First of all, let me apologise in advance to all fans of Austen out there: I really do not intend to indulge in Austen-bashing – that is not the purpose of this post. It seems pointless and childish to be arguing along the lines of “My taste is better than yours”: it’s far more interesting to try to understand why one responds well to certain things, and not so well to others – why it is that our responses may legitimately differ. And I must confess, I have never responded favourably to Austen. I don’t dispute her stature as a major novelist, but I have never, for all that, felt drawn to her works, and find the greatest difficulty in attempting to incorporate her view of life into my own.
This is not because she is essentially a “woman’s writer” (whatever that means), or because her novels are, as is often claimed, forerunners of chick-lit. Despite all the wit and sparkle on the surface, only the most obtuse of readers could overlook her mastery of craft, the sharpness of her insights, and, indeed, the essential seriousness of her intent. No – what I find difficult is a certain coldness: reading through her works, I am constantly reminded of Charlotte Brontë’s criticism: Austen’s works, she said, were “bloodless”. Of course, it may be said that just about anyone’s work is “bloodless” compared to the novels written by the Brontës, but the criticism strikes me as particularly apt. In Austen’s novels, human emotions seem to be held at arm’s length, and powerful passions are well beyond limits; furthermore, the author seems not to like too many of her characters: most are there to be looked down upon, to be sneered at; and there seems never to be an open laugh, as there is so frequently in Dickens: all the laughs here are at someone’s expense; and so on. These novels of Austen seem to me the works of someone very deeply censorious of human behaviour, someone who prefers to look down on human behaviour from an exalted height rather than to descend to their level, someone who likes to keep a decorous distance because she prefers not to be sullied by the sheer messiness of human affairs.
This is no doubt a very unfair and one-sided picture of a great novelist: it may rightly be said that, as with all great novelists, there are many aspects to Austen’s art, and that to characterise them in such terms as I have done above is no more than to caricature them, and, in the process, to misrepresent them. I plead guilty to all that. And yet, try as I might, I can’t get over a general sense of dislike. And I keep coming back to this dislike because my failure to enjoy the works of an author of such obvious quality is very clearly indicative of the way I perceive literature, and, perhaps, of the way I perceive life itself.
For many years, I thought that I just didn’t get Austen, but nowadays, I feel that I do get Austen, but I don’t like what I get: her perspective is far too alien to my sensibilities. To complicate matters, I find myself increasingly attracted to the works of Flaubert, who, at a cursory glance, may seem very similar to Austen in many respects: both view humanity with an ironic detachment; both are censorious, and harsh in their judgements; both look down on many of their creations; both are lacking in warmth, preferring instead to view humanity with the clarity of a cold and unsentimental light. And yet, for all that, they are different: were they not so, I could hardly dislike the one and love the other. If I can react so differently to these two writers, there must be differences – very significant differences – between their writings. And it’s these differences that I am trying here to untangle.
A few years ago, in an attempt to come to terms with Austen, I read through all her novels again. To my surprise, I found that I rather liked her last written novel, Persuasion: towards the end of her brief life, she shows evidence of tolerance of human foibles, of warmth, and even of geniality – all those qualities I find so conspicuously lacking in her earlier works. Possibly she was thawing out with age, and, had she lived longer, we may have seen further evidence of this. But if Persuasion was the novel I liked best, the novel that intrigued me most was Mansfield Park.
Having read some critical responses to Mansfield Park, it seems that my reading of the book is somewhat idiosyncratic, as, against the critical grain, its principal themes seem to me to be displacement and identity. Fanny is displaced very dramatically at the age of ten – taken away from her parents, from her siblings (to at least some of whom she is particularly attached), and transported far away to an entirely different environment, with no prospect of seeing again the only world she has known. This, at any age, is traumatic: at so impressionably early an age, it must be shattering. To make it worse, the world into which she is displaced is cold and loveless. How does a mere child deal with this?
And it gets worse. Soon after Fanny moves to Mansfield Park, a brother to whom she had been particularly attached dies in her absence. One can but imagine the emotional trauma this must have caused. Indeed, one has to imagine it, because not only does Austen not depict this trauma, she doesn’t even bother mentioning the death until much later in the novel.
I think the reason for this is that Austen wants to discourage any sympathy for Fanny that mention of this might occasion in the reader. We may remember the depictions in the early chapters of David Copperfield or of Jane Eyre of the profound emotions that a child may experience. But Austen has no desire to go in that direction. Now, this suppression of the brother’s death seems to me as emotionally manipulative as anything in The Old Curiosity Shop, but from the other side: where Dickens wants to involve the reader emotionally (to the extent of forcing false emotions in the particular instance of The Old Curiosity Shop), Austen manipulates the reader into feeling as little emotion as possible. I certainly can’t think of any other reason why Austen should suppress so momentous an event as the death of Fanny’s brother. I can’t say I find this emotional distancing particularly endearing, and, given the choice, would personally prefer Dickensian sentimentality even at its worst to such emotional coldness.
This is not to suggest an artistic failure on Austen’s part: on the contrary, she achieves exactly what she aims for. Emotional coldness is very characteristic of the whole ethos of Mansfield Park (the novel and the place). But Mansfield Park is a place to which Fanny becomes, over time, closely attached. People who are unsure of where they belong feel more strongly than most the need to belong – to belong somewhere; and, since the only realistic option in Fanny’s case is Mansfield Park, she embraces its ethos wholeheartedly, and becomes, as it were, more Mansfieldian than the Mansfieldians.
Later in the novel, when Fanny’s brother William appears, we sense a certain warmth of feeling between brother and sister – a remnant of past times. But we observe no such warmth in the Bertram family, no sense of affection between parents and children, between sibling and sibling. The symbol of Mansfield Park is the cold, fireless room in which Fanny likes to sit on her own: it is here she feels most at ease.
Into this environment come the Crawfords, who infect the grey coldness of Mansfield Park with their glittering brightness and vivacity. Fanny, wedded to Mansfieldian values, disapproves of them, as she disapproves of the very un-Mansfieldian moral laxity into which she perceives her cousins being led; but, as a ward, she knows better than to give open expression to her disapproval. Given the various layers of irony characteristic of Austen, it is hard to see whether she approves of Fanny’s moral rectitude, or whether she sees Fanny’s censoriousness as merely prissy. Perhaps it doesn’t matter: if Austen had felt it important for the reader to know where she herself stood on the matter, she would, no doubt, have told us: any ambiguity on this point is surely deliberate. But what we surely sense – and are intended to sense – is that for all the outward differences, the Crawfords are emotionally shallow, and as incapable of depth of feeling as are any of the Bertrams (except, possibly, for the rather serious-minded Edmund).
In the climactic chapters of the novel, Fanny is sent back to her family in Portsmouth for a while, as a sort of punishment for refusing what the Bertrams would have considered a good match for a penniless ward. It is here that the strand involving Fanny’s sense of identity – the principal thematic strand, I think, of the novel – is resolved. For Fanny’s Portsmouth family is everything the Bertrams aren’t. I’d describe them as Dickensian were it not that this novel preceded Dickens. And Fanny is horrified. She is horrified by the clutter, the noise, the crowdedness. The same lassitude that Fanny had accepted without comment in her Mansfield Park aunt she now finds intolerable in her Portsmouth mother. And she realises, once and for all, that it is Mansfield Park, with all its coldness, that is her true spiritual home: she is now certain of her identity, of who she is.
And yet, this resolution is highly problematic. Fanny chooses Mansfield Park over Portsmouth because her own origins disgust her, and to feel ashamed of one’s origins is not a particularly likeable trait (it’s what I tend to call the VS Naipaul Syndrome): speaking for myself, I find it rather distasteful. But in this context, it is entirely believable. The disgust Fanny feels on seeing her Portsmouth family is not too far removed from the disgust Gulliver feels on seeing the Yahoos: no Houyhnhnmn ever felt as strong a sense of disgust at the Yahoos as Gulliver feels, and this is because, unlike the Houyhnhmns, Gulliver is afraid that he may be a Yahoo himself.
There is one scene in particular that sticks in the mind. When Henry comes to visit Fanny in Portsmouth, the two of them accidentally come across Fanny’s father, who has had a bit to drink. And Fanny is dreadfully ashamed that Henry should know this drunken man to be her father. But why? It’s not as if her father is completely inebriated, and is making an exhibition of himself; and one would be very surprised if Henry were himself to be a stranger to alcohol. And in any case, is not Fanny convinced of Henry’s un-Mansfieldian unworthiness? Why should she care what he thinks of her father, and, by extension, of herself? But for all that, Fanny is mortified by the mere thought that a person with some association with Mansfield Park, her adopted spiritual home, could judge her, Mansfieldian Fanny, as belonging to that world her father inhabits. I find this a deeply distasteful scene, and all the more so because it is so very believable.
In the end, of course, after a series of off-stage events (which, if my reading is correct, do not constitute the resolution of the principal strand of the novel: that resolution takes place very much on-stage in Portsmouth), Fanny finds herself exactly where she wanted – married to Edmund, and mistress of her spiritual home. It is hard to read through the layers of irony to discover what Austen wants us to feel about it all. Is this the vindication of Fanny’s moral rectitude? Or is it something more ambiguous than that? However one reads it, one may note Fanny’s unyielding censoriousness: even when Sir Thomas wonders whether it was right to have married his daughter Maria off to someone she clearly did not love (feelings such as love not having much value in Mansfieldian currency), Fanny remains, as ever, unbending, more Mansfieldian than the Mansfieldians.
All this makes for a perceptive novel, indeed, a great novel, but not, as far as I can see, a particularly likeable one. Admittedly, it’s not the most representative of Austen’s novels: although many rate it as her greatest and her most profound work, it is generally seen to lack the charm and the surface brilliance that Austenites so value. However, it does exhibit what I see as a typical Austenite trait – an emotional coldness, an unwillingness to engage with deeply felt emotions (even when the content may seem to demand such an engagement), a reluctance to get too close to human passions.
Let us now move on to Flaubert, who at first glance, may appear similar. But there is, it seems to me, one major difference: Flaubert was deeply attached to Romantic values.
It has long seemed to me that the novel as a form could not accommodate the soaring qualities of Romanticism. It seems to me, further, that this was the reason the novel as a form went into a sort of decline during the late 18th century and the early 19th centuries (the only indisputably major novelist of that era, Jane Austen, being decidedly un-Romantic); and that when the novel reasserted itself once again as a major literary form, it could only do so because, with a few notable exceptions, novelists had, by and large, turned their backs on Romanticism. This is not to say that they all embraced realism: some of the greatest of novelists – Gogol, Dickens, Dostoyevsky – had no interest at all in surface realism, and presented highly stylised fictional worlds. But there’s little in the great 19th century novels that can truly be called Romantic. (I’m speaking in very general terms here, and am, inevitably, generalising quite crudely.) And this turning away from Romanticism is, itself, one of Flaubert’s major themes.
Madame Bovary, as any student crib notes will tell you, is about the futility of life. It tells you how pointless everything is. This is true up to a point, but if we only see up to that point, we miss virtually all the riches. Because merely to say that life is futile is neither particularly interesting nor profound – even if it should happen to be true. Anyone can say that. But Flaubert goes deeper.
Somerset Maugham once wondered why Flaubert made Charles Bovary die of grief after Emma’s death. Surely, Maugham argued, if he’d got over it and married again, that would have added another note of futility. I think this is why, despite his talents, Maugham could never be anything other than a second-rater compared to someone like Flaubert. Because in Flaubert’s vision, one cannot dismiss humanity with a casual shrug of the shoulders, and a cheerful “What does it matter anyway?” That is far too easy. It does matter – it matters because these characters, absurd and stupid though they may be, are nonetheless sentient beings capable of depth of feeling. And that can’t be shrugged away. Even a figure as absurd and as stupid as Charles Bovary cannot be dismissed, because, despite everything, he is capable of feeling deeply. The scene where he and Homais stay up together after Emma’s death is almost unbearably moving – all the more so because Charles’ understanding of the situation is so inadequate.
Emma Bovary is not the brightest of people: her Romanticism is merely sentimental. To have presented her as a pure representative of Romantic ideals who is crushed by a philistine world would have been far too formulaic and crude for an author as subtle as Flaubert. Emma’s Romanticism is just as stupid and as insipid as Homais’ philistinism: the rebellion is just as flawed as that which it is rebelling against – and therein lies the profound sadness of it all.
We may or may not sympathise with Emma, but that, I think, is perhaps beside the point. The emotions we sympathise with – or at least, the emotions that I find myself sympathising with – are the author’s. And these are emotions of deep sadness – sadness that life should be like this, when those ideals that he still can’t bring himself to discard tell him it should be so much more. Romanticism urged us all to aspire towards something great and noble, and the sorrowful awareness that humanity is not capable of this is at the heart of just about everything Flaubert wrote.
Austen knew this too: of course humanity could not strive towards the transcendent as the Romantics urged them to do! The very idea! But where Flaubert found this tragic, Austen found this merely amusing. And there, I think, lies the difference. Where Austen refused to take human beings too seriously, Flaubert took them very seriously indeed. While Austen regarded human inadequacy with an amused smile, Flaubert shook his head in sadness.
It is this that accounts for Flaubert giving Charles Bovary depth of feeling, and Austen keeping from any strong emotion a decorous distance. In an Austen novel, a character such as Charles would have been no more than a laughing stock: unlike Flaubert, Austen seems temperamentally incapable of taking seriously a figure as absurd as Charles. Take for instance Austen’s representation of Miss Bates in Emma: Austen knows that despite her absurdity, she is a harmless lady, and that it is ungentle and unkind to poke fun at her. Mr Knightley says all this quite openly. And yet, Austen herself just couldn’t resist poking fun at this harmless creature; and she didn’t (or couldn’t) depict any aspect of Miss Bates that gives her any sort of depth. She couldn’t, in short, make of her what Flaubert had made of Charles Bovary: at no point is Miss Bates depicted as anything other than a tiresome old bat.
Ultimately, what one does or does not respond to is a matter of individual temperament, and I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy Austen’s amused detachment. It is Flaubert’s deep sorrow that continues to attract me, and, indeed, to move me.