George Justice, Editor

Re-reading Johnson on Austen 
Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel

By Claudia L. Johnson.
University of Chicago Press, 1988. xv + 186 pages.
Paperback. $14.00.

Reviewed by Devoney Looser.

In her remarks on Persuasion, Claudia L. Johnson writes about that novel’s reflections on “the inconjurable difference time makes.” On the 15th anniversary of the publication of Johnson’s Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel, however, it seems the opposite is true. It is striking how little difference the passage of time has made in judgments of the freshness, brilliance, and importance of Johnson’s study. Hers was almost immediately hailed by Nina Auerbach as “the best (and the best written) book about Austen that has appeared in the last three decades.” Another decade and a half of Austen criticism has done little to challenge that distinction. Re-reading the book is not unlike re-reading Austen’s novels themselves: a pure delight, offering opportunities for new discoveries and insights at every turn.

The scholarly contribution of Johnson’s work is threefold. It carefully places Austen’s novels in political, cultural, and literary history, particularly that of the 1790s. It considers Austen’s sex as a “crucially significant factor” for analysis, and it produces nuanced and compelling close readings of Austen’s major fiction. Johnson argues that “Austen was able not to depoliticize her work—for the political implications of her work is implicit in the subject matter itself—but rather to depolemicize it.”

Throughout her study, Johnson compares Austen to conservative, anti-Jacobin novelists such as Jane West, Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, Eaton Stannard Barrett, as well as to progressive novelists, including Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Hays, Charlotte Smith, William Godwin, and Thomas Holcroft, and the more difficult to pigeonhole Amelia Opie and Frances Burney. (For those who seek to understand more about the fiction written during Austen’s day, Johnson’s book provides a rich list of titles for further reading.) The conservative novelists, as Johnson argues, “idealize authority per se” in the wake of the French Revolution, especially endorsing female subordination. The progressive novelists did the opposite. It is with these reform-minded authors that Johnson groups Austen. As Johnson argues, “Austen may slacken the desperate tempos employed by her more strenuously politicized counterparts, but she shares their artistic strategies and their commitment to uncovering the ideological underpinnings of cultural myths.”

In her persuasive chapter on Northanger Abbey, Johnson cautions us not to take Henry Tilney or Catherine Morland as surrogates for the author. Johnson shows the ways in which Northanger Abbey appropriates the gothic in a “distinctively progressive way,” by “depicting guardians of national, domestic, and even religious authority as socially destabilizing figures.” That novel is said to consider “the authority of men and books, women’s books in particular, and [suggest] how the latter can illuminate and even resist the former.”

The arguments in the following chapter on Sense and Sensibility may still surprise readers today. Johnson finds Sense and Sensibility  the “most attuned to progressive social criticism” among Austen’s novels. The conservatives, Johnson reminds us, “met the threat posed by the revolution in France and the voices of reform in England by reasserting the political momentousness of the family.” In Sense and Sensibility, however, “the family tends to be the locus of venal and idle habits,” from the Palmers, to the Middletons, to the Dashwoods and the Ferrars. Johnson illustrates the ways in which supposed male protectors fail and in which the love of money is the primary vice, leading to a “relentlessly harsh satire on contemporary marriage.” As Johnson argues, “Sense and Sensibility  has always been Austen’s least beloved novel, and it has never been allowed its full weight in Austen’s canon. But once its force is acknowledged, Austen’s oeuvre looks very different.”

In contrast, Pride and Prejudice appears “profoundly conciliatory” in that it affirms established social arrangements. Nevertheless, the novel as Johnson shows it to us obstructs wishes to walk away from it with a “tidy moral.” Almost every argument in the novel provokes a “built-in countervailing argument.” Johnson uses the work of Samuel Johnson as a touchstone in this chapter, demonstrating the ways in which Austen works with concepts of personal happiness and responsibility. Claudia Johnson concludes, “In Pride and Prejudice alone, Austen consents to conservative myths, but only in order to possess them and to ameliorate them from within, so that the institutions they vindicate can bring about, rather than inhibit, the expansion and the fulfillment of happiness.”

Johnson’s chapter on Mansfield Park should make even those of us who find it to be our least favorite of the novels ready to return to it with new eyes. Johnson discovers Mansfield Park  to be Austen’s “most, rather than her least, ironic novel and a bitter parody of conservative fiction,” as she “turns conservative myth sour.” This is done by exploring what Johnson calls the sinister aspects of benevolence (most notably through an examination of Sir Thomas) and the burden of gratitude placed on recipients. As Johnson shows, “Mansfield Park  runs smooth only so long as female dissent can be presumed not to exist.” The end of the novel appears to “let conservative ideologues have it their way,” Johnson acknowledges, but only by obliging them to “discredit themselves with their own voices.”

The final chapters, on Emma and Persuasion, begin by questioning the ways in which the critical tradition has characterized them. Johnson shows that Emma’s heroine has offended the sexual sensibilities of many of her critics and that biographical readings have skewed how we read Persuasion. The chapter on Emma investigates women and power and finds that, unlike many models of conservative fiction, “Here choosy men prefer saucy women.” For its part, Persuasion, because it features an older heroine, allows Austen to explore female independence without the implication of youthful impertinence. The chapter includes, among many other interpretive treasures, a fascinating discussion of Captain Wentworth’s and Mrs. Croft’s views on women.

Johnson’s arguments are so well supported and beautifully rendered that they now seem self-evident, though as she demonstrates, scholarship on Austen has not always been thus. Johnson argues that Austen is “among the least doctrinaire of all her contemporaries” and that she “from the outset took on the materials which political controversy endowed with importance, without inviting or aggravating partisan impulses.” Austen, Johnson writes, “defended and enlarged a progressive middle ground that had been eaten away by the polarizing polemics born of the 1790s.” For its part, perhaps Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel has done something similar in the field of Austen studies. At a time when arguments about her engaged in knee-jerk polarizing (“Austen is a Tory Christian spinster who wrote only for family entertainment” or “Austen is a closet feminist who ended her novels in marriage only because the genre mandated it”), Johnson’s study brought us back to the novels themselves and to the fiction of the 1790s to make careful, minute, and decidedly political interpretations, offering us a progressive middle ground of nuanced feminist historicism.

Devoney Looser, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is a Life  Member of JASNA and a former member of its Board of Directors. She is the author of British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820 and the editor of Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism.

JASNA News v.19, no. 1, Spring 2003, p. 18-19

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