A Midget in XL — The Need to Dress Down Jane Austen

Philip Larkin quite memorably captures the “burden of tradition”:

“Man hands on misery to man
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can
And don’t have any kids yourself”

Knightley as Elizabeth: Kiera Knightey in a still from the latest "Pride and Prejudice"

Knightley as Elizabeth: Kiera Knightey in a still from the latest “Pride and Prejudice”

Perhaps, one of the writers who has been largely misinterpreted – in terms of actual literary and political significance – and overrated is Jane Austen. As an early 19th century middle class female writer who addresses the middle class sensibility of her day and who rarely dares the water-tight, proto-Victorian middle class walls she has earned too much mileage courtesy of contemporary middle class scholarship. For the researcher who arbitrates on 19th century fiction, Austen has produced a corpus that calls out for legitimization – for in Austen there is a writer who has produced six published works and other scraps which has a sufficient bulk to make two careers: the researcher’s and Austen’s. There are several other female writers of Austen’s time and of times after who can then be added to this legitimized “canon” of female expression. But, Austen’s significance as a writer is by no means justified by such purposes.

In recent discourses on the subject, Austen has been elevated and fetishized as a path-breaker in nineteenth century female writing. In Sri Lanka in particular (and I suspect the fruits of wisdom parroted out here are gleaned and culled elsewhere) Austen is a predominant focus among course designers and syllabus-makers. An Advance Level syllabus without a Jane Austen text is inconceivable. She is copiously read and all kinds of “progressive” injections are inserted into her narratives – which, to be fair by the readers, are largely predictable, unexciting, limited in worldview and repetitive – making both the students and the teachers look extremely dumb. As an undergraduate and graduate student, the classes I have sat in have read and re-read Northanger Abbey and Emma, without either the mental or moral satisfaction of engaging in a book that has some substance to offer. For my Advanced Level, over a decade ago, Pride And Prejudice was a prescribed text. While admitting that among Austen’s books Pride And Prejudice is somewhat “tolerable”, my attention was detained by other more engaging texts set for the same examination: RK Narayan’s The English Teacher (by no means Narayan’s best, but a better read than Austen) and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

As a teacher, time and again I have had to work with both above texts, as well as Sense And Sensibility and Mansfield Park. While my conviction of that unalterable gap between Austen’s class, environment, worldview and preoccupations and mine only grew firmer, the wider corpus only made me see how overrated and hollow her writing in reality was. Part of our problem is we read too much into supposedly “paradigm-defining” scholars who – for the satiation of their own academic and marketing projects – make mountains out of molehills. One example that comes to mind is the relevant chapters on Austen in The Madwoman in the Attic by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Slightly dated, but by no means less contemporary in Sri Lankan study circles (published in 1979), the book deals with what the writers identify as “the woman writer and the nineteenth century literary imagination”. The writers inject a radicalism into Austen and revamp both her life and creative profile into a “phenomenon” – all based on retrospective speculation of a time 180 years before. The only satisfaction in Gilbert and Gubar is that they annotate a range of critics on Austen – mainly her contemporaries and early 20th century writers; and mainly negative commentaries – which, in an age of Austen euphoria, can be crucial for our better information.

Market Ambition creates addiction.

Market Ambition creates addiction.

Among Austen’s critics is DH Lawrence and a rabid condemnation of Austen is as a “middle class” painter of “garden scenes”. In actual reality, the corpus of Austen texts show that the writer’s views and opinions are stunted by her confinement to a middle class education and home and is merely a reinforce of patriarchal norms that she had internalized as an individual. “To marry” is her ultimate advice for the young women in her novels: but, marry “intelligently”. Her novels – canonized and elevated as they today are – read more as the early 19th predecessor of the modern cheap romance. The scandalous, good looking rake (Willoughby of Sense and Sensibility, Frank Churchill of Emma, Wickham of Pride and Prejudice), the patriarchal saviour (Brandon [S&S], Knightly [E], Darcy [P&P]), the uncouth, atypical, undesirable female figures (which cut a convenient contrast to Austen’s chosen heroine) such as Lucy Steele (S&S), the Bingley Sisters (P&P) etc become clichés and types as one runs through the light corpus. Moving from garden to garden, ball to ball, lover to lover, and in the company of narrow-ranged, domesticated company and ample smelling salts, Austen’s young women are eternally engaged in a “journey of maturity” which culminates with the following truths: (1) marry, but one who is financially and socially stable; but also with intellectual empathy, (2) do not make radical choices, (3) maintain domestic stability. On the contrary to those who radicalize her, in Austen we see a writer who is conscious of the limitations imposed on women by her early 19th century English middle class, but one who vows to “survive” the system by “improvement”, than by “radical transformation”. She is what one might call a reactionary reformist, and is hardly a visionary radical.

Today, Austen’s world is no longer tangible to the widening student population of Sri Lanka who are forced to read the mediocrity which we pass on for the “glory” of Victorian authorship. Austen’s domesticity is both an impediment and a burden for readers who – by instinct – expect something more relevant and politically resonant from their syllabus. A Sri Lankan reader of 2013 has much to gain from a translation of a Sujeewa Prasannarachchi book or a Ganga Shainy Gamage novel than a menopausal Jane Austen.