Archive: January 16th, 2009

The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen

[Readings] (01.16.09, 1:44 pm)

Jan Fergus: The Professional Woman Writer

Jane Austen is important because she is not only a woman writer, but a professional writer. The context of being a woman writer was especially different in Austen’s lifetime, but was better than it had been before. There were still numerous setbacks: the legal challenges regarding women and money were numerous, and the culture suggested that if a woman did write, it was as a leisure activity. The image of Austen being a leisure writer is false, but was persistent, and this led to many criticisms. The “leisure writer”, as a stereotype, was someone who wrote without education or learning, passionless, writing to stave off idleness. Austen was passionate about her work and motivated from childhood to see her writing in print.

One reason why the leisure writer image might be so persistent is that the idea of someone who is able to write during leisure time and achieve wild success is an identifiable image. The image is one which readers, especially over the course of time, might appreciate and idealize. This identifiability might be one of the reasons for the fan culture that surrounds her.

Due to the costs and mechanisms of publishing, generally writers needed to write in addition to some other income. However, Austen shrewdly managed to support herself through writing alone, which was very unusual, and is indicative of a significant professionalism.

Rachel M. Brownstein: Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice

Mr. Bennett’s line that we live to make fun of our neighbors is complex and reveals Austen’s irony. Mr. Bennett’s viewpoint is one to be condemned, and it seems insufficient in context of the complex social life played out in the novel. However, this perspective is one supported by the world itself, where characters gossip and are very interested in each others’ fortunes. Following along the lines of class and status, others misfortunes are pleasing to hear, because they elevate the listener in a somewhat “moral” sense.

From the perspective of model building and world design, this leads to an interesting challenge. The content of the world is supported by these mechanics, of traditional social roles and narratives. Within the world, there is a model of correct or proper behavior. This behavior is consistent with Mr. Bennett’s view, that individuals act in self interest, and take what opportunities are presented to them. Unhappy marriages are normal, but they are proper, where the marriage serves a social function in the interest of some concerned parties. Thus, to live a happy life, against all odds, the mechanics of proper behavior must be broken. This is equivalent to placing mechanics in a game world that make the game easier, but make the resolution less satisfying. This is much like Mirror’s Edge with guns, and Geneforge with canisters. Using these mechanics both rewards and punishes the player, but in a way to elicit some authorial commentary on their role in life.

The breaking of rules exhibited in Pride and Prejudice is a form of ironic commentary by Austen on the codes of social expectations and values in her world. The form of these texts (Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice) is that of a “romantic novel with ironic commentary”. This sounds like a great design idea. There is a delicate relationship between common tropes, conventions, and cliches within romance and common life. The texts operate against these, by breaking rules, but ultimately will come back and support them.

There is an interesting perspective on the intimacy of the characters of Elizabeth and Darcy. While much of the world is public, their interaction is personal and intimate, and the efforts made in the novel to drive the characters apart serve to reinforce their intimacy. The course of the book is essentially anti-gothic. The gothic tradition frequently involves the female protagonist visiting a historical and secret space, and finding depth in herself by responding to some terrifying thing found in there. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberly reveals the depth in Darcy’s character hitherto unseen, Elizabeth being a deep character already.

The first two proposals in Pride and Prejudice that Elizabeth rejects are similar because they reinforce the thesis described by the first line of the book. They assume that Elizabeth operates according to the social expectations of the world, expecting only to marry well, not concerned with her own identity and happiness.

Brownstein concludes that even for all fo Elizabeth’s iconoclasty, she enjoys in gossip and delighting in the news of her neighbors as well. Elizabeth claims that the moment of persuasion of her own love for Darcy occurred at seeing Pemberly. We are not so different from our neighbors, but where we are different is of crucial importance.

Juliet McMaster: Class

This chapter discusses class differences in Austen’s books. Austen was well poised to observe the interplay of different classes. Her friends and family gave her access to witness different class interactions, and as an unmarried woman, she was “out of the game”, where married women would adopt the class of their husbands. Social class is predominantly a masculine trait, and used to rank men in terms of their social influence. Class was also universally acknowledged and played a visible role in interactions. While the American class system is important, it attempts to be covert.

The first layer of class (that is present in Austen’s writing anyway) has to do with titles, which should ideally be inherited. Ancestry is the foundation upon which the entire class system is built. It arguably the case that the emphasis on ancestry has to do with proximity to royalty. Personal titles (Sir, from a knighthood) are valuable, but less significant because they are not inherited. Women may also be titled, but this again comes from lineage.

Land and money are important, but not nearly as much as a title. Land is the next most significant class indicator after titles. The value of land depends on primarily how long it has been owned, the size and income of the estate come in at a distant second. This is what separates both Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bennett, though the difference between them is still significant (more so due to the entailment). This fact is noted in Elizabeth’s rebuttal to Lady Catherine, that Darcy is a gentleman and Elizabeth is a gentleman’s daughter. This is a flattening of the class landscape that Austen seems to approve of.

There is an implied moral status tied to land ownership. Money from investments and business is good, but not nearly so much as land. The professional class comes next, and there is an implied order from the clergy, navy, army, law, and then medicine. Afterward comes trade, and finally the servants and working class. Most of Austen’s characters come from the gentry class and its many strata, though there are a few notable characters of various reputations in the professional class, and a few others in trade. There is an absence of servants and other workers which seems conspicuous by modern standards. Austen is arguably intrigued by the trading classes, and not inherently prejudiced against it.

Austen is suspicious of those interested in social mobility and looking to move up ranks (the Bingley sisters, for example). This is a trait of character which is considered morally reprehensible. These characters are concerned with elevation, and not with manners or conduct. There is an association between morals and class, which is “universally acknowledged” but revealed to be flawed. Characters look to class first as an indication of character, but only thereafter observe actual moral behavior.

Edward Copeland: Money

There is a review of levels of money here. Money is a crucial element to Austen’s world, and this essay gives a review of the various levels of income and what they mean. I won’t review these here, but note that they are on pages 135-137. There is an interesting relation between women and money. Unmarried women had restricted rights in terms of their ability to own land and manage their income, but the situation was worse for married women, who could not legally own property or have legal title to money at all. Furthermore, married women were considered responsible for management of the household, but (because they had no rights) were unable to exercise control over their income and expenditures. When husbands squander money (Wickham, for example) the wife is held responsible for the mess. The fear of financial loss is an important motive for Austen because of her own particular financial situation.

John F. Burrows: Style

The use of free indirect speech sets up an interaction, a dialogue, between the narrative voice and the storyworld. The authorial voice is ironic and encourages readers to keep up their wits and approach the social world in the texts with a critical perspective. Burrows references Bakhtin in his portrayal of the dialogue between these voices.

Claudia L. Johnson: Austen cults and cultures

There is an interesting criticism by Henry James, that Austen was admired by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Austen is extended and adapted in many forms. Interestingly, she is now incorporated into the self definitions of many diverse groups and individuals, often using opposing perspectives. Austen is incorporated by both escapists and realists, iconoclasts and conventionalists, connoisseurs and common readers. This wide adoption makes it difficult to extract the “real” Austen from those who have adopted her.

The author refers to a short story by Kipling, “The Janeites”, which is about a group of WWI soldiers who are Austen fanatics and treat Jane Austen as a way of life. The interesting thing about the story is that the characters are preoccupied with the world, but not the plots. They use the Austen model of the world, casting other characters in terms of the characters known from the books. They use the atemporal narration, and resist the sense of plot which demands forward movement and temporal causality. Austen is considered intrinsic to the classic English cultural identity before the first World War. And was thus an anchor to hold onto by soldiers whose cultural identity was under threat.

The Janeite manner of reading is presented as a practice, a practice of interpretations. This extends the text beyond the textual boundary, into a world defined by events, characters, and shared meanings. Johnson connects to Henry Jenkins, reinforcing that the culture of Jane Austen is a fan culture, but one whose material is popular as well as high.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorEdward Copeland and Juliet McMaster
TitleThe Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen
Tagsfan culture, sociology, specials, settings
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon