim, Elinor anchored in society and respectful of most, if not all, its norms. It is true that some recent commentators (biographer Claire Tomalin is one) have attempted to rehabilitate Marianne, even to place sensibility on an equal footing with sense. Such an attempt, however, involves privileging ideology, or theory, above what is very plainly in front of one’s nose, a practice sadly not unknown to some contemporary literature academics.
John Mullan is not one of these. Charlotte Brontë, following Lewes, paid Jane Austen the rather mild – to her ‑ compliment of being a nice writer, which is to say an acute, precise or finely discriminating one. (In the modern sense of the word Austen was not always nice, a point to which we will return.) Regular readers of the Guardian’s books supplement will know Professor Mullan for his sharp weekly analyses of the innards of particular novels and his skilled unpicking of common writing techniques. In What Matters in Jane Austen? this nicest of modern readers of the novel meets one of the nicest novelists in the nineteenth century canon. What results is a minute examination of those small details which are indeed in front of our nose but whose significance we often miss, either because we are paying insufficient attention or because we are insufficiently historically literate.
It is Mullan’s thesis that Jane Austen is among the most deliberate of artists, but the evidence to support this view can be found only in the work itself. Biographical material on Austen is relatively scarce (about one hundred and sixty letters survive from a possible three thousand written, for example), while insights into her working methods are virtually non-existent. This, Mullan argues, has led to a long tradition of condescension.
Henry James seemed to think that Austen did not know what she was doing, technically speaking ... she “leaves us hardly more curious of her process, or of the experience that fed it, than the brown thrush who tells his story from the garden bough”.
If we were to accept this view we would have in Austen an artist who was most meticulous in her literary execution but remained entirely unaware of how she achieved her effects. But nothing of what we do know of Jane Austen (from that small number of surviving letters, for example) suggests that she was in the slightest unaware of anything that concerned her or met her gaze.
Mullan answers the question he has set himself in his title (what matters in Austen?) in twenty short chapters, each of which itself consists of a question and an answer, or answers: “How Much Does Age Matter?”, “What Games Do Characters Play?”, “How Much Money Is Enough?” “Are Ill People Really to Blame for Their Illnesses?” “Is There Any Sex in Jane Austen?”, et cetera. Some of these questions (“How Much Money Is Enough?”) are obviously of central importance in Austen and some others (“What Do the Characters Call Each Other?”) perhaps less so while still providing Mullan with an opportunity to exercise his close reading skills and demonstrate his familiarity with the historical and cultural background of Austen’s world. The result is impressive, illuminating and frequently amusing.
Sense and Sensibility, it seems, has “more talk of money than any of [Austen’s] other novels”. Many readers may remember the spirited exchange on the subject between the two Dashwood sisters. Marianne is at first shocked at Elinor’s assertion that happiness and money might in any way be linked: “Elinor, for shame!” said Marianne, “money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction ...” Elinor ventures to suggest that Marianne’s notion of a competence (enough to get by on) might be close to her own idea of wealth. And she is right: “About eighteen hundred or two thousand a-year; not more than that” would be enough to supply Marianne’s simple wants ‑ “a proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters”. Elinor’s notion of a competence is likely to have been closer to six or seven hundred pounds a year, enough for a gentry family to live on respectably but without much show (two, possibly three, servants but no carriage), just a little more in fact than the Austen family had. It might be mentioned in passing that income in Austen’s works is almost always calculated in terms of the interest on capital. If you had twenty thousand in capital (accrued through inheritance or advantageous marriage) that would give you, at five per cent, an income of a thousand pounds a year. The word employment, though it occurs quite frequently in the novels, refers less often to work in a trade or profession than to what one finds to fill out the hours when one has nothing to do. Members of the gentry, unless they were clergymen, sailors or soldiers, did not work; and even clergymen, sailors and soldiers often did not work very much.
Austen is fond of deriving comedy from illness or imagined illness and created two great monsters of hypochondria in Mary Musgrove (née Elliot) in Persuasion and Mr Woodhouse, Emma’s father, in Emma, though the latter is perhaps more a monomaniac or obsessive than a hypochondriac: he is terrified not just for his own health but for everyone’s. And yet, in spite of the opinion of Lady Denham in Sanditon that the presence of a doctor “would be only encouraging our Servants and the Poor to fancy themselves ill”, illness did exist in Austen’s world and there was often little way of knowing whether the complaint was trivial or potentially fatal.
A diligent reader of Jane Austen’s letters would be hard put to find one which did not mention illnesses among family and friends. More than muslin or money, illness is her constant concern and surpasses even the weather as a natural topic of epistolary conversation ... In an age when diagnoses were unconvincing and treatments rarely productive, a slight illness might always seem like a harbinger of something worse.
Illness, money in its close relation to marriage, and bad weather and its inhibiting effects on social intercourse were all factors which loomed somewhat larger in Jane Austen’s world than they do in our own, and so they are very present in her novels. But as Mullan shows, they are not just there because they happen; rather the way in which they are treated in the novels advances both plot and characterisation. The reticent Jane Fairfax in Emma seems to be not in the best of health; but she makes much less of this than do other characters on her behalf. Mary Musgrove and Marianne Dashwood on the other hand, in quite different ways from each other, use “hysterics” as a weapon.
And is there sex in Jane Austen? Of course there is, Mullan assures us, oodles of it, even if it is mostly offstage or between the lines. If young ladies suddenly discover the urge to “take a turn” around the drawing room (one will need a largish room), that, as Mr Darcy observes in Pride and Prejudice, will be either because they wish to exchange confidences or show off their figures. And figure meant the same then as it does now. The clergyman Mr Elton was “a young man living alone without liking it”. Austen’s readers, Mullan assures us, would have no difficulty in knowing what was meant by that. Men, it was universally acknowledged, wanted to have sex and female beauty could be parlayed for advantageous marriage. Though we may often hear in Austen that so-and-so will not throw himself away for six thousand pounds, in the novels men both marry for money and without money. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy and Bingley marry for love, that is they marry beauty and wit, or goodness, without money. Mr Bennet has quite obviously married his wife (Elizabeth’s mother) for her looks and has by the time of the action of the novel had two decades to repent (while producing five children). Mr Palmer in Sense and Sensibility and John Knightley in Emma have also both taken on silly or shallow women for their beauty or their money, while Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice accepts an extraordinarily silly and pompous man simply in order to have the essential amenity of her own home, or establishment, as Austen calls it. Love and marriage, with some luck, can lead quite splendidly to house and carriage, but love without marriage will almost certainly lead to ruin and disgrace. In Sense and Sensibility, Colonel Brandon’s ward, Eliza, is seduced, made pregnant and then abandoned, aged sixteen, by John Willoughby. Elizabeth Bennet’s wild young sister Lydia elopes with George Wickham and lives with him defiantly and shamefully until he is eventually bribed into marrying her. The sententious Mary Bennet remarks of her sister’s irresponsible behaviour that “loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable – that one false step involves her in endless ruin”. We may guess that Jane Austen is distancing herself from the manner in which this is said, but she can scarcely have much disagreed with the sentiment. That was how things were.
Some of Mullan’s chapters, though also built on close reading of the texts, are less exercises in interpretation than in cultural archaeology and the history of manners. In “What Do the Characters Call Each Other?” we learn that only one married woman (Mary Musgrove) in all of Austen calls her husband by his Christian name. Admiral Croft’s wife in Persuasion may be Sophy to him but he is “my dear admiral” to her. Mr Weston, in Emma, calls his wife “Anne, my dear”; she calls him “Mr Weston”. In the same novel, the reader is invited to flinch – as Emma herself does ‑ as the dreadful Mrs Elton refers to the wise and weighty Mr Knightley as simply “Knightley”. This is all quite amusing, but matters which seem strange to us (the social codes and formalities of earlier historical periods) are not in themselves strange. This apparent strangeness though can often work to the advantage of older works of literature in terms of their contemporary reception: just as television viewers of Austen adaptations have been known to sigh at the sight of all those fine houses and paintings and pretty ladies in enormous dresses, that it would have been nice to have been around back then, so also some readers of the novels can glean a savour from Austen’s language that was perhaps not there originally. Does Mrs Weston’s observation, in relation to concerns about health, that “The spring I always think requires more than common care” do anything for you? It does for me. And how often have I wished to remind my night companions, as Elinor reminds Marianne: “I am afraid that the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety.” These are words which have aged well in the bottle, but it is not just a matter of words: Austen possessed acute emotional intelligence, which she was able to weld to strong judgment and often penetrating humour. Here is Elinor Dashwood’s considered verdict on pretty, foolish, gabbling Charlotte Palmer, who has the cheerful gift of saying one thing one minute and the next minute its opposite (to the discomfort of her sour, sardonic husband):
The openness and heartiness of her manner, more than atoned for that want of recollection and elegance, which made her often deficient in the forms of politeness; her kindness, recommended by so pretty a face, was engaging, her folly, though evident, was not disgusting, because it was not conceited; and Elinor could have forgiven everything but her laugh.
Austen’s judgments, whether expressed in the pure authorial voice or filtered through the consciousness of one of her heroines, often combine psychological acuity with moral and ‑ quite frequently ‑ aesthetic concerns. Lady Middleton in Sense and Sensibility, who cares very little for anything except the fashionable world and her place in it, meets the tragedy that has befallen Marianne Dashwood with “calm and polite unconcern”, expressing a view on the matter “about once every day, or twice, if the subject occurred very often, by saying, ‘It is very shocking indeed!’”. Somewhat oppressed by the well-intentioned fuss that everyone else is making, Elinor reflects:
Every qualification is raised at times, by the circumstances of the moment, to more than its real value; and she [Elinor] was sometimes worried down by officious condolence to rate good-breeding as more indispensable to comfort than good-nature.
This is a sharp if somewhat knotty thought, and it is perhaps a little shocking to the twenty-first century that such ideas could emerge from the mind of a girl not yet twenty. John Mullan points out that in Austen adaptations for film or television the actors are frequently much older than the book characters they are playing: in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) for example, Emma Thompson, playing Elinor, is thirty-six; in the book Elinor is nineteen (and Marianne seventeen). It is possibly the case that modern audiences would simply not accept the range of virtues Miss Dashwood displays (cautious wisdom, sharp judgment of people and situations, a capacity for self-sacrifice) as being quite believable in someone who to all appearances is a nineteen-year-old. But in regency England, if you were perhaps going to die aged twenty-four giving birth to your fifth child, as Jane Austen’s sister-in-law Fanny Palmer did, there may have been a perceived need to get started in life a little earlier.
The title of John Mullan’s excellent book perhaps presents some difficulty. If we pick up a work entitled What Matters in Jane Austen? we might reasonably expect to find in it some attempt to define the essence of Austenism – indeed that is perhaps the principal thing we would expect to find. This, however, is not what Mullan does, at least not directly; his point is a rather different one, that everything matters in an Austen novel and nothing is there just as padding. This is true, but does everything matter equally?
In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest Cecily Cardew asks her governess, Miss Prism, if the three-volume novel she wrote but did not succeed in having published had a happy ending. Miss Prism replies: “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily; that is what fiction means.” She is at least half right. It is certainly a prerequisite of romance or comedy that the good end happily, all obstacles that were once in their way having been removed. What happens to the bad may be somewhat less important, though, being bad, it is often the case that the happiness of the good is in itself sufficient to make them unhappy.
But what exactly is it that constitutes good in Austen’s novels? Elinor Dashwood is certainly quite good in the conventional sense, though initially ready for hand-to-hand fighting over Edward Ferrars with the cunning little vixen Lucy Steele. Anne Elliot is a lot better than anyone has a right to expect her to be (“almost too good for me”, Austen had said) given her appalling family. Elizabeth Bennet is certainly both clever and good. Emma Woodhouse though ‑ “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” – is not really good at all: her interventions in the affairs of others are foolish and damaging and she is rude to the innocent and defenceless Miss Bates, a gross offence in the eyes of the moral Mr Knightley. On the other hand she is “handsome, clever, and rich, with ... a happy disposition”; none of these are qualities to be sneezed at: men seem to find her easier to like than women.
In the trajectory of the romantic novel, or indeed the classic comedy, the good will always encounter adversity yet eventually come through. The romantic/comic hero or heroine may suffer, but there will be a term to that suffering and in the final chapter or last act everything will be very prettily tidied up. The adversities that Austen’s heroines suffer are often caused not so much by quirks of fate as by the malignities and stupidities of other people. It is bad enough perhaps that Anne Elliot has been dissuaded from marrying Frederick Wentworth on the grounds that he has no prospects and that this dissuasion (persuasion for Austen) would appear to condemn her to perpetual spinsterhood. It is considerably worse that her spinsterhood is likely to be spent as the unconsidered slave of her foppish father and appalling sisters, snooty Elizabeth and doltish Mary. Elizabeth Bennet is oppressed by the idiocy of her mother and three of her sisters, the sneering hostility of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the threatening embrace of Mr Collins. Elinor Dashwood must cope not just with the self-centredness of her sister Marianne but with the coldness and cupidity of her brother and sister-in-law, John and Fanny, the spiteful enmity of Mrs Ferrars and the well-bred indifference of the languid Lady Middleton. In each case intelligence and moral worth finds itself ill-used by selfishness, stupidity, rank and riches. Good people in life may sometimes suffer, and that is unfortunate; but intelligent and sensitive people ill-used by fools must surely feel it more deeply.
In Northanger Abbey it had been observed that “A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.” Austen herself came from a close and loving family in which her wit and high spirits were much appreciated and her experiments in writing, from an early age, encouraged. So we must assume that this observation on the limited opportunities of women was derived more from her experience of society than of family. Her clergyman father, George Austen, seems to have been a kind, practical man with an intellectual bent, her mother, Cassandra Leigh, brisk, capable and also rather literary. Indeed the contrast between Austen’s actual family life and the family life of her heroines could scarcely be more stark: in Austenland parents are either absent or useless: Emma Woodhouse’s father is a feeble-minded invalid, Anne Elliot’s a vain nincompoop, Elinor Dashwood’s is dead and Elizabeth Bennet’s has retreated into his library and cynicism; the mothers are respectively dead, dead, weakly indulgent and an idiot. If Austen’s heroines are in most cases superior, intellectually and sometimes also morally, to those who are closest to them they are nevertheless, as women, lacking in the power to make things happen. What they are is therefore sometimes more important than what they do, and what they are, above all else, is intelligent. Mr Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice, acts decisively and secretly to help Lydia Bennet and her family by paying Wickham to marry her, just as Colonel Brandon offers a (clerical) living to Edward Ferrars after he has been disinherited by his mother. Such practical goodness is within the capacity of men of property; it is normally beyond the power of women.
The heroes or heroines of fairy and folk tales rarely have interesting or important brothers or sisters (though they may have siblings who play a blocking or malevolent role). Jane Austen’s closest relationship was with her only sister, Cassandra, two years her senior. There are some parallels between Austen’s fiction and her life (the theme of persuasion/dissuasion, is one: the young Jane was pulled or pushed away from her Irish suitor Tom Lefroy on the grounds that there was no money in the business, and of course she never married; the idea that such interference in the lives of young people is an evil recurs in her novels). We might perhaps expect that there would be a reflection in the fiction of Jane’s warm and confiding relationship with Cassandra, but on the whole we would be disappointed. Anne Elliot’s sisters are horrors, while Emma Woodhouse is effectively, though not actually, an only child. Elinor Dashwood very properly loves Marianne, but the heroine with the greatest number of sisters by far is Elizabeth Bennet; sadly only one of them is other than a fool. So are Elizabeth and Jane Bennet Jane and Cassandra Austen?
We might be tempted to think so, but the sweet and gentle Jane B would surely have been shocked to have received from her sister the kind of letter that Jane A sometimes sent Cassandra:
I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand today ... There were only twelve dances, of which I danced nine, & was merely prevented from dancing the rest by the want of a partner ...There were very few Beauties, and such as there were, were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well, & Mrs Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck ... Mrs Warren, I was constrained to think a very fine young woman, which I regret. She has got rid of some part of her child, & danced away with great activity, looking by no means very large. Her husband is ugly enough; uglier even than his cousin John; but he does not look so very old. The Miss Maitlands are both prettyish ... with brown skins, large dark eyes, & a good deal of nose. – The General has got the Gout, and Mrs Maitland the Jaundice. Miss Debary, Susan & Sally ... made their appearance, & I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.
This may be said to be the work of a very noticing kind of young woman (Austen was twenty-four when she wrote it). Much later, her favourite niece, Fanny Knight, set a suitor the task of reading her aunt’s novels, but without telling him who they were by (early editions did not carry her name). Austen was unperturbed when told that the young man had found fault with her work, complaining that the heroines were not always exemplary. “I particularly respect him,” she told Fanny, “for wishing to think well of all young Ladies; it shews an amiable & a delicate Mind”, adding however that “[p]ictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked”. In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet is disposed to tease Mr Darcy, who observes, quite reasonably, that often even the wisest and the best of actions “may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke”. Elizabeth objects strongly: “Certainly there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.” This is all very fine, but we should be careful to note that it is Elizabeth Bennet who is speaking here and not Jane Austen. Austen was certainly diverted by follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies but she was not always very scrupulous in choosing the targets of her wit. Her earliest writings are full of sparkle and mischief ‑ and quite deficient in morality. (There is of course morality, or at least an overlay of morality, in the mature novels, as the genre required and the audience expected ‑ too much so perhaps in Mansfield Park.) Austen herself, we might guess, was by nature more sharp than moral: she seems to have had an unusually acute eye for the ways of the pompous and pretentious, the fools and the gabblers; she was also, as passages in various of her novels make clear, immune to the charms of young children and scornful of their doting parents. And what are we to make of a remark such as this, again in a letter to Cassandra?
Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, oweing to a fright. ‑ I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.
As for the essence of Austenism, Charlotte Brontë, though she had not read all the novels, clearly thought she had their number taken in the formulae she used to George Henry Lewes: “a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers ... ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses”. Other hostile critics have gone beyond the “problem” of the restricted social circle represented in the fiction to object to the way in which the main driver of narrative – love, courtship and marriage – is handled. WH Auden was onto this one too, though certainly with tongue in cheek:
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Besides her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
Austen was certainly rather unromantic in her view of what money, or more properly its lack, might mean and some sensitive readers may be shocked – as Marianne was by Elinor ‑ by her plain speaking on the subject. “Single women,” she once wrote, “have a dreadful propensity for being poor, which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony.” In the penultimate chapter of Sense and Sensibility, Edward Ferrars and Elinor Dashwood have succeeded in removing all obstacles to their marriage but one, but “they were neither of them quite enough in love to think that three hundred and fifty pounds a-year would supply them with the comforts of life”.
But if Austen thinks marriage without money a foolish adventure, let us also be clear that she is not particularly impressed by money itself. Certainly, Elizabeth Bennet, her sweetest heroine, manages to snare Fitzwilliam Darcy, her grandest and richest hero. And Elizabeth is not entirely indifferent to the prospect of sharing in the stewardship of Mr Darcy's fine house:
It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; ‑ and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste ... at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!
Snaring the prince, however, is not an essential element of an Austen narrative. Elinor Dashwood’s prospects are modest enough (and Edward, an amiable and intelligent but diffident clergyman, is scarcely a prince). Emma Woodhouse will have the wealthy Knightley, but she was already herself rich. Anne Elliot, a baronet’s daughter, will be comfortable on the back of the good Captain Wentworth’s war plunder. Pride and Prejudice, the most popular of Austen’s novels, is in fact the most fairytale, with the largest social gap to be bridged and the most formidable difficulties to be overcome (not least perhaps an apparent mutual antipathy between heroine and hero).
In general, however, wealth and distinguished ancestry are not strong positive indicators in Austen’s fictions; snobbery and meanness are perhaps the worst vices, worse even than sexual wickedness, but show and extravagance are certainly also strongly faulted. John Dashwood has chosen to ignore his father’s dying wish that he should take care of his (half-)sisters financially, devoting all his inheritance instead to the more worthy cause of himself, his wife and their worldly comforts. In their London house,
The dinner was a grand one, the servants were numerous, and every thing bespoke the Mistress’s inclination for shew, and the Master’s ability to support it ... no poverty of any kind, except of conversation, appeared ...
Luxury goods are not much dwelt on in Austen's novels but when they are they are usually devices to highlight pretension and vulgarity (Mrs Elton’s endless wittering about her brother Suckling’s barouche, the coxcomb Robert Ferrars’s fussing over a toothpick case); Austen’s romantic fiction thus stands, in spite of superficial similarities, at a considerable distance from the popular romantic/erotic (“sex and shopping”) novels of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with their fixation on goods and brands. The only poverty that appeared at the Dashwoods’ table, the poverty of good conversation, which is to say the poverty of intelligence, highlights the absence of ‑ perhaps not the only thing that matters for Austen‑ but the thing that matters most. At bottom, the novels are not so much moral tales (the difficult case of Mansfield Park aside) in which good is rewarded and evil punished as celebrations of intelligence, an intelligence which is at first undervalued and disregarded but finally recognised and rewarded by happiness. As a young woman Austen turned her back on the Gothic novel, with its melodramatic plot and stark contrasts between good and evil, purest innocence and blackest villainy; such absurd stories, she found, made her giggle. What she offers instead in her novels are charming, supremely witty and often complex romances of wish fulfilment, in which the heroines, clever, good-hearted, underappreciated, surrounded by fools and egoists and yet still rather fine-looking in a good light, are much like ourselves: no wonder we like them so much.
It may ultimately be no more than a question of taste whether we would like to live with Austen’s “fine ladies and gentlemen” in their elegant houses or prefer the company of the more rough-hewn spirits of the Yorkshire uplands (“wuthering”, my dictionary explains, means “blowing with a dull, roaring sound”). Certainly there are few heterosexual men who would not run off with Lizzy Bennet, with or without ten thousand a-year. And if all of the noise of the last two decades is to be believed, there are women too who would gladly forsake their dull husbands for Mr Darcy (or is it Mr Firth?). Miss Emily Brontë’s classic work, on the other hand, I have seen memorably described by one reader as “the novel I have read in which I would least like to be a character”.
Enda O’Doherty is a journalist and joint editor of the Dublin Review of Books.