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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era