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In the Pride of the Moment: Encounters in Jane Austen's World.

Professor Sulloway claims that teachers of English literature will assign to their students 'snippets from Fielding, Swift, Pope, Smollett, or Sterne to represent the great English age of satire, while ignoring Behn, Burney, Edgeworth, or Austen' (p. xiv); believing presumably that Jane Austen's status would be enhanced by the dubious honour of having her works thus snippetized, Sulloway argues that 'Austen's satirical purposes may have been so oblique that they have not been recognized for close to two centuries, but when she satirized male privileges and female disenfranchisements, her purposes were as insurrectionary as those of Mary Wollstonecraft ... only now have a few readers begun to recognize the explosive qualities embedded in her fiction' (pp. xvi, xvii). She then discusses a selection of some twenty conduct-books and works by eighteenth-century feminists, laying particular stress upon Mary Astell's A Serious Proposal to the Ladies and Some Reflections upon Marriage--without acknowledging the infusion of Astellian ideas in Austen's fiction . . . readers are in danger of misreading Austen's novels at every turn' (p. 61).

It may be that Jane Austen did read many of the books Professor Sulloway has used, but that she could have come across Astell's works seems highly unlikely. According to the British Library catalogue, the last edition of A Serious Proposal was in 1696, and that of Some Reflections in 1706; where would JA have found these books a century later?--neither Steventon Rectory nor Godmersham Park was an ancestral home with a library accumulated over generations. The only books from Sulloway's list which can be identified definitely as having been read by JA are Fordyce's Sermons to Young Women and Gisborne's An Enquiry into the Duties of the Female Sex--concerning the latter, indeed, Jane specifically told Cassandra: '... I am pleased with it, and I had quite determined not to read it.' She had certainly read something by or about Godwin and his circle, and disapproved of their views, since she wrote of a Bath acquaintance:'He |Mr Pickford~ is as raffish in his appearance as I would wish every Disciple of Godwin to be.' Likewise, she had read something of Elizabeth Hamilton's works, and was mildly flattered that readers in Cheltenham in 1813 ascribed Sense and Sensibility to this established authoress--'It is pleasant to have such a respectable Writer named.'(1)

However, it seems that Professor Sulloway has not read Dr Chapman's article 'Jane Austen's Friend Mrs. Barrett';(2) for this younger woman, who knew JA in her Chawton period, remembered years later: 'I think I see her now defending what she thought was the real province of a delineator of life and manners, and declaring her belief that example and not "direct preaching" was all that a novelist could afford properly to exhibit.' It is evident from this that Jane Austen intended her books to be clear reflections of the society she lived in--mirrors that were neither distorting nor tinted with grey or rosy shades--rather than subversive timebombs so heavily disguised as to pass unrecognized by any of her contemporary reviewers or readers. She described, as she saw them, negative and positive aspects of relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers growing towards unity, and single men and women, and left it to her discerning readers--those who had a 'great deal of ingenuity themselves'--to consider which aspects made for the betterment of society: '... I leave it to be settled by whomsoever it may concern, whether the tendency of this work be altogether to recommend parental tyranny, or reward filial disobedience.'(3)

It is a pity that Professor Sulloway was unable to find any reliable modern biography of Jane Austen when planning her own work, because the inadequacy of her information in this respect, plus some odd misconstructions of available facts (pp. 101, 139, 142-3), negate many of her statements and hypotheses, particularly in respect to Chapters 3 and 5--'The Author's Province' and 'Dancing and Marriage'. For example, Mr Austen did not choose his son Henry to be the new baby Jane's 'male mentor' (p. 87), nor did he neglect or refuse to provide his daughters with dowries, seasons in London society, and balls at Steventon Rectory (pp. 16-18, 141); in the first instance, he was quite simply commenting on the physical likeness between his children, and in the second, his income was too limited and the Rectory too small. Despite these latter social drawbacks, Cassandra Austen did succeed in becoming engaged--as Sulloway rather surprisedly admits--and it was not 'custom' which prevented her immediate marriage to the Revd Tom Fowle (pp. 17-18), but the plain economic fact that Tom could not yet afford to keep a wife and children--a situation which Mrs Jennings at least thoroughly understands.(4) However, Professor Sulloway's most surprising omission in her consideration of JA's life is the well-known fact that in 1802 Jane accepted Harris Bigg-Wither's proposal of marriage, only to withdraw her consent the next day; it was therefore her own choice to remain a relatively impoverished spinster rather than become a wife and the mistress of a large country estate.(5) This, if anything, should have warranted informed discussion.

One book which Professor Sulloway does not mention is Hannah More's Coelebs in Search of a Wife; upon this Jane Austen commented: '... in |the name of~ Coelebs, there is pedantry & affectation.--Is it written only to Classical Scholars?'(6) Professor Dussinger's work--which seems rather to be the product of a committee writing on his behalf (p. xi)--is yet another of the 'volumes of hermeneutics' that have proliferated in recent years and which Jane Austen would certainly not have anticipated (p. 167)--let alone, in all probability, desired or admired. It is basically a discussion of the construction of Emma (pp. 2-3, 12, 185), but is unfortunately so over-written in the polysyllabic academic jargon, replete with classically based neologisms, of linguistics and psychoanalysis, that its theme nearly becomes lost in the jungle of verbiage. The book may perhaps be quoted in the future by those academics who earn a precarious living taking in each other's washing, but it is unlikely to be of any assistance to Professor Dussinger's students.

1 Jane Austen's Letters, ed. R.W. Chapman (Oxford, 1964), 169, 133, 372.

2 R.W. Chapman, 'Jane Austen's Friend Mrs. Barrett', Nineteenth Century Fiction, 4/3 (Dec. 1949), 171-4; see also W. & R.A. Austen-Leigh, rev. and enlarged by Deirdre Le Faye, Jane Austen: A Family Record (London, 1989), 209-10.

3 Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford, 1965), 252.

4 Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford, 1967), 276.

5 JA: A Family Record, 121-2.

6 Letters, 259.
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Author:Le Faye, Deirdre
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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