On Jane Austen in the General Election

by G. K. Chesterton

[From "Come to Think of It" by G.K.Chesterton]

XXXII. On Jane Austen in the General Election

THERE was a remark about--Jane Austen in connexion with the General Election. We have most of us seen a good many remarks about Jane Austen in connexion with the Flapper or the New Woman or the Modern View of Marriage, or some of those funny things. And those happy few of us who happen to have read Jane Austen have generally come to the conclusion that those who refer to her have not read her. Feminists are, as their name implies, opposed to anything feminine. But some times they disparaged the earlier forms of the feminine, even when they showed qualities commonly called masculine. They talk of Sense and Sensibility without knowing that the moral is on the side of Sense. They talk about fainting. I do not remember any woman fainting in any novel of Jane Austen. There may be an exception that I have forgotten; there is indeed a lady who falls with a great whack off the Cobb at Lyme Regis. But few ladies would do that as a mere affected pose of sentiment. But rarely does a lady dash herself from Shakespeare's Cliff or the Monument solely to assume a graceful attitude below. Jane Austen herself was certainly not of the fainting sort. Nor were her favourite heroines, like Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennett. The real case against Jane Austen (if anybody is so base and thankless as to want to make a case against her) is not that she is sentimental, but that she is rather cynical. Allowing for the different conventions of subject-matter in the two periods, she was rather like Miss Rose Macaulay. But Miss Rose Macaulay finds herself in a world where fainting-fits would be a very mild form of excitement. There is something very amusing about this appeal to a comparison between the novels of the two periods. The heroine of many a modern novel writhes and reels her way through the story, chews and flings away fifty half-smoked cigarettes, is perpetually stifling a scream or else not stifling it, howling for solitude or howling for society, goading every mood to the verge of madness, seeing red mists before her eyes, seeing green flames dance in her brain, dashing to the druggist and then collapsing on the doorstep of the psycho-analyst; and all the time congratulating herself on her rational superiority to the weak sensibility of Jane Austen.

I do not say the new woman is like the new neurotic heroine; any more than I think the older woman was like the artificial fainting heroine. But if the critics have a right to argue from the old novels, we have a right to argue from the new. And what I say is true of the novels of some new novelists; and what they say is not true of the novels of Jane Austen. But, as I have said, we are already familiar with this sort of journalistic comment on Jane Austen's novels. It was always sufficiently shallow and trivial, being based on a vague association, connected with ladies who wore drooping ringlets and were therefore supposed to droop. But the particular example that I observed was more unique and interesting, because it has a special point of application to-day. A writer in a leading daily paper, in the course of a highly optimistic account of the new attitude of woman to men, as it would appear in the General Election, made the remark that a modern girl would see through the insincerity of Mr. Wickham, in Pride and Prejudice, in five minutes.

Now this is a highly interesting instance of the sort of injustice done to Jane Austen. The crowd (I fear, the considerable crowd) of those who read that newspaper and do not read that author will certainly go away with the idea that Mr. Wickham was some sort of florid and vulgar impostor like Mr. Mantalini. But Jane Austen was a much more shrewd and solid psychologist than that. She did not make Elizabeth Bennett to be a person easily deceived, and she did not make her deceiver a vulgar impostor. Mr. Wickham was one of those very formidable people who tell lies by telling the truth. He did not merely swagger or sentimentalize or strike attitudes; he simply told the girl, as if reluctantly, that he had been promised a living in the Church by old Mr. Darcy, and that young Mr. Darcy had not carried out the scheme. This was true as far as it went; anybody might have believed it; most people would have believed it, if it were told with modesty and restraint. Mr. Wickham could be trusted to tell it with modesty and restraint. What Mr. Wickham could not be trusted to do was to tell the rest of the story; which made it a very different story. He did not think it necessary to mention that he had misbehaved himself in so flagrant a fashion that no responsible squire could possibly make him a parson; so that the squire had compensated him and he had become an officer in a fashionable regiment instead. Now that is a very quiet, commonplace, everyday sort of incident, and the sort of incident that does really occur. It is a perfectly sound and realistic example of the way in which quite sensible people can be deceived by quite unreliable people. And the novelist knew her business much too well to make the unreliable person obviously unreliable. That sort of quiet and plausible liar does exist; I certainly see no reason to think he has ceased to exist. I think Jane Austen was right in supposing that Elizabeth Bennett might have believed him. I think Jane Austen herself might have believed him. And I am quite certain that the Modern Girl might believe him any day.

But the rather queer application of all this to the case of the General Election is not without a moral, after nil. The optimistic journalist, who gloried in the infallible intuition of the Flappers' Vote, those a very unlucky example for his own purpose when he chose the ingenious Mr. Wickham. For Mr. Wickham was, or is, exactly the sort of man who does make a success of political elections. Sometimes he is just a little too successful to succeed. Sometimes he is actually found out, by some accident, doing very dexterous things in the art of finance; and he disappears suddenly, but even then silently. But in the main he is made for Parliamentary life. And he owes his success to two qualities, both exhibited in the novel in which he figures. First, the talent for telling a lie by telling half of the truth. And second, the art of telling a lie not loudly and offensively, but with an appearance of gentlemanly and graceful regret. It was a very fortunate day for professional politicians when some reactionaries began to accuse them of being demagogues. The truth is that they seldom dare to be demagogues; and their greatest success is when they talk with delicacy and reserve like diplomatists. A dictator has to be a demagogue; a man like Mussolini cannot be ashamed to shout. He cannot afford to be a mere gentleman. His whole power depends on convincing the populace that he knows what he wants, and wants it badly. But a politician will be much wiser if he disguises himself as a gentleman. His power consists very largely in getting people to take things lightly. It is in getting them to be content with his sketchy and superficial version of the real state of things. Nothing tends more happily to this result than the shining qualities of Mr. Wickham; good manners and good nature and a light touch. All sorts of answers are given by Ministers to questions asked in Parliament, which could only be delivered in this way. If such palpable nonsense were thundered by an orator, or shouted by a demagogue, or in any way made striking and decisive, even the House of Commons would rise in riot or roar with laughter. Nonsense so nonsensical as that can only be uttered in the tones of a sensible man.

So vividly do I see Mr. Wickham as a politician that I feel inclined to rewrite the whole of Pride and Prejudice to suit the politics of to-day. It would be amusing to send the Bennett girls rushing round to canvass: Elizabeth with amusement, and Jane with dignified reluctance. As for Lydia, she would be a great success hi modern politics. But her husband would be the greatest success of all; and he might become a Cabinet Minister while poor old Darcy was sulking in the provinces, a decent, truthful, honourable Diehard, cursing the taxes and swearing the country was going to the dogs and especially to the puppies.

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Last modified: 6th January 2010
Martin Ward, De Montfort University, Leicester.
Email: martin@gkc.org.uk