Jane Austen 
by Tony Tanner.
Macmillan, 291 pp., £20, November 1986, 0 333 32317 3
Show More
Show More

The past is there to be made use of, and everyone makes use of it in his own way. Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson invent alternative Englands where radical social experiments were nipped in the bud by the entrenched forces of reaction, while T.S. Eliot’s successors imagine devout cavaliers preserving a unified sensibility in economic and spiritual matters. Apart from the therapy it offers against the perpetual unsatisfactoriness of the present, this construction of the past has the great merit of making sense and interest of the way things are at any given time. If it is a game of the intellectuals, a game which involves obvious falsification on a large scale, it is also one which limbers up self-consciousness, in players and spectators alike, and enlarges the scope of sympathy and inquiry.

It is the same with writers in the past. Since the study of English literature has intellectualised itself, not altogether unlaboriously, great writers whose achievements once seemed as comfortingly self-evident as the furniture have been transformed into a kind of speculum mentis in which the age can see its own fears and anxieties, adjust its preferred persona, air its preoccupations. With Shakespeare this is old hat: the only surprise is how comparatively reluctant recent theorists have been to move their own special machinery into place on him. But it has happened with Swift, with Richardson, with Dickens and the Romantic poets, and it is now happening with Jane Austen.

Not that Tony Tanner’s study is wilfully abstract or – except for his use of the unnecessary term ‘discourse’ – filled with modern jargon. It is, on the contrary, one of the most readable books yet to appear on Jane Austen, as well as the most interesting in itself. As one might expect from the author of Adultery in the Novel, it is continuously sensitive to the feel of fictive domesticity, and the potential of a situation in terms of what goes in modern life, and has gone on in other novels. For Tony Tanner, indeed, all fiction, like intellectual experience generally, appears one and indivisible, so that Freud, Heidegger, Adorno and Althusser are as much at home in Jane Austen’s dressing-room as are Dostoevsky and Scott Fitzgerald. This may be all to the good, though it leads him to such remarks as that Elizabeth Bennet’s ‘gay resilience in a society tending always towards dull conformity would make her a worthy heroine in a Stendhal novel, which cannot be said for many English heroines’. Perhaps it cannot at the moment, but no doubt it will be soon: to see the novel in this way is to see all its heroes and heroines as largely interchangeable in terms of their critical potential and the author’s hidden perceptions – perceptions hidden, that is, until the critic has revealed them.

Revealing the author’s hidden perceptions is a process that comes very close to – indeed, can be almost indistinguishable from – giving the critic’s perceptions under cover of the royal opacity of a work of art. This happens all the time, and is all to the good, provided that critic and author are in real sympathy, and can thus complement one another. In a celebrated inaugural lecture, John Carey suggested nonetheless that the process had gone too far, and that even giants like Empson and C.S. Lewis could be guilty in this way of serious distortions of a text: he instanced a bravura passage in The Allegory of Love on Spenser’s ‘Bower of Bliss’, in which Lewis, with his characteristic puritanical cockiness, remarks that Spenser’s two enchanting nymphs were obviously called ‘Cissie and Flossie’. Deconstructionist theory, with its doctrine that a text only exists in the minds of its readers, has of course rationalised, in one sense, the whole business, but at the cost of losing that untidy but fruitful encounter between two distinct entities: the separate and unique personalities of writer and reader.

Interaction between the two, however desirable, should not lead to loss of distinction. The real drawback is not so much the critic taking over as the loss of a sense of the writer’s special individuality. T.S. Eliot once commented that what he liked about reading Kipling was the experience of exposure to ‘a mind very different from my own’. By the time the critic has finished, the writer may not have a mind of his own at all: it has been dissolved among the critic’s own preoccupations and connections mingled with Dostoevsky, Adorno, Althusser. Dislike of a writer’s personality may reveal its true nature more sharply than this absorptive synthesis. Jane Austen’s foes come closer to her than enlightened friends: hostility can be an involuntary recognition of a real being ‘very different from my own’. It is perhaps symptomatic of Tony Tanner’s approach that instead of a picture of Jane Austen, with her uncompromisingly bright and private features, his book-jacket carries a reproduction of Reynolds’s masterly and beautifully composed portrait of Mrs Abington, a maturely thoughtful and intelligent-looking woman, who, although dressed in the height of fashion, stares abstractedly from the canvas as if she were indeed pondering, in Tanner’s words about Jane Austen’s novels, ‘a concern with the problem of how a true social order could be maintained’. The implication is that a real picture of the author, like the one on the front of David Cecil’s study, would not do justice to the image that Tanner has formed of her, the geist that he requires.

If we have Mrs Abington in place of Jane Austen, why not a Stendhal heroine instead of Elizabeth Bennet, so that ‘by showing the different ways we may look at the novel [Pride and Prejudice] its abiding relevance for all of us may become more readily apprehensible’? Relevance in this context is hardly a reassuring word, and yet Tanner does demonstrate, with the sharpest of eyes and the simplest of arguments, the essential truth of his point about all the novels. Her relevance is unbounded; her implication limitless. Her art could see and understand everything, from the relation between houses like Mansfield Park and the West Indian sugar economy to the significance of the fact that Wickham, when Darcy gets him a regular commission, is posted not to Spain but to Newcastle, where there had been a good deal of ‘trouble’. All this is true, and it may even be true that in her last novels there is a tendency for Jane Austen to ‘lose’ her audience, because she has things to say which preclude the early note of happy intimacy and satisfaction, a satisfaction confidently shared with the putative reader. Tanner feels that in Sanditon she was writing for herself alone, with no confidence that her readers will follow the line she is taking, or perceive her disquiet with the new ‘social order’ as manifested by the gimcrack watering-place and its promoter, Mr Parker.

It may be true, and yet, even with so perceptive a guide as Tanner, the suspicion remains that his sense of Jane Austen’s ‘discourse’ losing her audience really signifies that his own ‘discourse’ has lost touch with hers. Whatever degree of intelligence and perception is latent in her language – and, as she humorously put it in a letter, parodying a line of Scott, she did ‘not write for such dull elves as have not a great deal of intellect themselves’ – it remains a language wholly removed from that of the Tanner type of discussion. After many years of comfortable mindless enjoyment of Jane Austen, which even Henry James was inclined to endorse, the pendulum may now swing too far the other way, and the critic present us with an author who is interchangeable with any other modern novel-writing intellect. To suppose her covertly demonstrating, through and by means of her art, that there is something rotten in the English state, is of course wholly congenial to bien pensants of our own time, and comes close to saying that we read her with pleasure because she is just like ourselves. Exactly the assumption of her 19th-century bourgeois admirers. Like Shakespeare and St Paul, she can be all things to all men and women.

The fact remains, which Tanner scarcely mentions, that Jane Austen was mortally sick when she revised Persuasion and began the novel which remains to us as the Sanditon fragment. Undiagnosed renal tuberculosis would be liable to isolate the sufferer not only from her readers but from worldly affairs in general. In the writing of Sanditon there is a longing for and appreciation of fresh air and scenery which is new and touching, but which is that of an invalid rather than of a diagnostician and symbolist of England’s social ills. Mr Parker’s brother Sidney is reported as saying he should turn his old house into a hospital, and Tanner takes the occasion to conclude his book by saying there is a deep irony in the idea ‘that Mr Parker and his coadjutors should turn the house of his forefathers – the veritable house of old England – into a hospital. Perhaps they already have.’ It seems more likely that Jane Austen’s mind was, not unnaturally, running on hospitals. Of course she was amused by Sanditon’s pretensions, and its newness, and its absurdities, but such things had always amused her and given delight to her and to her writings, and it was surely for such solace, for her love of fools and foolishness, that she turned back to them. It is the same with the absurd Sir Edward, who ‘knew his business’ when it came to seduction, and who thinks that Timbuktu would be an ideal venue for the rape of Clara Brereton, although his indigence ‘obliged him to prefer the quietest sort of ruin for the object of his affections’. The young lady, for her part, ‘saw through him, and had not the least intention of being seduced’. This is the kind of fun on the subject which Jane Austen had always enjoyed, and which probably cheered her last days. So far from the atmosphere of Sanditon being increasingly thoughtful and symbolic (‘she saw with impressive clarity the potential dangers of the economic structure of a society which depended on the possible but precarious profits to be made from creating an ever-increasing demand for consumer goods’), it seems to show the author turning with a touching freedom and frankness to old comforts and familiar sources of laughter.

Her comments on society and its ills were usually very much at second hand – part of the moral machinery which female novelists almost automatically deployed, and which had been supplied by male writers. But at any time in her novels Jane Austen can surprise us with a moral comment of her own, and this actually happens more often in the earlier ones. Tanner himself quotes Elizabeth’s oddly spontaneous comment on the thankfulness that everyone feels that Wickham is going to marry her sister Lydia after their elopement:

‘They must marry! Yet he is such a man! ... How strange this is! And for this we are to be thankful.’

For all that Swift and Dr Johnson are in the background, the wondering nature of Elizabeth’s comment, its power of ‘making it strange’, is purely her own and Jane Austen’s.

This gives a clue to something of vital importance in her art which critics usually overlook. Tanner suggests it obliquely by calling the world of Sanditon one ‘where she can no longer control or occupy the centre’. The whole point is, surely, that she never controlled or occupied her novels, in the sense that Charlotte Brontë or George Eliot were to do. Her greatest strength is to be herself at the side of her official theme, never wholly identified with it. Even in Mansfield Park, where she deliberately and very impressively takes on a large social and symbolic theme, there is a still centre which is conveniently associated with Fanny Price’s powers of passivity and quietude but not identified with them. One symptom of it is how secretly equable the novel is about its failure to ‘realise’ Henry and Mary Crawford. Following Lionel Trilling, Tanner makes a great deal out of the brother and sister as actors, always looking for a part, a role in life symbolised by the theatricals which occupy the centre of the book’s realisation of Mansfield itself. But Jane Austen, who understood so well Mrs Norris and her appetite for green baize, is surely quite happy to present the Crawfords as persons with whom her acquaintance can only be rather distant. She doesn’t know them well, and she doesn’t mind. ‘Let other pens than mine dwell on guilt and misery ... Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford and became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire.’ The idea of freedom (Elizabeth ‘took refuge in her own room, that she might think with freedom’) is as natural in the Jane Austen world as the habit of subjugation. In terms of the novel it means that her responsibilities are always light. She is never committed absolutely to what she creates.

This is a paradoxical sort of honesty, and one aspect of it is her unwillingness, unique among female writers of her time, to go outside what she knows by immediate sense and instinct. This can also be a matter of simple geography. Catherine Brunton in Self-Control, a novel coeval with Emma, despatched her heroine to the Indians of America: Jane Austen commented in a letter that the lady would do better when carried back to Gravesend, and also – more famously – advised her aspirant niece not to accompany her characters to Ireland because ‘she knew nothing of the manners there.’ Darcy, the Bingleys, the Crawfords: they are successfully brought into her novels, but she doesn’t really pretend to know what they are like, in the same sense that she knows about villages and houses, Mr Woodhouse and the Knightleys, the Crofts and Musgroves and Naval captains.

Between what she knows and what she doesn’t know in her novels there is the same secret but significant relation as between the received morals she is endorsing and the free spirit of anarchy expressed in her humour, her frustrations and her pleasures. In both cases the relation is one of complete harmony, but the difference does exist, and is expressed – again in both cases – by her genius for implication rather than statement or diagnosis. It is often debated whether she would have responded, had she lived, to the wider social scene which her growing reputation would have opened up for her. Quite possibly: her art and intelligence were of the sort that could learn to take a lot more in; but, as Roger Sale demonstrates in a chapter of his admirable study Closer to Home,* she depended absolutely on her imagination of a place. It is unlikely that she could have set a novel in London or in some generic area where social event would have a wholly generalised significance.

The difference between implication and diagnosis is crucial if we are not entirely to denature, in our criticism, the way that Jane Austen does things. Tanner places her not only in the context of Leavis’s Great Tradition’ but explicitly in its mode of moral weight and authority. ‘The fate and future of “the family” is an on-going debate and problem in our own times. Jane Austen could already see that it was at crisis point. We have very little to add to her diagnosis.’ That her perceptions are ‘on-going’ can hardly be denied, but this way of putting it makes her sound unlike herself – and to sound like herself is essential to her art. The English Navy was at the centre of her affections, and her idealism, but it is hardly credible to claim that this was because ‘she had clearly been growing more and more pessimistic’ about the English ruling classes. It makes her sound like Dickens, who took his ideological responsibilities to his audience so seriously that he put a good Jew into Our Mutual Friend to correct any misunderstanding that might arise from his having put a bad one, Fagin, into Oliver Twist.

The Navy was the centre of her affections because she identified it with her own family, whose male members were mostly sailors. Her idealism, her enthusiasm for all things Naval was an intimate family thing, but Tanner connects it with Conrad’s philosophy, adroitly finding the same phrase – a little ‘knot’ of sailors – in both Persuasion and The Nigger of the Narcissus. He ignores the fact that the prize-money system made the Navy as cutthroat a capitalist economy as any to be found, just as he disregards Jane Austen’s inconveniently atavistic attachment to her own family fortunes. In his study of her, David Cecil found family the most important thing in her life, as in her art: so important to the latter, as it seems to me, that she may have abandoned The Watsons because the family situation central to it was outside her own direct feeling and experience.

A family, she knew, is always ‘at crisis point’, but on its inside rather than as part of an ‘on-going’ social situation. Tanner points out that both mothers and fathers are pretty ineffective in her novels, that the former indeed are in short supply. But this was probably because she had to live with her own mother. She knew – none better – that Odi et amo is the principle of family life, but it is a principle that a serious critic may find hard to fit into a seriously admiring appraisal. Her lightness of touch may often mislead him. She may herself have been by nature not at all sexually responsive, but she could both observe and intuit what attracted the sexes to each other. Tanner is surprised that Henry Tilney evinces no physical passion for Catherine, only an affectionate response to her ‘partiality’ for him. But this is one of the cases where Jane Austen’s art understands and expresses everything without any need for comment or analysis. He probably fell for her because of the ‘great yawn’ she was apt to give in the assembly rooms. That yawn is as important as the silent scream Tanner sees Marianne uttering during the action of Sense and Sensibility, which no doubt echoes on after the novel is over. Jane Austen is deeply collusive with both the yawn and the scream. ‘No one before her showed so piercingly the possible miseries of a compulsory social existence.’ That is the truest sentence in Tanner’s book, and it also shows why Jane Austen’s novels are so consoling. They free us from what she endured.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences