July 19, 2017

200 Years Later We’re Still Jane Austen’s Children

If I am a wild Beast, I cannot help it. — Jane Austen, from a letter

“Every time I read Pride and Prejudice,” Mark Twain once wrote to a friend, “I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” The sheltered drawing-room stereotype of Jane Austen that Twain is ridiculing only redounds to the power of her art. If anything, his vehemence suggests a kind of backhanded recognition of the “wild beast” of a writer she spontaneously and perhaps inadvertently reveals in a May 24, 1813, letter to her elder sister Cassandra.

Austen was in London when she wrote that letter. Pride and Prejudice had just been published, anonymously, and it was becoming known that she was the author. Told that a stranger wished to meet her, she gives vent to the un-Jane-like exclamation, adding “It is not my own fault,” as if she felt she had to make excuses for her notoriety. The wonder is that the “wild beast” survived Cassandra’s executorial mission to either censor or burn any correspondence she thought might reflect poorly on Jane or the family.

“You Must Be Kidding!”

Jane Austen died on July 18, 1817, 200 years ago yesterday. Which is why what began as a column about a television series rich in murder and mayhem has changed course dramatically. “Jane Austen and Fargo? You must be kidding!” says my wife. We’ll see. It’s worth noting that in Jane’s brief jeu d’esprit, “Plan of a novel according to Hints from Various Quarters,” written in 1816, she imagines a “faultless” heroine inhabiting a world in which “All the Good will be unexceptionable in every respect — and there will be no foibles or weaknesses but with the Wicked, who will be completely depraved and infamous, hardly a resemblance of humanity left in them.”

Sounds not unlike what Carrie Coon’s brave, steadfast policewoman is up against in Season 3 of Fargo. After using the same quote from Twain eight years ago in a column on Jane’s birthday (“Celebrating Jane Austen, Lisbeth Salander, and Other Women Warriors”), I suggested that “the perceptual rigor” with which Austen “scrutinizes the society she’s holding in the palm of her hand carries an implicit force as strict in its way as your garden variety fictional blood and thunder, Gothic fireworks, shootings and knifings, heavy sex, or hand-to-hand combat.” This was around the time that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was on the best-seller list.

Will and Jane

Other letters from Jane Austen in the early spring of 1813 show an author pleased and preoccupied with the novel she calls “my own darling child.” Although she admits “some fits of disgust” about a flawed response to Pride and Prejudice, she remains “quite vain enough and well satisfied enough” about her accomplishment, finding Elizabeth Bennet “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print” and wondering how she “would be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least.”

The way I prefer to see Austen and her heroines is as sisters of Shakespearean women like Rosalind and Imogen. Jane herself could be a Portia of the pen the Bard might have conceived. I can imagine an afterlife romance, Will falling under her sway, unable to resist her charms. After noting the influence of Rosalind in the creation of Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, Harold Bloom writes, “Like Shakespeare, Austen invented us. Because we are Austen’s children, we behold and confront our own anguish and our own fantasies in her novels.” Pointing out how “the strong selves” of her heroines attest to her “reserves of power,” Bloom imagines that “had she not died so soon, she would have been capable of creating a Shakespearean diversity of persons, despite her narrowly limited social range of representation.”

The Force of Her Will

You don’t need to read far in Jane Austen’s letters to recognize her commitment, her fervor and her clarity, and the self-awareness that allows her to see beyond her limits. In a somewhat disingenuous critique of Pride and Prejudice as “rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade,” she admits in another letter to Cassandra that it needs to be “stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense … if not, of solemn specious nonsense about something unconnected with the story.” She goes so far as to suggest the possibility of adding an essay on writing, a critique of Walter Scott, or Napoleonic history, “anything that would form a contrast.”

In 1816 when a surrogate of the Prince of Wales suggested that “Miss Austen” write a historical romance, however, the writer who has generated a boom in romantic fiction beyond all comprehension replied, “I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life & if it were indispensable for me to keep it up & never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I finished the first chapter. No, I must keep to my own style and go my own way.”

For all its genteel deference, the response rings with the force of authorial will: writing is a life-or-death issue, and should she fail to respect it, no punishment she can imagine, including hanging, would be too extreme; she has her own breed of demons. W.H. Auden makes reference to her wicked power in his poem, “Letter to Lord Byron”: “You could not shock her more than she shocks me;/Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.”

Jane Meets Emmy

In the conclusion of Kipling’s story, “The Janeites,” Shakespeare stands at the top of the stairs to paradise “To welcome Jane.”

Here at the bottom of the stairs, if not in the basement of the underworld, it’s time to welcome her to the slings and arrows of series television, Emmy nominations, and binge-watching series like HBO’s The Feud and Big Little Lies and FX’s Fargo, all three of which are in the running for Outstanding Limited Series Emmys. It would be fun to think that the Emmy award is named for Jane Austen’s compulsively manipulative Emma, but a little research shows that the statuette was in fact named for the camera tube called an “image orthicon,” fondly known as an immy. In any case, the program I’d like to think Jane would vote for, in spite of all its horrors, is Fargo; with that in mind, I’ll make only passing mention of the Austenesque aspects of the other two nominees.

For The Feud, think sense and sensibility gone wild, core issues of class conflict taken to the gaudiest, most grotesque extreme, two tarnished stars fallen from the heights of Hollywood royalty, well-born Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and low-born Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange), both performances predictably nominated for Outstanding Actress.

A truer Jane Austen situation can be found in Big Little Lies, wherein two wealthy Silicon Valley wives and mothers played by Emmy nominees Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman inhabit the 21st-century Pacific Coast version of English country estates. Both women take a proprietary interest in a newcomer named Jane, a lower-middle-class single mother memorably played by Shailene Woodley. In her New Yorker review, Emily Nussbaum makes the obvious connection: “Like Jane Austen’s Emma,” Reese Witherspoon’s character “adopts a project … an outsider who gets dismissed” by the local gentry “as a dirty old Prius parked outside of Barneys.” It’s more than likely that Jane of the Ages would relate more to the warmth, sweetness and vulnerability of Woodley’s portrayal of her namesake than to the flashier performances of the two stars.

“I Can Help”

At the heart of the third season of Noah Hawley’s brilliant flight of murderous Minnesota fancy is a single mother and dedicated policewoman named Gloria Burgle, played by Carrie Coon, whose amiably Austenian performance as Nora Durst is what kept us watching The Leftovers. Like Frances McDormand’s resourceful sheriff in the Coen brothers’ Fargo and Alison Tolman’s steadfast deputy Molly in the first season of Hawley’s reimagining, Gloria has just the sort of unassuming determination Jane Austen could admire as she gamely navigates a gauntlet of unthinkable evil with her quiet mantra “I can help.” The Austen character Gloria most closely resembles may be Anne Elliot in Persuasion, if you substitute “Gloria” for “Anne” in Stuart Tave’s description: “Nobody hears Anne, nobody sees her, but it is she who is ever at the center. It is through her ears, eyes, and mind that we are made to care for what is happening. If nobody is aware of her, she is very much aware of everyone else and she perceives what is happening to them when they are ignorant of themselves.”

Based on my hasty rereading of Persuasion, I think Tave’s picture actually fits Gloria Burgle better than Anne Elliot. In Harold Bloom’s essay, in which he quotes Tave’s as “the most accurate estimate” of Anne, he sees her as “a strong but subdued outrider,” a character “upon whom nothing is lost.” This, too, is true of Carrie Coon’s Gloria, who seems to be an “outrider” from another time: automatic doors don’t work for her, nor do automatic faucets, she has no Facebook page and thus no presence online when David Thewliss’s criminal genius Varga attempts to track her down. Varga is the Wolf in Hawley’s charming musical play on Tchaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf, and of course Gloria is Peter, and at the end it’s the two of them, good and evil, sitting across the table from one another.

Having just seen and admired all three seasons of Fargo in 2-3-1 order, I hope to do justice to the whole series, and the Coens’ original, in a subsequent column. What makes the group so special is the way the human center holds against the wild beast of human folly.