Austen laughed about the wrenching poverty all around her and the injustices meted out to women. In her mature years, after completing Emma, she wrote a very funny little outline of a novel. In which she writes that the heroine is “often reduced to support herself and her Father by her Talents and work for her Bread; continually cheated and defrauded of her hire, worn down to a Skeleton, and now and then starved to death.”
Of course comedy can tackle serious subjects. That's the entire purpose of satire. Professor John Mullan says Austen is ‘the most unflinchingly satirical of all great novelists." But Jane Austen is never harsh and biting like Swift. I recently learned there is a name for Austen's brand of satire, Horatian satire. "Horatian satire is the mildest and gentlest form of satire there is—it is not seeking to change the world. It is merely focused on highlighting human folly in all its myriad forms, perhaps through anecdotes and characterisation more so than plot, and so its chief purpose is, primarily, to amuse." The term traces back to the Roman Empire and the writer Horace.
Kelly claims to find the following themes hidden in Austen and says these themes are controversial:
Northanger Abbey: Sex is dangerous (i.e. it could result in death in childbirth). This was a fact of life and not a taboo subject at all.
Pride & Prejudice: Kelly’s vague on this, but pro French Revolution, ie against aristocracy and the class system.
Mansfield Park: Slavery is bad. (Ending the slave trade was official government policy when Mansfield Park was written).
Primogeniture (Sense & Sensibility) and land enclosure (Emma) are bad. (But not illegal to complain about).
Persuasion: life is full of change and uncertainty. (By the end of her book, we suppose, the reader has forgotten the original thesis that Austen was promoting dangerous views.)
But the topics Kelly lists? She might have strengthened her case if she had presented actual examples of people charged with seditious libel for writing about abolition, primogeniture, land enclosure, dying in childbirth, or the unpredictability of human events. Mary Wollstonecraft wasn't prosecuted for writing the response to Edmund Burke. William Godwin wasn't prosecuted for writing Caleb Williams. Maria Edgeworth wasn't prosecuted for Castle Rackrent. All of these works are heavily critical of the status quo. Was anyone prosecuted for writing "about a world in which parents and guardians can be stupid and selfish, in which the Church ignores the needs of the faithful, in which landowners and magistrates... are eager to enrich themselves"? So far I haven't found any examples.
And if they were not actually arrested but were condemned socially? Well, we certainly have many instructive examples of people being shamed and cancelled today, for the noblest of motives, by the most virtuous people. Perhaps those people in the Regency period had their reasons.
Mansfield Park is supposedly pro-abolition. The word “abolition” doesn't appear in Mansfield Park, but it is found In Emma, when Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Elton mention the slave trade.
Northanger Abbey is supposedly about the terrifying reality that sex could lead to death in childbirth. But Austen jokes in the opening pages of the novel that Mrs. Morland didn’t die when giving birth to Catherine, as might be expected of a heroine’s mother. Nobody’s mother dies of childbirth in Northanger Abbey. In Emma, on the other hand, we have three people whose mothers die young—Emma Woodhouse, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill.
But Emma isn’t about slavery or dying in childbirth, it’s about land enclosure. Kelly says there is a “preoccupation with land enclosure” in the novel. Yet, despite this preoccupation, the word “enclosure” doesn’t appear in Emma. Not once. It's mentioned twice in Sense & Sensibility. But Sense & Sensibility isn’t about land enclosure, it’s a protest against primogeniture, the practice of leaving the estate to the oldest son. Yet, heirs and inheriting feature in all the novels, such as in Pride & Prejudice, when Colonel Fitzwilliam says that younger sons can't marry where they like.
But Pride & Prejudice isn’t about primogeniture, it’s about class distinctions. But Emma and Persuasion have plenty of explicit discussions about rank and class. But Persuasion isn’t about class distinctions. It’s about the uncertainty of human events. Although it is Emma who exclaims: "Was it new for any thing in this world to be unequal, inconsistent, incongruous—or for chance and circumstance (as second causes) to direct the human fate?"
Thesis: Austen is advocating class overthrow in Pride & Prejudice.
Me: But she isn't advocating class overthrow in Pride & Prejudice.
Thesis: That's because if she said it openly, she'd be arrested.
Me: So if she isn't saying it, how do you know that's what she meant to say?
In the third volume of my Mansfield Trilogy, the writer William Gibson gets in trouble for publishing a pamphlet that is critical of the government. I also feature the radical romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Click here for more about my novels.