We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Another poem in praise of Jane Austen's art · 27 November 05

Dear Miss Vane,

I just came across another poem on Miss Austen. The author is Richard Howard (1929-), and he wrote it as a semi-parody of Keats’s "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer:"

On Lately Looking into Chapman’s Jane Austen: A Critical Bibliography1

"The passions," Charlotte Bronte was at pains
to notify her correspondent (male),
"are perfectly unknown to her. Of course
a lady! all you like—-I see you do

but as a woman, incomplete." "She is
unpleasant—-English in the snobbish sense:
a mean old maid," wrote Lady Chatterly’s
creator, and the list goes on from there.

Can we forgive her? Even Henry James
was likely to be snappish on the score
of "our dear, their dear, everybody’s dear
Aunt Jane …" who had never trifled with Keats

and travelled not at all in "realms of gold"
or any other glamour, if we trust
her answer (after Emma!) to the Prince,
that she confined herself to "pictures of

domestic life in country villages,
and could no more engage to write Romance
than Epic Poems!" Keats, who could, affords
a clue. Consult our Chapman (anything

but "loud and bold"—-amazingly discreet),
and feel instead "like a watcher of the … depths
when a new species swims into his ken":
for her—-for the species Austen, love, like death,

is the great leveller, but not because
everyone loves (or dies), but just because
no one—-not even Lawrence, understands
what love (or death) can mean. And we are left,

eagle-eyed or even a little dim,
to ogle each other "with a wild surmise,
silent on a pique" (ah, Charlotte!), still
commanded to acknowledge what she knows:

that Wisdom’s secret is detachment, not
withdrawal. And that nobody is damned
except by his own deliberate act. Or hers …
Perfectly unknown? "If we have not lived

within a family, we cannot well say
what any of its members’ griefs may be2";
holding her method by that end, she pulled,
and as she pulled, it came. Homeric Jane.

Mr Howard thinks these denigrating rebarbative comments show the jealousy, spite, narrow-mindedness, density about real love and death, not to omit hollow self-posturing of those who make them.

If you agree with his way of reading Austen, his last paragraph suggests how far the recent film adaptations are from her art.


1 from "Lining Up," Atheneum (1984).

2 The sentence comes from Emma and is Mrs Weston’s to Mr Knightley. She attempts to excuse Frank Churchill for not having visited Mr Weston, Frank’s father for something like 21 years, and then for not having shown up to his father’s wedding to her, Mrs Weston (poor Miss Taylor that was Emma’s ex-governess).

Posted by: Ellen

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