The politics of Jane Austen

When I decided to start this blog, as I’ve said many times, I wanted to thrust Jane into the light of the pop culture that she is — but along with pop culture, there must also be politics — you cannot have one without the other. (See current US president and UK prime minister.)

When research began on books and things on Jane at Amazon and around the internet, I knew from previous research endeavours there would be almost too much to handle. Over 400 items on my wish list alone and I have not even gotten touched the tip of the ice berg.

There were two books that kept popping up as I searched, The Politics of Jane Austen by E. McNeil and Jane Austen, the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly. Now here’s the twist: Both books claim, using her work and papers, our Jane was a conservative (McNeil) and a progressive (Kelly). I suppose Jane could be both — her skewering of her contemporaries and her suggestion, no pushing!, of changes could be seen as progressive while the end results of the books — everyone gets bloody married and realizes those women’s fates — could be seen as conservative.

But can she really be both?

In Bharat Tandon’s review of Jane Austen, the Secret Radical in The Spectator, Tandon observes in the very first paragraph that Kelly’s work is,  “…ambitiously revisionist new study of Austen — a study that is by turns illuminating, provocative and infuriating.”  Which, hello!, there is always going to be varying opinions on someone’s work depending on their lens as they study the work. That’s why such studies exist in the humanities.  (It also makes for good conversation at academic conferences and perpetuates fake academic  rivalries.)

(However, we cannot apply this same logic to hard sciences where we need the studies to agree on whatever they are studying so our direction in health and so on can be taken care of!)

Once you get past the pretentious 10 dollar words and overbearing sentence structures, it is easy to come to the meat of Tandon’s argument on why they find the book to be so “infuriating.” It seems Kelly is writing for the general populace, which is clear by two accounts: One the price (see footnote below how I come to this conclusion)1 and two, the summary is written in plain and conversational language while McNeil’s and Tandon’s own book (Jane Austen and the Morality of Conversation) are geared for academics, also verified by price, and the language is more than likely going to be dry and boring.  So Kelly bad and McNeil good.

(I also refer to such academic texts such as McNeil’s and Tandon’s as mental masturbation because it is not so much “Hey, this is what I think, let’s discuss” but more of “Hey, this is what I did, let me preen about my brilliance.”  Also! Morality of Conversation is not something I could see as being the hot topic as a book group unless a bottle of alcohol was involved.)

So was Jane radical or conservative? As in any research area, there is always going to be dissenting opinions and I disagree with Tandon’s ideas that those who love Jane are necessarily so by the general ideas of her rather than the actual independent thought of her work.

Kelly’s obvious culprits are the agents of the Austen industry, that heritage-industrial complex which transfigures radical art into tea towels and novelty mugs, but it is not obvious how her grievance is only a modern one.

As I have not read Kelly’s work (or McNeil’s or Tandon’s for that matter), my opinion is one of gloss. However, I have requested an advanced reader’s copy from Kelly’s publisher to review and at some point, I’ll read the other two esteemed authors works and also draw my own opinion from them as well.

So there.

1. If you have attended college or worked in academia, one of the biggest complaints is the cost of books. Why? As the readership for such tomes is going to be significantly smaller than say a copy of Harry Potter, the publishing companies have to come up with a way to recoup the costs. This also ties in with authors of such great works are paid very little, again due to a small readership. Insofar as the language, newspapers like New York Times and Washington Post have the comprehension level of those in their final year of high school / beginning college while papers such as USA Today have the comprehension guides of those in middle school. Again, what audience they are striving for. Most academic books are typically written for those close to graduating from a four year or in grad school and are meant as more as companion or research texts since many of these titles are just bound copies of dissertations. None of this is to install if you do not fit the model of what these papers and writers are looking for and can understand the contents but it is to point out who exactly the type of readership being sought.