Jane Austen: Did She Have a Politics?
Below you will find a link to a most interesting article on Jane Austen, entitled “How Jane Austen’s Emma Changed the Face of Fiction.” Although it is not primarily or even marginally about Austen’s politics, the author makes the claim that “It [Emma] was not revolutionary because of any intellectual or political content.” And this is a claim that needs, I think, to be disputed and for the following reasons.
Jane Austen, in Emma and her other novels, wrote about British humans. And the question is: How could she do that without writing about politics? She could do that only if human beings are understood as being uninfluenced by politics – which is of course absurd if you think about it for a few minutes.
Humans in Britain are, emphatically, British, as well as being, emphatically, human. And humans are, emphatically, passionate and those passions are “schooled,” “tamed,” “refined,” or “manipulated” by political or social arrangements, by the kinds of societies we humans inhabit. And these societies don’t just grow or haven’t just grown; they have been constructed. They are the products of human activity, are human artifacts; they are human projects, ongoing, for better or worse.
Some societies seek to “tame” or “school” the human passions, to elevate or refine them. Others seek only to manipulate these passions, usually by relying on one passion primarily – e.g. fear, ala’ Hobbes et. al. – and/or by playing passions off against one another. For example, fear is used to control ambition or pride. Or as James Madison wrote in the Federalist: Ambition should be made to counteract ambition because, well, because genuine virtue is exceedingly rare and, hence, unreliable. [Federalist #51] Relying on genuine virtue is like relying on angels to govern men, or so Madison indicates in that essay.
Jane Austen knew and illustrated a society, a regime, that sought to manipulate the passions, as is illustrated by Emma and her quest to arrange marriages by virtue of what she took to be subtle manipulations of the passions of certain individuals. Like Emma, these societies seek to manipulate the passions, to direct them in ways that would be “safe.” Austen also knew and illustrated the limitations of such a society, which is why her heroines are almost always less than satisfying, including Emma, and her men almost always lack generosity, i.e., capacious souls. That “romance” in Austen is, well, not so romantic is a reflection of the limitations of British society and, perhaps, of modern societies in the Western tradition, thereby illuminating Freud’s argument about Civilization and Its Discontents.
One cannot help thinking, when finishing one of Austen’s allegedly “romantic novels”: Is that all there is? Is that what romance comes down to, a marriage between Emma and Mr. Knightley, or between Mr. and Mrs. Elton, or between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax? Ah, but that might be all there is to romance in the modern and post-modern ages. If it were so, it would be a situation worth thinking about. And at least, apparently, Jane Austen thought so.