misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

D. W. Harding and Austen's letters

Dear friends and readers,

D. W. Harding's famous article, "Regulated Hatred", first published in the 1940s in Scrutiny came up as something to lambast in the reading and discussion of Austen's letters last week.  It's so famous that he's treated the way Freud is:  those writing about him have often not read the original text and they use it as a whipping post against other attitudes they dislike which they associate with him.

So I thought I'd put a brief frank comment here in counter to the misunderstandings that are continual about Harding on the Net. I also link in an article by George Justice.  What I really like about Harding is that he writes from the viewpoint of man who was a perceptive practicing psychologist. Harding's book, Social Psychology and Individual Values, is a powerful compassionate book. Justice connects Harding's profession to his insights about Austen.

To begin with a startling misapprehension or skewed emphasis, Harding no where claims that Jane Austen hated her relatives or hates any particular individual. He opens with his own response to typical criticism of Austen at the time (and this hagiography still goes on): how he finds it distasteful and it seemed to him that the author who could inspire such cant (ultimately hypocritical or not based on the writer's real thoughts and feelings) had to be awful. He admits that he was wrong not to read Austen because of what the cosy hagiographers he imagined wrote. 

The argument of Harding's essay is indeed that precisely the kind of thing he so disliked in the criticism is part of the fuel of Austen's novels and art: the same dislike of, distaste for cant that she found herself surrounded by. And why did she dislike it, find it distasteful because it's hypocritical and phony. If you look at her representation of characters you find they mask their real behaviors with this kind of cant, real behaviors that in the novels are often deeply unkind, cold, unfeeling, ruthless, and if you will outrageous.  People will say outrageously insulting and painful things to one another, humiliate one another and no one does anything about it. They all sit there as if it's just fine.

Well, to Austen it was not just fine. None of this was just fine.  She wrote not because she had some doctrine to get across but as a form of release.  Her fiction is not warm and cosy. To ratchet this up to respectable talk in the way of published papers: Harding's argument is that Jane Austen in her novels is bitterly and justifiably angry at the social cruelties and pain inflicted on many people by the obtuse, selfish, and powerful in daily social life.  He finds that the pretenses in the hagiography at the time may be seen through and the very people who profess to feel about life the way Austen did are themselves covering up; they are those who would support the obtuse, selfish and powerful in life themselves too.

 these letters bear out Harding's insight. Austen needed a release.  Paper and her imagined world was her space to be herself in and expose what so wounded her from the point of view of decent values -- these decent values are not those of the world.   They would (among other things) not make a world where women must marry anything in sight to be able to survive.

Harding's perception here is not new -- in the sense that others did record this. The most striking one is by Margaret Oliphant in response to JEAL's memoir which Margaret Oliphant finds very dim.  She says he has missed the core of his aunt's books.  Myself I think he did see it but did not dare to write it down.

Who has gone on from Harding to develop his insights?  Not those who argued for a political meaning but people like Tony Tanner. Tony Tanner's defense of MP is in line with D. W. Harding; the same insight that fuels Harding's point of view leads Tanner to defend Fanny Price and that book.  Another is Roger Gard's essay defending MP.

It's not only the cant-ridden type criticism that Harding gets at.  He wrote before a modern-type criticism (seen for example in Nokes) which demands that our authors and books be on the side of social life in a new way:  they must be pro-social so as to show themselves (and us) getting ahead, showing ourselves enjoying ourselves (Nokes is adament that Austen just loved Bath), for competition and worldly success. Had Harding seen this stuff he would have been just as sickened.

 it's true that he's an elitist. So were all the Scrutiny crowd:  the essay "Regulated Hatred" was first published by F. R. Leavis in Scrutiny and the point of view was at once anti-academic (yes it was) and strongly elitist: it was a kind of valuing of high intelligence and high culture -- that culture not at all necessarily academic, but somehow made up of the best minds reading the best texts :)  Q.D. (the wife) just despises Dorothy Sayers, but even more those who coo over Lord Peter Wimsey.  She makes a good argument that the cooing depends on ignoring the reactionary nature of the texts, but her dislike is partially a dislike of popular culture.

When he says that Austen would have disliked precisely the kind of people who adore her texts he is skewering the readership which he identifies as people who would be willing to make awful remarks, do cruel things, stick up for oppression, excuse unkindness: and she is bored silly by boring silly people in the books; she does dislike those who don't examine what they say, who repeat cant, and -- especially -- those who don't care in the least that they hurt others. It doesn't matter if John Dashwood is so obtuse as not to see how outrageous are his remarks about Marianne. That he made them is what matters.

It's a hard line.  We don't forgive people if they hurt us -- even if it's their stupidity that leads them to it.

That Austen doesn't like stupidity, unkindness, social oppressions and all the rest of what Harding claims appears to me true.  She didn't despise her readership as far as I can tell, but at the time there was no cult.  She didn't live long enough to find fame much less the kind of fame that is painful, irritating, gets in the way of your life, tells lies about you.

I don't see that this has anything much to do with her family. The release I'm talking about while sometimes is anger at the family is not at their stupidity nor particularly at any outrageous remarks or hurtful things said -- though she takes out time now and again to get a hit at Elizabeth it's not clear at all that it's Elizabeth's lack of wit. (Other sources say Elizabeth didn't like Jane because Jane was too smart for her - the remarks against satiric temperaments in S&S are said to relate to Elizabeth's attitudes to irony.)  In her letters she is frustrated and thwarted by her situation.  She is roused because her desires are ignored: for example, she does not want to stay with Edward and Elizabeth but go home, but no one offers to help her; in fact Francis tells her she should not go by post. She is bothered by the mother because the mother imposes on her time with what is nonsense to Jane -- but to the mother might be a need for attention or boredom -- bored people bother other people to entertain them.

It may be seen here implicitly that I am talking from the point of view that Christy sees Harding takes towards Miss Bates. Who wants to listen to this? Not Emma.  And while I'd love to say that Austen is satirizing Emma  and I know that Emma did wrong when she humiliated Miss Bates in public, I think Emma is a figure who also enacts Austen's own need for release and escape -- which Austen like Emma can't get.

It's Austen in fact who makes the outrageous remarks in these letters.  It's Austen who is unkind at individuals.  Austen is a satirist at her core and satirists while justifying themselves morally are often personally driven by their own disappointment, their own exclusions, their own resentments.  They generalize and may be read as critical of society. But the figure of the satyr as part of a satirist gives us an accurate truth.

I called this D. W. Harding and Emma because at heart Harding loves Emma: if I were to say which was his favorite heroine it'd be Emma as a distillation of Austen. Harding knows Emma is satirized but he'd say it's very soft.  Harding would say the whole argument about two inches of ivory (whether Austen is a miniaturist or has a wider view) is silly.  I suppose he'd say she's a great artist and therefore encompasses both. But he would not bother himself with this kind of debate

It's Harding who is sickened and I for one think he's right to be sickened.  It's relevant that Harding trained as a social psychologist. His book called Social Psychology and Individual Values is one of the best descriptions of the value of individual values and the realities of social life I've ever read.  It explicates his essay on Austen best.

For a good take, see George Justice.  He's very worth reading:  a few snatches from his essay:

Harding, who died in 1993, was a professor of psychology as well as a critic of English literature, and the essays collected here tend to focus on "Austen's concern with the survival of the sensitive and penetrating individual in a society of conforming mediocrity." Harding's critical method combines an acute sensitivity to Austen's fictional techniques with an informed understanding of the social and historical particulars that conditioned the possibilities for the precise responses of characters in the worlds that surround them.  In its original time, Harding's work was path-breaking. The title essay, first published in 1940 in Scrutiny (of which he was an editor), helped launch the contemporary understanding of Austen as an author engaged with her historical moment in ambivalent, even potentially subversive ways

He goes further to value Harding's essay on Austen's use of caricature  as well as his individual essays on the novels.

Tags: jane austen criticism, jane austen novels, jane austens letters, jasna, women's novels

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