Monday, 25 March 2013

Almost wild

 The Painter's Daughters Chasing a Butterfly, one of Gainsborough's intimate studies of his daughters made in the late 1750s, that take 18th century sensibility forward into a Romantic awareness of individual development through the senses. He sees beyond the fragile innocence of two little girls, in the glancing light of a Rousseauian childhood idyll, to a more profound understanding, to the anxiety already showing in their faces as they move rapidly through the disturbing darkness of a wood, that is both catalyst and externalization of their unconscious minds. Happiness is always out of their reach; they experience, as Keats described, "the feel of not to feel it". I try to imagine again the first impression of this painting, first seen in childhood visits to the National Gallery, before knowing that both little girls suffered from a genetic mental disorder, and grew into deranged middle-aged women; wouldn't our hearts still ache for them, some knowledge intuitively divined, "without irritable reaching after fact and reason?"1
Image © copyright The National Gallery London
She has no "warmth or enthusiasm"; she has nothing "energetic, poignant, or heartfelt"; "nothing profound." (Charlotte Brontë writing of Jane Austen)
"'She really looked almost wild'" (Mrs Hurst speaking of Miss Elizabeth Bennet)

Jane Austen has been cast outside and parallel to Romanticism, sometimes seen as its enemy, a purse-lipped spinster castigated thirty years after her death by Charlotte Brontë and many subsequent readers for putting sense and convention above passion and romance. Brontë was perplexed, almost enraged, by Austen's reputation as a great novelist. She had no "warmth or enthusiasm"; she has nothing "energetic, poignant, or heartfelt"; "nothing profound."After forcing herself to read more of Austen's novels, at G.H.Lewes' suggestion, the highest qualities Brontë grudgingly allowed her predecessor,  were "clear common sense and subtle shrewdness." but "...the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings.."2

This is unfair to Austen and to pre-Victorian Romanticism, that engaged in constant debate with itself, neo-classicism and the Enlightenment....
Her novels demonstrate that Romanticism’s exaltation of passions is irresponsible when applied to the average woman in conventional social life; but she does not believe that feelings themselves should be repressed. She is as interested in understanding the affect of emotion on human behaviour and mental health as the Romantic poets; she refuses to glamorize melancholy and other emotional disorders, unbearable for the sufferer and the people around them; she is not a poet herself, nor a theatrical dramatist, she is not dealing with the characters of creative geniuses or political reformers; she is a society portraitist, a more realistic, honest and subtle one than Lawrence, accepted as a Romantic because of his sumptuous colours, shiny prettiness, overt sensuality and enthusiasm. 

Jane Austen did not trust enthusiasm, social, political or literary. In her private letters, she uses her habitual understatement and deflective irony whenever she refers to her own feelings or tastes, so we have no way of telling how passionately she really felt - and why should we?

She enjoyed going to the theatre, and regretted that she never saw Sarah Siddons; she thought some of the acting of Kean, Keats' idol for "instant feeling" and "sensual grandeur", was "exquisite", but in her elliptical way she admitted "acting seldom satisfies me". This is not the sneer of a pinched-in soul, but the frustration of someone who wanted authenticity in art. She discerned and disapproved of anything artificial; she wanted naturalism and real feeling as much as any Romantic; she loathed excess, and recollected emotion in tranquillity. She was aware that pressing, niggling realities, and meeting the demands of other people mitigate emotions: "Elizabeth knew that she was happy than felt herself to be so." We cannot always rely on our instant feeling to inform us of the truth.

Elizabeth arrives at Netherfield looking “almost wild” (according to a jealous woman from fashionable conventional society), after “crossing field after field, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles” - a young woman, neither a poet nor a rebel, hearing no supernatural voices, thinking she is unobserved, delighting in her sensations of physical freedom in the present moment, is fully at one with herself. Her “impatient activity” indicates her general spontaneity, while Jane’s insufficient “sensibility” and inability to act on her feelings is presented as a failing. Emma, in her painful self-excoriation, admits to equal faults in rational thinking and in ignoring the truth of her feelings: "The blunders, the blindness of her own head and understand her own heart was the first endeavour".

It is unfair to Romanticism, pre-supposing that as an intellectual and moral movement it was incapable of moderating and reforming itself from within. It does not allow for the double-life of artists, the life of the imagination, and the one where they need to make money to live, just as Austen’s heroines need to make sensible marriages. There is nothing romantic about depression, and living at extremes of emotion, for a sufferer like Keats, the devout believer in the truth of emotions, the poet of consolation, who was constantly revising his ideas to make sense of the unbearable reality of feeling. “I would give a guinea to be a reasonable man - good sound sense”3 is the kind of joke that could only come from a mind that has known the abyss.  

Byron’s and Shelley’s self-dramatizations could be irritating to less privileged writers like Keats, who had experienced the real as much as the imagined horrors of life3 aswell as to the women who lived with them. Frankenstein criticises the over-reaching egotism of Romanticism, and debates with 18th century philosophy of materialism, and is regarded as a Romantic novel. Jane Austen rejects extremes of selfish passion and admits materialism into her world, and is not regarded as Romantic.

Jane Austen is a Romantic - just a very, very cautious one.

1 John Keats' Selected Letters edited by Robert Gittings
2 Charlotte Bronte’s Letters 1848 -51 edited by Margaret Smith, 2000  
3 Robert Gittings, John Keats, 1968