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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How that deleted lesbian scene in Love Actually should have gone

If the film was made in a more utopian 2003, this is what it would have looked like.

Here are some things that “haven’t” made me cry in recent days: “She’s The One” by Robbie Williams coming on the radio in a 3am Uber; my cat farting on my boob; the deleted lesbian storyline in Love Actually. No, the recently unearthed segment of the schmaltziest film of an entire decade in which the resplendent Frances de la Tour plays the terminally ill partner of a “stern headmistress” with a marshmallow interior (Anne Reid) most definitely did not make me sob like someone’s recently divorced uncle spending Christmas Day in a Wetherspoons.

The posh older lesbian archetype, it turns out, is something I find quite affecting. Reid and de la Tour play one of those couples who have (probably…) overcome so many obstacles in order to be lesbians together. Poshness. Being at an all-girls boarding school in which lesbianism was simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. More poshness. Section 28. Gazing longingly at each other while one tinkles Chopin’s Nocturnes on a dilapidated piano, in a crumbling stately home, and the other sips brandy from a chipped crystal tumbler; both daring not taste the forbidden fruit of the poetess Sappho, etc, etc. Radclyffe Hall. Horses. Poor hygiene.

Unfortunately, seeing as Love Actually was released in 2003 – roughly a decade before people began pretending to care about lesbians – Richard Curtis was forced to cut the one genuinely moving plotline (which actually contains none of the above, but I think heavily implies it) from his cinematic ode to bollocks. But perhaps, had the only non-hetero, non-fucking annoying couple been less of an afterthought and more, say, utterly crucial to the narrative, things could’ve been different. Here’s how, in a more utopian 2003, that might have been achieved:

Maggie Smith and Judi Dench (seriously, how did these women get away with not being in Love Actually in the first place?) are militant communists. Judi Dench is a sculptor who used to drink schnapps with Ulrike Meinhof. In the 1980s, she moved to Cuba and became a professional recluse. Maggie Smith, on the other hand, is someone’s spinster great aunt. It doesn’t really matter whose but, for the sake of argument, let’s say that ginger guy who used to be in My Family and those BT ads. (Just a reminder, his actual character in Love Actually is the one whose entire personality is being a bit of a sexist virgin and having an English accent which eventually gets him laid by several American women.)

Anyway, Maggie Smith’s character, let’s call her Edith, has spent her whole life being both a secret lesbian and a secret communist. On holiday in Cuba, she bumps into Judi Dench’s character, let’s call her Annie, and they hook up. Graphically and repeatedly. And, before I’m accused of deus ex machina laziness, please be reminded that this is Love freaking Actually.

Edith and Annie decide that because they’re quite old and don’t care any more, they’re going to go back to London and assassinate the terrible Hugh Grant prime minister. Through yet more hilarious deus ex machina, they manage to sneak into No 10 late at night, with handguns. Hugh Grant is all, “Blimey, who are you.” Edith is all, “your worst nightmare, bitch”. Bear in mind the audience is now shitting itself laughing because an old posh lady just talked all gangster. Then Annie pistol whips him and he passes out in the most Hugh Grant way possible ie he says, “oh dear,” then hits the floor like an untalented, floppy haired douche. When he comes to, he’s tied to a chair in his office. At this point he remembers that he was supposed to turn up at Tiffany from EastEnders’s house and declare his love for her. He begs Annie and Edith to let him phone her. “As it’s Christmas”, they decide to let the fucker do one last really corny thing before he dies. There are no bodyguards or anything, by the way. Remember, this is a film in which – post-9/11 – a child (albeit a white one) runs through airport security and isn’t shot 17 times in the head.

So, the PM phones up Tiffany from EastEnders and says, “Look. I… there’s something I wanted to tell you. And I was planning on doing it in person but …gosh this is all so terribly inconvenient… I’m being held hostage by lesbian communists. I do hope you can forgive me.”

After some more “frightfully English” bumbling crap, Edith puts her gun to Hugh Grant’s head and pulls the trigger. Her and Annie then make out for like seven minutes. Eventually, a cockney policeman played by Timothy Spall shows up and decides to let the two women off, again, “as it’s Christmas.” Also, he mentions, “No one liked that tosser anyway.”

“She’s the One” by Robbie Willams begins to play.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.