Sense and Sensibility: Volume I, Chapters 10 - 12

Subject: [Janeites] Sir John Middleton and the Vise of Social Obligations

May 13, 2000

This relatively brief posting is in response to Juliet's thoughtful one which deserves a better more thought-out qualified agreement and rejoinder than I have time to compose.

By social stigmas I referred to how people at the time treated old maids. A woman was driven to marry not only because she would be desperately poor -- for she could, as Jane and Cassandra did, live within their original nuclear family or with their brother (I am thinking of the household set up with Frank in Southampton). She was driven to marry because of lack of respect, lack of freedom, lack of any independence. We must never underestimate how important to people are the most fleeting forms of disrespect. Jane was a sensitive and proud woman. I should probably have used other language than social stigma for that carries other kinds of meaning in our world. Yet since some of these are linked to sex (homosexuals are stigmatized) and powerlessness, the word generalises my idea out to our own time.

I am not sure how Austen herself regarded the socialising type. She does have Marianne say they have the house at a high rate if they are expected to kick in their lives whenever needed or wanted. And my sense of the tone there is here Marianne voices Austen's view too. Yes look at all Sir John has done for them, but how thoughtful was it? why did he do it? It may be said this is a Calvinistic standard of perfection, but we are talking about real lives in the book, real time.

It's true that we find a kind treatment of Mr and Mrs Weston in Emma. Miss Bates is poignantly dependent on Weston's desire for company. I have just finished reading Anna Austen Lefroy's continuation of Sanditon, and it is a work worth perusal. It has the rare quality of feeling like it really continues Austen's plan. One hears her tones now and again. Now Austen's niece, Anna (whose nature comes close to hers in many ways) presents Mr Tom Parker, the socialiser, in very kind terms; the trouble here is the nuance we recognise as Austen's is therefore altered, significantly enough.

I am not sure that in life she did accept this loss of time.

In the books I see a strongly ambivalent, even hostile attitude. S&S is claustrophobic. P&P not much better at times. Think about the atmosphere surrounding the play in Mansfield Park. Anne Elliot in company in the first half of the novel and forever had Wentworth not suddenly written that note.

I read S&S as often equally sympathetic to Marianne and Elinor. They have the cottage on very hard terms if they are bound to run to stay for hours with the Middletons everytime the Middletons need to fill out their rooms. Emma feels claustrophobic. Emma has that line about the usual tedium and empty talk of a party. We see a lot of spite. I see Jane Fairfax's stymied existence and near loss of her post office as significant; also some of Emma's comments about how she feels in company. I am of D. W. Harding's persuasion.

Ellen Moody

To Austen-l

Re: Harding's "Regulated Hatred"--with a good word for Trilling thrown in

It seems to me that D. W. Harding's famous essay is relevant to the thread on Sir John and to arguments others on Austen-l had about Jane Austen's uncharitable presentation of Anne de Bough in P&P around the same time as S&S was discussed on both lists.

Reading what various people have had to say about Jane Austen's presentation of Anne de Bourgh in particular I would say the argument is not whether Austen is a moralist, but what is the nature of her tone, her presentation. Ursula has (rightly in my view) insisted on Austen as an ironist, and an enigmatic one at that. Sometimes she is satirizing human nature in order to show its vices, its amorality, its nonsence; but sometimes she satirizes in the spirit of play and she is amoral, she laughs the laugh of the disinterested artist which Keats regarded as a central aspect of genius.

The problem, however, (as I see it) with some of the justifications of the interpretations of Mary Musgrove, Anne de Bourgh's character or the presentation of Sir John Middleton is that the tone in which they were presented made the books into modern psychiatric and sociological tracts about how we ought to live. There is a limit to how much modern psychologizing we can bring into Austen's books without turning them into other kinds of texts. It's not that we can't understand the books in this way, but that it goes against the grain of Austen's tone and approach to read her too heavily in this way. It's a matter of leaning too hard if you get what I mean. Here though I would say the evidence-inventors I referred to above can easily lead to overstating an opposing case. Hence the wisdom of Elinor Dashwood's advice.

Now D. W. Harding is not quite about this real difficulty which we might call critical tact. Actually Marilyn Butler has just enough of this tact to persuade; Mary Lascelles is superb at it, so too Duckworth. Harding is not arguing about whether Austen is a moralist or ironist, when she is serious in the Swiftian- Johnsonian way and when she is amoral and playful in let us call it a Byronic way. Rather he is saying she seriously detested the values of her society.

In the 2 volumes of Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage edited by BSoutham; both D.W. Harding's "Regulated Hatred" & Lionel Trilling's "JA & _Mansfield Park" (Butler's bete noir) were singled out as exceptional contributions to Jane Austen studies. I had come across other references to this essay by Harding, and the title also attracted. So I went to the trouble of finding and reading the original essay as it appeared in 1942 Scrutiny , Vol 8, pp 346-362.

The argument is overstated probably but I found it very interesting. He opens with the idea that everything he ever heard about Austen made him want to read anything but her books; he had been told that her book "succeeded admirably" in expressing the "gentler virtues of a civilised order." He was told what a "sensitive person of culture" she was, and a wonderfullly "delicate satirist ... who [touched] the comic foibles and amiable weaknesses of the people she lived amongst and liked."

Well he read her anyway, and says, "Rubbish." Or this is a serious distortion of people who are not reading what is in front of them. It's the test many people would prefer; not the one that's there.

Basically his argument is that Austen loathed many of the basic tenents and scenes of her world, but that she presented this in a quiet ironic way so as not to offend, for the very good reason that she needed to preserve her place in this society.

He invites us to look at the many & repeated quiet but bald & hash sentences Austen embeds in her character portraits. People do remember how she says the Musgroves were well rid of their idiotic selfish son; but they forget such statements are made continually in all the books: He writes:

Mrs Bennet, according to the Austen tradition, is one of 'our' [note the our] richly comic characters about whom we can feel superior, condescending, perhaps a trifle sympathetic, and above all heartily amused and free from care .. [this] if you are willing to overlook JA's bald and brief statement of her own attitude to her: "She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper."

This describes many people then and now; it would make them uncomfortable to see themselves, so they laugh and "never observe that Jane Austen, none the less for seeing how funny [Mrs B] is, goes on detesting her."

He comes down on Charlotte's marriage to Mr Collins as an instance of how "economic and social institutions have such power over the values of personal relationships that" they must give up all personal happiness to survive. He writes" "The people [Jane Austen] hated were tolerated, accepted, comfortably ensconced in the only human society she knew ..." He condemns Elizabeth Jenkins' book as complacent and putting forth a polite and comfortable view of Jane Austen. What we like about Jane Austen's heroes and heroines is that they stand out against the vicious gross materialism of Austen's world, against its stupidity, meanness, &c. In talking of Emma & Mansfield Park he finds (as in the Miss Bates sequences) many little "eruptions of fear and hatred into the relationships of everyday life," with, e.g, this from Emma:

"Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or compel an outward respect from those who would despise her..."

To me this refers to Mr Woodhouse; he's an irritating imbecille who represses every joy; but's he's tolerated because he's rich, tolerated, my God he's catered to. So if we turn to Austen's lack of open statements condemning play-acting in and of itself, it comes from this quiet self-preservation; she is using her fiction as a release. When we talk of the vise of social obligations, her use of Marianne's impatience and anger is a release. Her depictions of Anne de Bourgh are a release. She was driven wild by the Mary Musgroves of her day -- and didn't see the world from their point of view. She didn't sympathize with her brother's wife. Her depiction of Fanny's and Anne Elliot's predicaments are a release for her because through their presences she presents their worlds for the vicious places they are.

Why does she only quietly present the basically sexual betrayal of Marianne? Why does she not scream from the rooftops how repressive is this society (which is what Marilyn Butler longs for and says she can find "hidden" in Julia da Roubigne)? How it led to this girl almost self-destructing. Why does she only quietly present the desperation of all her heroines (and that includes Emma who is desperate with boredom)in their world: Jane Austen, says Mr Harding,

has none of the underlying didactic intention ordinarily attributed to the satirist. Her object is not missionary; it is the more desperate one of merely finding some mode of existence forher critical attitudes. To her the first necessity was to keep on reasonably good terms with the associates of her everyday life; she had a deep need of their affection and a genuine respect for the ordered, decent civilsaiton they upheld ... The novels gave her a way of out of [her] dilemma. This, rather than the ambition of enteraining a posterity of urbane gentleman [and ladies] was her motive force in writing.

So Austen is not a missionary; she's not writing anti-jacobin novels. She's on about herself. Contra Butler Trilling too suggests Austen detested much what Wordsworth was decrying when he said "the world was too much with us, late and soon/We lay waste our powers, getting and spending" (I probably have mispunctuated that one), and that's why she as Fanny retreats up to the still quiet of her attic as library and place for reverie, why she walks into nature (like Marianne, Elizabeth, Jane Fairfax, Anne Elliot--and Austen herself).

Harding may slightly overstate his case, but I agree with Southam that this essay is an important moment in Austen studies. Harding is in part right about Elizabeth Jenkins; I reread her introductory chapter recently, and it irritates; she goes on and on about the exquisite taste of "the 18th century." Which one is my question. She thinks a tiny group of people were everyone, and is herself far more uncritical of Austen's world than Austen herself. Which is not to say Jenkins does not have her points; she is very good on Austen's novels and the letters especially; and towards the end of her book she is very good on the life. She also writes with grace, tact, delicacy, beauty--no unimportant thing people. Well it is Harding's attitude which leads to Halperin (of course this will make Harding a bogeyman on this list) but it also leads to Tony Tanner, to Isobel Armstrong and to many many good books. Harding's point of view is what they assume. It's what they don't have to argue. So one must read Harding--and Trilling.

Ellen Moody

To Janeites

Re: Margaret Oliphant on Jane Austen

The following posting shows that Harding's way of reading Austen was nothing new -- in the sense of what he saw in her texts.

A long time ago on Austen-l Dorothy Gannon wrote:

'what I think is one of the most distinctive aspects of Austen's that spare, Mozartian chilliness to her prose. She is not unemotional-- her characters glow. It's the world around them that is deliniated in only a few telling lines. We don't usually get descriptions of steamy windows, cold feet, hot tea, although some of the novels are more 'sensual' than others...'

And then again:

'"The rigorous exclusion of all diverting material' aptly describes Austen's writing style. For no reason in particular -- just gut feeling -- I've always assumed it was both an esthetic decision and an extention of (what I imagine to be) her personality. It's an appropriate style for a writer who is so cutting and brutal. I guess I admire this -- the brevity, pureness, and simplicity--although I am perfectly happy that all writers are not quite so 'rigorous'."

Dorothy's words "cutting and brutal" and "spare, her Mozartian chilliness make me remember Auden's verses on Austen. Too many critics and scholars have talked of Austen's literary malice in her letters or towards her characters, to be quoted here, but I think Margaret Oliphant is a rare one to show how this tonal quality of Austen is central to her vision of what life's about. I have now read a few of Oliphant's novels, stories and autobiography and have found they look upon the world in the same ways -- within of course the limits of their different experiences, times and characters. At any rate, Oliphant' piece is as good as anything written today in getting at the quality or tone or nature of the style in Austen.

One of the ostensible reasons (really excuses) for her essay was the publication of Edward Austen-Leigh's somewhat sentimental and emotional memoir picturing for us an utterly conventional woman enamoured of her family:

'Mr Austen-Leigh, without meaning it, throws out of his dim little lantern a passing gleam of light upon the fine vein of feminine cynicism which pervades his aunt's mind. It is something altogether different from the rude and brutal male quality that bears the same name. It is the soft and silent disbelief of a spectator who has to look at a great many things without showing any outward discomposure, and who has to give up any moral classification of social sins, and to place them instead on the level of absurdities. She is not surprised or offended, much less horror-stricken or indignant, when he people show vulgar or mean traits of character, when they make it evident how selfish and absorbed they are, or even when they fall into those social cruelties which selfish and stupid people are so often guilty of, not without intention, but yet without the power of realising half the pain they inflict.'

You'd think Oliphant had just finished Chs 1-5 of MP or was thinking about the Thorpes or Sir Walter and Elizabeth Elliot or Mary Musgrove or Elinor Dashwood.

But she carries on:

' [Austen] stands by and looks on, and gives a soft half-smile, and tells the story with an exquisite sense of its ridiculous side, and fine stinging soft-voiced contempt for the actors in it. She sympathizes with the sufferers, yet she can scarcely be said to be sorry for them; giving them unconsciously a share in her own sense of the covert fun of the scene, and gentle disdain of the possibility that meanness and folly and stupidity could ever really wound any rational creature.'

Now here she must have been reading _P&P_, maybe the ball at Netherfield or Mr Collins's proposal to Elizabeth. It is, of course, one thing to say Austen is Olympian, it is another to suggest we are invited to enjoy the meanness.

To conclude with what Mrs Oliphant finds central to Austen and I think explicates Auden's comment:

'A certain soft despair of any one human creature ever doing any good to another--of any influence overingcoming those habits and moods and peculiarities of mind which the observer sees to be more obstinate than life itself--a sense that nothing is to be done but to look on, to say perhaps now and then a softening word, ot make the best of it practically and theoretically...It includes a great deal that is amiable, and is full of toleration and patience, and that habit of making allowance for others which lies at the bottom of human charity. But yet it is not charity, and its toleration has none of the sweetness which proceeds form that highest of Christian graces. It is not absolute contempt either, but only a softened tone of general disbelief--amusement, nay enjoyment' ..."

Oliphant denies that Austen has any mauldin/emotional psychology supporting her characters at all (such as those we can invent for understanding Wentworth's behavior apart from Gard's comment it is a bit odd, given what we are to suppose is his daily experience on board a warring ship):

'no power has constituted her her brother's keeper. She has but the faculty of seeing her brother clearly all around as if he were a statue, identifying his absurdities, quietly jeering at him, smiling with her eyes without committing the indecorum of laughter" (reprinted in Southam, Austen: The Critical Heritage, Vol I, pp 216-7).

Of course Oliphant too overstates her case. She was probably irritated by the kind of talk about Austen, the invention of past histories for characters that went on in her time too.: Austen is an austere moralist and judges people by a severe standard of kindness and decency and justice; she also makes us deeply emotionally involved with some of her characters. Why else is Box Hill such an ordeal? Why do we feel so for Fanny because Edmund and everyone else has forgotten her or during the scene when Edmund returns to find that not only have his aunts endlessly used and abused her, but he too has been at fault (as they remind him while quietly blaming one another). There's an intense tenderness towards her characters here.

Still Oliphant does capture and explicate something of what Auden had in mind and on her journey explains why Austen attracts the disparate readers and readings she does. She adumbrates D. W. Harding and his school.

Ellen Moody

Someone asked why Austen has so little detail, and I replied that she cuts away all the irrelevant detail of what someone wore or their messy emotions, and keeps us to the generalized psychological and moral patterns, types of people and kinds of statements not overloaded with particulars so that we can recognize these are variants of our own experience and stand outside them all the while remaining alert to and yet somewhat cauterized against all the aspects of their stinging pain and humor.

We don't care what color the sofa is upon which Fanny sits. It doesn't matter what color Mrs Norris's eyes are--or even what is her first name.

Ellen Moody

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