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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Why are we sometimes so reluctant to enjoy ourselves - even when we're allowed?

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is a profound meditation on the ways we deny ourselves pleasure.

In the sage words of the novelist William Maxwell, “It is impossible to say why people put so little value on complete happiness.” The psychoanalyst and essayist Adam Phillips has, for some time, been engaged in investigating this enigma. A recent collection of essays, Missing Out, explored our propensity to attach a greater value to what we have not, rather than what we have. His latest book, Unforbidden Pleasures, is a profound meditation on our reluctance to enjoy ourselves as we might and, more crucially, as we are apparently granted the freedom to do.

A good deal of complex thinking and ­reference is compressed into two hundred or so pages. Phillips’s first witness is Oscar Wilde, whose provocatively intelligent statement on political engagement – “The problem with socialism is that it takes up too many evenings” – sets the book’s terms. “It is, of course, Wilde’s point that socialism interferes with sociability,” Phillips comments. Our ideologies – whether extraneous, as political or moral systems, or internalised – estrange us from our more creative and enjoyable instincts.

If Phillips sees in Wilde an ally, it is because the latter’s epicureanism made him suspicious of all enemies of pleasure, most especially self-inflicted punishment. A mistaken respect for a forbidding authority is, in Phillips’s view, the basis of conscience. He considers this problematic concept through the example of Hamlet, a character with whom Freud was also much preoccupied: “Tragedy is the cultural form in which we are trying to reveal something not about the real horror of life, but about the horror of life lived under the aegis of a certain kind of conscience.” Rather than seeking to actualise a limiting ideal that can never be realised (according to Phillips, this is the tragic norm), Hamlet is unusual in ­exploring, in his self-reproaches, alternative ways of being.

In Hamlet’s best-known soliloquy, “To be, or not to be” – a rumination with resonances as wide as the sea – we encounter the line: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” In the Second Quarto, this appears as: “Thus conscience does make cowards.” From this more open-ended version, Phillips launches a stellar exploration of the  politics of intimidation as the basis of our so-called morality.

To be moral by dint of intimidation is not to be moral at all but to be the hapless citizen of a totalitarian system. Much of our behaviour is at the behest of an inner censor, absorbed through our upbringing, whose influence is at best restrictive – a cruel clipper of wings – and at worst murderous. Guilt, Phillips wants to persuade us, is often the fearful reaction to this internalised tyrant’s disapproval, rather than a result of honest remorse. With the terrible phrase “to be ashamed of yourself”, it is worth asking, Phillips suggests, what made the self of whom one is enjoined to be ashamed.

But in Shakespeare’s day, “conscience” also meant “consciousness” – and consciousness can seem to make us cowards, not through intimidation but by exploring realms of thought that break the prevailing rules. Freud appears never to have questioned the call to revenge that Hamlet buckles under. He perceives Hamlet’s procrastination and ensuing self-criticism as no more than the displacement of violence towards his murdering uncle, never considering that Hamlet’s “conscience” may also be a disinclination to obey a dead father’s demand. If, as Hamlet suggests, “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” it may well be, as Phillips speculates, that he is attempting to hunt down and bag Claudius’s shabby morality in order to expose it on a public stage. But it may also be an attempt to engage Claudius in a more creative conversation through play (or, to be specific, a play – for Hamlet, as well as being an artist’s protégé, is an artist).

Phillips never quite spells this out but it seems the natural conclusion to his thinking. For the play that Hamlet puts on is surely an unforbidden pleasure, in striking contrast to the highly forbidden pleasure of murder. Wilde provocatively claimed that all art is immoral, but that is so only if “moral” means “doing the done thing”. It is part of Phillips’s point that the forbidden becomes enticing; in an environment of free choice, it may be naturally eschewed.

Phillips would probably demur at being described as a religious writer. Yet he is, I think, in the wider sense, because he explores seriously the great moral themes that play in the theatre of human consciousness. It is inevitable, therefore, that the Genesis myth is evoked. Why did God forbid His human creations to eat of the tree of know­ledge of good and evil? Surely, in His omniscience, He was aware that by forbidding it He was prompting the disobedience that led, in Milton’s epic words, to “all our woe”. But what if all God was doing was describing a consequence – if you do this, then that follows? Maybe the real sin of our “first parents” was in hearing a forbidden in what was only, after all, a health-and-safety warning: the foolhardy sin, as Phillips might see it, of choosing tragedy over contentment and play.

Phillips has said that what he most desires for his readers is that they be stimul­ated into new thoughts. With this supremely thought-provoking book, he roundly succeeds.

Salley Vickers is an author and former psychoanalyst. Her latest collection of short stories, “The Boy Who Could See Death”, is published by Viking

Unforbidden Pleasures by Adam Phillips is published by Hamish Hamilton (208pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war