For my posts on individual novels of Austen, see here.
Not that long ago, I used to find myself frankly puzzled by the high regard, indeed, by the reverence, in which Jane Austen was held. And this reverence was discernible not merely in the casual reader, or in those who, influenced no doubt by various lightweight adaptations, saw her novels as essentially chick-lit in fancy costume: those whom I admired for their taste and for their critical judgement seemed also unanimous in their regard for Austen.
So I had a choice of three options: I could claim that those who enjoyed Austen were fools unable to see through the hype, and that I, possessing superior discernment, knew better (this is the default position on the internet in such matters); or I could shrug my shoulders, and accept that we all have different perceptions, and that not everyone can take in everything; or, thirdly, I could have another go, and see if, this time round, I could at least see something of what her admirers clearly see. Now, there are many things about my former self that I find myself disliking, but I am glad this former self of mine eschewed the first option, found himself dissatisfied with the second, and went for the third. For now, having re-read all six of her complete and full length novels (the shorter and unfinished works are still waiting in the wings), I can not only see why her admirers admire her so, I have come to share much of that admiration myself. I won’t claim to be a fully paid-up Austenite: our individual temperaments inevitably lead us in different directions, after all; but now, when Austen is praised as a novelist of the foremost rank, I find myself inclined to agree, and to join in the praise. Is not our capacity to change over time quite wonderful?
Of course, this is all very inconsistent in me, but consistency is not really, I think, something to be praised: a mind and a soul impervious to change bespeak a spiritual dullness and an inability to look beyond our immediate horizons – as if these horizons of ours encompass all that need be encompassed. Change is not merely to be welcomed, but to be actively sought – change in our thinking, our tastes, our critical judgement; change in our moral and aesthetic values.
Towards the end of Antony and Cleopatra, Antony, who had thought that he knew himself, discovers to his surprise that he doesn’t. He looks at a cloud, and its shape seems to him constantly to change:
That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.
He wonders at this, and finds his own self just such an amorphous body:
… here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape …
This is the self-knowledge he acquires in the course of the drama: he comes to know that he doesn’t really know himself at all; there is nothing solid that he can grasp, and all is as water is in water.
Antony is overstating, of course: we need not take this as Shakespeare’s own view. It is a mistake to take the thoughts of a character at the edge of human experience as representative of authorial wisdom. For, whatever Antony may think at this point, there is clearly a continuity between what we are now, and what we used to be; the human personality, for all its multiple facets that so puzzle Antony, retains a unity amidst the diversity. But it’s this diversity that makes humans so endlessly fascinating – a diversity the nature of which is so mysterious, even to ourselves, that it becomes impossible to say whether any change we undergo over time is the acquiring of new characteristics and the discarding of old, or whether it is, rather, the emergence to the fore of existing but previously unobserved elements.
If any reader who has stuck with me so far into this post is worried that I am now about to launch into intimate autobiography, and detail how I have changed over the years, please rest assured that nothing could be further from my intention: this blog is not, thankfully, a confessional. However, it has long struck me that the books that I value or have valued highly in different periods of my life, and my reasons for valuing them, do constitute an autobiography of sorts. And my progress, within a mere few years, from a dislike for Austen, or, at best, a grudging respect, to an unfeigned and unalloyed admiration, very possibly marks out in me new ways of looking at things, new perspectives. Which would give me cause for introspection were I given to navel-gazing.
Perhaps I hadn’t paying sufficient attention in my previous readings. I tried to interrogate my old self: what was it about these novels that I disliked? I don’t think I ever bought the view of Austen as a purveyor of chick-lit in fancy dress, even though legions of her fans did: she was quite clearly a far more serious writer than that. But I did, I think, find her very formal and decorous, and, as a consequence, distant; I formed the impression of her as detached, as lacking in passion; I saw her as looking down censoriously on her own creations from a moral high-ground; I found her too severe, too cold, too unwilling to sympathise with the common flaws and weaknesses of our shared humanity; I found a lack of warmth; and it seemed to me frankly worrying that her laughs were always at the expense of others: never was there an open and generous laugh – what I’d describe as a Dickensian laugh – in which we may all join.
All this seems damning. In some of them, I had been simply mistaken: for instance, Austen is certainly not short of passion – as is surely obvious from even the most cursory reading of Mansfield Park or of Persuasion (and how that insensitive oaf that was my former self could have missed this I really cannot imagine). As for my other criticisms, there is more than an element of truth to them, but they are not the whole truth. What I failed so dismally to see, I think, was that major works of art are not restricted to a single tonality; that what they present merely on the surface can be deceptive. Why, I had asked myself in my previous reading, is Emma Woodhouse to be taken to task for being unkind to Miss Bates when the author herself had presented Miss Bates in precisely the terms in which Emma had seen her – as no more than a tiresome old bat? I think I can now answer that question: Miss Bates is a tiresome old bat, and Austen sees no reason to present her otherwise; but she was wise enough and compassionate enough to know that even tiresome old bats have feelings, and that these feelings are sacrosanct. To have presented Miss Bates as anything other than the tiresome creature she is would have been merely pious and sentimental; Austen does better – much better: she allows us to think of Miss Bates in the same way that Emma does, so that when Miss Bates’ feelings are hurt, we find ourselves every bit as mortified as does Emma. And as a consequence, if we had looked down on Miss Bates before, we feel ashamed for having done so; and if we had looked down on Emma before, we no longer can; for how can we consider ourselves to be above that in which we find our own selves implicated? Far from looking down from remote heights on the flaws of humanity, Austen involves us in them.
The key to my greater understanding – for such, I hope, it is – came when a friend referred to Austen’s novels as “Mozartian”. Now, as a fully paid-up member of the Mozart fan club, I am constantly surprised when people pronounce his music to be twee, lacking in passion, shallow, and all the rest of it; for, underneath the elegant perfection of his surfaces, there seem to me to lie inexhaustible depths of passion. Was I being similarly obtuse, I wondered, in failing to look beyond the formal and decorous surfaces of Austen? Having now re-read these six novels, I can only conclude that such was precisely the case. Not that Austen is now an author close to my heart: she isn’t. Nonetheless, I did find myself charmed by Pride and Prejudice; I found myself utterly absorbed in the sombre drama that is Mansfield Park; I found myself quite swept along by the passion – yes, passion – and the eroticism of Persuasion. Emma, I confess, I found hard work, but its artistry and its seriousness of purpose are in no doubt. Even the two earlier works, Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, though novels of somewhat lesser substance than the masterpieces that followed, remain remarkable works.
So, while our substance may not be of infinite plasticity, while we may not quite be, as Antony had thought, as water is in water, we do have the ability, I think, to look beyond our own individual horizons, and see what we had not previously been capable of seeing. Not that we’ll give ourselves the opportunity to do so if we keep on simple-mindedly rating works in terms of “Like” or “Dislike” as we do Facebook posts; nor if we do as Goodreads urges us, and fix works produced by minds greater than our own on some insipid scale from one to ten. And it may sometimes be the case that one’s temperament is so far removed from that of the author, that not even the greatest willingness, open-mindedness and flexibility on the part of the reader can quite reconcile one to the author’s artistic vision. But it sure is worth a try!