Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sense and unsentimentality

I have lately been delighting in the New Pelican Guide to English Literature on my work trips. The series originates from the 1950's, my revised edition being from 1982. This probably explains why the marvelously quirky and individual writers treat literature if it were a universally important and serious moral concern. Postmodernity has certainly gotten rid of that attitude and the literature departments around the world are for the most part happily free of anything universally important and serious. Or of any love of literature. Anyway, I'm now in the middle of part 5, From Blake to Byron and two exceptionally challenging and perceptive essays, one by Lionel Trilling on Mansfield Park and the other by Malcolm Bradbury on Emma, made me think again my lukewarm attitude to Jane Austen.

I have never been too fond of that steely tory glitter behind the graceful prose. But it might be that the provinciality is on my side mostly after all: there perhaps is certain universality that can be glimpsed through that absolute integrity and serious moral concern however constricted they appear to an unsympathetic and hasty reader. I recently happened to reread Pride and Prejudice (I suppose after 25 years) and the experience was admittedly very remarkable: the text was so deceptively effortless and elegant that one might really mistake the story itself to be the fundamental concern, actually pretty much as modern Hollywood seems to "read" Austen. But afterwards, what was left was a feeling of something having been very severely and unsentimentally weighed. That serious severe weighing is the essence of Austen - and it should be our own attitude in this decadent and emotionally overindulgent era. Not to mention intellectually confused.