Jane Austen and Discourses of Fenminism

Topics: Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey Pages: 5 (2115 words) Published: May 14, 2011
Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism, edited by Devoney Looser, is a collection of original essays designed to take the measure of current feminist thinking about Austen and to establish, as it were, a kind of feminist context for that thinking. In "Privacy, Privilege, and 'Poaching' in Mansfield Park," the penultimate essay, Ellen Gardiner observes that "One of the reasons that Jane Austen has remained part of the twentieth-century canon is ... [that], as omniscient narrator in various novels, she continues to convince scholars that she is not merely a writer but also a critic" (151). Indeed, a central element in each of the articles in this volume, as well as in the book as a whole, is to find the reason for Austen's perseverance in the canon in the face of a conceivable recalcitrance to twentieth-century concerns on the part of a late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century opus, to say nothing of the mission among those very scholars to justify as unique and necessary their own contributions to the profusion of Austen commentary. They and it must answer the question, What more remains to be said? And yet the fact remains that there are large and significant divergences and diversities of opinion about the author; despite all the ink that has been spilled, in large measure there is still a knotty stubbornness in her works that seems ultimately, and like the works themselves, courteously and quietly, to resist all attempts to penetrate and lay bare forever what she was about. On the one hand, the feminist context seems as if it would be exactly hospitable to studies of Austen; on the other hand, there is something inescapable and in definable, which leads to conflict and controversy among the critics. For instance, in "Consolidated Communities: Masculine and Feminine Values in Jane Austen's Fiction," Glenda Hudson takes an unexpectedly resolute exception to the claims made by Claudia Johnson and others about the ending of Mansfield Park. Johnson is one of the two presiding, albeit absent, formative geniuses of the critical approaches in this collection; the other is Alison Sulloway, whose presence is more directly invoked by the book's dedication. Their influence, nonetheless, indicates the continued development of feminist critiques of Austen. It does seem a shame, though, that Johnson and Sulloway are not represented in this assembly since so much of the argument seems to stem from territory they initially staked. In any case, Hudson argues against Johnson's claim that the ending is not happy despite the fact that the form -- a marriage -- is appropriate to the typos -- a comedy ("But Austen's works reveal nothing of the sort" [109]). Hudson offers a compelling and interesting argument built on a carefully crafted edifice of congenial rather than the presumably more likely disquieting nature of incest, but in some ways the larger and more vexing question is, How can it be that supposedly attentive and scrupulous readers cannot even agree on whether or not the ending of a book is positive and restful? What hope is there for common ground and a level playing field if even the tone of the close of a book is in question? The feminist context, at the least, then, seems to be fraying here. What Devoney Looser has undertaken, as she indicates in the introduction to this volume, is to display examples from "the thriving industry of Jane Austen criticism," where "the driving force is arguably feminist" (1). The two men and eight women whose essays she includes address varying aspects of "the workings of gender politics in her novels" (9). But that may well be the only common denominator as the critics range independently across issues of sociopolitics as an endowment of Anglican Enlightenment (Gary Kelly's "Jane Austen, Romantic Feminism, and Civil Society"); feminist rewriting of historiography in the juvenilia (Antoinette Burton's "`Invention Is What Delights Me': Jane Austen's Remaking of English, History"); Austen...
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