I stumbled upon this yesterday and think it rather appropriate as we approach The Election tomorrow – from G. K. Chesterton’s Come to Think of It (Methuen, 1930, originally published in The Illustrated London News, 1 June 1929) – a lovely piece about Wickham and his sort – we shall forgive Mr. Chesterton for misspelling “Bennett” – a curiously common error….
“On Jane Austen in the General Election” – by G. K. Chesterton
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….
Click here for the rest of the essay at Martin Ward’s Chesterton site:
You can also read the full text at Google Books from the Collected Works, Vol 35 , essay from The Illustrated London News, June 1, 1929 [this text includes footnotes]
It has also been recently reprinted in: Chesterton, G. K. “Jane Austen in the General Election.” In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton. Ed. Dale Ahlquist, Joseph Pearce, and Aidan Mackey. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2011. 196-200.
Chesterton is most known to us as the author of the preface to the first printing of Love and Freindship (Chatto & Windus, 1922) - that essay can be read here as well:
A reminder to all Vote tomorrow, and hopefully there shall be no Wickhams on any of the winning teams… [I live in Hope...]