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Jane Austen: Vicious Gossip?

Robert Fulford appears to enjoy Jane Austen's novels and to enjoy, especially, Austen's colorful descriptions of unsavory characters.  He even seems to have a bit of "pen envy" (with Austen, what writer doesn't?)  But even as he admires her wicked pen, he does not seem to especially admire the woman.  Austen's  wicked pen, in Fulford's view, exposes a particularly nasty and wicked soul.  Jane Austen, Fulford says, is a nasty and vicious gossip . . .  not that there's anything wrong with that.

This strange view of Austen in Fulford's mind seems to have been born in reaction to an opposite view of Austen as a "princess of the moral universe" and a "moralist" which Fulford characterizes as the primary opinion emerging from a collection of essays about Jane Austen called, A Truth Universally Acknowledged:  33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen.  Singled out for special contempt is the contribution of one James Collins.  Fulford finds Collins' argument to be as preposterous as it is ponderous and pompous.  Jane was no moralist, he seems to say . . . she was more on a par with a particularly skilled tabloid journalist. 

Fulford's main argument is that there is no "truth" in Jane Austen that is to be universally acknowledged.  She paints cartoon villains with great skill--"moral grotesques" whom one cannot expect to meet with any reasonable regularity in real life.  It makes her entertaining, to be sure . . . and a spirit that Mr. Fulford admits to be kindred with his own.  Fulford has a soft spot, I guess, for "vicious gossips."  But in Fulford's view, Austen the vicious gossip does not give one any insight into the higher truths about morality and the human condition.  Moreover, he argues that people who imagine that they find such within Austen's pages, are to be wondered at--not admired.  Such people, in Fulford's view, are likely morally stilted and "not nearly as nice as they imagine they are."

Though I have not yet read the collection of essays about which Mr. Fulford is so indignant, I suspect that I may have some small amount of sympathy for his argument against it.  I'm not sure that Jane Austen understood herself to be a "princess of the moral order" so much as she aspired to be an intelligent observer of it.  On the other hand, this does not mean that Jane Austen was little more than a vicious gossip with a wicked pen . . . though I might argue--in some sympathy with Fulford--that a bit of what he calls "vicious gossip" is sometimes necessary to a true understanding of the human condition. And exaggeration may be necessary, sometimes, to scratch new ideas onto the hard and thick walls of prejudice that line most of our imaginations. 

The real difference between Austen and Fulford, however, may be in the very idea that there can be any truth that is universally acknowledged.  Fulford does not seem to think that there is.  So, if there can't be any universally acknowledged truth, then all of us--in our own ways--are little more than vicious gossips pounding away at half-witted attempts to present our own prejudices.  We can admire Austen's presentation . . . bu we delude ourselves if we imagine that we can gain insights about truth from her literature or moral philosophy.  Indeed we delude ourselves if we imagine that we can gain these insights from any literature or moral philosophy.

This may be Fulford's point of departure--though I can't really say so definitively judging from this one article by itself.  But I can say that I think Fulford's reading of the characters he describes as "moral grotesques" in Austen is quite limited.  Austen does not refrain from passing judgment, but her judgment is not that of a stilted moralist without capacity to see beyond mere appearance (unlike, perhaps, Mr. Fulford).  Austen's characters are instructive precisely because they are multi-faceted.  Sir Walter Elliot, for example, is a bit of a bore and a snob . . . but he loves his daughter, Anne, even as he cannot understand her better nature and the things that are suited to it.  And the good Lady Russell--who above all others does understand the superior nature of Anne to that of Anne's closest relations--is perhaps more responsible than any other party in Anne's life for the long delay in her richly deserved happiness.  This is not the work of a simple-minded moralist.  It is a complex and richly treated examination of the complexity of human relationships and the delicate balance between personal and public felicity.  But maybe that complexity is precisely the problem for the Mr. Fulford's of this world who--while not having sense enough to admit it--at least see that the existence of the kind of moral truths Jane Austen examines in a world as complex and complicated as the one Austen reveals, might also impose a standard of judgment not especially favorable to the likes of "vicious gossips."

Discussions - 2 Comments

It is difficult to say that Austen is overrated and also worth reading but Fulford seems to accomplish this. If Fulford thinks that Austen, "paints cartoon villains with great skill--"moral grotesques" whom one cannot expect to meet with any reasonable regularity in real life." Then he obviously isn't a fan of the Zombie versions of pride and prejudice. I suppose you aren't likely to meet Smaug the Dragon from the Hobbit or the Joker from Batman. Of course you are also unlikely to meet any of the good folks from the 19th Century except as Zombies, reanimated versions, or perhaps via cloning a la Jurassic Park. Austen can be met in books. But the degree to which meeting in books is possible varies, and is itself something of an immagined thing. The immagination plays such a large role, that you could really almost disagree about statements of fact concerning what is really cartoonish or morally grotesque. Real historical figures like Austen have created parallel worlds in print. So many writters and so many parallel worlds, in terms of learning about morality you have to wonder how the minds in the "real" world connect to these parallel worlds...A movie that doesn't disapoint when compared to a book indicates that the reader wasn't able to connect on his own or immagine within the pages. Movies disapoint not because they differ from the work of the author, but because they differ from the immagination of the reader. The reader then argues that the movie ignores parts of the book, and does so because by showing that the movie is a "dream" or "inacurrate copy" he can maintain his world, his dominion in immagination. Nevertheless according to history books there exist actual Borgia's and Hitler's, yet these are certainly villian prototypes that exist in cartoonish form. If the test is "likelyhood of meeting", then hitler stands near Zombies depending on your metaphysics or science fictioness, while Wickham is unbearably common relatively speaking.

While Wickham is more common and less cartoonish than the more analogized zombies and hitler, one might also figure that great elements of 19th century life are foreign to us in a way that Wickham himself isn't. This makes it difficult to say that the reason why we don't meet a Wickham more often isn't tied into the material factors of common life in that century.

So the idea that "one cannot expect to meet with any reasonable regularity in real life" is actually quite important...legally speaking. "A heap of coal on a sidewalk in Boston is an indication, according to common experience, that there very possibly may be a coal hole to receive it." Id. at 601, 49 N.E. at 1011. And that was that. So said Oliver Wendell Holmes. But obviously a coal hole to most folks in 2009 means very little. The dissenting view of Knowlton was much superior. In addition to the fact that the plaintiff was a foreigner(not as foreign as we are) it was night time! How anyone can be expected to see coal at night when even cows that are not black are is beyond me. The issue then of testing expectancy of meeting either characters or events when these are immersed in the habits of the past is much more difficult than when viewed in the fullness of circumstance and not posed in the abstract.

In the daytime in Boston in the 19th Century there is no duty to warn of a coal hole if one comes across a pile of coal. It would seem to me in fact that night and day should have been established before even considering historical common sense, but it seems Justice Holmes was in a great hurry to dismiss because of reasonable regularity.

I digress, but I don't see as how any of Austen's characters can be all that uncommon when one discounts for historical differences between our times and the 19th Century.

Of course Fulford is probably right that "we delude ourselves if we imagine that we can gain these insights from any literature or moral philosophy." But the word delude doesn't convey anything extra that the word imagine doesn't already make clear. Imagination is both delusion and insight, because it is a mechanism for navigation in the dark, or past the line of sight. One can't or won't reasonably assume/immagine coal holes
in boston circa 1860, if one is a foreigner. If one did immagine such things one would be delusionly lucky. Philosophically speaking one could derive from David Hume that our expectations of causality follow from our experiences, that piles of coal allow us to infer coal holes or not depend upon what we immagine from experience.

"The real difference...may be in the very idea that there can be any truth that is universally acknowledged."

In this regard I am sympathetic to Fulford, there is no truth that is universally acknowledged since this truth is grounded upon immagination and insight and this differs from place to place and depends upon character. In fact there is not even a Jane Austen(in so far as she is dead and exist only in the minds of readers), since greater minds drill deeper and strike oil while others get combinations that are heavier on brine.

It is possible to immagine a Universal Truth, but notice what is implied by immagining.

"So, if there can't be any universally acknowledged truth, then all of us--in our own ways--are little more than vicious gossips pounding away at half-witted attempts to present our own prejudices." The intent here seems negative since vicious doesn't really follow, also half-witted attempts can be better than full-witted attempts if the glass is larger. Also our own prejudices may often times be close to the universally acknowledged truth, when for example we can safely say that necrophilia is wrong or that Hilter or Zombies or Borgia is evil. Notice however that we rarely need universally acknowledged truth, almost everything that is universally acknowledged is itself open and obvious, and this takes us back to Boston and the duty to warn. Note that even without universal truth we can have a duty to warn, because we immagine that most folks don't want to drive up a mountain with falling rocks and risk death (unless it is the only way to get to Smog). Warning them that the mountain is steep and dangerous does no good if they think it is the only path to the destination, a duty can then exist to warn of a safer detour(even if longer) on the assumption that a safer route is more reasonable( the greatest number of immagined others would prefer this) or it is objectively reasonable danger of perilous harm x probability >inconvenience of a few miles detour.

I like the post, Julie.

I just cannot see the gossip in Austen's stories as vicious. It certainly has not got a patch on American politics nor the tabloids and perhaps it seems more harmful because the stories are about neighbors. Do neighbors gossip anymore? The closest thing to a neighborhood I experience is Facebook. Even there, unless someone tells me something about himself I would not know it. The office or workplace seems to offer some scope for gossip, according to my husband and other people I know. The world is a different place than Austen's.

Maintaining a moral social order seems to require passing judgment. Maybe in our modern and non-judgmental day that is out of order. I wonder what came first, distance from our neighbors or a generally held belief that we ought not judge our neighbors. I read a Kathryn Lopez article yesterday (http://article.nationalreview.com/?q=OWZmZDZiOTFlYmFhMjllNjVhNTFlMjY3NmVhNzc1ZTU=) and I think it relates. If it is not about gossip and a vicious though abstract prurience then I don't know what it is about. Austen seems so mild in comparison. Wanting social mores has become evidence of a vicious nature.

I will tell you this, when girls or women in my English class say they are "into" romance novels (as in those are the only books they have ever read) I direct them to Austen or the Brontes. They all recognize the romance, but the brighter ones fall in love with the idea of her moral order, which maybe was not just hers but was of her milieu. They all see it, but some speak of it as "old-fashioned" while others see something more. A few of them recognize that to be truly old-fashioned, as in historically correct, women would be commodities. The romantic ideal of love, despite what is generally thought about chivalry these days, implies a kind of equality between the sexes. "He must win her love." That is modern enough for any woman. "He must have the bride-price." That is not.

None of them would like to live with the latter social norm. Yet the idea that society might see them as worth protecting does appeal. They are uncomfortably aware of what moral relativism and the abandonment of universal truths has done to them. "Truth is what I say it is" makes for an uncomfortable society.

John Lewis, truth is not imaginary. An imagined truth is no truth at all. You should rethink all of that stuff.

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