Contributed by guest blogger, Dr. Fraser Easton.
A while ago now, I saw a New Yorker cartoon that assumed
familiarity with an Austen novel other than Pride and Prejudice. In
it, as two female executives go through the door into a corporate
meeting room populated with older men, one woman says to the other,
“Remember now–you’re sense, I’m sensibility.” Ladies and gentlemen,
the dialectic in action.
If you think that last assertion is mere hyperbole, you have obviously
not read Austen’s novels–or reread them, more likely–because it is
when rereading them that the power of their style, and the anarchic
social observation carried by that style, comes to the fore. When I
teach Austen to students, it is always useful to remind ourselves that
de Sade wrote in the era of Austen. Like her, he was sceptical of the
moral sentimentalism of the writers, such as Richardson and Rousseau,
who had proceeded them. Unlike her, for various reasons, de Sade
wrote in genres that were essentially closed to Austen, whereas she
was “stuck” with the courtship novel.
Happily for Austen, she could do almost anything within the bounds of
that form, playing it like a master sonneteer would play the limits of
14 lines. Just how happy is the happy ending of Mansfield Park when
we take on board the narrator’s claim that Fanny Price would have
gladly married Henry Crawford? Or that she decidedly does not inherit
All this is timely, of course, because of Mark Carney’s decision this
week to feature an image of Austen on the new 10 pound banknote. I
wish I could celebrate how this Canadian lad, now Governor of the Bank
of England, has made good with this decision. Unfortunately, he or
his advisors bring exactly the sort of tin ear to Austen that we see
in all those tea cups and sentimental appropriations of her work; in
this case, because the great English satirist is to be represented by
the hypocritical words of Caroline Bingley in Pride and Prejudice: “I
declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”
Talk about a truth universally acknowledged. . . .
Is there a moral in all of this? How about: beware sensibility, if
you haven’t the sense for it?
Thank you to Dr. Easton for this blog post.