The Guardian’s books supplement (October 17th) has published a sharp essay (“Passionate about anonymity”) by Elena Ferrante, or perhaps we should say, by the writer known as Elena Ferrante. It treats Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, and is extracted from an introduction to a new edition of the work published by The Folio Society. It is sharp in particular on the novel and its heroine, Elinor Dashwood, though perhaps less so – and more speculative ‑ on Jane Austen and the thinking behind her anonymous publication of the work.
Elinor cannot be understood, Ferrante writes, in isolation from her younger sister, Marianne, “a beautiful model of the blossoming young girl to whom all conventions seem constricting, and who adheres to a new convention: considering her own sensibility as the only possible truth”. Elizabeth Bennet was loved by Austen readers for her intelligence, articulacy and forwardness, the very qualities that so offended Lady Catherine de Bourgh; Emma Woodhouse, spoilt and scheming, was famously “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”, though in fact men like her, as they do Thackeray’s Becky Sharp. Elinor Dashwood, however, pulls off the remarkable feat of being moral and good without making us want to skip the pages in which she features (a trick Dickens often had difficulty with).
Elinor is different in many respects from the women who surround her. She doesn’t have their gossipy chattiness, their egoism, their occasional treacherousness. And yet she has many of their aspirations: she wants love and marriage and she knows that in the society in which she lives (or perhaps any society) money counts and must be counted. Ferrante writes:
Her originality lies in the fact that she is both outside of and within the daily life of her sex. But it’s not only that: closeness and distance could have produced a lopsided figure, now hypercritical, now hypocritical. Instead, what we get is a person who is involved but not audacious, vigilant, armed, and yet understanding. Both sisters are educated; they value elegance, refined manners, kindness, intelligence and wit in conversation, narrative ability. But while Marianne uses those qualities as a means of discriminating – on the one hand, the few who possess them, and are worthy of her attention; on the other the majority, male and female, who do not have them and scarcely deserve to exist – Elinor gradually achieves an ironic acceptance of flaw, an understanding of error, a sympathetic closeness that keeps conflict from exploding.
Elinor thus, in Ferrante’s judgment, is a person who, like all of us, has a share of appetite and egoism and who may be tempted to scheme for her own advantage or to lash out at others who obstruct her will or appetite ‑ but who doesn’t. She has become, Ferrante suggests, better than herself. Armed with intelligence, a sense of order, acute powers of observation and ironic detachment, she can reduce to the minimum her need to be central to everything and thus manages to live in equilibrium in the world.
If you think that Elinor’s positive attributes as here outlined sound very much like those of a novelist, and of the novelist Jane Austen in particular, you are certainly on the right track. And Ferrante’s is a shrewd and persuasive point. When it comes to the question of authorial anonymity, however, there are some objections to be made. Indeed perhaps we learn more in the essay about the reasons for Ferrante’s anonymity than for Austen’s.
It seems to me that Austen, by not putting her name on the books she published, did the same thing as Elinor, and in an extremely radical way.
There was nothing particularly unusual in Sense and Sensibility’s being published anonymously (“by a Lady”); it was also, incidentally, published at Austen’s own expense, or rather at the expense of her brother and sister-in-law, its literary midwives. A contemporary novelist, Mary Brunton, suggested some of the reasons anonymity might appeal to a gentlewoman author: “To be pointed at – to be noted & commented upon –to be suspected of literary airs – to be shunned, as literary women are, by the more unpretending of my own sex: & abhorred, as literary women are, by the more pretending of the other! – My dear, I would sooner exhibit as a rope dancer.”
Ferrante posits a fairly clear functional distinction between the private Jane Austen and the semi-public “lady-who-writes”:
The lady-who-writes can set aside dissatisfaction and bitterness, spread a light, ironic glaze over the old world that, with its wrongs, is collapsing … But pay attention, for the lightness conceals pitiless depths – it’s a glaze that, miraculously, doesn’t sweeten anything.
We are all entitled to interpret a novel, or indeed an entire oeuvre, as we wish, but I am not sure I can quite see “pitiless depths” in Austen’s work, though she may indeed be said to have a pitiless gaze, in the sense of a clear and undeluded one. Nor, in the scattered and sadly scant biographical documentation that we have of her (that fraction of her letters that was not deliberately destroyed by her family; her juvenilia, the product of a wildly exuberant, irreverent and as yet untamed sensibility) do we see a person much given to either dissatisfaction or bitterness but rather one with a rumbustuous and extravagant sense of fun, often, admittedly, a slightly cruel one. Here she is, aged twenty-four, writing to her sister, Cassandra, about a ball:
There were only twelve dances, of which I danced nine, & was merely prevented from dancing the rest by the want of a partner … There were very few Beauties, and such as there were, were not very handsome. Miss Iremonger did not look well, & Mrs Blount was the only one much admired. She appeared exactly as she did in September, with the same broad face, diamond bandeau, white shoes, pink husband, & fat neck … Mrs Warren, I was constrained to think a very fine young woman, which I regret. She has got rid of some part of her child, & danced away with great activity, looking by no means very large. Her husband is ugly enough; uglier even than his cousin John; but he does not look so very old. The Miss Maitlands are both prettyish … with brown skins, large dark eyes, & a good deal of nose. – The General has got the Gout, and Mrs Maitland the Jaundice. Miss Debary, Susan & Sally … made their appearance, & I was as civil to them as their bad breath would allow me.
What I think Austen did in her novels was to somewhat tone down her natural exuberance and anarchy and adapt it to the decorous conventions of literary romance. In the process perhaps a little of the shock impact of her native wit was lost and more than a little subtlety gained. In her best writing, and Sense and Sensibility contains much of it, Austen was able to pack together with great economy observation, moral judgment, wit and aesthetic feeling. Here she anatomises the pretty, foolish, gabbling and humanly generous Charlotte Palmer, in a single-sentence observation that is in its general tendency kind, as indeed one would expect of its author, Elinor Dashwood, though with a slight sting in the tail.
The openness and heartiness of her manner, more than atoned for that want of recollection and elegance, which made her often deficient in the forms of politeness; her kindness, recommended by so pretty a face, was engaging, her folly, though evident, was not disgusting, because it was not conceited; and Elinor could have forgiven everything but her laugh.