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Rosemary Haskell published in News & Observer, Oregonian

The professor of English had a reponse column about Jane Austen published in both regional newspapers.

Professor Rosemary Haskell

Professor Rosemary Haskell in the Department of English took issue with the way a nationally syndicated columnist recently described Jane Austen, the famous British author, in an opinion article that appeared across the country.

In response, Haskell sent her own thoughts about Austen to two regional newspapers - the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., and the Oregonian in Portland, Ore. Both were published in August.

The letter:

Washington Post writer Ruth Marcus got it wrong in her recent column about the decision to put novelist Jane Austen’s face on the redesigned 10 pound note issued by the Bank of England.    

In rightly deploring the frightening social media attacks on those who had campaigned for a female face on bank currency, Marcus thoughtlessly endorses a claim that this choice of Austen’s image really ought to have been as uncontroversial as drinking a “cup of tea.”

I beg to differ. On many occasions, in both her life and works, Austen offers us much stronger drink.

How do Jane Austen’s novels (and Jane Austen herself) represent something a lot more threatening and a lot less trivial than a teacup? Let me count the ways:

1.) Austen’s lifelong letters to beloved sister Cassandra were often sharp-tongued and sometimes even cruel: “Mrs. Hall, of Sherborne, was brought to bed yesterday of a dead child, some weeks before she expected, owing to a fright,” she writes to Cassandra. “I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband.”

2.) Dear Jane also makes very rude jokes. See, for example, her 1814 novel Mansfield Park, where the attractive Mary Crawford, referring to her upbringing in the house of her uncle the Admiral, says (in mixed company): “Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.” How could Austen have known about the Royal Navy’s reputation for “rum, sodomy, and the lash”?  Answer: Austen had brothers serving on the ships that fought Napoleon. She was indeed no prim Victorian, but a vigorous Georgian, living from 1775-1817.

3.) Her “big six” novels explore the very serious topic of the tension between an individual’s hopes, fears and desires, and the formal code of manners that contains, and gives shape to, those impulses. The most engrossing parts of her novels occur where that tension is so great that something—or someone—appears ready to snap. Comedy, pathos, staggering frustration or energetic straight talk may ensue. Austen’s characters do indeed “inhabit a world of genteel decorum,” as Marcus claims. But the price they pay for living in such a world is extremely high.

4.) By way of illustration: Which of us could rise to the emotional and social heroism of Anne Elliot, in “Persuasion,” whose excellent manners demand that she gracefully abandon a rare and precious encounter with her beloved Captain Wentworth? “At that moment, a touch on the shoulder obliged Anne to turn round . . . to explain Italian” song lyrics, to her cousin. “Anne could not refuse; but never had she sacrificed to politeness with a more suffering spirit.”

5.) And everyone knows that in “Pride and Prejudice” Elizabeth Bennet’s rejection of Darcy’s proposal reaches its thrilling climax when she steps—for a few moments—away from the code of well-bred ladylike passivity to exclaim that Darcy is “the last person in the world whom I could ever be prevailed upon to marry,” but that she’d feel worse about hurting his feelings if he had “behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.” Mr. Darcy, and Austen’s readers, are stopped in their tracks. Miss Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t just ”edge to rudeness,” as Marcus asserts. She steps right over the precipice, however briefly. 

Jane Austen’s mild, frilly-capped countenance, then, really should cause some controversy as it circulates on England’s folding money (the kind Austen herself, as a single woman threatened by poverty, knew how to value.)

Her novels uncover for us the value of analyzing the moral and emotional excitement that drives the most apparently decorous of societies. And, yes, she could certainly teach those Twitter thugs a thing or two about the ethics of self-restraint.

Eric Townsend,
8/29/2013 11:30 AM