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Variously portrayed as a champion of conservative social values and a secret radical, adopted as an icon by the 20th-century suffrage movement and the 21st-century alt right, the enduring popularity of Jane Austen's stories and the universality of her themes place her alongside Shakespeare as one of the Western canon's finest anatomists of the human condition.
As with Shakespeare, there are also vigorous debates about whether her texts contain coded sociopolitical commentary, differences of opinion compounded by the fact that all but the most anodyne of her correspondence was destroyed by her sister Cassandra after her death, leaving those interested in a deeper reading of her work to make inferences based on what can be gleaned from secondary sources.
In Satire, Celebrity and Politics in Jane Austen, University of Otago Emeritus Professor Jocelyn Harris approaches Austen in terms of the world in which she lived, using what is known of everything from her social networks to contemporary media portrayals of prominent figures, to argue that her novels are much more than mere domestic dramas.
Although Austen's family maintained she was uninterested in politics and her characters were not based on real people, Harris provides numerous examples where she might be seen to be drawing on public figures for inspiration. Some of these are backed by fairly strong evidence, such as the parallels between events and characters in Mansfield Park - echoed in Emma, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey - and the life of novelist Fanny Burney and her sister Susan, about whom Austen is likely to have been kept well informed by her mother's cousin, for a time a friend and neighbour to the Burney sisters.
She also discusses the ways in which Austen may have draw on fellow writers' work, imitating those she admires such as Burney and Shakespeare, incorporating and improving upon others.
The idea of Austen as a celebrity watcher certainly fits with my sense of her as an acute social observationalist. But the most interesting aspects of Harris's analysis addresses the extent to which Austen can be read as a satirist, both in the modern sense of the word and as it was used at the time; a derisive term for a woman with the temerity to express political opinions.
Here she suggests that despite her family's denial, Austen not only had opinions on politics and the gendering of political discussion but also commented on them, albeit obliquely, in her novels. Not only do her female characters have and express political views (even if disparaged by others), Harris points out that Emma can be (and has been) read as a dramatisation of aspects of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, a fact of which I was unaware.
More provocatively, she challenges the view of commentators such as Marilyn Butler, who paints Austen as staunchly pro-monarchy and the class system. Instead she proposes that many of the novels contain a pattern of veiled - and not so veiled - criticisms of the Royal Family (particularly Prince George) and, in the final section, explores perhaps the most contentious questions of all: might the unfinished Sanditon have been intended as a critique of slavery? And did Cassandra burn her sister's letters not because of their personal but their political content?
Although primarily an academic text, Satire, Celebrity and Politics has much of interest here for the lay reader too. The glimpses it offers into regency England and diversions into topics as diverse as the disputed accounts of Cook's death and the misbehaviour of the Prince Regent are as interesting as the primary analysis.
While I am in no position to pass judgement on the intellectual aspects of Harris's formidable thesis, early reviews suggest it is standing its ground in the fierce world of Austen scholarship.
I am off to reread her novels from a fresh perspective.
Cushla McKinney is a Dunedin scientist.