Still lost in Austen: a new collection allows Margaret Drabble to revisit her novels

Jane Austen’s literary heirs are innumerable –– and her readers are ardent to the point of hysteria.

My favourite line by Jane Austen occurs in the second chapter of Pride and Prejudice, where Kitty, the unfortunate fourth Bennet daughter, responds to her mother's scolding ("Don't keep coughing so, Kitty, for heaven's sake!") with the words: "I do not cough for my own amusement." As repartee, this is not in the Darcy-Elizabeth class, but I find it comes in handy every February and some may recognise its provenance. Austen's output was so compact that many of us know much of her work by heart and feel its echoes every day. Yet, on rereading, we always find new shades of meaning, new pleasures and, most importantly, new questions. A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Reasons Why We Can't Stop Reading Jane Austen, edited by Susannah Carson and published this month, gathers a selection of essays, old and new, that will arouse indignation and agreement in equal measure.

How could young Alain de Botton have cast himself as Edmund Bertram? How could Jay McInerney have so misjudged Elizabeth's reasons for rejecting Darcy? And how could Virginia Woolf have written this sentence of Austen's art: "Humbly and gaily she collected the twigs and straws out of which the nest was to be made and placed them neatly together." Humbly and gaily, Mrs Woolf? Humbly and gaily? This is almost as imbecilic as E M Forster disingenuously declaring that he was "a Jane Austenite, and therefore slightly imbecile about Jane Austen".

The "Janeites" were savaged in 1940 by D W Harding in his celebrated essay "Regulated Hatred" - frequently cited here, but not reproduced - yet their successors are often just as irrational in their prejudices and interpretations. And we find irrationality hand in hand with insight. Kingsley Amis brilliantly perceives that Fanny Price was corrupted by Mansfield Park, which was not at all the "great good place" that some critics have suggested; yet, in the same essay, he also manages to assert that Sir Thomas Bertram is "the most sympathetic of [Austen's] patriarchs". Leaving aside Edward Said and the slave-trade row, which broke out long after Amis's 1956 essay, this is an untenable view of Sir Thomas. Such inconsistencies make the blood pressure rise, and we have to return to Austen's calmer pages to cool down.

But we don't always find calmness there. This time round, prompted by poor Kitty's plight, I found myself looking solicitously for those younger siblings whom the narrative neglects or brushes aside. Those who admire Emma Thompson's superb adaptation of Sense and Sensibility will recall the active part she gave to the third sister, Margaret, who hardly surfaces in the text, save as yet one more indigent and potentially unmarriageable dependant. Thompson's version wasn't Austen, but it was fun.

Less funny is Kitty's fate in Pride and Prejudice. Under the shadow of her healthy, highly sexed and impetuous sister Lydia's elopement and marriage (a doomed marriage, we are told by Austen: a judgemental verdict that worries both me and Martin Amis), she will be supervised and restrained. She will have to spend much of her time with her superior elder sisters, Mrs Bingley and Mrs Darcy, and will become, "by proper attention and management, less irritable, less ignorant and less insipid". She will never be allowed to visit Lydia and go to a ball. Maybe she will find a suitor at Pemberley, but maybe she will die of consumption. (They should have paid more attention to that cough.) The word "management" strikes a nasty chill.

Even worse is Mary Bennet's fate. Mary is one of Austen's least successful satirical portraits, and the essay here by Benjamin Nugent on her "nerdishness" sheds little light on why, as a character, she is so disturbingly unsatisfactory. Mary is the plain one, cornered into being clever, or trying to be clever, because she has no other option. Her sententiousness is as ludicrous as that of Mr Collins, another of Nugent's "nerds", but it is far less entertaining and makes some readers deeply uncomfortable. Unlike Mr Collins, who has a job and prospects, she is utterly powerless, a middle daughter whose plight is made all the more acute because her sisters are so good-looking.

Austen does not spare us her suffering, although it is not clear what she makes of it. When Mary seizes the opportunity to sing in the drawing room at Netherfield, she is silenced by her father's immortal put-down: "You have delighted us long enough." Mary is disconcerted, and Elizabeth feels sorry for her. It is a moment of memorable public humiliation. In the novel's denouement, we are told, brutally, that Mary, being the only daughter left at home, was obliged to spend more time with her mother and to leave her books to mix more with the world. "As she was no longer mortified by comparisons between her sisters' beauty and her own, it was suspected by her father that she submitted to the change without much
reluctance." It was a hard world for those who were not handsome, clever or rich.

We follow the taming and management of another younger sibling in the story of Fanny Price's sister Susan. When we first meet her in the noisy Price household in Portsmouth, we are told that, in contrast to the timid Fanny, she is "fearless" and "self-defending" and has a "determined character". But she soon gets the spirit knocked out of her, and is trailed off in Fanny's wake to Mansfield Park, that deadly dwelling place of indolence and tedium, to wait on Lady Bertram's pug. Her nature changes suddenly and implausibly as she learns to see Fanny's superior wisdom, and she becomes "welcome and useful to all" - a very convenient poor relation, probably destined to life as an old maid, helping to look after Fanny's and Edmund's children, as well as her ageing aunt. That Austen herself proved an exemplary aunt does a little, but not enough, to soften the blow.

Some of my revisionist readings of minor characters have been prompted and fortified by 30 years of feminist criticism, which Carson's volume fails to put in clear perspective. She does include a 1984 essay by Fay Weldon, who shrewdly notes that the unscrupulous, such as Mary Crawford, have more choices and make better marriages than the good: "In the real world, the worse women behave, the better they get on." Diane Johnson, a novelist of manners whose talents have rightly been compared to Austen's and Henry James's, similarly remarks on the greater choice of denouement for a heroine in 21st-century fiction: "Like Lulu [in Johnson's own Lulu in Marrakech, 2009], she can go off to join the Peace Corps or the CIA."

It was feminist reinterpretations in the 1980s that alerted us to an awareness that Mrs Bennet (according to Martin Amis: "stupid, prattling, coarse, greedy") is only doing her job by her daughters and that, in the event, she does it very successfully. In her introduction, Carson attributes her discovery of this reading to a lecture by Stephen Arkin, delivered "recently", but we can be fairly sure that it was preceded by Weldon, Mary Evans (in Jane Austen and the State, 1987) and others, including myself.

I argued in my 1989 Virago introduction that Mrs Bennet has her virtues: she understands the importance of dinners, balls and good cooking, keeps "a good table" and makes her guests welcome. She isn't greedy, she is generous, and wants everyone to have a good time. It's her husband's fault if she overspends, as he acknowledges in the end. She has done her best to provide him with an heir. After five daughters, she gave up, and who can blame her?

Maybe one can take the feminist fallacy too far, but it continues to provide useful illuminations. Why, one may wonder, does Austen never present with sympathy any truly accomplished female figure? She seems to favour such charming amateurs as Elizabeth and Emma, and elevates them above the mediocre but studious Mary Bennet and the truly gifted Jane Fairfax. Yet she herself was anything but a charming amateur. Perhaps a need for dissimulation had sunk deep into her soul, and she veered away from portraying excellence. Writing novels, as George Eliot and Woolf have both powerfully argued, was the only option open to her. She seized it. It is not an option that she offers to any of her characters.

One could claim that among the many reasons why we reread her is that we are comforted, men and women alike, by a world of limited choice. A distant, static world of being rather than doing, where careers hardly feature; where professional success is a side issue; where competition is so regulated by convention that it cannot dominate behaviour; where ambition is curtailed and failure managed. Yet this small world rouses strong passions.

In one of the most curious and interesting essays here, Lionel Trilling tells a cautionary tale about teaching Austen. He describes how he planned to give a course on her work in 1973 but found it embarrassingly oversubscribed.

He had hoped for a maximum of 30 students but, to his dismay, about 150 enrolled. Mystified by their motives, he decided to interview the applicants, and found that, although most had no "special scholarly reason" for their choice, they wanted something from Austen with "hysterical moral urgency".

Trilling worries about the sources of this hysterical enthusiasm, wondering if the students were seeking a pleasant fantasy as an alternative mode of life, or whether they were taking a stand against modernity, industrialisation and the modern novel. But he cannot really account for her extraordinary and enduring popularity. He compares her emblematic status with that of William Blake in 1968 and suggests it came about, in part, as a response to a contemporary demand for female figures. But he knew that was not the whole answer. For all his experience, for all his intelligence, it is evident that he did not know what the explanation was.

That is why we can go on reading Austen and writing about her. We can never satisfactorily decide what she is saying to us, and why she means so much to us. We can discuss and re-evaluate her characters endlessly, as we can discuss and gossip about our friends. We can seek new historical and sociological perspectives - there is interesting new material here about the diminishing intensity of brother-sister relationships in recent times - or we can study her posthumous life in film adaptations, sequels and prequels. We could even get up to date with a delightful video called Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Ben H Winter's 2009 parody, in which you can see Willoughby dragged into a lake by a monster with tentacles, watched by an appalled Marianne.

I am indebted for this last scholarly reference to Alison Lurie, who is always up to date, and whose first published novel, in 1962, carried the Austen title of Love and Friendship, heralding a long career of sharp social comedy. Jane Austen's heirs are innumerable.

“A Truth Universally Acknowledged" is published by Particular Books (£20)
Margaret Drabble's memoir "The Pattern in the Carpet" is published by Atlantic Books (£9.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas