Jane Austen has become the most revered and probably the most popular of the great English novelists. Not even the vulgarisation of her novels by those who have adapted them for television has impaired the esteem in which she is held. She is not only deemed amusing, which she is, but a wonderfully fair and judicious moralist. Walter Scott praised her ‘exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and sentiment’; and this judgment is probably one with which we may all agree. Many of course go further and come close to canonising her.
There have always been a few dissenters, Charlotte Bronte for instance, and J. M. Coetzee, who tells us that because she finds ‘sex demonic’, she ‘locks it out’. I am not sure that he is right. Emma Woodhouse is a very sexy girl, while the man-hunting misses of Pride and Prejudice are surely sexually avid. It’s not that Austen locks sex away, but that she feels no need to spell it out.
Another dissenter has now stuck his head above the parapet. In an article in the National Post, Robert Fulford says that Jane Austen so dislikes some of her characters that ‘she expresses herself by chopping them to pieces for our amusement. She does it so often that she acquires the characteristics not of a moralist but of a vicious gossip.’ This is good stuff, though ‘vicious gossip’ is perhaps coming it a bit strong. Still, I see what he means: the character assassination indulged in by the tabloids in full moralistic mode, or perhaps Private Eye.
Fulford objects to Austen’s treatment of four characters: Sir Walter Elliot and his eldest daughter Elizabeth in Persuasion and Lady Catherine de Burgh and Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice. The second pair are merely grotesques, and bit-part players at that, but surely there should be more to Sir Walter and Elizabeth than Austen allows? He has a point, if only because they are two of the principal characters in the novel, and would be more convincing if granted some merit. But Jane Austen loads the dice very heavily against them; you can’t but think she is cheating. Actually, she goes so far as to provoke resistance. Reading Persuasion in my youth, I found Elizabeth Elliot very fanciable, rather as I did the superbly stupid and selfish Princess Helen in War and Peace.
It’s surprising that they are denied the odd good quality, for Austen is usually at her best with morally dubious characters — the Crawfords in Mansfield Park and Frank Churchill in Emma, for instance. We are expected to disapprove of their behaviour and nevertheless find them attractive, as I think Jane Austen, however reluctantly, did herself. It is a general rule of fiction that characters who are presented as neither wholly admirable nor wholly despicable are much more interesting and satisfying than those whom the author presents as either perfect or appalling. This is surely why Emma is by far the most satisfying and — again — attractive heroine in any of the novels: precisely because she is so often silly and mistaken in her judgments. Austen has an evident tenderness for her; nevertheless she doesn’t hesitate to show her foolishness and tendency to gallop to rash conclusions.
For my part I don’t really object to her treatment of the characters she dislikes; she is after all a satirist, alert to foibles, vices and stupidity. All comic novelists make sport of folly, and Austen is no sharper, no more given to ‘chopping’ characters she disapproves of ‘to pieces for our amusement’ than Thackeray or Meredith, Waugh or Kingsley Amis. They are all sometimes at one with Puck in saying, ‘Lord, what fools these mortals be’.
It is at the moments when the comic spirit deserts her that I find Austen failing. She never subjects her heroes to the sceptical and probing intelligence she applies to her victims. It doesn’t ever seem to have occurred to her that Mr Knightley is a self-satisfied prig, that Captain Wentworth is a thoroughly uninteresting fellow, and the sub-Byronic Darcy an essentially comic character in his self-pity and pompous self-esteem. Those Janeites who complained about Darcy’s episode in the lake in the television adaptation missed the point: something had to be done to make the stuffed shirt come to life. At least Charlotte Bronte knew when presenting us with her sub-Byronic hero, Mr Rochester, in Jane Eyre that he had to be given a dramatic back-story to account for his melancholy, foul temper and ill manners. But Darcy is merely an adolescent’s dream of a hero, a surprising lapse from a novelist who is mostly so thoroughly grown-up. The tedium of the married life of Darcy and Elizabeth or Knightley and Emma doesn’t bear thinking on.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated December 12, 2009