Peter Knox-Shaw has drawn my attention to Jane Austen and ‘Modern Europe’, an article he has published in this month’s Notes & Queries (55:1, March 2008), suggesting that ‘this recent piece might help convince you!’ Now what I am to be convinced of is the topic of this article but first I have to explain what Peter is driving at.
In an introductory section of In Search of Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen and The Enlightenment, I discuss Peter’s book Jane Austen and the Enlightenment. The thesis of Peter Knox-Shaw’s book is that Austen was ‘a writer of centrist views who derives in large measure from the Enlightenment’ (p. 5). Whether I agree with this statement depends entirely on what is meant by the Enlightenment. I suspect that Peter and I would agree that Austen would see herself in these terms—I didn’t realise this until Peter sent me his article—so far he has succeeded.
However, Jane Austen’s idea of what it means to be an Enlightenment writer would be quite different from, as many would have us believe today, of signing up to David Hume’s project of subverting the ‘vulgar philosophies’ to make for a new post-Christian, rationalist philosophical order. I don’t think Austen or her family would agree with this at all and Peter Knox-Shaw’s recent Jane Austen and ‘Modern Europe’ article provides evidence for this assertion.
Peter Knox-Shaw makes a strong case that a reference to ‘Modern Europe’ in an 1813 Austen letter (Austen (1995), no. 89, 23-24 Sept.), previously assumed to refer to one book, was in fact referring to quite a different book. This is relevant for it would mean that the book Austen was reading with her niece was the one that James Austen had hailed in The Loiterer in 1789 as ‘the author of one of the best histories that this age has produced’: The History of Modern Europe (1779) by William Russell (1741-93). That this book was a firm favourite for the Austens is significant for Peter Knox-Shaw’s thesis because it finishes with a tribute to Enlightenment writers, Hume prominent among them, and Hume is admired not just for his History, but for his speculative inquiries. Peter Knox-Shaw quotes from the 1784 edition of Modern Europe:
It was not till near the middle of the present century, that philosophy began to turn its views immediately towards the interests or the embellishments of society: and Hume and Montesquieu, Helvetius and Raynal, are no less distinguished by the boldness of their speculative opinions, than by the utility of their practical inquiries. They have been followed, or accompanied, in what regards human life at least, by Smith, Ferguson, Lord Kames, and other eminent writers, who do honour to the reign of George III.
So we have good evidence to believe that the Austen clan promoted and studied throughout the revolutionary and Napoleonic period of 1789-1913 (at least), a book that paid handsome tribute to the speculative endeavours of Hume and the other luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment. QED.
However it is worth looking at just why Russell approved of Hume’s speculations. In the 1802 edition he said ‘this great man, who has carried human reasoning to the utmost point of perfection, has endeavoured, by sceptical doubts, to destroy the certainty of all reasoning, and to undermine both the foundation of both natural and revealed religion’ (p. 450). Russell then explains how this lead to a healthy re-evaluation, the net effect being renewal: ‘these rude attacks have only served more firmly to establish true religion’ (p. 452).
We could learn much from Russell’s enlightened relationship to the speculative endeavours of the great men of the Enlightenment, an outlook quite in tune with Austen’s endeavours to renew and fuse the old Christian, classical order with the new.