Jane Austen is back. With two movies appearing this month and next, and all of her novels to be dramatized on Masterpiece Theater come January, this novelist of the nineteenth century is taking up where she left off ten years ago when another spate of films demonstrated, once again, her durability.
It was not the first time. As long ago as the 1950s, Lionel Trilling of Columbia University spotted the trend and wrote then that “her very name is a charged one.” In1973, when the second wave of the women’s movement was in full tilt, along with the counter-culture, Trilling offered a course on Jane Austen at Columbia, once the bitter scene of campus protests, and was deluged with applicants.
What was going on? Was it a yearning for manners and order as some supposed when Sense and Sensibility hit the screen and the best-seller list in 1995? By then, yes, that would have been part of it. Exhausted and debilitated by the social convulsions that commenced in the sixties, people no doubt wanted release from constant, unguided confrontation with one another.
But that was not likely the case in 1973, much less in 1957. Trilling supplied the most convincing answers himself. The first lies in Emma. “The extraordinary thing about Emma,” he wrote, “is that she has a moral life,”where before in fiction, women existed in a moonlike way, shining by the reflected moral life of men.” Emma was “never loathe to be first,” he said, “loving pre-eminence and praise, loving power and frank to say so.” Certainly this pointed the way straight to Gloria Steinem. But it was good to see such a grasp of feminine nature so firmly in hand so early. It did a lot to affirm the truth of what rarely was recognized, much less admitted.
There is more. A 19th century critic spotted in Jane Austen the “Platonic idea” of “intelligent love” between men and women, “based on the giving and receiving of knowledge, the active formation of another’s character, or the more passive growth under another’s guidance.” This is what women have wanted for years and seldom found, even in the modern world.
Trilling also located the “basic irony” of Jane Austen: that “spirit is not free, that it is conditioned, that it is limited by circumstances,” and it is these limitations that give spirit “virtue and meaning.” This too sends film-goers scurrying to Jane Austen, this wish to find dignity in lives that are circumscribed when the times have little use for discipline or restraint, especially in matters of money.
Some have turned to fundamentalist religion to find ballast in the boats of their own lives. Others seek soundness in psychotherapy. Jane Austen offers the comfort of an independent mind, accommodated to social norms, but only up to a point. There is something inside her that cannot be violated by the culture. With unshakable resolve but no spectacle of rebellion, she takes her stand. What could be more needed now in the current age of excess laced with anxiety, wireless connections conveying nothing, work without roots in production, play that is merely more work in masquerade?
Jane Austen — measured, consistent, witty, willful and strong — is our persistent antidote to overload.