irony and authority
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"Jane Austen: Irony and Authority"Critic: Rachel M. Brownstein Source: Women's Studies 15, nos. 1-3 (1988): 5770. Criticism about: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1775-1817) Nationality: British; English
[(essay date 1988) _In the following essay, Brownstein focuses on several of Austen's novels, including Pride and Prejudice, to support her argument that Austen uses irony to convey a "discursive authority" from which women can derive pleasure in a patriarchal society.] It is a truth universally acknowledged, right now, that language is involved in giving and taking both power and pleasure. Whether we begin by asking if the pen is a substitute for the penis, or think about why we read stories of love and adventure, or consider, from any point of view, pornography or psychoanalysis, we end by analyzing ways people please themselves and assert authority over others by using words. (To observe that critics writing about pleasure and power have managed to get what measure of the good stuff they can is to state the merely inevitable.) Claiming that women writers are powerful--i.e. effective and influential--has been a
focus of feminist critics concerned to dispute the canon, to rehabilitate forgotten writers, and to revise women's relation to the languages of power. That Jane Austen, unforgotten, canonized, and stunningly authoritative, has been a problem for feminists is not surprising: in the struggle for power between politically radical and conservative critics, she has for years been claimed by both parties. Her own interest in power is suggested as her uses of the word acknowledge there are different kinds: in Pride and Prejudice, for instance, Elizabeth says that "It is not in my power to accept" an invitation (211), and, "I do not know any body who seems more to enjoy the power of doing what he likes than Mr. Darcy," (183) and her friend Charlotte reflects that "all her friend's dislike [of Darcy] would vanish, if she could suppose him to be in her power." (181) Courtship as power play is the subject of all Austen's novels; playing with--or against--power is the substance of them. And through irony, by pointing to the limits of definitive and assertive language, Jane Austen suggests a powerful and pleasurable relation women in patriarchy may have to discursive authority. The title page of Sense and Sensibility, the first novel Austen published, identified it as by "A Lady"; Pride and Prejudice is signed "By the Author of 'Sense and Sensibility,'" in other words by A Lady already published. The veiling signature insists on the dignity of femininity itself as "Currer Bell," "George Eliot," "Fanny Fern," or "Mrs. Humphry Ward" do not. It implies, as if modestly, that all ladies speak in the same voice--Austen was of course not the only one to write as one--, which with pointedly feminine
obliqueness will avoid such blunt signifiers as proper names, and say precisely what one might expect it appropriately to say, and no more. "A Lady" insists like a post-modern critic on an author's gender and class, indeed identifies the writer simply as a representative, perhaps only a function, of gender and class. The word makes the titillating suggestion that sex is the subject, and also a promise that it will be avoided. (Austen obliges on both counts.) Finally, the signature indicates that the female author is an accepted kind of author, probably one who will make herself delightful and useful without going so far as to set up as an authority. As Mary Ellmann wrote decades before the body became a theme of cultural critics, "the male body lends credence to assertions while the female takes it away" (148). Signing herself "A Lady," even a published author promises to assert neither her (discreetly veiled) self nor any original idea of her own. This novelist will not, presumably, pit her literary capacity and performances against "the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, [which] are eulogized by a thousand pens;" she does not claim authority, merely, slyly, "genius, wit, and taste." (NA, 37) On the other hand, precisely by coming on as A Lady the author is assuming a certain kind of authority: as Mary Poovey has argued, economic changes, together with anxieties about class and gender distinctions, created in eighteenth-century England the enthroned image of The Proper Lady, symbol of
refinement and taste (and perhaps wit, if not genius), and with it, at considerable cost to themselves and their sex, some real power for ladies. It was largely limited to the drawing room. Austen's writing as such A Lady, her mode of assuming ladylike authority in ladylike language, provokes the questions about her social and political allegiances that have divided the critical authorities who have written on the most respected woman writer in English. Jane Austen's awesome respectability has alienated some of her readers, and inspired wrong-headed enthusiasm in others. Does she want women's power confined to drawing rooms? Does she sanction or mock the image of the authoritative proper lady, which confines as it defines feminine power? As A Lady, Austen seems now to represent and speak for British civility, perhaps even civilization, at its toniest. In The Counterlife, the American novelist Philip Roth introduces a representative traditional Austen fan, an Englishwoman who rereads the novels each year because, she says, "The characters are so very good." More explicitly, she continues, "I'm very fond of Fanny Price, in Mansfield Park. When she goes back to Portsmouth after living down with the Bertrams in great style and grandeur, and she finds her own family and is so shocked by the squalor-people are very critical of her for that and say she's a snob, and maybe it's because I'm a snob myself--I suppose I am--but I find it very sympathetic. I think that's how one would behave, if one went back to a much lower standard of living." (270) Mrs. Freshfield is pleased that the characters are fastidious, and that the author is--that both dislike squalor, quite as she
does. It is not fair to lump such a reader with the socalled Janeites; she is no idealizer of a gentle, genteel Jane; what she is is a Jane Austen snob. She imagines Jane Austen has the same standards of embattled gentility she has, that like her Austen values those standards above everything. Readers of Mansfield Park will allow that Mrs. Freshfield's confusion of standards for living with standards of living is something Jane Austen tempts one toward; the serious question is whether Austen is accountable for attracting snobs like her and encouraging them in snobbishness. I think she is. When we thrill to the way Mrs. Bennet is dispatched as "a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper," or to the translucent, transcendent tact with which Mr. Bennet tells his daughter Mary, in company, "You have delighted us long enough," (101), we respond with approval to a snob's ruthless high standards, and to her high-handedness. Austen's novels set us at a little, pleasant, critical distance from the actual, inelegant, disorderly world her letters reveal she herself lived in just as we do. Furthermore, the twentieth-century reader who, while not an authentic member of the English gentry, enjoys the sublime confidence of Pride and Prejudice--famously one of the world's impeccable masterpieces--can congratulate herself on her superior taste with a smugness very like Mrs. Freshfield's. I suspect that even morally serious readers able to list the shortcomings of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, and prove Jane Austen knew they are no better than Fanny Price's Portsmouth parents, enjoy their own complicity with Austen's sure, exclusive Lady's tone.
This tone is, wonderfully, so authoritative as to enable Austen to put down titled ladies. Those of us who are not complacent about being snobs enjoy noting that titled ladies are not among the most admirable characters in the novels: that hypercorrected Lady Middleton and empty Lady Bertram are portrayed as patriarchy's mere creatures, and conventional Lady Russell and authoritarian Lady Catherine de Bourgh as its wrongheaded police. Nevertheless, it is as a lady--an untitled member of the gentry, "a gentleman's daughter," which is how Elizabeth Bennet appropriates the term for herself--that Jane Austen condemns them. Austen carefully shows that Lady Catherine's manners are no more than her aspirations better than Mrs. Bennet's. To mock Lady Catherine's "authoritative manner," (84) she reports in unexceptionably calm and decorous ladylike tones that, for instance, after dinner and cards at Rosings, "the party ... gathered round the fire to hear Lady Catherine determine what weather they were to have on the morrow. From these instructions they were summoned by the arrival of the coach. ..." (166) Austen's special interest in exposing the pomposities of a great Lady or the pretensions of a couple of would-be ones--for example, the "two elegant ladies" (41) who are the Bingley sisters' maids--are signs, if we need them, that she signs herself with irony. There are ladies and ladies; "A Lady," as a signature, claims to be generic and claims at the same time a certain classy distinction. How are the claims related?
About being A Lady writing, which is to say about writing as a member of the group of women novelists, Austen's irony is even clearer, and also more complex. Her position on women's novels is spelled out in Northanger Abbey: they are more original than most of what's published, she declares. Even though their characters are very often stereotyped and their plots are commonly implausible, she says, they are both pleasurable and accurate, works "in which the greatest powers of the