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Reading Jane Austen

By Mona Scheuermann, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, ISBN: 0-2306-1877-4

Mona Scheuermann, Professor of English at Oakton Community College, has held visiting professorships at the University of Hamburg, the Free University of Berlin and the University of Berne, and she is the author of three other books on Austen’s era: Social Protest in the Eighteenth-Century English Novel; Her Bread to Earn: Women, Money, and Society from Defoe to Austen; and In Praise of Poverty.

Among the six completed novels of Jane Austen, Mansfield Park with its moral agenda and its submissive protagonist, has been my least favorite. Recent talks at AGMs and GCR meetings have focused on Fanny Price’s inner strength, suggesting, perhaps, that Fanny might be a protofeminist. Scheuermann, in Reading Jane Austen, gives a conservative analysis of Fanny’s role and argues that understanding the historical and social context is central to recognizing Austen’s personal beliefs and her theme of British morality in this and three other novels: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion. While I prefer the sparkling and witty Elizabeth, the clever but clueless Emma, and renewed beauty of capable Anne, Scheuermann’s analysis has helped me appreciate Fanny and the social contract which she must navigate.

To understand Austen’s protagonists, Scheuermann explains, we must realize that nearly Austen’s entire adult life was lived during the French Revolution; her family felt the social and political upheaval with the execution of a cousin. The British ruling classes feared the prospect of revolution spreading and banned the publication of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man. Indeed, the cover image depicts the views of the majority of the class to which the Austens belonged; it is a 1798 political cartoon by James Gillray that shows French soldiers tearing down curtains in what looks like the king’s bedchamber and replacing the headboard with a guillotine; the high canopy has a new motto: “Confusion To All Order.”

The book is divided into three parts: Part I, “A Moral Tapestry” focuses on Mansfield Park; Part II, “Social Grids” analyzes the other three novels; Part III, “Politics and History” concludes with “The World of Jane Austen.” Scheuermann begins her analysis with conduct books, pointing out that the conservative Hannah More, friend to Samuel Johnson, and the more radical Mary Wollstonecraft both subscribe to the same set of basic moral premises. “So self-evident are these values,” explains Scheuermann, Austen does not write to defend the status quo. She simply assumes its rightness. Mansfield Park is a “series of set pieces in terms of moral situations.”

In all the important Austen novels, “wealth is good” if “used for the furtherance of morality.” Some concern for money is always appropriate for marriage, but purely mercenary motivation is wrong. Maria Bertram’s marriage to a man she cannot respect is bad, but we see the negative outcome from Fanny Ward’s marrying a man “without education, fortune or connections.” Austen approves the use of “interest” to advance young men in the navy and the clergy. Despite questionable motivation, Henry’s advancement of William Price’s career through his uncle, the Admiral, is good, and his stated plan to care about the tenants on his family estate is proper for a gentleman of his class. We laugh at Mr. Collins’s obsequiousness toward his patroness, Lady Catherine, because of his mixture of pride and ignorance, but we approve Sir Thomas’s reserving a church preferment for his younger son, Edmund.

Scheuermann argues that the relationship of Fanny and Sir Thomas is detailed as much as that between Fanny and Edmund; “for to Austen the relationship of the individual to the larger family and community circle is almost as important as that between the man and wife.” The moral base of family and social circles is central in the other three novels. In Pride and Prejudice, Austen writes about women on the verge of economic disaster, but Scheuermann does not see Austen arguing for women’s economic independence. Darcy’s money allows the rescue of Lydia and is the reason Elizabeth initiates the discussion that will lead to Darcy’s second proposal. But their important philosophical discussion, in the end, defines their relationship and establishes their equality. Whether focusing on the courtship story in Pride and Prejudice, the ethical development of a young woman in Emma, or the shifting social and economic conditions in Persuasion, Austen has “no ambivalence over moral behavior.” Public humiliation (Emma’s jab about Miss Bates), secret engagements, and economic ruin (Sir Elliot’s debts and Mr. Elliot’s perfidy) are “transgressions against a common social code.”

I recommend this excellent analysis of Austen’s moral vision. I wish a reading of Sense and Sensibility were included, especially as 2011 is the centennial of its publication.  

--Natalie Goldberg, Letter from Chicago, Fall 2010