Jane Austen lived right through the French, American, and industrial Revolutions and the Napoleonic Wars, in which two of her brothers were naval officers (they saw action, and both later became admirals); a cousin, the Comtesse Elizabeth de Feuillide (who later married her brother Henry), came to live with the family after her first husband was guillotined during the Reign of Terror; and yet almost nothing of these landmarks of contemporary political, economic, and military history appears in her novels. Having read Pride and Prejudice, can you speculate why this might be? To put the question differently, what kind of history concerned Austen, and what traces of has this interest left on her writing?
(Compare Graham Swift's method: he includes not only contemporary events but much earlier history as well. If Austen's work somehow depends upon excluding such events, what does this say about her realism? Does it mean that her novels are essentially escapist entertainment?
W. H. Auden's "Letter to Lord Byron" tells that poet that Austen, this "English spinster of the middle class," shocks more than Byron himself as she describes "the amorous effects of 'brass [money]'" and
Reveal[s] so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
Although they do not find themselves shocked, recent feminist critics agree. Ellen Moers, for example, points out:
All of Jane Austen's opening paragraphs, and the best of her first sentences, have money in them; this may be the first obviously feminine thing about her novels, for money and its making were characteristically female rather than male subjects in English fiction. . . . From her earliest years Austen had the kind of mind that inquired where the money came from on which young women were to live, and exactly how much of it there was. . . . Because she cared deeply and primarily about young women, . . . because she saw the only act of choice in a woman's life as the making of a marriage upon which alone depended her spiritual and physical health, Austen turned a severe and serious eye (for here she was rarely satirical) on the economic life of her heroes. Heroes were potential husbands, a momentous role. What I am suggesting is that Austen's realism in the matter of money was in her case an essentially female phenomenon, the result of her deep concern with the quality of a woman's life in marriage" (Literary Women , 67, 71).
What does such an observation tell us about Austen's conception of the truly important areas (or arenas) of contemporary history?
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000