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The Austen Years: A Review in Six Movements

May 5th, 2021 | 23 min read

By Tessa Carman

Rachel Cohen. The Austen Years: A Memoir in Five NovelsNew York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020. 304 pp, $28.

“We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties.” ― C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature

“She read it again. Widely different was the effect of a second perusal.” — Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, epigraph to The Austen Years

I. My Only Author

Rachel Cohen’s The Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Books (2020) traces how a few familiar books can become deeper through our rereading of them, and how they can help us make sense of our lives. So it is also about marriage and children, about parents leaving their children behind, and reading again to make sense of the continuousness of time.

In her opening sentence, Cohen writes that “not too long before our daughter was born, and a year before my father died, Jane Austen became my only author.” Over the next several years, she rereads five Jane Austen novels (Northanger Abbey is not included, since it is Austen’s least mature of her published works), tracing themes of memory, forgetting, mourning, imagining, reading, and writing, all while interweaving parts of her own story: the weeks before and after her beloved father’s death, remembrances of childhood and of reading and first wanting to write, the story of her twenty-year friendship with the man who would at last become her husband, undergoing analysis, her two pregnancies, and memories of raising her son and daughter. She reads and rereads certain chapters, snatches time during the day, and sometimes in the middle of the night.

In reading the novels during life’s ordinary exigencies, she gains a “strange friendship; in their company you may feel more yourself, look out at the world with clear sight.” Rereading is an act of attention that opens us to seeing more clearly, and, perhaps, to seeing better our place in the world. Reading, too, reveals character in Austen.

In Austen, we are often told what a character is reading, and how, and it always matters. Characters drawn to lurid or Gothic stories are unformed or unreliable, they want shoring up or reining in. Both lazy characters and rigid ones don’t read; self-absorbing ones read too much, or with poor judgment. There is a balance in reading as in all things—to read in a desultory, uncommitted way shows a want of exertion, to lie in books to the exclusion of one’s real neighbors a want of compassion. Although we now think of reading as a generally solitary activity, in Austen’s day people often read aloud to one another. Her family did this nearly every evening. They judged books by how they sounded on a second reading, a third. Austen’s characters learn to read and to reread, and this, mysteriously, significantly, is a part of how they come to say what they mean and to live in the world together.

This is one of the loveliest paragraphs in The Austen Years; it is Cohen at her most illuminating. And indeed, the way Austen’s heroines read in particular — books and people — is a measure of their character and growth. And in rereading, they re-see, as Elizabeth Bennet sees Darcy in a different light when she rereads his letter: “She read it again. Widely different was the effect of a second perusal.”

Though Cohen tells of her childhood, marriage, and children, it is her relationship with her father that best ties together the narrative. We walk with Cohen as she talks with her father before his death, and as she grieves and tries to discover how to honor him in his absence. It is her father that she returns to in each section of the book, as if she is trying to make something of the work of memory and rereading, to make it a work of love for him.

Her father, a scholar of organizational leadership, was not necessarily a great reader of Austen himself. But when Cohen finds herself reading Austen again, she visits her father when his health is quickly deteriorating, and tells him a story: The philosopher Gilbert Ryle was asked whether he read novels in addition to philosophy, and he answered, “Of course, I read all six every year.” Her father laughs. Cohen notes the “sense of just proportion” she and her father shared in that moment and muses, “I suppose I kept reading Austen in part because, on a night when my father’s death was becoming real to him, she and Gilbert Ryle had made him laugh.”

II. The Absence of Laughter

Laughter—as well as joy and epiphany—is generally muted from Cohen’s book. Her father had a gregarious, open spirit and a playful, curious mind; the passages that most approach joy are about him. But otherwise, there is little of the joyful irony that characterizes Austen’s novels, or the witty zest in which Austen wrote many of her letters: “Miss Bigg…writes me word that Miss Blachford is married. but I have never seen it in the Paper. And one may be as well be single, if the Wedding is not to be in print”; “Expect a most agreeable letter, for not being overburdened with subject (having nothing at all to say), I shall have no check to my genius from beginning to end.” The Austen Years is most influenced, then, by Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, the one in which loss figures most keenly.

Cohen questions her fondness for Persuasion: “Sometimes it troubles me that the Austen I love most is the book where she seems, somehow, least Austen.” Austen’s style is more restrained in her last novel, and the omniscience of Austen’s narrator slightly more personal. It’s the closest to memoir Cohen can get from Austen: the style gives off the feel of being “a particular someone, a bit irritable, a bit wounded.” Cohen quotes Viriginia Woolf, who believed Austen “is trying to do something which she has never yet attempted,” namely, to bring out more of her own “experience.” “Not that she would have written autobiography, but that her characters would have stretched toward inner depths.”

Cohen grants that this is likely Woolf predicting that Austen would have, if she had lived longer, written more like Woolf herself. But this idea of Persuasion’s narrator as a “writerly personage” stays with Cohen, “proposing a kind of friendship for a reader who wants to make sense of what they have lived by putting words together.”

Cohen comes to the tale, as she does to each Austen novel, with her own questions and preoccupations: the tension of being a writer and someone in the world, the question of history and raising the next generation, the affairs of memory, forgetting, reform, and rereading that revolve around her marriage to M, her raising of her children, and her endeavor to honor the memory of her father. She’s not seeking revelation as she rereads Persuasion so much as reflection: Anne Elliot expressing herself becomes a mirror of Cohen’s own self-expression.

Hence, it is not only rereading that is Cohen’s concern, but also speaking (this is a memoir, after all). She traces the patterns of the heroines’ efforts to work “first at reading, then at self-expression, then at reading again,” efforts that are also “like the work of love, and friendship, and the work of writing itself.”

One may wonder why it is not “self-knowledge” rather than “self-expression” that forms the second part of Cohen’s tripartite pattern. As C.S. Lewis and others have pointed out, nearly every Austen novel includes an epiphany wherein the heroine “comes to herself,” which often means coming to terms with her faults and self-deception, and hence seeing clearly for the first time. Perhaps seeing is on the road to expression, at least for Cohen as she writes her memoir. By the nature of the form she undertakes, as well as her stated purpose, Cohen wants to trace how Austen’s heroines express themselves, just as she expresses herself through the memoir.

Persuasion is also important to Cohen because it is also about memoir: Anne learns to read the past and finally to speak. Anne’s advice to the bereaved Captain Benwick is to read “memoirs of characters of worth and suffering” in order to “rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurance.” This gesture of friendship endears Anne to Cohen the reader, but also illumines Anne’s own character: she too is someone of worth who undergoes suffering, and hence becomes, for Cohen, an “almost-writer,” “a memoirist with her own worth suffering within the novel Jane Austen wrote about her.”

Anne then speaks of her own experience in her famous conversation with Captain Harville, wherein she speaks of woman’s “loving longer when existence or when hope is gone.” She denies Harville the use of books or poems as counter-evidence, for, she says, “Men have had every advantage over us in telling their own story….I will not allow books to prove anything.” She does give way, however, just so far as to praise men’s capacity for faithful love, even as she defends a woman’s constancy.

Cohen’s own memoir isn’t quite a memoir of someone “of worth and suffering,” except indirectly, as throughout the book, Cohen struggles to honor her father’s legacy. She recalls his work on organization theory and his return to Coleridge and Shakespeare on imagination. (A letter her father wrote to a colleague on imagination is included in the appendix.) At one point she goes on a walk with a friend and tells her, “I have been thinking that I have tried and tried to write my father’s book, and it cannot be done.” If there is a character “of worth and suffering” to illumine this memoir, it is Cohen’s father. And yet the threads of Cohen’s memoir don’t always hold together with her discussion of Austen: there isn’t enough emotional pull for the reader to feel one truly knows Cohen or her dad.

III. Style and Character

There are those who will step into Cohen’s prose as if in a delightful stream, and will see all kinds of bright hanging fruits to pluck along the way. These readers are likely to be those who need a fresh read of Austen, who would like an introduction to Austen’s life and context, or who may be asking questions similar to Cohen’s. And there are indeed fruits to be had, as in the previously cited paragraph on reading and rereading.

For others, her prose will be ponderous, thick, in desperate need of an Austen edit and a dash of wit. There are times when Cohen falls into the obfuscatory, pseudo-profound literary style, but the most egregious passages are thankfully few:

You can only be interrupted by someone else, who has been active in other things elsewhere, while you have been doing the thing you have been doing. When someone else demands your attention, it is a sign of the multiplicity of life moving forward.

If style and speech reveal character for Austen — note the ponderous tones in which Mr. Collins speaks, for instance, or immoderate flights of Marianne — some of Cohen’s passages reveal a kind of distance and seriousness that becomes prolix and ponderous when she lets her guard down.

For example, she cites a witty, well-known passage in one of Austen’s letters to her sister Cassandra, regarding Pride and Prejudice:

The work is rather too light, & bright, & sparkling; it wants shade;—it wants to be stretched out here & there with a long Chapter — of sense, if it could be had, if not of solemn specious nonsense — about something unconnected with the story; an Essay on Writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or a history of Buonaparte, or anything that would form a contrast and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness & Epigrammatism of the general stile.

Cohen notes that Austen is mocking more “ponderous, more masculine tomes,” but then subsumes this witty flight into her own ponderous theme of Time: “Variety of pace would have given the reader a sense of history and time passing, and might have helped readers see that they were to learn to lie with Elizabeth over time.” But it is not clear that Austen’s playing with her own playful Pride and Prejudice ought be taken as solemnly as does Cohen, who believes that Austen did indeed go on to fit an essay on writing, a critique of Walter Scott, and a history of Bonaparte in various ways. But I’m not sure Cohen can have it both ways: Austen mocks ponderousness, but Cohen sometimes seems to want more of it.

Cohen quotes Azar Nafisi, who read Pride and Prejudice with her secret book group during the reign of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini: “Every great book we read…became a challenge to the ruling ideology…Nowhere was this challenge more apparent than in the work of Jane Austen.”

Cohen does not have the advantage of secretly reading Austen in defiance of a totalitarian regime, but neither does she bring the reader into her emotional world and truly bring to life the characters in her memoir. In Nafisi’s work, we are drawn into the drama of her life and her essays on literature and freedom, and entranced by the dance of her reading of American novels with her Iranian friends. Cohen’s drama stays at a distance: we admire her father, we are slightly interested in her family, we are grateful for a few passages of illumination and mellifluous prose. But Cohen wants her story to somehow merge with the reader’s story, so she calls her husband M, her children S and T. But the reader’s story is not Cohen’s, and the result is that Cohen as a character becomes more distant as well as more ponderous: she is most interesting when she writes close to Austen’s text and her world, and sometimes when she writes about her father. Too often, we are looking into a window of her life that feels not meant for us as much as for Cohen’s family, who can fill in the emotional gaps.

IV. Mansfield Parched

Cohen’s chapters are organized by theme and topic, with chapters like “A Writer,” “Memorials,” “Revisions,” “Reading Again,” and “Mournful World.” She weaves Persuasion first, then Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, then Mansfield Park and Emma, before ending again with Persuasion, though there is no clear dividing line; a section may discuss the persuasions of both Anne Elliot and Elizabeth Bennet.

Cohen’s exploration of Mansfield Park, concentrated in the chapter “Forgetting,” is her most disappointing section. In a book about rereading, it’s telling that Cohen begins by watching a movie. She allows the 1999 Mansfield Park film’s interpretation — itself informed by Edward Said’s argument that “Mansfield Park itself is set up as a kind of center of the traffic of empire” — to set the lens for her own.

Cohen is primarily interested in two things in Mansfield Park: theater and slavery. Since the novel’s main plot involves a play rehearsal, Cohen takes it as an opportunity to reminisce about a delightful production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream she and her sister acted in, which their mother directed. The parallels between her experience of theater and the actual role of the play in Austen’s novel are rather contrived, however, for Cohen’s investigation of the text is limited to forcing each part of the novel to fit an interpretation that makes Mansfield Park itself akin to a slave plantation. When she asserts that “Mansfield Park is about succession, and power” — the assertion feels like the cop-out that it is. And this is a sad rule of thumb for literary criticism nowadays: If you don’t know what to do with a novel, say it’s about power. And indeed, Mansfield Park is perhaps the most challenging of Austen’s novels to the modern reader. But instead of demonstrating careful rereading, Cohen focuses on absolving Austen of two common, naive charges: that Austen was “prudish” toward theater, and that she didn’t care about issues like slavery.

Both are easily answered. With regard to the first, Cohen cites Austen’s own testimony of innocent enjoyment in amateur theatricals. But she does not go on to dig more deeply into the reason why our heroine, Fanny Price, objects to the performance of a play amongst her cousins, the Bertrams, and their friends, Henry and Mary Crawford, in the absence of Fanny’s uncle Sir Thomas. Rather than attending to Fanny, Cohen waves her away by noting that, in this part of the novel, “it is a commonplace that [Austen] was instead attending to the power of the theater and to restrictions on it.” And that’s that. Cohen goes for the easy cop-out: We’re told, in essence, not to worry: Austen was just as modern as we hoped she was, ahead of her time, didn’t want restrictions on art — all modern commonplaces that conveniently sidestep the actual act of reading carefully, and hence sidestep the task of listening to Fanny Price.

But then, nearly every character in Mansfield Park also dismisses Fanny. Indeed, it has been noted by Alasdair MacIntyre and others that Fanny is striking because she does not have the charm of an Elizabeth Bennet. She does not sparkle with wit and charm. She is shy in crowds. But she is as constant and wise as Anne Elliot. The vices of humankind come for her in Austen’s keen wit many a time, and her judgment pierces sharpest in Mansfield Park: if we cannot abide Fanny, it is no judgment on her, but on ourselves.

Cohen does helpfully delve into the anti-slavery position of the Austen family, and the anti-slavery activities of one brother in particular, but her assertion that slavery undergirds the novel’s structure — with Fanny as one of Mansfield Park’s “possessions” — falls flat. For example, even as she regrets the “effacing” of Fanny during the play rehearsals, complaining that “Fanny is too silent,” she herself silences Fanny. She points out one passage in particular, wherein Edmund is admonishing Fanny, telling her to not be so quiet and to not “mind growing up into a pretty young woman”: he says Fanny is “too silent in the evening circle,” and ought to talk to her uncle more. Fanny objects that she does “talk to him more than I used,” and reminds Edmund that she had asked a question “about the slave-trade” the night before.

“It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.”

“And I longed to do it — but there was such a dead silence! And while my cousins were sitting by without speaking a word, or seeming at all interested in the subject, I did not like — I thought it would appear as if I wanted to set myself off at their expense, by shewing a curiosity and pleasure in his information which he must wish his own daughters to feel.”

Cohen finds herself more in agreement with Edmund, and later Mary Crawford, on this point. As she sees it: “Everything is expense, inertness. To express curiosity, humanity, is to ‘set myself off at their expense.’” For Cohen, Fanny’s desire to be considerate of others, to observe the feelings of those beyond herself, more than her own desire to speak, are of little to no importance. What is most excellent for Cohen is self-expression, but of a restricted sort: Fanny does not fit into her box, does not say what Cohen would have her say. Rather, Fanny does speak when it matters. She is able to refuse the proposal of Henry, and she defends her decision to Edmund, recalling the time of the play wherein Henry Crawford behaved “improperly and unfeelingly,” and Edmund remembers the time of the play as a “period of general folly.”

Later Cohen contends that “the way everyone at Mansfield Park has learned to speak of themselves and everyone else [is] as aspects of property. They have all been made mute ornaments.” Indeed, for Cohen at least, Fanny is mute. She will not be heard, neither in her actions nor her speech, nor even her thoughts.

In his Lectures on Literature, Nabokov writes, “The charm of Mansfield Park can be fully enjoyed only when we adopt its conventions, its rules, its enchanting make-believe.” This is similar to C.S. Lewis’s model reader, from An Experiment in Criticism:

The true reader reads every work seriously in the sense that he reads it whole-heartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can. But for that very reason he cannot possibly read every work solemnly or gravely. For he will read ‘in the same spirit that the author writ.’… He will never commit the error of trying to munch whipped cream as if it were venison.

One wishes Cohen read Austen with more of her heart, and with more attunements to Austen’s spirit.

Perhaps Cohen’s biggest blindspot comes when she does a word study of “ordination,” taking seriously Austen’s letter that describes her next novel’s subject. To her credit, Cohen believes Austen takes words seriously, and hence delves into a word study here and there. For “ordination,” however, Cohen looks at every meaning of the word except the obvious one: the ordaining of clergy. And indeed, the theme of what we would call religion, and the role of the clergyman, is a central theme: Edmund Bertram plans to be a clergyman, and it is Mary Crawford who, in trying to win him for a husband, tries to dissuade him from such a “nothing” — in her eyes — occupation. When Mary discovers Edmund’s plans, she argues with him, claiming that the clergy is such a low station, and Edmund argues for the clergyman’s duty to demonstrate “good-breeding” and the “conduct” of “good principles,” to live out the “doctrines which it is their duty to teach and recommend.” He adds that, “as the clergy are, or are not what they ought to be, so are the rest of the nation.” Fanny adds, “Certainly,” after this speech, “with gentle earnestness.”

It is Fanny who defends and supports him in his vocation. And Henry Crawford, the great actor, is a knave precisely because he is better at acting than at true amiability. Fanny, who has the sharpest moral sense in the novel, does not trust him. It is only when Henry tries to woo Fanny in earnest that he gives a hint of what might be possible if he were truly to become what he pretends to be. But Fanny rejects him, and Henry descends: He runs off with Maria Bertram, now Mrs. Rushworth, sending her into disgrace, and sentencing himself to unhappiness. Edmund comes to his senses and marries Fanny instead of Mary, and he becomes a clergyman. Virtue rewarded; vice punished.

But either because Cohen hardly knows what to do with religion herself, reading as she does for “self-expression,” or whether she is reading through the lens of the thematically gutted Mansfield Park movie, or she’s ignorant of the influence of Anglican rhythms on Austen’s life and worldview — or all the above — Cohen doesn’t touch it. Cohen wants Austen to like theater and abhor slavery, so she does. But Cohen does not want Austen to take ordination seriously, and so Cohen makes Fanny “a mute ornament.”

V. Happy Endings

When Cohen tells of her wedding to M, she feels ambivalent about marriage: “what embarrassed me was the triteness of longing for traditional happy endings, which, I now know, Austen herself is not that interested in.” Cohen seems quite unaware that believing the “longing for traditional happy endings” — whatever “traditional” means here, and whatever is meant by “happy endings” — to be trite is itself a tired trope.

She goes on: “The ends of her books are not in weddings, about which Austen generally strikes a note of uncertainty, if not outright mockery; instead, the real endings point toward adjustments that make way.” The question of endings is telling, however; for Cohen there must be continuance, a movement through time, despite the interruption of death. An ending feels like a limitation, an interruption: It is Cohen, not Austen, who says “the real endings point toward adjustments that make way.” The open-endedness of the sentence, I think, is quite intentional. Make way for what? you might ask. Ah, but that is a trite question.

Cohen seems to think of happy endings as just so much trite convention, a sign perhaps of immaturity, rather than a desire for wholeness and redemption. But just as Disneyfied or moralistic fairy tales can spoil one’s experience of the real thing, so Cohen’s suspicion of Austen’s marriage plot seems based more in a fear of chick-lit-ification of Jane Austen and others. Indeed, if cheap sentimentality is all one knows of happy endings, oughtn’t we to settle for less, if it’s real, rather than risk being cheated? Cohen, for her part settles for less: she cannot take Austen’s happy endings on their own joyous terms; rather she substitutes a jaded eye.

In truth, Austen’s endings strike a sensible, rather than sentimental, note of virtue rewarded, entirely in keeping with her worldview, her sense of natural law, and the Great Chain of Being.[1] Indeed, as Laura Mooneyham White points out in Jane Austen’s Anglicanism, Austen “loves to ridicule the human habit of making fictions entirely out of self-interest;” the irresponsible fictions dreamed up by Marianne (when she dreams of living in the house Willoughby will inherit) or Margaret Dashwood (imagining that someone gave each of her sisters a large fortune), for example, are contrasted with Austen’s own fiction, in which virtue and sacrifice are rewarded with happiness, and vice with destruction and misery. Marriage ties up the books because a marriage is a union, a bringing together — and our heroines enjoy good marriages, ones that forecast “perfect happiness,” sometimes in direct contrast to their own parents’ messy marriages (e.g., Mr. and Mrs. Bennet).

In his seminal After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre avers that Austen “wrote comedy rather than tragedy for the same reason that Dante did: she is a Christian and she sees the telos of human life implicit in her everyday form.” For Austen, happiness is not opposed to order; marriage is not opposed to true love. Rather, marriage is the harmonizing of different keys, a generative union, an icon of eschatological hope.

VI. Liturgy and Memory

One element of Austen’s life that Cohen could have addressed but doesn’t—one intertwined with memory, reflection, and time—is something that shaped the everyday contours of Austen’s life: the liturgy and daily prayers of the Anglican Church. Cohen does note the etymology of exertion, which in her words is “to join an existing order, but by an outward movement,” and “may have a shade of religious conviction.”[2] Laura Mooneyham White’s Jane Austen’s Anglicanism[3] goes deeper: White notes that religious themes are everywhere in the novel, though appropriately subtle in an “unserious” literary form such as the novel, and not carried on one’s heartsleeves, as is befitting the serious English Churchman. For instance, we are told that Willoughby lives to make a “sincere” repentance, and “to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself.” This, White notes, means that Willoughby underwent conversion of heart. White also notes the religious connotation of words like “serious” (see William Law’s 1729 work A Serious Call to the Devout Life), and “serious reflection” in particular being a reference to prayer. When Emma is “very serious in her thankfulness” for her friend Harriet’s engagement to Robert Martin, she “engages in thankful prayer”[4]:

Other words that almost always have a religious connotation for Austen include “principle,” as in religious principle, and “exertion,” which means struggling to do the right thing out of a sense of religious duty; “duty,” of course, at heart usually means religious duty….[F]or Austen, there is no greater indictment than to say someone is “irreligious,” and thus it is important when Elizabeth Bennet, reforming her ideas about Darcy, notes that she had never known him to be “irreligious.”[5]

Laura White also explores the prayers of Jane Austen, which she had composed for public prayer, noting how her cadences are similar to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and how the text itself subtly reveals Austen’s voice. Here is an excerpt from one of her evening prayers—note in particular the heartfelt, “oh! God”:

Give us grace, Almighty Father, so to pray, as to deserve to be heard, to address thee with our hearts, as with our lips. Thou art every where present, from thee no secret can be hid. May the knowledge of this teach us to fix our thoughts on thee, with reverence and devotion that we pray not in vain. Look with mercy on the sins we have this day committed and in mercy make us feel them deeply, that our repentance may be sincere and our resolution steadfast of endeavoring against the commission of such in future. Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of temper and every evil habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own souls.

May we now, and on each return of night, consider how the past day has been spent by us, what have been our prevailing thoughts, words, and actions during it, and how far we can acquit ourselves of evil. Have we thought irreverently of thee, have we disobeyed thy commandments, have we neglected any known duty, or willingly given pain to any human being? Incline us to ask our hearts these questions oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by pride or vanity. Give us a thankful sense of the blessings in which we live, of the many comforts of our lot; that we may not deserve to lose them by discontent or indifference….

“Candor” in Austen’s time meant “to be generous and sympathetic, to allow for all possibilities of extenuations when it seemed another was doing wrong.” This is what Elizabeth Bennet lacks in the beginning of Pride and Prejudice and what her sister Jane models. Candor, then, is also the quality of a good reader. And Cohen goes as far as she can —but whereas she takes seriously the anti-slavery position of the Austens and their love of theater, she cannot take seriously their religion. This is perhaps understandable. But one wonders what kind of book this might have been if Cohen had been as “generous and sympathetic” with the huge role of the Anglican worldview in Austen’s novels as Cohen has been in her sincere endeavor to befriend Anne Elliot.

The endeavor to enter Austen’s world on her own terms is further complicated by the great divide between her time and ours. C.S. Lewis argued in his essay “De Descriptione Temporum” that between our time and Austen’s was the “greatest of all divisions in the history of the West”: a change in political order (“government by advertisement”[6]); an “unchristening” (“In her days some kind and degree of religious belief and practice were the norm: now…they are the exception”); a change in art (Picasso was scarcely conceivable in Austen’s time); and a change in technology. The “birth of the machines,” Lewis notes, is a change “on a level with the change from stone to bronze, or from a pastoral to an agricultural economy,” one that altered “Man’s place in nature”:

Conversely, our assumption that everything is provisional and soon to be superseded, that the attainment of goods we have never yet had, rather than the defence and conservation of those we have already, is the cardinal business of life, would most shock and bewilder them if they could visit ours.

The modern reader tends to find reflection, self-expression (that is, reflection of one’s own self), rather than illumination. For all our touting of the other, what we really want to see is our own selves, reflected in a more attractive and intelligent light. But if we want to see Austen anew and afresh, we ought to read her—read her letters, read her prayers, read her contemporaries, read William Cowper and Samuel Johnson and Ann Radcliffe, and perhaps read sections of The Austen Years to glean some of Cohen’s best gems — and to read Jane Austen’s Anglicanism.

The modern mind that doesn’t get real fairy tales and doesn’t get Austen doesn’t get Christian hope. The best it can hope for is that life continues on. In order to truly see what hope meant for Austen, one may have to exert oneself, exercise candor, and — with new eyes — read it again.

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  1. Laura Mooneyham, Jane Austen’s Anglicanism (Routledge, 2011), 8.
  2. Cohen, 52.
  3. Laura Mooneyham White’s Jane Austen’s Anglicanism is tragically hard to find, since it has the priceyness of a monograph, but it may be the best-kept secret right now in Austen studies.
  4. White, 60.
  5. White, 60.
  6. “If I wished to satirise the present political order I should borrow for it the name which Punch invented during the first German War: Govertisement. This is a portmanteau word and means ‘government by advertisement.’ But my intention is not satiric; I am trying to be objective. The change is this. In all previous ages that I can think of the principal aim of rulers, except at rare and short intervals, was to keep their subjects quiet, to forestall or extinguish widespread excitement and persuade people to attend quietly to their several occupations. And on the whole their subjects agreed with them. They even prayed (in words that sound curiously old-fashioned) to be able to live ‘a peaceable life in all godliness and honesty’ and ‘pass their time in rest and quietness.’ But now the organization of mass excitement seems to be almost the normal organ of political power. We live in an age of ‘appeals,’ ‘drives,’ and ‘campaigns.’”