Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey
Liberating Austen's Politics
The Politics of Jane Austen
By Edward Neill.
Saint Martin's Press, 1999. xiii + 175 pages.
Reviewed by Colleen A. Sheehan.
Jane Austen once remarked that "from politics, it was an easy step to silence." Despite Austen's comment as well as the plethora of scholarly criticism that asserts that Austen's novels are either apolitical or merely a reflection of her historically situated Tory views, Edward Neill, in The Politics of Jane Austen, makes a seemingly radical claim: Austen's works comprise a political text that is not fundamentally promotive of the Tory stance. Further, Austen is a "massive textual and cultural force" whose works "possess a singular charge and charm for successive generations in very different social and historical conditions."
No doubt the notion that beneath the surface of Austen's
light, bright and sparkling art one might discover a serious
inquiry into political questions is a highly controversial one.
Nonetheless, if for no other reason, this book should be welcomed
by Austen readers who are willing to consider her claim that good
novels are not mere stories without reflection. It may be
possible that an uncommonly talented author such as Austen could
engage the mind of her readers in serious questions about the
human things and at the same time charm and captivate their
hearts. Mr. Neill makes a significant contribution to Austen
scholarship when he asks us to consider that, together with the
enchanting quality and artistic accomplishment of Austen's works,
they contain serious reflection on political and ethical matters.
In essence, we are invited to reconsider the breadth of Austen's
The objective is to "liberate" Austen's texts from the "naivety" and "snobbism" of past accounts. His particular interpretation of Austen's novels is intended to subvert the traditional readings as well as the 'bastilled-for-life' ' historicist interpretations, both of which situate Austen's political views firmly within an aristocratic perspective. He treats the historicist renderings rather like Miss Taylor handles Emma's errors, offering gentle correction; in contrast, he deals with the traditional accounts (particularly that of "Sir Oracle" Roger Gard) much as Emma treats Miss Bates on Box Hill.
In Neill's view, the contemporary historicist accounts correctly conscript Austen's texts for ideological battle, but they generally fail to recognize the critical political tensions and binary oppositions at work in her discourse. He argues that rather than being vehicles for domination and power structures, or even for the advocacy of sense, reason, virtue and prudence, Austen's texts contain much of an opposite and, in fact, "destabilizing" tendency.
When he insists that Austen puts many traditional notions of aristocratic politics into question, Neill makes a strong case, and he is certainly correct to point out that in Pride and Prejudice Austen makes education and ethics, rather than mere class or wealth, the conditions of true gentility and human excellence. However, he leaves this theme of intellectual and moral excellence virtually unexplored and neglects even to consider its application to Persuasion. Would Neill have democratic societies spurn all considerations of excellence? Is there no distinction between gentlemen/ women and "brutes?" It may be helpful to envision such a society, where the vulgarity and brutishness of someone like Fanny Price's father is considered indistinguishable from the beauty and elegance of a Jane Fairfax.
Neill's disdain for the aristocratic posture that has generally been thought to characterize Austen's works, and his fear that this mien is often found charming by her readers, may have hindered his attempt to promote his liberal democratic agenda. Though some readers of Austen might be attracted simply by the pomp of Rosings or the wealth of Pemberley, many are captivated by the latter's natural beauty and the true nobility of character of its ultimate inhabitants. There appears to be no place in Neill's political and philosophic perspective for distinguishing between the low and the high, for the recognition of the idea of a "natural aristocracy" based on merit, which may in fact furnish the most devastating critique of the traditional view of aristocracy possible, as well perhaps as the only solid foundation and defense for a free and democratic society. It is ironic that in his attempt to liberate and radicalize Austen, Neill misses what Jeffrey Wallin has called "perhaps the most radical assault on traditional aristocracy ever," that is, Austen's advocacy of love as the basis for marriage. If the idea that character counts not only in friendship but in marriage were to gain force (which of course it did), the entire foundation of traditional aristocracy, which depends on the incontrovertible union of blood and wealth, would be undermined more quickly and more powerfully than any rise of a middle class could effect.
One may wonder whether in his exploration of binary oppositions and tensions in Austen's texts, Neill fails to see the underlying tension at work between the radicality of Austen's ideas and the tone of moderation she deliberately employs to convey them. But moderation is something that does not accord with the postmodern retro style favored by Neill. It entails a kind of noble subtlety that offends the egalitarian spirit. It may be, however, that the genius of Jane Austen is more subtle than the currently dominant political and philosophic perspective allows for, and that her texts do indeed possess a singular charge and charm that outlived her time and will likely outlive ours.
Colleen Sheehan is Associate Professor of Political Science at Villanova University. She is currently working on a book which explores the political and ethical thought of Jane Austen
JASNA News v.15, no. 3, Winter 1999, p. 26
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