Jane Austen – our newest – scholar rogue…?

Here I am once more in this scene of dissipation and vice, and I begin already to find my morals corrupted. – Jane Austen, Letters

Jane Austen might not have completely approved of Scholars and Rogues. But she would have liked us, nonetheless. And she’s certainly one of us.

Austen believed herself a deeply conservative member of her society – the landed gentry of Regency England. She approved of marriage, the monarchy, and Samuel Richardson’s novels. She disapproved of love affairs (whether casual or serious), rebellions (whether political or social), and Byron’s poetry….

Yet in her six completed novels, she explored the plight of women in that society which she claimed to admire – and critiqued both the unjust treatment women received and the men who had created a system where women had to marry in order to have any status in society.

She approved of marriage as a way for women to gain power and footing in her society, yet she believed marriage should be based on mutual affection and she never married herself because she never found that affection with a man.

She portrayed women forced to take on careers as creatures to be pitied and feared for, yet she ferociously pursued a career as a writer – and a fearless one – who chose to attack the foibles of her society so brilliantly that the two most lionized writers of her time – Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron himself – admired her genius.

She disapproved of social rebellion, yet, in her greatest novel, Persuasion, her heroine, an “aging spinster” (of 27!) who believes she has missed her chance for happiness because she refused the man she loved, a Navy captain, because he was “beneath” her, rebels against her family and her closest friend and adviser and her society when given a second chance at personal happiness and marries the man she loves.

janeausten.jpg So Austen is, like all Scrogues, interestingly inconsistent and challengingly complex.

Perhaps the novel that best reveals Austen is not one of the “light, bright and sparkling” ones like Pride and Prejudice or Emma or one of the those with “shade” like Mansfield Park or even Persuasion. Sense and Sensibility offers us perhaps the best insight into Jane Austen’s character – and her Scrogue-ishness….

Sense and Sensibility has two main characters, sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. The sisters could not be more different from each other:

Elinor, this eldest daughter, whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother…. She had an excellent heart;–her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn; and which one of her sisters (Marianne) had resolved never to be taught….

Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever; but eager in everything: her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent….

As Austen weaves the narrative of the two sisters, it would seem reasonable to assume that she favors Elinor’s world view over Marianne’s. That would be a mistake. For Austen, while consciously approving of Elinor, often unconsciously approves of Marianne’s passion and joie de vivre:

. . . and yet there is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind, that one is sorry to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions. – Sense and Sensibility

What Austen reveals to us in Sense and Sensibility is the dual nature of her own character – she is Elinor, the thoughtful, careful sister/aunt/friend who provides wise council and good judgment:

There are such beings in the world — perhaps one in a thousand — as the creature you and I should think perfection; where grace and spirit are united to worth, where the manners are equal to the heart and understanding; but such a person may not come in your way, or, if he does, he may not be the eldest son of a man of fortune, the near relation of your particular friend, and belonging to your own county. – Austen’s Letters

But she is also Marianne, a passionate, feeling woman capable of sharp opinions and occasional wilding:

I believe I drank too much wine last night at Hurstbourne; I know not how else to account for the shaking of my hand to-day. You will kindly make allowance therefore for any indistinctness of writing, by attributing it to this venial error. – Austen Letters

And above all, she’s Jane Austen, Dickens’s greatest rival as the best English novelist – and a writer who knows what her genius is:

I could no more write a [historical] romance than an epic poem. I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life; and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter. – Austen Letters

As her successors note, she is that complex, brilliant, and difficult to pin down:

Of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness. – Virginia Woolf

She is a worthy addition to our pantheon of scholar rogues….

9 replies »

  1. Why couldn’t you have been my English prof in one of my three freshman years?

    I would have enjoyed Jane if you had …

  2. Denny – I don’t know about that English prof thing – Sam had me for two classes in high school, and you see how he turned out – and I made him read P&P…. 😉

    Mike – Blackadder is the only person who could make Jane Austen a man – and make me laugh about it. 😉 That opening scene with George is hysterical….

    Elaine – We are in total agreement, my dear. I love that terminology – “reigns supreme” – that’s it in a nutshell. 🙂

  3. Sorry, the words “reigns supreme” are creating horrid traumatic flashbacks to Condi Rice’s erstwhile dictum on Iraq — “Let freedom reign!”

    I’m like sooo triggered.

    Please stop.


  4. Like Yeats, one of the great western Bhodisatvas. Her concerns are broad, and the secular ones you mention are indeed hers; but her novels reveal, I think, a more esoteric concern, namelly, that of “essence change.” The growth represented by Miss Bennett and Mr. Darcy is the result of full self-knowledge and complete remorse of conscience. This is both Socratic and Gurdjieffian, and is the transformation the Bible calls “metanoia” – at least, that is my take. I sometimes tell people that Jane Austen was such a high Zen-Master, she didn’t even know she was one….

    – Jerry Wechsler