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Jane Austen and the Enlightenment
Peter Knox-Shaw

Cambridge University Press, 2004.
$59.25, 275 pp. ISBN 0 521 84346 4


Reviewed by Caroline Bertonèche



Because she was so keen on portraying social truths and respecting fictional authenticity, Jane Austen feared all sorts of false representations. Her taste for the “observable” [9] and her “passion for accuracy” [22], says Peter Knox-Shaw, are here to remind us that nothing in Austen’s body of work has been written without a sense of vision or reason; hence the critic’s desire to restore her various conceptions of the novel to their proper historical rank. In response to Marilyn Butler’s revolutionary “war of ideas” and her seminal Anti-Jacobin reading of Jane Austen [155], Knox-Shaw depicts another Austen, daughter of “a true son of the Enlightenment” [8], well-read in philosophy and history, heir to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), David Hume’s sceptical philosophy, Adam Fergusson’s Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) or Mary Wollstonecraft’s post-Enlightenment feminism. Surely less fascinated by the violent outbursts of the French revolution as were Coleridge or Hannah More, Austen conveys the spirit of a different age which clearly parts with The Anti-Jacobin Review and its “defiant dismissal of the Enlightenment” [156]. A gifted committed writer, she can very well teach us about past “history and [contemporary] politics” [23], while always looking ahead. Such is the primary purpose of her microscopic art and experimental fiction, her attention to scientific details and naturalist narrative, her new picturesqueness and her mastered style of cultural restraint.

For Austen’s unrivalled virtues are no other than simplicity and directness, at odds with baroque mannerisms or “over-ornamental” inclinations:

Jane Austen herself displays a love of ease and simple elegance in writing that gives her a conspicuous place among the proponents of the natural style. No other novelist of the period developed a language quite as free of ornament and overt metaphor as hers. [51]

Against Smith’s “vices of affectation” of a veiled and deluded self, she is faithful to her fellow philosophers in that her sound judgement and interest for the inner workings of a conflicting morality are grounded in the “virtuous vice,” says Isobel Armstrong in her Oxford edition of Pride and Prejudice (1990), of an emancipated fiction. As revealed by bits of a witty correspondence, Austen would then be the voice of a “changing world” [10] and mood, which Marilyn Butler stresses in her “Introduction” to R.W. Chapman’s 1985 edition of the Selected Letters: 1796-1817, caught in between political conservatism and “modernist” choices, traditional thought and creative imagination, or, in the well-chosen terms of Peter Knox-Shaw’s diptych, between the “eighteenth-century legacy” and her engagement with “the new age.” Guided by the literary principles and “nervous irony” [28] of her brother James (“so good & so clever a Man” [87], Austen writes in her letter to Cassandra, 8-9 February 1807), and some of the most inspired passages of The Loiterer, Austen excels in artistic maturity as early as her juvenilia—Virginia Woolf naturally spotted it first! An example amongst many, the “force of necessity” of a playful womanhood in Catherine; or the Bower can be seen as a perfect illustration of Austen’s “insights into the way attitudes are shaped by money and class, an insight carried through with a sureness of touch no less epoch-making for being the work of a sixteen year old” [67]. And on the problems of claiming Catherine as an Anti-Jacobin text, the author argues that “such readings are maintained, however, only by turning a blind eye to Jane’s skittish invention and frequently mischievous tone” [68].

This is how Knox-Shaw generally conceives his erudite Austenian “auspices,” picking out all that is worthy of notice in the world of influence and resistance surrounding the birth of a unique woman writer: “It is a mark of Jane Austen’s creative vigour that her work is less superficially revealing of literary influence than is the case with her brother James” [67]. A free thinker within and beyond her family’s upbringing, she indeed belongs to the same intellectual category as that of her best heroines, Elisabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price or Ann Elliot; all refined, “rational creatures” [238] who would not let themselves be contaminated by misinterpretation. And, if grossly mistaken, as was Emma Woodhouse after a series of erroneous matchmakings or Catherine Morland whose polluted mind got lost in the Gothic labyrinths of a fantasized (anti-)romance, they have yet successfully revised their ill-acquired prejudices. Whether it be through the language of complex characterization (“intricate characters are the most amusing” [83], Knox-Shaw here quotes the words of Elisabeth Bennet) or the broader strokes of Hartleian comedy relying on mock science, reversed associations or modern criticism of “the unregarded difficulties experienced by the self in putting together and maintaining a realistic view of the world” [70], Austen, herself dreading to be misunderstood, always warns us against the dangers of a bias, uninformed reader. Against such perversions, her sharp realism promotes the compassion and charity of Smith’s “impartial spectator,” in line, it would seem, with the Humian ethos of an enlightened Christian reason [70].

And Knox-Shaw does convince us, with panache, that all of this is, in fact, linked: Austen’s liberal thoughts within a traditional context, her hilariously empirical “satires of sensibility” as well as her visual and personalised politics of a Gilpinesque language/landscape. “Intricacy” is just the word we are looking for, says the author about Gilpin and Price’s picturesque definition, for it embodies the wide spectrum of the characters’ sentiments and personalities, as proven by the complementary lexical fields of Darcy’s Burkian “abruptness” and the flushed “energy” of Elizabeth’s long Romantic walks [83]. Austen’s impersonal style or “coloured narrative” (G. Hough) also tells us something of her distanced moral self served by a mixed narrator-character identity and “sympathetic imagination,” as does her ironically innovative, pre-Joycian taste for the style indirect libre [14] in her later works. Let us not forget, and this is how exhaustive Knox-Shaw’s ambitious reflection can be, the role played by the theatr—Sheridan’s, of course—in the shaping of the Austenian grotesque or in some of the novelist’s best written chapters of farcical fiction. Aside from the theatrical qualities of Austen’s plots, British in essence, Knox-Shaw does not hesitate to trace some of the most prominent features of her literary extravagance back to Sade, Goethe or Rousseau’s foreign influences [55]. “Staging the Enlightenment” [27] indeed, with French libertinage and burlesque heroic drama in the background, is as extensive an endeavour as it is to understand the sometimes shadowy nature of Austen’s narrative discourse and its contextual evolution from “Love and Freindship” to Sandition; which is why the author embraces the difficulty from every possible angle.

Controversial though it might be, Knox-Shaw, for example, does not shy away from the religious debate. Aware as we all are of Jane Austen’s pluralism in religion, again pointed out by Marilyn Butler, he starts by paying homage to the dual glory of the philosopher and theologian, exemplified by the “enduring influence of Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695)” [6]. He goes on to include Austen in the religious revival of 1807-11, writing for a nation “improving in Religion” [159], picturing a national landscape, à la Thomas Gisborne, tinged with “divine sanction,” while slowly feeding on the “new energies” of her family’s Evangelical beliefs [160]: “ I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals, & am at least persuaded that they who are so from Reason and Feeling, must be happiest & safest” [To Fanny Knight, 18 November 1814]. Austen cannot be more explicit when she decides to place religious conviction on the side of reason, thereby bringing to a regenerated evangelicalism its share of philosophical benevolence. “However remote from the philosophes,” writes Knox-Shaw, “the Evangelical movement was to prove at length an important vehicle for the Enlightenment” [161].  Evangelical to begin with, Austen’s engagement will henceforth take on all the deeper, “diffracted” colours of novelistic force and authority and not just limit itself to the shams of a light-hearted grandeur. Like her “evangelically inclined central couple” [161] in Mansfield Park, Austen’s new grasp of the age’s needs and causes will allow her to put forward, better so in her last novels, the vast extent of her literary consciousness and religious independence. 

At the heart of Knox-Shaw’s persuasive conclusions, this is where the parallel between the strength of invented characters, women especially, and the effective reign of their creator becomes the most striking, dare we say enlightening. Even though the subject of gender and equality is often subject to Austen’s sneers or satiric mockery, its underlying presence serves to affirm, elevate, encourage, urge feminine movements and, in the end, counterbalance the “static” status, says Adam Smith, of the “man of rank or distinction” [205]. The road of excessive sympathy and self-esteem therefore leads to female wisdom when Austen has taken the preventive care of “socratically” teaching her heroines to love themselves in the eyes of a larger social approbation: “But Jane Austen had no compunction about taking the low road, and the form of comedy she devised abounds in the energies of self-love” [72]. Yet the final question which is, once again, at stake here, ever since the critics have asked us if Austen was a Romantic writer or not, is less to feminize than to romanticize her political and, more recently, poetical ideals. Aware of the problem, Ann Mellor had soon informed us, in her essay on “Why Women Didn’t Like Romanticism: The Views of Jane Austen and Mary Shelley” (1990) that Austen, resistant to any form of Romantic recontextualisation, belonged to another kind of ideology, away from the Romantic flights of fancy, but grounded in what Mellor more convincingly named a “feminine Romanticism” [274]. And yet, Austen cannot but be associated with the age’s great ideologists, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Hartley or Priestley, in Knox-Shaw’s musings as in those of his numerous predecessors, as well as be examined alongside Wordsworth, Byron or Coleridge, in William Deresiewicz’s Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets (2004) and finally paired up with Keats in Beth Lau’s comparative article, published in the last issue of the Keats-Shelley Journal (2006).

They are all tremendously convincing, Knox-Shaw for the reasons we underlined earlier, Deresiewicz for appealing to the corrective assistance of Austen’s poetic genius and proper dislike of hasty misreadings and Beth Lau for producing a smart Keatsian approach of Austen’s “co-existence of irony and romance” (R. Brownstein); what she also defines as a grotesque juxtaposition of sentiment and satire when Romantic scepticism and realistic idealism are thus combined in the “Quixotic and Gothic parody traditions” [102-106]. Around Romantic irony, another of Mellor’s ground-breaking expressions, or ironic “Ramanticism” (Keats’s own Austenian slip in a letter admitting preference for Fielding and Smollett’s novels rather than Scott’s!), shared social anxieties or the minute art of impersonality, Keats and Austen do meet, according to Lau. And we are thankful for such critical products of Knox-Shaw’s close inheritance [91]: an openly claimed view of Austen’s sympathetic enlightenment owing to Keats’s “cameleon,” dialogical poetics and his “gift for empathic concentration of image” (W.J. Bate). She, the “prose Shakespeare,” while Keats is the poetic one, also possesses the crafty  ventriloquism of the “protean writer” who identifies with his/her own creations [87]. In keeping with the positive influences of Keats’s “negative capability” and Austen’s banned egotism, the selfless creators project themselves into the feelings and thoughts of others, thereby living up to their role models’ highly persistent expectations. Like Keats, Austen therefore avoids univocal criticism because she never fails to explore every single facet of her universal imagination.

This all points out to what Peter Knox-Shaw has tried to steadily emphasize in his impressive project, that we are all victims of Jane Austen’s unresolved tensions and charming paradoxes: the lucid darkness of her cynical humour, her preaching evangelically for both social stability and religious reform, the fascinated repulsion she expressed for sheer wealth or ridiculous fame without the added value of a compassionate heart, her anti-Romantic novels wrapped up in fairy tale endings she built around independent women craving for male affection and approval, in other words, the brilliant legacy, unlike no other, of a new writer who did indeed write past her age.


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