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A Jane Austen after 200 years

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Jane Austen

Jane Austen, who died on July 18, 1817, was a British author whom many regard as one of the greatest novelists who have ever lived. She has been quite well-known to generations of Nigerian students because over the decades one or another of her six mature completed novels has featured as a Literature set book at School Certificate or university level.  When in the 1990s I taught at Bayero University, Kano, and had the privilege of introducing undergraduates to Price and Prejudice, which along with Emma is perhaps the most popular of the novels, one of the students, Fatima, said she loved it so much that she kept her copy under her pillow at night.

I was delighted to find that male as well as female students, the Abdullahis as well as the Fatimas, liked the novel because it is often thought that Austen appeals to women more than men. This is because each novel centres on a heroine, a young woman who eventually, in spite of obstacles, marries the man she loves; and while the heroine is positive, intelligent, and independent-minded, the hero usually comes across as rather cold, dull, and humourless. This may be counted as a weakness on the part of the author, but it is far outweighed by her many strengths, especially her powers of social observation.

For most of her life Austen lived with her parents and elder sister in a village in southern England. After another student of mine had seen my film of another one of the novels, Sense and Sensibility, she said she had wept to see how developed Britain was two hundred years ago.  She was thinking of the horse-drawn carriages and the neo-classical architecture she had seen in the film. But Britain then was largely pre-industrial, there was no running water or electricity or motor transport or any form of electronic communication (telegraphy was invented about 25 years after Austen’s death), and there was no State-funded education and no university education for women. Austen was educated mostly at home; she read the books in her father’s library; and she wrote her world-famous novels in isolation in a (sometimes) quiet corner, with no mobile phone to distract her. There is a message here for would-be novelists today.

Austen died in her forty-second year, unmarried. A distinguished biographer of hers, David Cecil, says: ‘Normal and feminine as she was in so many ways, it is unlikely that Jane Austen was without some maternal instinct. But it was not a very strong one… She did not need children to make her happy, she used to say. She added, “My books are my children”.’ Yet although she started writing as a teenager, she did not see any of her novels published until she reached her late thirties. This was due partly to the widespread hostility then to the idea of women authors, partly to the discourtesy and inefficiency of publishers.

In Britain, Austen has always had her critics as well as her admirers. Though not wealthy, her family belonged to the upper classes who then ruled the country, and her father and two of her brothers were clergymen of the Established (Anglican) Church. For many today on the ‘Left’ of the British political spectrum, who claim to champion the rights of the underprivileged, these are damning facts. The post-colonialist critic Edward Said objected to the exalted place generally accorded to her in the canon of English literature because in Mansfield Park, perhaps the most complex of her novels (though it is less known in Nigeria), the wealth of the patriarchal Sir Thomas Bertram, who is the principal symbol of traditional virtue and wisdom, is derived from a plantation in the Caribbean island of Antigua worked by African slaves.

It is often pointed out, and rightly so, that in all her novels Austen champions Christian virtues and traditional morality. But this puts her in bad odour with those who, conscious or unconscious disciples of Sigmund Freud, have since the 1960s (at least) preached the ‘gospel’ of ‘liberation’ in the area of sexual morality. Thus in Mansfield Park Fanny Price, a poor relation of the well-to-do Bertrams, marries the younger Bertram son, Edmund, who becomes a clergyman. Both Fanny and Edmund reject the urban, ‘liberal’ values represented by two visitors from London, Henry and Mary Crawford, and resist the sexual advances of the brother and sister respectively. Kingsley Amis, one of the leading British novelists of the late 20th century, regarded the novel as preaching ‘stuffy’ ‘Victorian’ values and dismissed Edmund, the hero, as a bore. It is worth remarking that the reputation of Jane Austen is likely to outlast that of Kingsley Amis, whom some might also consider to be an old… But would be uncharitable to say so.

I once fell out with a woman friend who associated Austen with all that she considered ‘repressive’ in British society of the past and considered anyone who admired her to be ‘out-of-touch’. The friend was, or claimed to be, a strong feminist. The more radical feminists tend to regard marriage as a prison for a woman, and rebel against the way in which each of Austen’s novels moves towards the union of heroine and hero, who seemingly are destined to ‘live happily ever after’. The contemporary literary novel rarely ends like that: thus in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, Obanze finally abandons his wife to go and live with his old lover of his student days, the novel’s heroine, Ifemelu. But many feminists admire Austen for the critical intelligence with which her heroines view and judge the world they live in; they regard the sense of self-reliance, and the sense of having a potential in life to develop that Elizabeth and Emma and Elinor and Anne display as having contributed to the struggle for women’s rights that grew during the 19th century and began to produce results in the 20th.

Austen’s view of marriage was not uncritical. Among the propertied classes in Britain at that time, a marriageable young woman was as it were advertised along with a sum of money, a ‘dowry’ settled on her by her father that would become her husband’s property. Thus in Sense and Sensibility reference is made to the ‘Honourable Miss Morton, with thirty thousand pounds’. Interestingly, in contrast, in many Nigerian cultures ‘bride price’ (for which the word ‘dowry’ is sometimes misleadingly used instead) is paid by a man to the bride’s family. Austen would have been sceptical of the second system as she was of the first: for her, marriage is not worth the name if it is not based on love.

Austen’s critical intelligence is manifested chiefly in satire. She is a mistress of satire at the expense of various kinds of human folly – hypocrisy, pomposity, snobbery, sycophancy, and excessive sentimentality, and we relish her exposure of these evils because they are and have always been present in every human society. In Pride and Prejudice Mr. Collins, a suitor for the hand of Elizabeth Bennett, virtually worships his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and mentions her every time he speaks. At the beginning of the same novel, Mrs. Bennett is carried away with excitement at the news that a rich young man has come to live in the neighbourhood, and immediately has him lined up for marriage to one of her girls. Shortly before this, at the very beginning of the novel, we find one of the most famous sentences in the whole of English literature, unsurpassed in its playful sententiousness: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune [i.e. a large sum of money] must be in want of a wife’.

Also in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth at first suffers from ‘prejudice’ towards Mr. Darcy because of his perceived ‘pride’, and when he proposes marriage to her she at first rejects him. Then she travels with an aunt and uncle to the north of England, and happens to see the magnificent house, Permberley, that Darcy owns.  Her feelings towards him change. When I was summarizing the plot of the book to my Kano students, a great cheer went up at this mention of the house. I knew at once that the cheer was full of irony: the students had seen a turning-point, had seen that the principled, moral Elizabeth was not above materialistic considerations.

I also then thought, and now think again, of the power of great writers to ‘speak’ to people of different cultures around the world, and to remind us all of our common humanity. Jane Austen (may her good soul rest in peace) is one who belongs to that glorious company.

•David Jowitt is Professor of English at the University of Jos 


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