Michael Caines reviews Peter Knox-Shaw's Jane Austen and the Enlightenment in the March 4 issue of the TLS. Caines provides a nice overview of the debates concerning Austen's political views and alleged social conservatism before turning to Knox-Shaw's particular contribution, who argues that Austen was a child of the Enlightenment: "Through intermediaries such as picturesque theory, Evangelical tracts, travelogues, natural science, or history . . . Knox-Shaw tracks a fruitful dialogue between British empiricism and the greatest practitioner of fiction up to that point in time. By demonstrating the pervasiveness of the former, he makes it clear that Austen responded to its ideas."
Attraction to certain Enlightenment themes -- including "distrust of dirigisme and the doctrinaire" and her "novelistic reticence towards the supernatural" -- does not, however, mean that she was any less a Christian writer: "Despite the secular register of her novels, proponents of the Burkean Austen rely on [the division of religion and Enlightenment] remaining watertight in order to deny the possibility that radical philosophy touched her. But the Church and the Enlightenment are not "chalk and cheese," as is often assumed. From her latitudinarian father, George (a 'true son of the Enlightenment,' as Irene Collins calls him in Jane Austen and the Clergy), to the increasingly Evangelical Henry [Austen's brother], the range of theological positions among the Austen clergymen suggests that doctrinal differences could be tolerated and discussed in the family. Anglicanism, permeable as ever, could find a use for the skeptical inquiries of a Hume or a Smith, while the reforming Evangelicalism that penetrated the Austen family owes surprising debts to the Enlightenment (Mansfield Park 'reappraises' both). Henry could write of his 'thoroughly religious and devout' sister, after her death, that her piety made all other traits 'unimportant,' but it seems unlikely that a devoted theatergoer like Jane Austen could have fallen for a fairly anti-theatrical creed like Evangelicalism."
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Saturday, March 19, 2005 at 04:17 PM
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