Portrait of Jane Austen (1775-1817). Dated 1810. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Jane’s profound piety

Jeremy Black reviews Jane Austen: Writing, Society, Politics, by Tom Keymer

Artillery Row Books

Oh so difficult! How do we take one of the most popular writers and make her an appropriate figure for English Literature courses. Relevance screams out, but Jane is so hard. For she is so very, very conservative. Well then, we have to emphasise where she might just be radical; and, more easily, following Virginia Woolf, see her irony and satire as inherently ‘disruptive’ and therefore potentially radical, and also present her ‘ongoing interest in socioeconomic contrasts and tensions within the
broad elite.’

Jane Austen. Writing, Society, Politics
By Tom Keymer, Oxford University Press, 23 July 2020, 162 pp. £10.99

Tom Keymer’s Jane Austen is, at once, a very well-written and engaging introduction to Austen, a brilliantly economically effective guide to her novels, a contribution to the debate about the writer, and a book that does not quite work for me, but then I approach Jane, her novels, and their reception, as an historian. In particular, I would make much more than does Keymer, a distinguished Professor of English at the University of Toronto, of the profound piety of Jane, her religious morality, and the strong sense of the real presence of evil that can be found in her ‘mindset.’ The conservatism of the period was fundamentally religious, and not primarily about socio-economic structures and practices. Indeed, far from having, as Keymer writes, ‘an implicitly Tory world view,’ there is, as contemporary readers would have understood, a fairly clear moral one that for readers would have contrasted with Mary Wollstonecraft and other radicals. Yet Keymer is on the whole on the side I favour. Notably in his coverage of Emma, Mansfield Park and Persuasion. He makes a case for the conservative Austen, or, at least, a plea for us to take the Burkean Austen as well as a Wollstonecraftian Austen seriously. To Keymer, the Knightley/Robert Martin bond is tremendously important and central to a moral and social vision that he ably lines up with the conservative Wordsworth of the 1810s.

Keymer covers slavery, although it is far less to the fore as an issue in the novels than religion, or, indeed, much else, for example the response to landscape. Aside from her own convictions, Austen is writing not only in her time but also in response to the literature available to her when growing up and the conventions of that period. Much associated with Romantic literature is a reheating, generally more lurid, of earlier eighteenth-century themes, and this can be foregrounded.

There is so much more of value in Keymer’s study, for example the discussion of free indirect discourse. So also for the consideration of letter-writing in the insightful chapter on ‘The Voices of Pride and Prejudice,’ a novel praised for its narrative economy and restraint, not least being far shorter than Burney’s Evelina. If I am not totally convinced by the largely secular approach to Austen’s world, I nevertheless would like to praise the similar economy and clarity of Keymer’s effective and impressive coverage.

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