Books

Jane Austen, Identity Thief

An 1833 engraving of a scene between Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice (Pickering & Greatbatch/Wikimedia)
Her characters undertook the crucial task of getting inside the lives of people unlike themselves. Don’t call it ‘cultural appropriation.’

Jane Austen is 243 today — or would be, had she not died 201 years ago. If her keen eyes were still with us, what would she see? Among many other things, surely she would be surprised by the contemporary clamor over “cultural appropriation” and the ever more sensitive boundaries of identity. Today, novelists and their editors are sometimes shouted down for presuming to get inside the life of a different kind of person. In Austen’s novels, on the other hand, the center of the drama turns on getting inside others’ lives: Will her characters read one another correctly, or fall into some sort of misreading? Success bodes well, while failure brings with it suffering and sometimes tragedy. The fact that her plots are so widely appreciated and considered realistic suggests that there might be something distinctively unrealistic about the contemporary movement against appropriation.

Perhaps the most famous misreading in Austen — and one that represents so many others in her work — is Elizabeth Bennet’s false interpretation of her suitor, Mr. Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice. Based on a few early experiences of his reserve and hauteur, along with a misleading account by the scurrilous Mr. Wickham, Lizzy constructs an altogether incorrect narrative of Darcy’s life, and that misreading leads her to refuse his offer of marriage. Then, in a justly famous chapter, she reads an explanatory letter from Darcy and the scales fall from her eyes:

How differently did everything now appear in which he was concerned! . . . She grew absolutely ashamed of herself.  — Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

The disruption and correction of her narrative leads her to see not only others more clearly but also herself, their faulty interpreter: “Till this moment,” declares Lizzy at the climax, “I never knew myself.” Elizabeth Bennet’s failure to get inside Darcy’s actual story, a failure arising from real flaws in her own character, drives the first half of the novel, and his narrative correction (followed by her own consequent self-correction) guides us into the second half. Her story, so compelling to many generations, is a story about the vital need to get inside the lives of others who are not like us and to learn how to narrate their stories accurately.

A number of other great novelists later in the 19th century learned the art of this plot from Austen, and 20th-century critics began to call their body of work the “realist” tradition. The realists, among whom we can include George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad, all told Austen-like stories (at least in the narrow sense I have described here) about the challenging necessity of getting into others’ lives and imagining their stories from within.

But significantly, in the later realists, the “other” becomes more difficult and complex, so that the task of reading him gets trickier and trickier. If there are obstacles to Lizzie’s interpreting Darcy accurately, the interpretive work is even more perilous among members of Eliot’s disparate social classes, James’s different European nationalities, and Conrad’s jostling global ethnicities. Nevertheless, the fundamental need at the heart of their plots is the same: to read others rightly, for the sake of making all the choices that come with living together in the world.

The assumption that all these novelists bring to their stories — that it is possible, however imperfectly, to get inside another, different person — is something that we now hear called into question. Is it reasonable to expect a man to understand a woman as she understands herself, or a Canadian to understand a Mexican, a white person a black person?

For many contemporary writers and thinkers, it seems that the answer is a resounding no. In a well-known 2016 incident, the (Southern, American, white, female) novelist Lionel Shriver offended members of her audience at the Brisbane Writers Festival in Australia. She held that authors such as herself must be allowed to get inside characters unlike themselves:

The ultimate endpoint of keeping our mitts off experience that doesn’t belong to us is that there is no fiction. Someone like me only permits herself to write from the perspective of a straight white female born in North Carolina, closing on sixty, able-bodied but with bad knees, skint for years but finally able to buy the odd new shirt. All that’s left is memoir.

In response, some of the audience booed, made a show of walking out, and afterwards wrote impassioned calls for the end of this kind of “exploitation . . . under the guise of fiction.” The Canadian editor Hal Niedzviecki received the same kind of furious response in 2017 when, in the journal Write, he had the temerity to say, “In my opinion anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities.” We could multiply examples, but the phenomenon is now becoming familiar enough that we need not: More and more, sensitive audiences want to forbid the practice at the heart of so many of our greatest novels.

The reasoning behind this startling push seems to be twofold. First, there is a general skepticism about our ability to get beyond ourselves, into the often very different conditions of another’s life — imagining that person’s story as our own. Second, there is the fear that this kind of appropriation will be used unjustly against the one whose life is being imagined. Both are legitimate concerns, but Jane Austen shows us that neither is insurmountable.

The first, after all, questions the possibility of the practice that is the bread and butter of her novels: The task of reading others well can be excruciatingly difficult, but it is even more necessary than it is challenging. We actually cannot live without doing it.

The second concern is one that Austen also takes up in several of her plots. In Emma, for example, the upper-class title character forcibly misreads her lower-class companion, Harriet, and that injustice exposes Emma’s flaws as a person. The novel’s drama becomes in part a question of whether Emma will be able to remove and compensate for that injustice and for those flaws. Similar dramas unfold in her other novels. Jane Austen, therefore, doesn’t ignore the challenges cited so often today; rather, she sets them up as the very obstacles we most need to overcome.

In memory of Austen on the 201st anniversary of her death, we ought to give her and the other realists the opportunity to be our teachers again. We love Austen’s novels because they depict the struggles that are still ours today. And if we are willing to see, she can show us how to undertake those struggles more courageously and more sensibly than our contemporary guides think possible.

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