Malcolm Bradbury on Jane Austen: "Today nobody can dismiss Miss Austen"

On the 200th anniversary of "Pride and Prejudice", we republish a 1997 article by Malcolm Bradbury on the popular manifestations of Jane Austen.

It is two-hundred years since the publication of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Here, in a piece retrieved from the NS archive, the eminent UEA critic and academic Malcolm Bradbury evaluates the critical heritage since Henry James dismissed her at the end of the 19th century. "Jane Austen has proved herself endlessly malleable to interpretation," he observed in 1997. "And there really is no reason why the versions should ever stop."

A woman for all seasons

“Jane Austen,” wrote the Old Master, Henry James, “was instructive and charming … For signal examples of what composition, distribution, arrangement can do, of how they intensify the life of a work of art, we have to go elsewhere.”

This was a common judgment in its day; but for a century we have been upturning it. Today nobody can dismiss Miss Austen. She flourishes as never before. Her books appear in best-seller lists, versions of her work bounce across film and TV screens, in a travestied flurry of balls, carriage rides, walks through friendly woods. She attracts feminist sympathy, romantic identification, theme-park nostalgia, Georgian revivalism, Tory appreciation, Marxist approval, literary homage, critical deconstruction — all on a far greater scale than that offered to the once much-more-admired works of the Old Master himself.

Popular homage is broadly matched in critical opinion. Almost everything James said of her is under challenge. She wasn't merely instructive. She wasn't really charming. For signal examples of what composition, distribution can do, we need to go no farther. The critical revival, which has lasted for several generations, has now met up with her post-modern, classical-revival-in-quotes, folk appeal. The supposedly reclusive spinster from Chawton, who disliked Bath, avoided marriage, hid her writing when the door creaked and wrote small on two inches of ivory, has become a universal icon, satisfying to many very widely varied parties.

In the 1950s, critical attention focused on her commanding irony. “Regulated hatred,” one Scrutiny critic, D W Harding, called it, in early challenge to the idea that her work was merely charming. It was an irony that found an echo in much 1950s writing, representing a moral principle of control, a considered resistance to the effusive, the romantic, the sentimental, the silly, that made her novels serious and appealing to those neo-classical, anti-romantic times. Her idle characters lived in a morally mature universe; her best and favourite heroine was Anne Elliot in Persuasion, who — prudent in youth, learning romance as she grows older — makes a late marriage against social expectation, and only when she has passed beyond the powers of other people's false persuasion.

Like the Scrutiny critics themselves, this Jane Austen (still close to my own) was wonderfully and drily judgmental. She flayed just that kind of female silliness and romantic self-obsession that people so often find attractive in her characters when they are brought to the screen. Criticism focused on the remarkable control and moral management of her six great novels, their fine and distilled tonality, their determined refusal of the big bow-wow strain, their, well, Jamesian precision — which in turn became a heritage for the British novel, in whose history she was now granted a central role.

Since then she has been regularly deconstructed and reconstructed. By the 1970s it grew important to show how she transcended the ideological limitations of her class, to disprove the general assumption that (despite what she said herself) she did not write about big events. She wrote about some of the biggest (money, economic determinism, the price of poverty or genteel indigence, the nature of property), she understood and criticised the mercantile social revolution of her age (Tony Tanner's fine study of 1986 sums up this revised view). Feminist critics showed how she wrote the “female sentence” and so found a new, more pliable discourse for the novel.

The revival, at all levels, goes busily on. Two new biographies, by Claire Tomalin and David Nokes, both highly distinguished biographer-critics, have appeared; another is cautiously deferred to next year, not to overcrowd the crowded market.

The new biographies are entirely justified; though new research sources are scarce, and much was, perhaps wisely, burned by Cassandra, her sister, a lot of fresh contextual material has become available. It shows what critics have long suspected: the social world Austen moved in was culturally extensive. It was linked both to French émigrés and to the Empire (the East India Company, Warren Hastings), and it was plentifully filled with awkward family secrets.

The biographies draw on similar materials, but strike contrasting notes. Tomalin observes: “Jane Austen does not ramble. Each story is tightly constructed and covers a short span of time.”

She adds that her world and her cousinage did ramble. But Tomalin's own unrambling prose gives clear evidence and plain points, and stays fairly close to home. By contrast Nokes novelises, surmises, imagines, as he follows the stories of other related families, giving us a livelier prose, a vaster frame, a much bigger historical world.

He starts in India, and turns to the American war of independence. She starts with the hard Hampshire winter of 1775, when Jane was born. For Tomalin, Jane's severe illness at school and her rescue at the cost of the life of one of the rescuers, is drab and depressing. For Nokes it is yet another drama: “How daring the rescue had been! Quite like an episode from a Gothic romance.”

Like the TV Janeites, Nokes delights in balls, theatricals, domestic dramas, flamboyant visitors; he gives even ordinary daily life a hectic pace. He surmises that the ten-year literary silence of the Bath years was not, as usually assumed, because Jane did not like the spa's social delights, but because she did; he sees her as highly tempted by fame. Tomalin delights in domestic spaces, financial problems, above all in the novels themselves, carefully judging the craft of which they're made. While she closely re-examines the nature of the last illness, Nokes imagines the sickroom and the atmosphere of the funeral. Tomalin's account is the more thoughtful, studied, well-sourced; Nokes' is the more exotic, adventurous, extended, and it is soundly backed with quotations and historical insight. But both prominently quote Jane's comment: “Pictures of perfection make me sick and wicked,” and energetically question the family inscription on her tomb in Winchester Cathedral (“The benevolence of her heart, the sweetness of her temper, and the extraordinary endowments of her mind…”) — a Georgian funerary note which stressed her domestic virtues and failed even to mention her novels (a plaque divulging that open secret was erected in 1872).

“I am a wild beast, I cannot help it,” Nokes quotes at the close. Tomalin closes to the sound of Jane laughing at the opinions of the world. What our present culture wants of Jane Austen, it seems, is not the quiet, gentle writer of sense not sensibility. It doesn't want the regulated hater or the ironist, nor the economic novelist whose main metaphor is money, nor the writer of high craft who (despite Henry James) really does offer signal examples of what composition, distribution, arrangement can do. It doesn't need the satirist of class and pretension, nor the radical cultural critic exploring the transformations of British life during the Romantic and Industrial Revolutions.

What it wants, in a time of post-domestic female images, is stroppy Jane, rebelling against the conventions she also practised, irritable, independent-spirited, provocative, on the wild side. Like most great novelists, Jane Austen has proved herself endlessly malleable to interpretation. She has become an ever-shifting truth universally acknowledged. And there really is no reason why the versions should ever stop.

17 October 1997

A family portrait of Austen from 1790. Photo: Getty Images.
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As it turns out, the Bake Off and the Labour party have a lot in common

And I'm not just talking about the fact they've both been left with a old, wrinkly narcissist.

I wonder if Tom Watson and Paul Hollywood are the same person? I have never seen them in the same room together – neither in the devil’s kitchen of Westminster, nor in the heavenly Great British Bake Off marquee. Now the Parliamentary Labour Party is being forced to shift to the ­political equivalent of Channel 4, and the Cake Meister is going with. As with the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, so with Bake Off: the former presenters have departed, leaving behind the weird, judgemental, wrinkly old narcissist claiming the high ground of loyalty to the viewers – I mean members.

Is the analogy stretched, or capable of being still more elasticised? Dunno – but what I do know is that Bake Off is some weird-tasting addictive shit! I resisted watching it at all until this season, and my fears were justified. When I took the first yummy-scrummy bite, I was hooked even before the camera had slid across the manicured parkland and into that mad and misty realm where a couple of hours is a long time . . . in baking, as in contemporary British politics. It’s a given, I know, that Bake Off is a truer, deeper expression of contemporary Britain’s animating principle than party, parliament, army or even monarch. It is our inner Albion, reached by crossing the stormy sound of our own duodenums. Bake Off is truer to its idea of itself than any nation state – or mythical realm – could ever be, and so inspires a loyalty more compelling.

I have sensed this development from afar. My not actually watching the programme adds, counterintuitively, to the perspicacity of my analysis: I’m like a brilliant Kremlinologist, confined to the bowels of Bletchley Park, who nonetheless sifts the data so well that he knows when Khrushchev is constipated. Mmm, I love cake! So cried Marjorie Dawes in Little Britain when she was making a mockery of the “Fatfighters” – and it’s this mocking cry that resounds throughout contemporary Britain: mmm! We love cake! We love our televisual cake way more than real social justice, which, any way you slice it, remains a pie in the sky – and we love Bake Off’s mixing bowl of ethnicity far more than we do a melting pot – let alone true social mobility. Yes, Bake Off stands proxy for the Britain we’d like to be, but that we can’t be arsed to get off our arses and build, because we’re too busy watching people bake cakes on television.

It was Rab Butler, Churchill’s surprise choice as chancellor in the 1951 Tory government, who popularised the expression “the national cake” – and our new, immaterial national cake is a strange sort of wafer, allowing all of us who take part in Paul’s-and-Mary’s queered communion to experience this strange transubstantiation: the perfect sponge rising, as coal is once more subsidised and the railways renationalised.

Stupid, blind, improvident Tom Watson, buggering off like that – his battles with the fourth estate won’t avail him when it comes to the obscurity of Channel 4. You’ll find yourself sitting there alone in your trailer, Tom, neatly sculpting your facial hair, touching up your maquillage with food colouring – trying to recapture another era, when goatees and Britannia were cool, and Tony and Gordon divided the nation’s fate along with their polenta. Meanwhile, Mel and Sue – and, of course, Mary – will get on with the serious business of baking a patriotic sponge that can be evenly divided into 70 million pieces.

That Bake Off and the Labour Party should collapse at exactly the same time suggests either that the British oven is too cold or too hot, or that the recipe hasn’t been followed properly. Mary Berry has the charisma that occludes charisma: you look at her and think, “What’s the point of that?” But then, gradually, her quiet conviction in her competence starts to win you over – and her judgements hit home hard. Too dense, she’ll say of the offending comestible, her voice creaking like the pedal of the swing-bin that you’re about to dump your failed cake in.

Mary never needed Paul – hers is no more adversarial a presenting style than that of Mel and Sue. Mary looks towards a future in which there is far more direct and democratic cake-judging, a future in which “television personality” is shown up for the oxymoron it truly is. That she seems to be a furious narcissist (I wouldn’t be surprised if either she’s had a great deal of “work”, or she beds down in a wind tunnel every night, so swept are her features) isn’t quite as contradictory as you might imagine. Out there on the margins of British cookery for decades, baking cakes for the Flour Advisory Board (I kid you not), taking a principled stand on suet, while the entire world is heading in one direction, towards a globalised, neoliberal future of machine-made muffins – she must have had a powerful ­degree of self-belief to keep on believing in filo pastry for everyone.

So now, what will emerge from the oven? Conference has come and gone, and amateur bakers have banged their heads against the wall of the tent: a futile exercise, I’m sure you’ll agree. Will Jeremy – I’m sorry, Mary – still be able to produce a show-stopper? Will Mel and Sue and Angela and Hilary all come sneaking back, not so much shriven as proved, so that they, too, can rise again? And what about poor Tom – will he try to get a Labour Party cookery show of his own going, despite the terrible lack of that most important ingredient: members?

It’s so hard to know. It could be that The Great British Bake Off has simply reached its sell-by date and is no longer fit for consumption. Or it could be that Tom is the possessor of his alter ego’s greatest bête noire, one as fatal in politics as it is in ­bakery, to whit: a soggy bottom. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.