The Divine Miss Jane Austen

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She’s been a favorite of mine for years, but in the last decade my appreciation has deepened. She’s become a moral guide. Item: in Pride and Prejudice, the configuration of family energy focuses on Mrs. Bennett and the two younger daughters who all fly fervently toward anything “in pants,” as my own mother used to sniff. Mr. Bennett and the two older daughters recognize the necessity of prudence and principles, of the dangers of shallow appeals–of chasing after the soldiers stationed in a nearby town. Mrs. Bennett does not think or feel so deeply. She encourages the two younger girls in their flighty ways and when one elopes with a soldier to Scotland, Mr. Bennett comes forward to bemoan his lack of involvement. He is culpable, he tells the second daughter, Elizabeth, his confidant, because he has sat back in quiet disgust and watched his wife and daughters expose themselves to danger. It is not enough simply to have discernment and principles; one must exercise them, one must restrain and guide those who are lacking. I too have learned to exercise discernment and principles in some tense and difficult family passages.

It helps me understand the restraint, clarity, wit, and narrow perspectives of Miss Austen’s world to place her in the 18th rather than the 19th century. True, all her work published during her lifetime–Sense and Sensibility, 1811, Pride and Prejudice, 1813, Mansfield Park, 1814, and Emma, 1815–belong to the opening years of the 19th century, but she was born the year the American Revolution began, 1775. She belongs to the younger edge of our American founding fathers and mothers. Think Abigail and John Adams, think George Washington and his devotion to duty, think Thomas Jefferson and his immense learning coupled with a duplicity we now understand in his private life–his long sexual relationship with Sally Hemmings, technically classed a slave. It helps me to imagine Abigail Adams as Miss Austen’s American counterpart–highly literary, suffering through serious illness (smallpox in Abigail’s case; typhus in Jane’s), lives focused on family yet with minds so enlarged by reading and wit, solitude and connections with the larger world, that they become educated as much by limitations as by incursions and excursions. Jane Austen never went across the ocean as did Abigail Adams; she never married nor managed a family farm on her own as did Abigail. But her small family circle of her sister Cassandra and her mother was enriched constantly by visits from her many brothers and their friends, some of whom saw the beginning of the French Revolution.

The Divine Miss Jane has also become a writerly guide. She revised and revised and revised. Looking at the publication dates–1811-1815–we’d guess that she wrote fast and furious, but each of those novels had begun much earlier, changed direction and titles. One also assumes, that their wit and plot devices became more firmly allied to deeper psychological and moral meanings. Reading Mansfield Park now, I see something I have missed in earlier enjoyments: that the amateur theatricals which take place in the first part of the book occur only because Sir Bertram, the head of the household, is away tending to his plantations in Antigua. The theatricals so appall Fanny Price, the poor relation whom the Bertrams have benevolently brought into their household, that she cannot take part in them. Yet she (and we) witness how the young rake Henry Crawford makes love to her cousin Maria under the cover of their roles. Maria is engaged; her betrothed, a rather dim young man, feels the wrongness of her behavior but hasn’t the language or force to make effective protest.

Once Sir Bertram returns and finds his household disordered by these theatricals, they are immediately put to a stop. But he has missed witnessing Henry Crawford’s offense against Maria’s engagement. When he meets Henry Crawford, he sees only a young man who is courting the slowly blooming Fanny Price. Thus when Henry proposes to Fanny and she insists with terror-stricken reticence that she cannot marry such a man, Sir Thomas judges her harshly. He thinks she is too indulgent of finicky dislike, that she would do well to reconsider what Henry can offer her. We and Fanny know better. Thus the simple plot device of Sir Thomas’ removal both allows Henry to show his true colors early in the book, and later creates the rising tension between Sir Thomas’s ignorance and Fanny’s knowledge of Henry. We too have to be reminded of how Henry behaved during the theatricals, for Miss Jane in her skill and wit has turned him toward us in a more favorable light. As Fanny’s suitor, he has become admirable and likeable.

Now, we wait to see how Jane, in her wisdom, will unveil him fully and revolve Fanny once again toward her cousin Edmund who has throughout the novel been her protector and confidant. Edmund too must be reminded of Henry’s previous behavior. And disabused of his infatuation for Henry’s sister Mary. When these two interlopers are dispatched, the author has cleared the stage of their crucial interference–there would be no story without the Crawfords. In the small world of this fiction, there may be only one place outside the household where Fanny can go to resolve her situation–to her former home in Portsmouth, to her mother’s poor efforts and her father’s drunkenness. Is this what I remember from earlier readings? I’m now prepared to find out how Austen opens this tiny world toward a larger future for dear, beloved Fanny.

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