Monday, October 25, 2021

On That Secret Radical, Jane Austen


On That Secret Radical, Jane Austen

Peter Schultz


            The following was spurred in part by a book by Helena Kelly, Jane Austen: The Secret Radical, which is a book that should be read, despite its shortcomings. But to get to it.


            Jane Austen’s radicalness is two-fold. First, she saw the flaws, the deep flaws of English society, of the English aristocracy, of the English empire. As Kelly puts it in analyzing Emma: “There are more people who are going to be forced to crime, to become like gypsies.” [234] This is the crux of Austen’s radicalness for Kelly: her keen eye for the forces of history, e.g., enclosure, that were changing English life and not for the better.


            But Kelly misses the second part of Austen’s radicalness, viz., her recognition that the world is “magical,” that it offers the possibility of romance, of deep human connections for which there are no explanations as to origin, which are mysterious, even mystical. And, hence, Austen wrote romances. Go figure.


            Kelly writes regarding Austen’s novel Persuasion: “Persuasion … challenges us to think about history not as a smooth, orderly progression, but as disrupted, random, chaotic, filled with death and destruction, invasion and revolution.” [273] So, Kelly argues on Austen’s behalf, we humans are forced to go along with “the tide of history,” despite its dangers and its violence. There is, to use one of my favorite movie titles, “no way out.”


            But Kelly’s wrong regarding Austen. Jane Austen saw and wrote about the possibility of romance, i.e., she saw and wrote about the unalterable nature of human beings, a nature that allows them to step outside of history, so to speak, by accessing what may be called “magical places.” As Kelly points out, Emma is “uncoupled from history” as ‘’the time frame for Emma makes no sense at all.” Kelly’s right about Emma, but she misses the significance of this aspect of the novel. Because the novel is uncoupled from history, it is also uncoupled from England. That is, it speaks to and about the human condition. You could call it a “fairy tale.” After all, take note of Mr. Knightley’s name, who is Emma’s lover and eventual husband and co-ruler of Hartfield. Or you could all it philosophical, an exploration of the human condition in the imaginary village of Highbury.


            Of course, those who, unlike Kelly, see Jane Austen as a conservative spokesperson also miss her radicalness. They, like Kelly, see the world as a dangerous place but unlike Kelly they turn to established institutions and traditional values for security while navigating “the tide of history.” But because Jane Austen saw the world and human nature as open to the possibilities of romance, of “magic,” she was not constrained to go with “the tide of history” or to put her faith in deeply flawed established institutions – like the English aristocracy or its navy and empire – and similarly flawed traditional values.


            Jane Austen, as an artist, as a poet, drew her strength from romance and magic, which were as real as “death and destruction, invasion and revolution,” as real as “the tide of history.” Her imagination, her senses were sufficiently sharp to access parts of our world most people miss. And one reason Jane Austen is so treasured by so many is that through her they have some access, however momentary it proves to be, to the beauty of romance and magic, to the beauty of our world.

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