A simple, straight-forward person thrust into a complex, sometimes threatening world: This type of plot can generate a great deal of comedy, but also anxiety and foreboding, as Jane Austen knew well. It is the basic design of her Northanger Abbey, in which the 17-year-old naïf Catherine Morland must make her way through a glitzy, but dangerous, society in Bath. As we read, we laugh frequently, but the humor comes along with a faint sense of dread: Will Catherine pass through the depredations and dissemblings of society unscathed?
In our own day, a parallel drama is from time to time reenacted, but with Jane Austen herself as the protagonist. While no thoughtful person would call her naïve, Austen’s small scale and carefully limited range give her a kind of simplicity not unlike Catherine Morland’s, so that, when she is unwittingly carried into today’s political struggles, it is both hilarious and discomfiting. The latest such plot is set in the British village of Chawton, where the novelist lived in a modest, two-story brick home, now the Jane Austen House, her dedicated museum. Within the last few weeks, the museum’s director, Lizzie Dunford, has spread the word of a planned public exhibit on “Black Lives Matter to Austen,” as well as a “reviewing and updating” of the museum’s interpretation of Austen’s views on race and colonialism. Shortly thereafter, The Telegraph ran an incendiary take — “Jane Austen’s tea drinking will face ‘historical interrogation’ over slavery links” — and the culture war had been reengaged. Both sides have played to type.
Now, the first requisite is to call this event what it is: a tempest in a teapot. As Alexander Larman and others have made clear, there is vanishingly little in Austen that touches on any issue of racial justice — really only one stray line from Mansfield Park — which means that the dispute is more about subtext than text. According to a 30-year-old theory of Edward Said, Mansfield Park’s one mention of Caribbean slavery nods at the fact that the whole plot of the novel is made possible by a culture of racist imperialism. The story of a few Caucasians’ vicissitudes in love is tacitly underwritten by slave labor overseas. Most recent progressive critiques are inheritors of Said’s argument. On the other hand, conservatives generally blow off the post-colonial reading as forced, then defend Austen as a subtle proponent of traditional moral norms concerning marriage, social order, and so forth. For the progressive Austen critics, the racial equity of her implied political economy is fundamental, while for the conservatives, her traditional model of family and social life is key. In other words, the two sides use her as a proxy site for today’s moral and political disputes, and the whole noisy affair seems to float free of the novels themselves. Austen walks through our culture wars like Catherine Morland through Bath.
What, then, to make of the kerfuffle? Now that the same old things have been said, what fresh sort of response can be made? I propose that we take our cue from Austen herself: Her own way of responding will open up ours.
In understanding Austen’s reply to a conflicted, conflicting world, the analogy of the martyrs is instructive. In the profoundest sense, the words and deeds of a martyr say to her society that there is a higher world, a world that works according to a logic superior to that of this sublunary sphere. Just so, perhaps Jane Austen’s most important response to our culture wars is her quiet witness to another, higher order of existence. The greatness of Austen is (at least in part) her extraordinary, fine-grained depiction of the drama of the heart: How does one go about making the greatest choices of one’s life? What are the characteristic steps and missteps through which we go in trying to judge another person’s character or intentions? What sort of life and habits enable a person to make more trustworthy decisions where love is involved? In the first half of Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet makes a whole, interconnected set of misjudgments about Mr. Darcy because she has gotten his story wrong. She has gotten his story wrong because she has misunderstood his character, and that misunderstanding in turn rests upon character flaws of her own. She is just trying to make it through life and find a good sort of lover, and it is all so rich and complicated (in addition to being laugh-out-loud funny). When Darcy’s climactic letter sets her straight on the story, and thus his character, the reversal truly staggers her ill-founded confidence: “Till this moment, I never knew myself.”
The tale of Elizabeth and Darcy (or Emma and Knightly, or Elinor and Edward Ferrars) is not soupy, escapist melodrama, but a tightly focused, sharply insightful picture of a plot we are all deeply invested in: the inner, intimate drama of choice, where highest things are at stake. We go to these narratives again and again, not just for titillation or period aesthetics, but for the tremendous clarity and wit with which Austen sees the weightiest moments of our lives. It is not the case that politics has nothing to do with these comedies and tragedies of choice. Rather, politics exists (in great part) for the sake of these dramas, to clear space and establish the possibility of their successful unfolding. The ambient culture, with all its strifes and political conditions, enables the “truth universally acknowledged” about love and life to pursue its delicate, all-important way. Jane Austen’s response to our culture wars, then, is her shining witness to their raison d’être.
But where does this leave us now, amid the clamor of voices, left and right? Austen’s example suggests a simple rule for our treatment of others, including our treatment of those we read: Never reduce a person to the conditions of her existence. Jane Austen, like all of us, follows out a story within a social, political, civilizational frame, but she — like every person — is startlingly irreducible to that frame. Yes, her plots complexly relate (like our own) to a backdrop of real and excruciating injustices in the world economy. Yes, they presume (again, like our own) a whole set of traditional moral objectives. But to boil another person down to this or that political principle is absurd, violent, and inhuman, for it is of the essence of persons to transcend the sum of their parts. Jane Austen rises above her conditions, and even her beliefs, to say what she has to say, do what she has to do. The wonder of us persons is that we are all these things, and yet we are also more.
There is a place for talking about Austen’s politics, and for “interrogating” her subtexts. She has them, after all. Our desire as human beings is to be taken both at face value, and as rooted. Let us, then, talk about the history, economics, dynamics of culture, while also allowing her to transcend them. If that is not possible, then the lives we all know we are living right now are not possible.