The Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle was once asked whether he read novels. He is supposed to have answered,
“Yes, all six of them.”
How is it that Jane Austen, the author of those six and quintessential novelist-of-women, had so much appeal for a hyper-educated Englishman? After all — with apologies to English friends who are of course the exceptions — fairly or unfairly, we don’t think of the English as particularly sensitive to women – or much aware of them.
The wife of one of the presidents of Brooklyn College once asked me how Plato could presume to write (as I claimed he did) so aptly about the predicaments of women. Because, I said instantly, “he’s the divine Plato!” Is Jane Austen, in some analogous way, the divine Jane? So that men and women, reading her, can see what it is to be a woman? The heroic Ayaan Hirsi Ali has recalled growing up in a culture whose only message for a girl was to conceal herself. Hirsi Ali wanted to know how to live like a woman in the daylight. Reading Jane Austen gave her crucial clues.
What is Jane’s secret? How does she manage to be so wonderful? Just like real women, her heroines get whipsawed by life. Just like us, they try and fail to dominate their feelings. They manage to accommodate themselves to circumstances they cannot change – even if others belittle them for these accommodations. They know the difference between being tactful and lying. By the way they are present to their situations, they make visible the human landscape around themselves. They refuse to bully. They don’t luxuriate in gossipy unfairness. If they carelessly overstep that line, they are sorry for it afterward. They make the social space they inhabit a full space. They are not hollow people.
How do you do all that? One could think just as grammatically, be dressed just as gracefully, and still not be up to the job of being one of Jane’s women. Are there principles to follow? How about these?
1. Whatever happens, maintain your own way in inhabiting social space; don’t stretch or shrink to fit others’ ways of dividing the room.
2. Whatever happens, don’t invent a persona.
3. Don’t devastate another person with your notion of the “hard truth” that person needs to hear.
4. Coquetry is natural, not a disguise. Even under the steam pressures of courtship, don’t take on disguises.
5. Don’t cover vulnerabilities with fake certainties.
6. Don’t cover disappointment with a protective shell of hardness, vulgarity or cynicism.
So I ask myself, is this easy or hard? Is there any one of these six principles that I have violated in my own life?
It’s not easy. It’s amazingly hard. And there is not one of the above six that I have not violated, at one time or another, in my own life.
Why then does Jane delight me, rather than leave me resentful, envious or inclined to feel horribly inadequate?
Because, girls, she shows what a real one looks like.
And it’s an astonishingly pretty sight.