Theresa May and Michael Gove have both cited the author—but are her novels really an advert for conservatism?by Elizabeth Picciuto / June 8, 2017 / Leave a comment
Jane Austen held her views on the politics of her time exceptionally close. In her novels, government stays politely in the background. It neither overregulates nor ensures the wellbeing of citizens. It provides income via interest on securities, delivers the mail, and employs handsome and charming naval and militia officers.
Yet she develops a rich and sophisticated theory of moral character development—virtue ethics—that earns her a position among the most astute moral philosophers. It is natural to wonder how Austen’s keen moral vision would perceive the politics, laws, and distributive justice of her day.
Scholars investigate the few fleeting political references in her novels and letters over and over, like sleuths rehashing the insufficient clues of an unsolved historical murder. Taken together, they have suggested an impressive array of Austen’s potential political views: she’s stalwart upholding the Tory party line of her day; she’s a prudish reactionary; she’s subtly subversive.
It is interesting, then, to reflect on the fact that some present-day Conservatives feel an affinity with Austen. Theresa May has repeatedly cited Emma and Pride and Prejudice as her favourite novels. In an interview, Michael Gove was asked which author he would say wrote the Conservative manifesto. He replied, without a shred of hesitation, that the book it was most like was Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
Austen’s ethics, however, still do not fit neatly with any one party’s ideology.
May’s ambition for the party, through Brexit and beyond, involves an inward turn, pivoting from the hustle-bustle of globalisation to the renewal of a British communal identity. Perhaps the most consequential manifestation of this is the planned sharp reduction in immigration. May also holds positions that evoke a British nostalgia—specifically a rich, rural, white one—such as her support for fox hunting.
Austen’s novels seem to provide a haven for this romanticised nationalist nostalgia. Foreigners do not enter her (mostly) polite, well-to-do communities. Some of the men have travelled across faraway seas to unfamiliar lands, but the reader never accompanies them on these trips. We meet them after they have come back and resettled into English country life.
Yet that nostalgia might be misplaced. While some of her letters and paeans to the Navy in Persuasion and Mansfield Park exhibit a deeply-felt patriotism, if not xenophobia, it would be a mistake to take the ethnonational uniformity of her novels as her prescription for a thriving community. Plausibility was one of her major aesthetic goals. She did not want to yank her readers suddenly out of the story with an inaccuracy, so she shied away from depicting anything over which she did not feel mastery. She advised her niece, who was writing a novel, “…we [i.e., Austen and her sister Cassandra] think you had better not leave England. Let the Portmans go to Ireland; but as you know nothing of the manners there, you had better not go with them. You will be in danger of giving false representations. Stick to Bath and the Foresters. There you will be quite at home.”
Gove presumably selected Sense and Sensibility for its hearty commendation of ‘sense’, exemplified by the heroine Elinor Dashwood. In the novel, ‘sense’ encompasses not only rationality, but conscientiousness, self-sacrifice, prudence, civility, and emotional self-control. For Gove, this is Conservative virtue, while the contrasting vice of ‘sensibility’ is exhibited by Elinor’s sister, Marianne, who is histrionic, melodramatic, blunt, impulsive, and self-indulgent.
Sense and Sensibility, however, is not always perfectly in tune with today’s Tories. The novel’s most famous scene centres on Elinor and Marianne’s brother John Dashwood, who has been given a deathbed instruction by his father to take care of his stepmother and half-sisters Elinor and Marianne, who will lose their home upon his death. John decides to give his £1000 each, a laughably paltry sum relative to what he can afford. Then Austen, in her most critical, mocking mode, depicts John’s mercenary wife wheedling him until the sum winds down to zero, as they help each other rationalise their own selfishness.
It’s hard not to notice the parallels between the Dashwood women left without a home or enough assets, and the fears spawned by the Tories’ proposed ‘dementia tax’, whereby the death of a family member might raise the spectre of losing a house and assets.
Nor does the book does paint ‘sense’ as an unmitigatedly worthwhile virtue. When Marianne falls ill, Elinor’s calm imperturbability makes her miss the signs that everyone else around her picks up, showing that her sister is nearing death (spoiler: she recovers). In Austen, as in Aristotle, a virtue is a mean between two vices. While Marianne must receive her comeuppance, and learn to adopt some of Elinor’s sense, Elinor in turn learns that sense must be mediated by some sensibility.
At the end of the novel, Elinor and her fiancé, finally a couple, finally letting emotions bubble to the surface despite their best efforts, talk and flirt endlessly, “for though a very few hours spent in the hard labour of incessant talking will despatch more subjects than can really be in common between any two rational creatures, yet with lovers it is different. Between THEM no subject is finished, no communication is even made, till it has been made at least twenty times over.” At this point, Elinor is no longer simply a rational creature, and Conservative ideal. She is a lover—and she blooms.