Rosemary Haskell: Jane Austen has more heft than a teacup

August 16, 2013 

Jane Austen has more heft than a teacup

Ruth Marcus got it wrong in her Aug. 9 column “When misogynist venom goes viral.” In rightly deploring the frightening “twitterverse” attacks on those who had campaigned for the Bank of England to put a female face on its currency, Marcus thoughtlessly endorsed Rebecca Mead’s Newyorker.com claim that choosing Jane Austen’s image really ought to have been as uncontroversial as drinking a nice cup of tea.

Actually, in both her life and works, Austen offers us much stronger drink. Marcus’ column perpetuates the tired tea-and-mittens stereotype of the great artist and moralist.

Austen represents something a lot more threatening and a lot less trivial than a teacup.

1. Austen’s letters to her lifelong correspondent, her sister Cassandra, were often sharp-tongued and sometimes even cruel: “Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright,” she wrote. “I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”

2. “Dear Jane” also makes very rude jokes in print. See, for example, her 1814 novel “Mansfield Park,” in which Mary Crawford, referring to her upbringing in the house of her uncle the admiral, says (in mixed company): “Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.” How could Austen have known about the Royal Navy’s reputation for “rum, sodomy and the lash”? She had brothers serving on the ships that fought Napoleon. She was no prim Victorian but a vigorous Georgian, living from 1775 to 1817.

3. Her novels explore the serious topic of the tension among an individual’s hopes, fears and desires and the formal code of manners that contains, and gives shape to, those impulses. The most engrossing scenes occur when that tension is so great that something – or someone – appears ready to snap. Austen’s characters do “inhabit a world of genteel decorum,” as Marcus claims. But the price they pay for living in such a world is extremely high.

4. In “Pride and Prejudice” (1813), Elizabeth Bennet’s rejection of Darcy’s proposal reaches its thrilling climax when she steps – for a few moments – away from the code of well-bred passivity to exclaim that Darcy is “the last person in the world whom I could ever be prevailed upon to marry,” but that she’d feel worse about hurting his feelings if he had “behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.” Mr. Darcy, and Austen’s readers, are stopped in their tracks. Miss Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t just “edge to rudeness,” as Marcus asserted. She steps right over the precipice, however briefly.

Austen’s mild, frilly-capped countenance really should cause controversy as it circulates on England’s folding money (the kind Austen, as a single woman threatened by poverty, knew how to value). Her novels uncover for us the value of analyzing the moral and emotional excitement that drives the most apparently decorous of societies. And, yes, she could certainly teach those Twitter-thugs a thing or two about self-restraint.

Rosemary Haskell, Chapel Hill

The length limit was waived to permit a fuller response to the column.

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