David Baddiel has an interesting take on both Jane Austen and the way she is being depicted in bioepics, slyly suggesting that they may have it about right for popular children’s entertainment, making a refreshingly bold case for her merit that avoids the usual apologetics and condescension.
Because here’s the thing about Jane Austen. She was a very great genius. She is possibly the greatest genius in the history of English literature, arguably greater than Shakespeare. And her achievement is not that much to do with love, although that was her subject matter. It’s to do with technique. Before her there are three strands in English fiction: the somewhat mental, directly-reader-addressing semi-oral romps of Nashe and Sterne and Fielding; the sensationalist Gothic work of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe; and the romances of Eliza Haywood and Fanny Burney.
However great these writers are, none could be read now and considered modern. When Austen gets into her stride, which she does very quickly with Sense and Sensibility, suddenly, you have all the key modern realist devices: ironic narration; controlled point of view; structural unity; transparency of focus; ensemble characterisation; fixed arenas of time and place; and, most importantly, the giving-up of the fantastical in favour of a notion that art should represent life as it is actually lived in all its wonderful ordinariness. She is the first person, as John Updike put it: “to give the mundane its beautiful due”, and her work leads to Updike as much as it does to George Eliot.
I have no idea how a mainly home-educated rector’s daughter came by all that, but I know that imagining her as a kind of acerbic spinster flattens out this genius. It becomes all about the subject matter and not at all about the huge creative advance her work represents.
And Ellen Moody responds on Austen-L:
By the way I think Baddiel overstates: great as I think Austen is in her realm, her realm is a far narrower one than Shakespeare’s; she is much less varied, and alas she did die young and never got a chance to write anywhere near as much as he; nor anything like the sonnets.
Of course Ellen’s response is the orthodox one, though there is a strong critical strand of thinking (generally associated with Lascelles), that I agree with, that says the ‘narrowness’ of her material is her strength, and those that take this view won’t agree with it being presented as an unqualified weakness. In this view, Shakespeare’s weakness was his inability to dramatise within the middle-range domestic arena that would have made his work truly great, and so we find ourselves gallivanting all over the Mediterranean and into classical times in pursuit of drama and a spurious and somewhat faux illusion of depth. The depth of Shakespeare is real enough, of course, it is just doesn’t lie in spreading himself around like this.
If you find that assessment of Shakespeare ludicrous (but I would say there is some truth in it) then you will begin to understand why idea that Austen was as limited as her arena doesn’t make sense to some critics.
As for the sonnets, I would say that Austen’s romantic critique are an important complement to the sonnets. It makes no sense for her to do a me-to. While we have no sonnets from Austen we don’t have any letters from Shakespeare either.
Against the poetry of Shakespeare we have the philosophy of Austen. Not content with synthesizing the great eighteenth century novelists into the modern novel she also criticized the modern romantic philosophy that emerged from the eighteenth century philosophers, cutting against the sentimentalism of Hume as much as the formalism of Kant. The significance of Austen is that she was rooted in the classical while creating the modern; her mastery of both makes her nearly unique.