Too Good and Too Silly

Frank Kermode

  • The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen. Vol. IX: Later Manuscripts edited by Janet Todd and Linda Bree
    Cambridge, 742 pp, £65.00, December 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 84348 5
  • Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World by Claire Harman
    Canongate, 342 pp, £20.00, April 2009, ISBN 978 1 84767 294 0

The Cambridge Edition of Jane Austen is a production on the most monumental scale, involving nine beautiful but heavy volumes and something like a dozen editors, with a powerful editorial board and a team of learned commentators. One volume apiece goes to the major novels – Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, which originally appeared in a single posthumous volume, are here divided. Later Manuscripts, the last to appear and the largest volume of all, is the work of the general editor, Janet Todd, and of Linda Bree of the Cambridge University Press, which long ago set a standard for editing novelists with its multi-volumed D.H. Lawrence. The extent and minuteness of the labours of Todd and Bree, both in this volume and throughout the series, are almost painful to contemplate.

It used to be taken as obvious that the aim of an editor was to represent as far as possible the final wishes of the author, but the fashion now requires the recording of ‘multiple intentions of equal interest’: authorial changes of mind, variants that have ‘something to tell’, the production of a text that is a ‘process rather than a fixed entity’. Follow that doctrine long enough and you arrive at hypertext, and information of interest only to other editors, who have to take the trouble of reading it. But it has to be said that one can’t imagine that readers who lack interest in the scholarly minutiae will choose to read the novels in this form.

The Todd-Bree volume on the later manuscripts runs to about 800 pages, of which only some 200 are by Jane Austen. The most important manuscript fragment is of the unfinished novel Sanditon. Another substantial fragment is the early Lady Susan, and a third is The Watsons, also abandoned in manuscript. In addition to line-by-line transcriptions which add to the bulk of the book and may not be much consulted, except by future editors (if one can imagine the need for them), there are some prayers of unsettled authorship, a dramatisation of part of Samuel Richardson’s novel Sir Charles Grandison, admittedly of little interest in itself, and some poems of which the same might be said. The 100-page introduction is lovingly minute in its coverage of early commentary, and the annotations are careful and useful.

The performances of the other editors, so far as I’ve been able to scan them, are of the same calibre and design as Bree and Todd’s. The inclusion in the edition of a volume called Jane Austen in Context (2005), dedicated to modern commentary, is a departure from current practice; it gives the reader the benefit of information supplementary to what is offered in the individual editions, and its presence makes this a sort of editio cum notis variorum – not at all a bad thing, indeed a generous one.

A good specimen of the kind of commentary on offer here is the contribution by Edward Copeland on money. Others write about domestic architecture, careers in the army, the navy, the law; manners, medicine, rank, religion, transport and so on. But let us consider money. Money was a subject of importance to gentlemen of the rank of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, who had £10,000 a year, but it was of no less importance to his servants, who probably got by on £16 – a disparity sanctified by conveniently unexamined assumptions concerning rank. ‘Everything in the Austen novels seems to add up at the cash register in the usual way,’ Copeland says. ‘The pianos, shawls, muslins, carriages and horses [are] so familiar that we think we are in the same world.’ He immediately goes on to say that we are not. But he gives an account of ‘the Austen fictional economy’ which suggests that in the brief time between his writing and our reading this essay the world has been so rearranged that we can happily come closer to Austen’s as he describes it: a world of foreign wars, scarce capital, inadequate banking and credit systems, poverty and taxes – on windows, on hair powder and on everything else Pitt could think of.

Copeland thinks that harsh economic conditions prevailed during the 1790s when the earlier novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey, were written or conceived. But the later books (Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion) deal with money and power at greater depth. The French threat and the fear of revolution and poverty are familiar Austenite topics but probably don’t much disturb the ordinary reader or the TV audience, unless they are willing to consult a work of this kind.

It is said that among the television audience there were some who saw Darcy’s emergence from his pond – an event Austen omitted from her narrative – as the high point of the book. They might be asked to consider, by way of comparison, the passage in Emma in which Jane Fairfax considers the career of governess. Exasperated by Mrs Elton’s bogus solicitude, she speaks of there being offices ‘for the sale – not quite of human flesh – but of human intellect’. Mrs Elton, professing to be shocked by the expression ‘human flesh’ (and it does seem shocking in these pages), thinks this is ‘a fling at the slave-trade’, but Jane explains that her allusion was to the ‘governess-trade’, notoriously lonely and exploited, and ‘widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.’ The editors of the Emma volume argue that Mrs Elton’s mistake arises from her ‘sensitivity to her Bristol origins’: Jane was not referring to the slave-trade but comparing the job of governess to prostitution. However one reads the passage, ‘human flesh’ is a commodity. Girls in search of husbands are also a commodity; and Darcy’s income can hardly be untainted by slavery. But emerging from his pond and confronting Elizabeth, the TV Darcy, clad only, and by his own choice, in a fetching shirt, is exempt from that description, unless the scriptwriter can be said to have commodified him.

The Austens, though not rich themselves, had connections in the world of London finance. Brother Henry lived, ‘in the high style expected of a banker’, close to where Harrods now stands. He was duly bankrupted in the slump that followed the end of the war in 1815. The class of gentry that had £400 to £600 a year, the class of the Austen women, is said to have been the hardest hit, their ‘competence’ – based on a 5 per cent return on government stock – increasingly under threat. Emma’s fortune of £30,000 produced an annual income of £1500, but the Dashwood girls had only £500, which was said to be ‘a thoroughly genteel income for a single woman’.

According to Copeland, people in those days were far less reticent about their wealth than we are, partly because much information concerning land ownership and clerical livings and other offices was generally available, and partly because there were other signs, easily read – numbers of servants, types of carriage, if any. One remembers Mrs Elton’s ‘barouche-landau’, so ridiculous to Emma; and Mr Bennet having to give up his carriage when his income stood at £700 a year. Moreover, he was unable to save anything for his daughters’ dowries, the sort of fact that would be well known to all concerned. He could not dream of financing a London Season, estimated to cost £5000 in 1790, and double that after Waterloo.

Austen is of course interested in such facts and indications, but not in the real poor, though in Mansfield Park she works hard to convey an idea of the discomfort of Fanny Price’s family in Portsmouth. It is worth remembering that these were the years when, further to the north, Wordsworth was fascinated by starving children, beggars, aged shepherds and broken veterans of the French war.

Copeland, whose essay in Jane Austen in Context is accompanied by others of comparable value and interest, turns up again as the editor of Sense and Sensibility. It is the weakest of the six principal novels, but modern criticism claims to have increased its importance. The will that virtually disinherits the sisters can be regarded as a reflection of ‘the general disenfranchisement of women by the practice of male primogeniture’: the family preserves the integrity of the estate by holding everything in the patrilineal line; Copeland explains the legal devices by which this was achieved. His notes on the first two chapters are typically useful. The novel has therefore become of interest to social and other kinds of historian, and makes an unexpected contribution to feminist and other good causes. Yet claims of this kind can distort the fiction itself. When Mrs John Dashwood, at the beginning of the novel, rudely asserts her right to the succession of the Dashwood property, and persuades her husband to drop his plan to give £7000 to the dispossessed girls, the method by which she achieves her purpose has more to do with comedy than law. The sums in question are progressively reduced towards zero, the very poverty of Elinor and Marianne is adduced as good reason for their getting nothing or even less than nothing of the promised gift. The little scene sounds like a parodic reminiscence of the scene in King Lear when Goneril and Regan reduce Lear’s retinue from 100 knights to none.

The citation of a great many forgotten novels from which Austen probably learned something, the demonstration that she familiarised herself with ‘the disinheritance novel’ as a genre, may explain aspects of Sense and Sensibility but raises the question why Austen’s novel is still read while they are not. Can it be that the force which prevents this novel from slipping into oblivion like those earlier ‘disinheritance novels’ is the buoyancy provided by its fellows in the canon?

Sense and Sensibility started life as an epistolary novel, written on the plan adopted by Samuel Richardson for his vast and great Clarissa. A major disadvantage of the method is that conversations tend to resemble letters exchanged in implausible circumstances, liable to be very long, and written in a characteristic written language different from ordinary discourse. My mother used to say of people who prattled ceaselessly – the Miss Bates type – that they talked ‘like a ha’penny book’, and in Sense and Sensibility people talk so bookishly that they deserve to have it said of them that they talk like three-decker novels. This habit Austen had given up by the time of Pride and Prejudice, also thought to have started life as an epistolary novel. The opening pages of Pride and Prejudice are full of brisk and amusing chat. But in Sense and Sensibility the girls talk like this: ‘“Of his sense and his goodness,’” continued Elinor, “no one can, I think, be in doubt, who has seen him often enough to engage him in unreserved conversation. The excellence of his understanding and his principles can be concealed only by that shyness which too often keeps him silent . . .”’ and so on for another 200 words. It is a language absurdly inappropriate to sisterly conversation about a young man. Marianne enthusiastically responds in kind. And the sisters’ lofty discussion of the young man’s virtues and faults only descends to probability with the remark that ‘he is very far from being independent’ – that being so, his mother insists on his marrying a woman of great fortune.

Despite the efforts of historians, reader-response critics and others here commended by the editor, it is hard not to agree about the weakness of this novel. Another scene from Emma might suggest why the lower estimate is the right one. In Chapter 32 Emma is subjected to what must be the longest and most offensive of Mrs Elton’s tirades. Emma, with an effort, remains polite, but when she can she recapitulates Elton’s vulgarities in a meditation full of scorn and interrupted only by the arrival on the scene of her father, who at once proceeds to offer his milder valetudinarian judgment of Mrs Elton’s performance. To bring him in at that point is a brilliant piece of writing; we infer that, horror though she is, Mrs Elton is entitled to a more generous hearing than Emma can give – a judgment uttered by her father, too good and too silly to share the malicious manners of his society. He is valued for his friendliness and good temper, we are told, but ‘his talents could not have recommended him at any time.’ So what he says to Emma is, in a way, stupid; but his being made to say it right after her outraged complaints may be taken as a reproof that only a good and simple man could offer; by his gentle presence and his idle talk about the propriety of calling on brides he is correcting his daughter. He is another simple character with a complex function and, like Miss Bates, has a serious part in the moral life of Emma and the community.

There is a question that is bound to exercise in different ways readers who rejoice that the critical fortunes of Jane Austen show no signs of failing, and those who wonder how it can be that these tales of idle ladies and gentlemen, their interests fixed on money, their language elegantly out of date, should not only be the adored subject of an enthusiastic cult, but can elicit the acclaim of scholars who count her among the greatest novelists in the language. They tend to quote what Austen herself said of Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth, that they conveyed in their novels ‘the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties . . . in the best-chosen language’.

Claire Harman’s book is subtitled ‘How Jane Austen Conquered the World’, so it is, in a sense, an attempt to settle such questions. The publication of her book has been the occasion of a dispute concerning the extent of her debt to Kathryn Sutherland, an earlier and more academic writer. It will always happen that a trade book on the same subject will risk accusations of this kind; which does not mean that there is no cause for complaint. The quarrel could only be settled elsewhere and with competitive arrays of text. Meanwhile Harman’s book must have a bearing on the question of Austen’s survival. So, of course, did Sutherland’s.

Harman has no difficulty in establishing the near universality in our time of ‘Janeism’. Looking at the matter historically, she finds dips and spikes in Austen’s reputation, sometimes in the same epoch, as when Macaulay compared Austen with Shakespeare while Carlyle said the novels were ‘dismal trash’ and ‘dishwashings’. But steady adulation became the mode, encouraged by the novelist’s nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s ‘myth-mongering’ memoir of 1870. Thereafter few actively dissent. It took a long time to achieve this launch, but once established the novels were pretty secure. More myths were propagated, always helpful to the maintenance of celebrity; she had worked in semi-secrecy, hiding her little notepads under a blotter if anybody came in, and so on. In fact the whole Austen family wrote almost incessantly, so that what she was doing would have attracted little notice. And it is curious to think of her so industriously imagining the lives of the idle rich. The notions that she cared little about her work, or for the money it made, are equally spurious, invented because Janeites seem to have had a hunger for interesting detail even if irrelevant or untrue. Few writers have undertaken with more professional determination what Virginia Woolf called the ‘preliminary drudgery’ of writing, or rewriting, a serious novel.

Whether we believe that she gives us the best insight into human nature or not, there is little doubt that Janeism flourishes, and may continue to do so with the help of the BBC and the advertisers. Meanwhile the scholars are recording her preliminary drudgery and repaying it with drudgery of their own. Harman’s book contains research pleasingly reported to an informed Janeite audience. More arduous labour was demanded of the Cambridge editors. What nobody knows is how far the success and survival of Jane Austen depended on her own effort. Having written Sense and Sensibility she went on to write Emma and the later masterpieces. The difference is perhaps itself a measure of greatness – one of the preservatives of reputation, necessary if not sufficient. What has been the contribution of the critics and the mythmakers to this development? How many novels of merit, less fortunate, have disappeared for ever, or to wait for scholarship, perhaps only for a moment, to revive them? And is it true, as Harman claims, that it is ‘impossible to imagine a time when she or her works could have delighted us long enough’? Could she, in quoting Mr Bennet’s polite termination of his daughter’s musical performance, have prefigured the fate of her author in some at present inconceivable future?