Jane Austen: Writing, Society, Politics by Tom Keymer

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Reviewed by Harriet

Today, Jane Austen is regarded as one of the most important writers in the English language, often spoken of in the same sentence as Shakespeare. It wasn’t always that way: her first attempts at publication failed, and though her popularity was growing by the time of her early death at the age of forty, it was decades before her importance was fully recognised. Even then, the widely accepted critical view was that Austen, despite having lived through a period of great social and political unrest and global conflict, somehow existed in a bubble of her own making, deliberately ignoring what was going on around her. While it is true that revolutions and wars barely get a mention in the novels, critics in the latter part of the twentieth century began to place her in relation to the prevailing ideologies of her day. Marilyn Butler’s Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975) argued for a broadly conservative Austen, while Claudia L. Johnson’s Women, Politics and the Novel (1988) offered a radical Austen, influenced by the emerging feminism of Mary Wollstonecraft and her contemporaries. Variations on these arguments have proliferated ever since.

Anyone who wonders if we really need another contribution to the debate should read Tom Keymer’s wholly convincing study, which demonstrates how acutely aware Austen was of the literary, social and political trends of her day. Neither a Burkean conservative nor a Wollstonecraftian radical, the writer who emerges from these pages is far too complex and subtle to be confined to a particular ideology. Crucially aware of the demands of the commercial market for fiction, she made sure she met them by providing heroines who negotiated society and the marriage market and succeeded in achieving the required happy endings. ‘All this was achieved, however, with unprecedented technical virtuosity, endlessly surprising comic verve, and subtle, penetrating insight into the psychology of individual characters and the dynamics of the social worlds they inhabit’. Just how aware Austen was of existing literary and social dynamics is demonstrated in the chapters that follow, each of which addresses a particular viewpoint in a specific novel.

Austen has long been recognised as a brilliant satirist, but the sharpness of her critical eye was really demonstrated for readers in the publication, in 1922, of her teenage writings. Famously, a critic in 1940 wrote of the ‘regulated hatred’ in her novels, but as Keymer writes, the hatred in the juvenilia is ‘deliciously unregulated’. Aligning her with modern views of the ‘nonsense’ writings of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll as both playful and subversive, he sees these early works as ‘texts at odds with the published novels’ allegiance to morality and truth’. The chapter in which Keymer analyses the various satirical techniques Austen uses in these early writings is a delight to read, and makes you immediately want to read, or re-read, these little gems.

‘The Terrors of Northanger Abbey’ is the title of the next chapter. Keymer puts the novel in context, pointing out that the country as a whole was in a genuine state of terror throughout the 1790s, fearing that revolution might cross the channel and turn Britain into a bloodbath. At first glance, the terrors experienced by young Catherine Morland are illusory, a result of reading too many gothic novels. But when she assumes that her host at the Abbey, General Tilney, must be a tyrant who has murdered his wife, she’s more right than she comes to realise: he is a tyrant, but a domestic rather than a murdering one. Thus gothic novels, which Austen refuses to denigrate, serve as a useful ‘metaphor of evil’ in troubled times.

At the time when Austen was working on what would become Sense and Sensibility, the uproar of controversy surrounding Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Women was in full force. As Keymer points out, Austen’s detailed account of the pecuniary and social difficulties facing the sisters and their mother shows a keen awareness of the issues raised in that book. Novels of sensibility were also all the rage at the time, and it would be easy to see the novel as a parody of the genre. But, as we saw with Northanger Abbey, Austen is too subtle and perceptive a reader to wholly condemn Marianne’s sensibility, or wholly approve Eleanor’s ‘sense’.

Keymer’s analysis of Pride and Prejudice concentrates mainly on Austen’s writing technique. The unusual amount of letters it contains suggests that it may have started life as an epistolary novel, but that genre has obvious drawbacks, and he argues that in revising it, Austen developed the technique of free indirect speech, which she is often (though not entirely accurately) credited with inventing.

Mansfield Park is almost certainly Austen’s least popular novel, but it’s received a good deal of critical attention in recent years, mainly from post-colonialist critics, who read it as both literally and metaphorically commenting on the slave-trade. It’s certainly Austen’s most serious novel, and Keymer argues that it shows a move towards conservatism on the author’s part. It’s hard to argue with this, though I part company with him on the subject of Fanny Price who, in my view, is a much more interesting heroine than people (including Keymer) give her credit for.

Emma and Englishness’ is the title of the next chapter. Dedicated, by royal request, to the Prince of Wales, who Austen despised, this is, according to Keymer, ‘her fullest exploration of the nation’s moral health and well-being’. In the novel, she celebrates the beauties of the English landscape and its small towns while simultaneously deploring the predatory materialism that threatens it social fabric. There’s an excellent discussion of ‘rank’ here, and Keymer contrasts Emma’s failure to value the farmer Robert Martin with Mr Knightley’s appreciation of his solid virtues.

Charlotte Brontë famously wrote of Austen that the passions were ‘perfectly unknown to her’. Keymer’s final chapter sets out to refute this with a discussion of Persuasion, Austen’s last completed novel. The novel is a new departure in several ways: its prolonged interest in the navy and naval heroes; its older heroine; and above all its ‘unprecedented focus on the consciousness of its heroine’. Anne moves from an initial state of gloom and despondency to an emergence into ‘joy, senseless joy!’, a conclusion which shocked contemporary critics by a ‘deplorable message, that passion should trump prudence in courtship and marriage’. According to Keymer:

Creatively, and in relation to the stifling expectations of decorum and didacticism that still constrained published fiction, the liberation won in Persuasion was also Austen’s own.

This is a hugely enjoyable book – don’t be put off by its ‘academic’ status. You may not agree with everything Keymer says here, but if you’re anything like me it will make you long to re-read Austen as soon as possible.

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Harriet is one of the Shiny editors and once had to give a different lecture on Jane Austen every day for two weeks.

Tom Keymer, Jane Austen: Writing, Society, Politics (Oxford University Press, 2020). 978-0198861904, 192pp., hardback.

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  1. Sounds marvellous Harriet – people seem so keen to pigeonhole Austen but she was obviously more savvy than anyone realised at the time. I read and reviewed her teenage writings, and they really were subverside. I must admit to being very tempted to revisit Persuasion and Northanger Abbey soon. As for your daily lectures – I’m suitably impressed!!

  2. Ooh, this sounds like a fascinating read! I’d like to do a better job of critically analyzing the books I read and I think I could learn a lot by reading more professional or academic criticism. Austen’s works are also some of the few books I’ve re-read, so I feel like I might be familiar enough with them to understand a more detailed analysis. It sounds like it could be worth reading several books on Austen to develop my own opinions though, given the differing takes of the other books on Austen that you describe here. Thanks for the helpful review!

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