By Freya Johnston

ISBN 978-0-691-19800-2  Princeton £28

 Reviewed by Alan Dent


            Austen inhabited and wrote about a very restricted world, the “two inches of ivory” and “three or four families”. Her times were tumultuous. In 1770 the population of Britain was 8.3 million, by 1811, 12.1. Austen was an educated and very bright woman. That wasn’t the kind of change she’d have been unaware of.  In 1770 50,000 pieces of cotton were produced, by 1800 400,000. In 1770 there were 2,000 workhouses containing 100,000 people, Begging was rife, as were varied street activities to raise enough for a bed and a meal. In 1773 Harry’s List of Covent Garden Ladies was published, a man of pleasure’s guide to the prostitutes of the area. The Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) cost Britain £1,650,000,000. She was a clergyman’s daughter who lived a good portion of her life in Steventon and Chawton, away from the bustle and excitement of the town. All the same, she was well-read in eighteenth century literature and made it her business to poke fun at the sentimental novels of writers like Scott. Ironically her favourite novel was Richardson’s The History of Sir Charles Grandison. Richardson is as guilty of the sins of the sentimental novel as anyone. It’s a commonplace that she straddles the distance between the exaggerations and extravagances of the novel of sentiment and the great practitioners of realism of the nineteenth century, George Eliot chief amongst them. Why didn’t she write of wider social events? Essentially because the novel of her time didn’t permit it. There was no room for what fell outside the experience of the educated, and that was a small minority. Austen was working at a time when to depict a broad social canvas would have been unseemly. She had no model and to move beyond what was acceptable would have been to ensure remaining unpublished.            

            Writing about the narrow world she knew gave her the chance to exercise her irony and wit. One of the difficulties of reading her today is that without being familiar with what she was reacting against, some of her force is lost. It’s easy for her to seem somewhat dated and stuffy. Joe Orton liked her Juvenilia. He recognised a kindred spirit. Johnston, unfortunately, doesn’t mention his admiration. What she’s interested in is continuity, the idea that there is no radical disjuncture  between the teenage works, which are cocky, subversive, somewhat farcical and the more restrained later works on which her reputation rests.

            This is a study for the Austen specialist. Its detail is extraordinary. Readers who don’t know the novels well will find some of the references by-passing them. There is also much discussion of the literature of the time, most of it fascinating. There are six chapters including Dying with Laughter, which pays due attention to Austen’s skill as a comic writer. Her comedy is very low-key. It is dry to the point of drought. Sir Walter reading the Baronetage at the start of Persuasion, for example. The comedy relies on the reader being able to respond to small signs. We have grown used to vulgar and layered on humour which leaves little to our imaginations. Austen is too subtle for that kind of response.            

            The final chapter is The Village and the Universe. The “universally” of the first paragraph of Pride and Prejudice does a great deal of work. Johnston makes a good case for Austen’s insistence on limits. Her resistance to claims of universality comes from a recognition of the tendency to project what applies to the particular onto the global. Johnston points out the prevalence of the notion of universal truths in publications of the 1780s and 1790s, the time when Austen was cutting her teeth as a writer. Edmund Burke dismissed the notion  that democracy is “the only tolerable form into which humanity can be thrown” by characterising it as “universally acknowledged” in 1790. The question this raises is whether Austen, like Burke, was a reactionary. Did she fail to recognise that universality does have validity? Breathe in and out of a paper bag for long enough and you’ll faint. There are no exceptions. Language is a universal faculty. Everyone is linguistic whether they like it or not. Burke’s sneering at the supposedly universal acceptance of democracy (in 1790 it was far from universally welcomed) is employed to defend the principle of power in the hands of the wealthy. Is Austen engaged in the same effort or is it a question of the exorbitant egotism of Marianne Dashwood who declares herself “universally ill”? Ill, that is, in every part of her, but with the overtone that her disposition is of unlimited importance? “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure” Austen writes in Emma. Here, she seems to be in accord with Hume in his recognition of the limits of human understanding. It’s too easy to write Austen off as a reactionary. Her use of universality for mockery is radical: a way of undermining egocentricity and the failure to notice the needs and rights of others. Austen is among the greatest of English novelists in her capacity for astute mockery of pretention and lack of self-awareness. Had she lived a century later, with the example of Eliot and others behind her, she might have painted on a far wider canvas and escaped the too ready depiction of her as “a narrow-gutted spinster” as Bert Lawrence rather cruelly put it.  

She admired Mary Queen of Scots and disdained Elizabeth I. A not uncommon preference given Mary’s imprisonment and execution and Elizabeth’s administration’s capacity for spying and machination. Does it reveal a sympathy for the victim and a criticism of the powerful? Perhaps to some degree. She also showed animosity to the Whigs and at least an implied sympathy for the Tories which suggests the opposite. She was of her time and its unfair to judge her by standards she knew nothing of, but it’s worth asking whether the toning down of her unruly early work was not simply a matter of artistic maturity but also political calculation. 

Sam Beckett called her “the divine Jane” but he recognised, as many have, that the ending of Sense and Sensibility is a mess. A reminder that even the most fastidious writers can sometimes lose their touch.  

For anyone who has read the novels and has an interest in Austen or the period, this is an excellent read. Its cascade of references is terrific. As a reference book it is indispensable. The essential argument is well made but it is the supporting evidence which makes this study so riveting.