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."