Jane Austen is more than a giantess among women writers. She is also a giantess among the giants, holding a place of pride and prominence among the greatest writers of either sex and of all ages. She doesn’t merely tower above George Elliot, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, and the Brontë sisters, she also towers above almost every male writer. There are indeed relatively few writers in the whole history of literature that tower above her. One thinks of Homer and Virgil, and Dante and Shakespeare, but beyond these edifices she holds her own among the greatest of all time. She can be mentioned in the same breath as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Dickens. Few indeed can hold a candle to her in terms of the sheer brilliance of her work and the perceptive depths that she fathoms.
Like Shakespeare, Jane Austen can be said to be not of an age but for all time, and yet, as with Shakespeare, it helps to know something of the age in which she wrote in order to understand the fullness of what she is saying in her work. Shakespeare was almost certainly a believing Catholic living in anti-Catholic times; knowing this about him helps us to understand the subplots of The Merchant of Venice and Hamlet, and the angst and anger that animates Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello. Similarly, knowing that Jane Austen was a devout Christian living in an age in which Romanticism was at war with faithless rationalism helps us understand her way of seeing the world and the ideas that were shaping it. This being so, let’s look at the lady and her age.
Born in 1775, Miss Austen entered a world which was ripe for, and would soon be rife with, revolution. The American Revolution was ushering into existence a new sort of nation, bereft of both monarchy and aristocracy, and enshrining the principles of the Enlightenment in its Constitution. Then, in 1789, the French Revolution brought down the ancien régime, replacing it with a secularist tyranny, the darkness and terror of which laid the ideological foundations for future communist tyrannies. Against these new ideas, Edmund Burke sounded a sagacious and cautionary note, especially in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, which was published at the end of 1790, when Jane Austen was fifteen-years-old. Many of Burke’s views can be seen to be represented in the character of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, suggestive of Austen’s own sympathy for Burke’s anti-revolutionary position, though it might be a stretch to suggest that the hero’s name, Edmund Bertram, is a phonetic allusion to Edmund Burke himself, which would indicate that Burke had been a mentor to the young Miss Austen as Bertram had been a mentor for young Miss Price.
Perhaps the most frequently recurring theme in Austen’s work is a disdain for the irrational tenets of Romanticism, which emphasized emotion and the feelings of the heart over the reasoning of the head. From her earliest juvenile writings, such as Love and Freindship (sic), written in 1790, to her mature novels of more than twenty years later, she lampoons the sort of Romantic novels in which women are depicted as irrational beings, weak-willed and weak-minded. Whereas her own novels contain such women, who commit the folly of following feeling in defiance of the demands of moral responsibility, her heroines attain the fullness of human dignity, subjecting themselves as eminently rational creatures to the goodness of virtue and the objectivity of truth. In this, she has been called an Aristotelian, quite correctly, but she could as easily be described as a Thomist insofar as she accepted and embraced Christian realism in an age of embryonic relativism. She is, therefore, a veritable giantess as a philosopher, in addition to her genius as a storyteller and her perspicacity as an observer of the human condition.
As for Jane Austen’s stance with respect to the Catholic Church, she was, like Burke, sympathetic to Catholicism at a time when anti-Catholic bigotry and sectarianism was the default position in English culture. Although this can be discerned implicitly in her novels, it was present most obviously and emphatically in her juvenilia, especially in the “History of England,” which was written in 1791 when she was only fifteen-years-old. This “History” lampoons and satirizes the anti-Catholic stance of conventional history books, especially Oliver Goldsmith’s outrageously “anti-papist” four-volume “history” of England. In stark and remarkable contrast to the bias of Protestant history which overlooked the tyranny of Tudor England, the teenage Miss Austen depicts Elizabeth I as an unmitigated tyrant and shows Mary, Queen of Scots to be the martyred victim of Tudor tyranny. In supporting the Catholic Stuarts against the anti-Catholic Tudors, she was countering the pride and prejudice of her times and was showing herself to be an unwitting prophet of what would later become known as anglo-catholicism. In this, as in so much else, Catholics can feel entirely comfortable in the presence of the feminine genius of Jane Austen.
This is an excerpt from chapter 13 of Joseph Pearce’s latest book, Literature: What Every Catholic Should Know.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a portrait of Jane Austen (1870) by James Andrews, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.