The New Yorker: “How to Misread Jane Austen”
As if by magic, mere days after I finished reading Emma, Jordan sent me this piece by Louis Menand that unpacks a few of the conflicting themes running through Jane Austen’s work.
I’d always wondered about the specificity of money in Austen’s fictional worlds, and I appreciated how Menand put those details in context:
What is exceptional about Austen as a novelist is that she tells us exactly how much money each of her characters has. She gives us far more information than Dickens, who was at least as obsessed with class and income as she was, or George Eliot. We know not merely that Elizabeth will be poor when her father dies. We know precisely what her income will be: forty pounds a year. We also know why Elizabeth’s prospects are so grim: because her father has neglected to plan for his daughters.
I mentioned in my reading notes for Emma that I wasn’t sure how to interpret Jane Austen’s stance on class and marriage/patriarchy, and Menand goes into that ambiguity here:
The ending of “Emma” therefore might seem to confirm the belief that Austen is a conservative at heart: this is how she likes things to turn out. But there is another marriage plot in “Emma.” It involves a secret engagement between Jane, an orphan with no prospects, and Frank, the son of a local man (Mr. Weston) who has been adopted and raised by the Churchills, a wealthy family with houses in Yorkshire and London and its environs.
In the end, Frank and Jane’s difficulties are overcome, and they marry. They will probably be much richer than Emma and Mr. Knightley, and they don’t have to spend the rest of their lives in provincial Highbury. It’s an outcome with a completely different spin. Jane and Frank weren’t born to their fortune, and they haven’t really earned it. They just lucked out. Meanwhile, Frank has violated all the canons of proper behavior. He is not who he pretends to be. He lies to everyone; he toys with Emma’s affections; he torments his fiancée by making a show of ignoring her. And yet he gets the girl and the houses. What’s the lesson there?
This observation, in particular, is concise and helpful:
The people who read Austen for the romance and the people who read Austen for the sociology are both reading her correctly, because Austen understands courtship as an attempt to achieve the maximum point of intersection between love and money.