A POST FROM OUR NEW AMBASSADOR, DR HELENA KELLY
“Mr. Allen […] joined some gentlemen to talk over the politics of the day and compare the accounts of their newspapers; and the ladies walked about together, noticing every new face, and almost every new bonnet in the room.” – Northanger Abbey
This division – between masculine politics and feminine trifles – is one which Austen brings up several times in her writing. In Sense and Sensibility, many female-only conversations revolve around children and gossip with ‘the gentlemen’ providing the welcome ‘variety’ of ‘politics, inclosing land, and breaking horses’. In Emma, the discussion at a dinner party falls neatly into – we gather – gendered groupings; ‘politics and Mr. Elton’. Here, in a nutshell, are the separate spheres, ‘public news’ versus ‘the less national and important’ interests associated with women, as Austen terms them in one of her early pieces.
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of a great electoral reform in Britain – the granting of the vote to women over thirty and to all men over 21, many of whom also hadn’t been eligible to vote before. Going back another hundred years, into Austen’s lifetime, we arrive in a world where almost no-one could vote and where – due to the fact that the ballot wasn’t secret – even those who could, often didn’t vote freely.
Broadly speaking, voting rights, like a lot of other rights in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, were part and parcel of property ownership. It’s worth pausing here, because this means that quite a number of Austen’s fictional men are disenfranchised – and not just male servants, but some quite major characters. Far from all Austen’s men have the vote, during the main action of their stories at least, and still fewer are actively engaged in politics. In the six major novels there is only one character who we know for a fact is a Member of Parliament – Sir Thomas Bertram. A couple more may sit in the House of Commons – Sir Walter Elliot, perhaps, since he has ‘twice’ been seen there with his presumptive heir, and possibly General Tilney, with his ‘pamphlets’ and visits to the capital. Mr. Palmer, in Sense and Sensibility, is trying to get elected to parliament, and the dim Mr. Rushworth, in Mansfield Park, is also suggested as a possible candidate.
And though Austen’s own novels exhibit a relative lack of voting characters and paucity of politicians, though she jokes, in Northanger Abbey, that ‘from politics it was an easy step to silence’, all six are, nevertheless, political. At times this can become more forceful than Austen may have meant. The frequent references in Northanger Abbey to Salisbury, home to Old Sarum, one of England’s most notorious rotten boroughs, are likely to have looked sharper in 1818, a year before the anti-democracy Peterloo massacre, than they would have done in 1803, when the novel was first accepted for publication. Pinning down Austen’s politics is particularly problematic because of how long some of her work took to appear in print. Three at least of her novels seem to have been published long after they were begun; we don’t know for certain that there weren’t earlier drafts of the others.
There remains, though, real resistance to the idea that Austen is in any way a problematic or issue-driven writer. Plans for a ‘darker’, less ‘bonnety’ adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, announced last year, were met with sneers in some portions of the press. Now Austen liked a bonnet. In her letters she often discusses clothes. But her lifetime was dominated by wars and revolutions, and by what the late Marilyn Butler popularised in the title of her 1975 work on Austen as ‘the war of ideas’. Everything was uncertain, every debate was pointed. Even the trifling sphere of fashion was politicised. When a government at war puts a tax on hair powder, not using it becomes a political gesture.
Austen was more than inadvertently political. She was engaged, aware, as are her characters. Anne Elliot reads the newspapers; Mary Crawford assumes that Fanny will too. Jane Fairfax describes governessing as ‘the sale, not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect’, showing not only her own awareness and moral disapproval of slavery, but assuming it in her listeners as well. Emma Woodhouse talks ‘long and successfully’ to her brother-in-law about estate management. Critics have long identified references to slavery in Mansfield Park; I’ve argued myself that Emma deals fairly explicitly with land reform. The politics is there. And whenever Austen put it in, however the context and perceived meaning of it might have altered over time, she chose not to take it out.
Jane Austen died over a hundred years before any British woman was granted the vote. No matter. Her resolute naturalism, her keen eye made her, inevitably, a political animal.
© Dr Helena Kelly - JALF Ambassador, writer, teacher, and academic. Author of Jane Austen, the Secret Radical.
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Image credit: Julia B. Grantham