By T. B. Tomlinson (auth.)
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Extra info for The English Middle-Class Novel
What it also misses, or misrepresents, are some of the best insights in D. W. Harding's earlier essay. In outline, Harding's essay might seem to resemble Professor Trilling's chapter on Mansfield Park. He does not talk in terms of'the Terror which rules our moral situation', or 'the ubiquitous anonymous judgment to which we respond .. '; but he is concerned to draw attention to certain fears Jane Austen has about the society she lives in and about people she knows. Where he differs most from later essayists like Trilling, who also see Jane Austen as in some sense embattled or worried, is in his ability to pinpoint these worries Sense and Sensibility to Persuasion 39 in very simple, direct terms that do not obscure or muffie the crispness and buoyancy of her writing.
They are aimed (though not necessarily consciously) at Jane Austen's own readers, at people she knew, and at us. Harding uses terms as strong as 'fear and hatred' to describe some of the impulses in her novels; and he claims that, though there are clear and strong counterbalancing impulses there too, the presence of these makes impossible, not just any sentimental 'gentle Jane' reading, but also any easy assumption that Jane Austen's virtues stem from her being a writer on good and intimate terms with her public and with the society she lived in.
In sum, there are moments in the novel when one feels the presence of a slightly too easy reliance on the myth of Donwell and Hartfield as all-embracing, protective. This is related, finally. to self-protection of a much more personal kind that spoils one crucial scene at the end: Emma's acceptance of Knightley's proposal. 'She spoke then, on being so entreated. What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does. ' (Vol. III, ch. xm) This is coyness taking over from confident irony.