Jane Austen and the War of Ideas

I read Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, by Marliyn Butler (1975), on the recommendation of an old friend, and also because it was footnoted in each of the introductions to each of Jane Austen’s six major novels, all of which I re-read over the last several months.  I’m sure it’s not state-of-the-art Austen scholarship at this point, having been published in 1975, but I think it’s the sort of book that contemporary critics refer to as “classic.”  I’m just guessing because I’m not actually any sort of literary scholar.  But I do think I read books intelligently, and deliberately, and given that this is the 2nd or 3rd time I had read most of these Austen novels, the strength of my reaction to Butler’s arguments made me want to write about it.

My reaction has been, for the most part anyway, one of frustration.  Before I explain that frustration though, I’ll explain what I like here first.  Butler’s argument is tremendously elucidating in its refusal to accept Austen’s work as merely “chic-lit.”  That’s not a term she uses, but it’s one that fits with her quotation of Winston Churchill, whose widely quoted comments are the sort of condescending masculinist dismissal one frequently encounters of Jane Austen:

…What calm lives they had, those people! No worries about the French Revolution, or the crashing struggle of the Napoleonic Wars… (161)

Churchill meant this as a compliment I think – he envies the “calmness” of the lives of Austen’s characters.  But that calmness is there because, to him anyway, there is nothing of the real life of the country which was being lived outside of southwest England.  The French revolution was just a few years before Austen’s years of writing, and the Napoleonic Wars were ongoing: and there is Elizabeth Bennett debating about whether to walk unaccompanied in the rain!

For a more contemporary statement of the apparent triviality of Austen, here’s a quotation from an interview with Richard Dawkins a few Sundays ago in the New York Times Book Review:

“Pride and Prejudice.” It must be my prejudice, and I am not proud of it, but I can’t get excited about who is going to marry whom, and how rich they are.

Reading these books in such a manner is intellectual inexcusable – though perhaps understandable because of the overwhelming triviality of our own dominant culture’s current treatment of those themes.  Dawkins seems to be comparing (without argument) Austen’s treatment of love and marriage with, say, what one might see on The Real Housewives of Orange County or The Bachelor.

There is a lot more going on in Austen’s six novels.  Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion are all nominally about “who is going to marry whom, and how rich they are,” but that sort of rejection is just boorish philistinism.  It’s like those people who listen to classical music and say “it all sounds the same” or that those who won’t watch or read Shakespeare because they can’t deal with “all that old [sic] English.”  And I really think someone like Richard Dawkins feels much more comfortable expressing such a preference in such a dismissive and condescending tone just because of male privilege.

Butler’s book contests such prejudices by placing Austen’s work within the intellectual context of the late 18th and early 19th century.  Sure, the main thrust of her book suggests, Austen doesn’t write about the Napoleonic wars, but she did concern herself quite directly with the concomitant ideological struggles of the intellectual life of the day.  The main tension Butler describes from the 1790’s is between a sort of liberal-progressive “sentimentalism” and a more pessimistic, conservative focus on empiricism and right reason.  Austen, on Butler’s reading, falls squarely in the camp of the latter, and after an initial few chapters detailing this intellectual context, she gives us one chapter each on the six novels, demonstrating Austen’s place within this context.

Like I said, there’s a lot here to like.  Butler deftly places Austen’s “women’s work” within the more male-dominated context of moral and political philosophy, the world of Hume, Godwin and Rousseau.  But what’s frustrating, to me anyway, is the extent to which Butler treats Austen’s novels just as works of moral and political philosophy.  They’re each read almost just as allegories for contemporary political disputes.  To be fair, Butler defends this reading.  She notes early on that the contemporary distinction between moral argument on the one hand, and self-consciously aesthetically crafted novels on the other hand, is not one Austen, or her readers, would have found familiar.

… at the period when Jane Austen began to write, literature as a whole was partisan, in England as well as on the Continent: so were the other arts… doctrine was found in works which seem to us very harmless… Modern literary criticism, so often narrowly aesthetic, has patronized eighteenth-century ‘didacticism’, and in the process obscured the pressure of ideas that helped to give contemporary fiction its form (3).

So fine – aesthetic criticism that ignores the political and moral context in which a work was created is bound to be a-historical or anachronistic, and empty to boot.  My problem with Butler’s book, though, is the extent to which she seems unwilling to countenance any distinction between a novel and a political tract.  After all, even if the distinction between them was less stark than it might be today, it still was a distinction.  Rousseau’s Discourses are, for example, different in style from his Confessions or his Novelle Heloise or Emile.

Butler seems content just to decode the ideological commitments of Austen’s various characters.  And that’s fine, as a project, I guess: a set of footnotes through which to read the novels.  Revealingly, Butler describes her project, at the outset of her chapter on Mansfield Park anyway, as an “examination of Jane Austen’s philosophy as expressed in her art” (219).  But to me, what’s frustrating is the extent to which such a project fails to do justice to not only what ideas Austen is working out, but also how she is working them out in the form of fictional narrative, and what new moral knowledge might come to light as a result of her use of that form.  There is an experiential component to novel-reading that Butler refers to obliquely from time to time, but she never seems ready to consider how that experiential component might make reading Sense and Sensibility, for example, more than just the reductive contrast format novel she sees it as.  Perhaps it’s true that “all the novelists who choose the contrast format do so in order to make an explicit ideological point” (182).  But is that all they intend to do?  Reading these books just from that angle can obscure a way that that ideological content can be altered, examined and tested through narrative, in the way that Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevksy’s Poetics suggests only Dostoevsky knew how to do.  I think many great novelists saw the potential to test ideological commitments through novels, and I think Austen is one of them.

Marilyn Butler, then, makes the same mistake with Jane Austen that, as I argued before, Joseph Frank does with Fyodor Dostoevsky: both read these novels as straightforward attempts at ideological critique through the cumbersome use of allegory and pre-determined outcomes, that fail at the margins because they accidentally elicit sympathy with their negative exemplars.  And so for both critics, their respective authors fail because they depict the ideas they mean to criticize with too much sympathy.  Consider Butler’s reading of Sense and Sensibility:

In a way Sense and Sensibility is worse affected than many clumsy works by lesser writers, because it is written naturally, and with more insight into at least some aspects of the inner life.  The reader has far too much real sympathy with Marianne in her sufferings to refrain from valuing her precisely on their account… Marianne, and to some extent also Elinor, are drawn with strong feelings with the reader is accustomed to sympathize with, and actually to value for their own sake.  But it is the argument of the novel that such feelings, like the individuals who experience them, are not innately good.  Unfortunately, in flat opposition to the author’s obvious intention, we tend to approach Marianne subjectively.  Right or wrong, she has our sympathy…

To start with, it’s strange that in a book in which aesthetic judgment is announced as a limited way to read a book, it’s strange that so many of Butler’s readings end up including some subjective-sounding “the reader just cannot abide this character” sort of pronouncements.  Furthermore, I simply cannot see how we can understand the eliciting of that sympathy as a failure on Austen’s part.  Sure – the novel as a whole is anti-“sensibility” perhaps, but maybe we could also see it as a subtly drawn illustration of the very clash that “sense” and “sensibility” find in the Dashwood family.  The closest Butler comes to this is in replying to the reading that this novel is a “compromise” between two opposing forces.  But what if, instead of arguing a particular ideological point, Austen was just seeing what happens when characters with those two sets of ideas are put in close proximity with one another, even within the same family system?  A casual reader of Butler could be forgiven for not even knowing that Marianne and Elinor are sisters!  They’re made to sound more like debating opponents forced on to the stage with one another.  We just accidentally end up sympathizing with both of them, even though Austen’s “obvious intention” was to show us how right Elinor is, and how wrong Marianne is.

A favorite high-school teacher of mine told me once never to use the adverb “obviously” when making an argument: if what I was saying was so obvious, she told me, then I had better cite some evidence, not just pound the table with question-begging adverbs.  But that’s really all Butler is doing here when she tells us about Austen’s intentions.  The ascription of that intention becomes more a point of dogma, a programmatic commitment on Butler’s part, and much less a claim supposed evidence, either from the text of Sense and Sensibility or elsewhere in Austen’s written oeuvre.

Why is Sense and Sensibility so enduringly popular?  It must partly be because of the narrative sympathy Austen generates, even if (pace Butler) in spite of herself.  Just as Elinor in fact loves her sister, so Austen may be more attached to the ambivalences of the debates that arise between Elinor and Marianne, either explicitly in conversation or (more often) implicitly through the actions and events of the novel.  The novel would be far more dry and boring that it is, if Austen had “succeeded” on Butler’s terms.  But again, Butler can only see this as an “argument” for a “compromise.”  What it if is neither an argument nor a compromise, but a narrative experiment whose results only become apparent with each act of reading?

I had similar reactions to Butler’s readings of Mansfield Park and Persuasion.  She sees Austen’s heroines as somehow too sentimentalized, at least at some moments, for the works to succeed.  Her reading of Pride and Prejudice was definitely eye-opening, in that she suggests that Austen means to criticize Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy as irresponsible decision-makers, rather than to idealize them as the “perfect couple.”  Emma is Butler’s favorite novel, it seems, or at least the one she sees as the most successful.

I’ll close with some thoughts about Mansfield Park – Butler argues that to the extent that the novel backgrounds Fanny Price, and focuses its ideological shots on the Crawfords, it is successful, and when Fanny becomes more of a narrative presence, she’s just such a limited character that we can’t gain anything from her.  But to me anyway, Fanny Price is the most interesting of Austen’s heroines, just in how problematic she is.  She is shy and removed, yet quite ideological and certain in her ideological commitments.  She experiences ideological differences as truly pained social moments.  Since we have such a tough time knowing very much about Austen’s biography, given Butler’s overall reading of her intellectual project, isn’t Fanny Price a good place to start to understand Jane Austen?

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