Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Sympathy and mockery; or Jane Austen's meanness

The line "What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?" in Middlemarch reminds me of the line "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?" from Pride and Prejudice
This is an interesting essay by Sarah Emsley about Jane Austen and the problem of charity: 
"Everybody's dear Jane" being uncharitable/ unfeeling/ mean/ cruel/ insensitive/ intolerant, etc. 
How can I defend her? I find her detached, and do notice some traces of meanness here and there in her works. I remember Nabokov's remark in his lecture that the deaths in Mansfield Park are functional deaths and no character dies in the arms of the author (which, if I'm not mistaken, is true for other novels too). I remember Woolf's comment that it seems like some characters are there only to give Jane Austen the pleasure of chopping their heads off. Whilst I remain firm in the opinion that she's superior to George Eliot as an artist, it's also true that George Eliot makes me aware of Jane Austen's smallness, in many senses of the word. The author of Middlemarch has a larger heart, deeper sensibilities. Some people find Flaubert cold and misanthropic but I can feel the deep sadness and hear Flaubert's sighs of resignation in Madame Bovary and Sentimental Education; some people criticise Nabokov for being icy and distant but Pnin is heartbreaking and Lolita made me want to cry for Dolores Haze; it is Jane Austen that is truly cold and detached and sometimes even harsh and unkind.
And yet her novels are about virtues, self-understanding, self-improvement. 
That woman is a bundle of contradictions. 

1 comment:

  1. I've suspected some time that great authors are a bunch of contradictions. But seriously, the sort of objective reason Jane Austen has, in predicting situations, needs a great deal of detachment. And one of the side effects is cruelty and mockery, for that trait tends to be associated with logic and a sense of the ridiculous. Jane Austen is also narrow, but then arguably to be a classic classic and enjoyed by all sorts you cannot be too broad and enlightened. Clever and perceptive, yes, and a way of tapping into the universal factor that unites readers, but to be too clever like Eliot will drive away readers.

    Eliot has more heart and that is one of the reasons I feel more for her than Jane Austen. Austen tries to keep her judgement out of her books, and because she's a good artist she often toes the line. But inside her she's judging you, analysing you, and she knows she's right and won't budge much of the time. On the other hand Eliot is more inclined to question and doubt her own conclusions, being an intellectual who tries to be impartial and sympathetic. Even when she judges she is striving to be sympathetic. This is the opposite of Jane Austen, who does not overtly judge but is unsympathetic. Good writers often have an antagonist force that counters what comes naturally to them to make things sound balanced. In Austen's case she had a droll wit and a love of society as a young girl, and her judgements are made more in humour than the young George Eliot's spleen. There is less overt judgementalism to counter, though it is still in her. As she grew older she came to realise how superficial her wit was, and became graver and more moralistic. That is why late Jane Austen is more judgemental on morals than early Austen (which judges behaviour rather than ethics) and late Eliot is more sympathetic than early Eliot. Jane Austen had to counter her sense of the ridiculous, which in its humour is less obtrusive than George Eliot's simmering sense of unfairness of the world.

    In Eliot's case we have a more interesting scenario, surprisingly. In her teens or early twenties she was an Evangelical, and judgemental of society and pretty vain girls in general. Eventually she became more sceptical, and got out of it, but I sense that in her effort to get out of her religious fanaticism, she may have developed sympathy to understand people unlike her whom she disagreed with. Eliot is naturally judgemental but is restraining herself with careful analysis and sympathy.

    Austen's and Eliot's judgement also tells us a lot about ourselves. We are more inclined to scorn people who act out of protocol and fashion than people who are immoral. Or rather well-meaning people who bumble along are laughed at rather than interesting immoral people. Thus to us Austen's judgement is closer to second nature, whereas Eliot's judgement seems tedious and over-wrought. Austen probably tapped closer into the common mind of the reader than Eliot did.