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Universally Civil

Universally Civil

by Julie Bozza

We were recently sent this article by Julie Bozza who has been editing a new anthology of Jane Austen inspired stories. In her article Julie gives some great examples of people and events within Austen’s novels which illustrate that she was an incredible humanist (as well as an amazing author). We hope you enjoy reading her article as much as we did!  

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Jane Austen’s novels appeal to a wide audience for many reasons. Her main characters are determined to make their own choices, and, although they conform to society’s gender roles, Austen treats the men and women as equally valuable. Vitally, her stories support the need to accept each other’s differences, and get along.

A CERTAIN PERSUASSIONI have recently had the honour of editing an anthology titled A Certain Persuasion: Modern LGBTQ+ fiction inspired by Jane Austen’s novels. It features a wide range of stories – from Harriet Smith (of Emma) daydreaming about how romantic it must be to be stolen away in the night by a lady dressed as a man, and to be galloped off with across the moors by moonlight – to a retelling of Pride and Prejudice, with a modern-day Darcy in a reality TV dance show trying to live up to wearing Colin Firth’s britches, and more interested in his former dance-partner’s brother than in her.

The idea behind the anthology may seem odd, as Jane Austen’s novels are usually seen as celebrating marriage between a man and a woman, as straight as straight can be! I have found, though, that many readers and writers of queer romance name Austen as one of their favourite authors.

This probably shouldn’t be a surprise, as Austen played a fundamental role in the creation of the modern novel as we know it today. However, I think there’s more to it than that.
One aspect of her novels that might explain this is the stubborn independence of her main characters. They never consider choosing to live outside the genteel society of their times, but they are determined to make their own choices and negotiate their own terms within those structures.

Related to that notion is that while her main characters outwardly conform to the gender roles of the times, inwardly they are all as capable and as fallible as each other. Her society might place more value on Fitzwilliam Darcy than Elizabeth Bennet, on Frederick Wentworth than Anne Elliot – but Austen knows that as individual people they are all equally worthwhile.

How can readers and writers of queer characters resist such a humanist?

I believe there is yet another aspect to her writing that makes her irresistible to a wide range of readers: her view of society tends to be that we all need to accept each other’s differences and get along.

I was particularly struck by this when re-reading Emma. Our most beloved characters – Emma and Mr Knightley, and Mr and Mrs Weston, along with John and Isabella Knightley – form a “small band of true friends”. They can rely on and confide in each other with perfect comfort. They can be truly themselves in such company.

Around them is a circle of friends and family who are well loved, even though they are not quite sympathetic enough to be part of Mr-Woodhouse-Emma-Woodhouse-George-Knightly-jane-austen-12820609-405-270the inner circle. This outer circle includes Mr Woodhouse, Mrs and Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, and perhaps Harriet Smith and Robert Martin.

Beyond that is a wider acquaintance of people such as Mr and Mrs Elton, the Coles, Mr Perry, and Mrs Goddard. Friendly (or at least polite!) relationships must be maintained with all these people. The small village of Highbury, which is home to Emma and many of the rest, would soon be a miserable place if the inhabitants didn’t treat each other with civility. And of course, there are connections beyond Highbury to London via John and Isabella, and to the Churchill, Campbell, and Dixon families, and more. There is a wide network of relationships to respect and sustain.

We might wish that Mr Woodhouse was less fearful and dependent on Emma’s care, that Miss Bates was less talkative and scatter-brained, that Mrs Elton was less vulgar and meddlesome. We might want other people to change, but Austen knows that it’s the rare individual who does – and that change can only come from within, from honest self-knowledge and better self-governance. Only her main characters achieve such change – and so what is left? The acceptance of people as they are.

One of the first things we learn about Emma’s father, Mr Woodhouse, is perhaps his best quality: he is “universally civil”, and this has led to a broad acquaintance for himself and his family. Even the most challenging or tedious characters have their good points, and occasionally even excellent points. (Well, except for Mrs Elton.)

There are very few instances in the novels of people being cast out of society. Maria Bertram and Mrs Norris are the obvious examples. Mrs Norris, I’m afraid, has no redeeming features that I can see, and continually acts on selfish greed and malice. I, for one, was relieved to be rid of her! I believe that Maria wasn’t cast out for her infidelity as such, but because she entered into marriage with the dim but decent Mr Rushworth despite knowing that she despised him and desired another. She acted on bad faith all round, and could easily have predicted what would happen if Henry Crawford came knocking on her door again.

unnamedElsewhere, Austen deals fairly and sensitively with her ‘fallen’ women. At the end of Persuasion, Mrs Clay becomes Mr Elliot’s mistress, and Austen seems perfectly satisfied that she might eventually “carry the day” and become the wife of a baronet. In Sense and Sensibility, Colonel Brandon’s lost love and her illegitimate daughter, both named Eliza Williams, are considered sympathetically and as worthy of friendship and support. In Emma, Harriet Smith’s illegitimacy is never seen as reflecting poorly on her own character. Similarly, Georgiana Darcy’s near-miss elopement with Wickham in Pride and Prejudice does not lead Darcy or Elizabeth to think any the less of her. Lydia is judged rather more harshly, it is true, but again that seems more to do with her own character and her own actions rather than the simple fact that she lived with Wickham without being sure of his marrying her.

Which brings me to the other instance of someone being cast off – and that is Darcy refusing to let George Wickham ever visit Pemberley again. Again, this has more to do with a whole history of poor behaviour and destructive decisions on Wickham’s part, and (most importantly) a desire to protect the more innocent and well-intentioned Georgiana. And it’s interesting to note that everyone else – including Elizabeth, Jane and Bingley, and the rest of the Bennets – accepts George and Lydia Wickham into their society, just as they are, without anyone ever really expecting them to change.

And so, to start pulling these thoughts together into a conclusion, I think this is another reason why Jane Austen speaks to a modern audience, and to readers and writers of queer characters. She has an inclusive approach to the characters within a social sphere.

As far as I’m aware, none of her characters was intended to be (what we would consider) part of the LGBTQ+ spectrum – though there is of course Mary Crawford’s blunt acknowledgement of “Rears and Vices” among her naval acquaintance. Unfortunately I cannot demonstrate my point by considering the inclusion of a queer character, no matter how well disguised.

I was very interested, however, to find a “half mulatto” character in the unfinished novel Sanditon. Miss Lambe comes from a wealthy family based in the West Indies – but her mixed racial heritage is announced as calmly as ever with Austen, and Miss Lambe is presented as simply one of three young women from a girls’ school who are holidaying in Sanditon. We only meet her briefly before the fragment comes to an untimely end, but I like to think Austen would have dealt with Miss Lambe on her own merits, as fairly as she does with anyone else – and I also like to extend that notion to imagine just such an even-handed approach to members of other minority groups as well.

Ultimately, I think the conclusions of Jane Austen’s main novels signify that, whether or not we like or understand each other, we are all in this together – so we might as well get along, and indeed it would be best if we do. And I think that’s one of the most powerful and useful messages of all.

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Julie Bozza is an English-Australian hybrid who is fuelled by espresso, calmed by knitting, unreasonably excited by photography, and madly in love with John Keats.

One thought on “Universally Civil

  1. What a contrast to the recent US presidential campaign!

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