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Auden on Austen February 15, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — boearle @ 11:07 pm

from “Letter to Lord Byron,” by W. H. Auden:

She was not an unshockable blue-stocking;
If shades remain the characters they were,
No doubt she still considers you as shocking.
But tell Jane Austen, that is, if you dare,
How much her novels are beloved down here.
She wrote them for posterity, she said;
‘Twas rash, but by posterity she’s read.

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of middle class
Describe the amorous effect of “brass”,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.

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5 Responses to “Auden on Austen”

  1. I’m sure that for those of you who know me this comes as no surprise, but I’m in a Romanticism course with Bo Earle this term and toying around with the idea with writing an essay Byron and Jane Austen. This is, of course, a subject of MUCH fascination to Romantic scholars because (let’s admit it) the two seem to be complete diametric opposites; which is probably what attracts me to the subject.

    There is no evidence to suggest J. Austen and Byron ever met, but everyone loves a “What If” story, and I always personally wonder; what would have happened if Byron and Austen had ever met? What would they have said to each other. Would they have liked each other? Fought like cats and dogs? Or simply avoided each other altogether? Byron was a mercurial troublemaker who loved to thumb his nose at English proper society, prone to histrionics, notorious for his flings and scandals, and the bad boy hero of England. Jane Austen was generally presumed to be a “nice and quiet lady”, never married, and very private.

    I am of two minds on the matter: either they would have hated each other, and become each other’s worst critics–J. Austen seems to have been largely unimpressed by Byron’s work, and Byron appears to at one point have called her a “blue-stocking” (slang for an intellectual woman and connotatively synonymous to a spinster) in a derogatory way to a friend–or they would have adored each other and loathed to admit it. After all, for all his mockery of English propriety, Byron was naturally inclined to pursue and be fascinated by those women that were it strongest advocates. All of his major affairs were with women that were otherwise is social good-standing, and his beloved sister and his (ex-)wife were both considered “proper women”. Meanwhile, for all her criticism of Byron, J. Austen was not immune to the so-called Byromania and Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth is often characterized as a Byronic hero. This suggests that there’s at least some part of the Byronic persona that captured her interest. Unfortunately, we know too little about Austen’s life to draw any conclusive answers. Still, everybody loves a good “What If”.

    Like I said before, the Austen-Byron connection has been a subject of fascination for much time. The newly released novel, Jane Bites Back by Michael Thomas Ford, both Jane Austen and Lord Byron feature prominently as vampires that have survived into the modern day, and Stephanie Barron’s upcoming installment of the pulp fiction series “Detective Jane Austen” is titled “Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron”. Comparative essays pertaining to J Austen and Byron are in no shortage, and only two years ago the Jane Austen Society of North America and the Byron Society of America teamed up to literary conference called “Austen and Byron: Together At Last!” Obviously, there is an odd interaction between these two seemingly irreconcilable figures of 19th Century literature that continues to pique our curiosity.

    On a side note, for those who find the vampire twist of Ford’s novel a bit far-fetched, it must be argued that Byron was a strong if indirect influence for Bram Stoker’s characterization of Dracula which, as we all know, is the prototype for the modern vampire. Fictional protrayals of Byron often make this explicit by making him a literal vampire. And Jane Austen’s vampirism in this is a direct byproduct of Byron’s own.

  2. Ivana Bilic Says:

    I think it’s interesting that what Jane Austen was doing was perceived as “shocking.” She published Sense and Sensibility in 1811, but this poem was written in 1937. She didn’t put her name on the first edition, just “by A Lady.” I’m not sure when it became widely known that she was the author, but I know that her family didn’t want anyone to find out, when the book was published. It’s interesting because we would hardly think of its content as shocking now, but Auden says that what’s most uncomfortable is the fact that an English spinster (i.e., a woman who devotes herself to something other than the pursuit of marriage) is pointing out the value of money. It’s not the point she’s making, but who is making it. It’s an interesting irony, because women were thought to care nothing about money – men were the ones who earned it, to fund the idleness of their women. But young women were incredibly aware of its importance and role in society, and how to conduct themselves in order to obtain it. The key to obtaining it was to pretend to not care, which is my reasoning for why Austen’s treatment and emphasis was so shocking – its frankness. Idleness was the sign of true wealth, and being able to devote oneself to other pursuits was social suicide. Austen’s honesty was a reflection of that, whether she intended it or not.

    • Arman Kazemi Says:

      I think what is potentially shocking in Austen is not only her forthright and uncompromising survey of the “economic basis” that governs the choices of the English gentry, but also that, as Auden keenly points at, she executes it “with such sobriety”. There doesn’t seem to be any moral indignation in Austen’s account of it beyond her biting and often ‘shockingly’ unforgiving irony, nor does she purport to offer a moral corrective to this behaviour by presenting any one of her characters as a model of ideal conduct.

      Each of her characters is fallible to some degree, and we sympathize with them only to the extent that they acknowledge their individual frailties and resign themselves to the economical exigencies of their society. Thus I think Willoughby emerges as a psychologically real personage only after his confession towards the end of the novel, and in the fatalistic justification of his conduct he gives and which Elinor appears for the same reasons to accepts.

      This unapologetic account of the economical premise governing the moral lives of her characters may be why Auden considers her so shocking. Austen emerges out of her historically assigned role as an “English spinster of middle class” and, in a novel like S&S, scares her fellow Lucies out of their picturesque knickers and John Middletons out of their morally puffed hunting-caps, by deconstructing the high rhetoric of their ideals and reducing the backbone of their entire social and ethical existence to “the amorous effect of ‘brass'”. A delineation of society which even Joyce, for all his mythic refiguration, though with a precience and irony of his own, is unable to accomplish.


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