Austen and the Grace of Intelligence

Stepping into the public marketplace with a novel is always a little frightening. Usually the publisher has arranged a set of readings and signings, and there is some travel. But it’s hard to visualize the audience in advance.

In some respects The Widow’s Fire was no different. My publisher, Inanna Publications, was wonderfully engaged and before I caught sight of the printed book at a joint launch in Toronto, there were already dates from Canada’s East Coast to West Coast, many Canadian dates in between, a US trip to present at the Jane Austen Society of North America’s AGM, and plans for the UK.


The Widow’s Fire among Austen books and gifts in Waterstones, UK.

But one thing was different from previous publications. This time I could visualize the audience in the sense that at least a core of them would be Jane Austen fans, readers, and scholars.

It would be a coming home of sorts. I’ve been a fan of Austen from my teens. She was the first author to make me favour literature from the 1800s, to enjoy the patterns words and sentences created as they wove around their intended meaning or revealed the bite of irony in the final twist. Nobody brandished this convoluted prose with as much skill as Austen.

But I was also aware I was trespassing.  There is a tangible sense of stewardship among those who adore Jane Austen, and I would soon walk among them. My novel interferes with Jane’s final ending. In The Widow’s Fire, the symmetrical finale of Persuasion goes off the rails letting in the darker themes explored by Gothics such as the Brontes, and, later by postcolonial fiction.

The whole project in fact related back to a crisis in faith I’d once had as a young reader and English major thirty something years ago. I really liked Austen’s novels — a lot. But I could not articulate my partiality beyond a somewhat stuttering and infuriated, it’s just …just …really good!

Austen wasn’t particularly cool in 1980s literary circles in Britain, at least not the ones surrounding me. Up against the grittiness of Dostoevsky or Orwell or even Dickens, she was seen as very socially conservative. Her plots reinforced the class system. Honest and good-hearted heroines are rewarded by marrying men like Mr. Knightley and Mr. Darcy who were not only rich but also close to the pinnacle of the rigid social structure of Regency England. By the time this coupling took place, these romantic heroes would have also proved themselves as noble and decent as their heroine counterparts. People slightly lower in the social order — George Wickham, Mr. Elton — might appear charming at first but before too long some serious cracks  appear. Virtue, therefore, correlated at least in some important respects to wealth and social standing.

Trespassing Upon Austen

You can’t really argue with this other than to point out that Austen was dealing with genre expectations, albeit ones she had helped to create, and that her artistic brief was never to challenge existing societal structures. Perhaps there was a backhanded social criticism anyway. She does depict, albeit in a comic, detached way, the moral indignity of the social climber. People trying to better their stations — Mr. Elton and Mr. Collins for instance — are among Austen’s most merciless creations. Perhaps it was up to other writers to explore more closely, and with more compassionate understanding, the cause and effect of extreme social inequality. But the lengths to which acquisition drives people is vividly magnified in Austen.

What was obvious to me then, and remains so now, is the clear sighted and perceptive ways Austen illuminates every shade of human behaviour. For the reader there is a kind of safety in this aspect of the novels, a kind of relief. We know how the world goes and here is someone interpreting it for us with rare wit and a precision. Why should she need to offer solutions?

In this one sense Austen speaks to the idealist in us. How can you possess such intelligence, such wit and insight without also possessing fairness and compassion? If the two don’t go together on the pages of the novel, they will in the mind of the reader.

Austen recoils from sermonizing. We have to ask ourselves what kind of writer would create, as Austen did with Emma Woodhouse, a protagonist “no one but myself will much like”. The famous quote is a key of sorts. Austen was right. Few readers can read Emma without becoming enraged at Emma — regularly. They should. Austen respected her reader enough to create Emma, to let her presumptuous, interfering and snobbish behaviour (towards poor Robert Martin and Miss Bates) burn its way through the entire story. This happens with little undue authorial interference until she is (partially) humbled. Then youth and over-indulgence at an impressionable age present themselves as final mitigations.

This is life as it is. It makes us squirm because we recognize it. Austen offers us wit, wisdom, and intelligence. And under the right circumstances these are in themselves graces — moral ones with the power to challenge social structures if we are sufficiently engaged.

Next event: Shelf Life Books, Calgary, reading & presentation March 10, 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm.



Lauri Sayles, Chair of the Calgary branch of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), will also talk about the organization.

There will refreshments and plenty of time to talk all things Austen!


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