The romantics’ claws that may tear Pyne's vision -- investigating Shelley and Austen

Sunday, March 23, 2014
In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood girls are dependent on catching a financially well-endowed husband

Sense & Sensibility, an Annotated Edition
By Jane Austen (edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks)
Harvard University Press 2013
448 pp, $54.95
The Annotated Frankenstein
By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (edited by Susan J. Wolfson & Ronald Levao)
Harvard University Press 2012
400pp., $45.00

In January, federal education minister Christopher Pyne announced that he wants the national school history curriculum to recognise “the legacy of Western civilisation”.

Previously he has said that there is too little teaching of the “non-Labor side of our history”.

As if parodying the Thoughts of Chairman Mao, Pyne’s thought bubbles are to guide Australian education.

Presumably, Pyne would regard books such as Sense & Sensibility and Frankenstein as part of the treasury of Western literature. However, a considered reading of these texts would not be to his liking.

Here there be tigers, minister Pyne, the Romantics had claws!

Usually regarded only as a writer of love stories, Jane Austen is not normally counted among the Romantics, of which Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley is an exemplar. But while Austen was not a Gothic writer, she certainly stood near the Romantics.

As French Marxist Michael Lowy explains, the Romantics “responded to the Industrial Revolution and its economic, social and cultural consequences”.

However, he points out that they were “rarely systematic or explicit” and seldom referred “directly to capitalism as such”. The central Romantic concern was “not the exploitation of the workers or social inequality … it is the quantification of life … the cold calculation of price and profit, and the laws of the market, over the whole social fabric”.

Both books deal with how people living through the early growth of capitalism understood and coped with its intrusion.

From the opening page of Sense and Sensibility, Austen exposes the underlying matrix of her characters’ lives: money. She names and describes her key characters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, several pages after the details of their financial position.

Caught in a society of “primogeniture” (the bequeathing of property to the first born son), the Dashwood girls are dependent on catching a financially well-endowed husband. Further, as genteel young ladies they were denied education, deprived of the right to meaningful work and unable to go unchaperoned in public.

Lurking unsaid is the fact that sex and conception were essentially connected. Single women saddled with a child were socially doomed, with prostitution their only option.

Moreover, giving birth was perilous and was to remain so long after the book was written.

Jennifer Worth’s Call the Midwife books, relating her 1950s and '60s experience in London’s East End, revealed the life-saving effects of the Britain's National Health System and the arrival of the birth control pill. From one year to the next, the number of children born in the East End plummeted, liberating women from prostitution and oppression.

Capitalism’s great promise is individual freedom, yet how could early-19th century women express their thoughts and feelings? Austen’s theme is their difficulty to communicate and live with integrity while navigating the bleak social landscape ― which she contrasts to their joy in nature.

Mary Wollstonecraft, a vigorous supporter of the French Revolution, wrote of such women’s agony in her Vindication of the Rights of Women.

She said that women’s “senses are inflamed, and their understandings neglected, consequently they become prey to their senses, delicately termed sensibility, and are blown about by every momentary gust of feeling”.

(That Mary Wollstonecraft died of septicaemia after the birth of her daughter, Mary ― who later wrote Frankenstein ― is an example of the dangers of 18th century childbirth).

Elinor and Marianne Dashwood personify the two poles of the self-control/self-expression predicament. Elinor exerts restraint while Marianne throws herself into extreme emotional release ― floods of tears ― no matter the personal cost.

Austen uses her tale to skewer conventions of polite conversation, social rituals and gatherings such as balls (hot and tedious, she writes).

The novel is a contrast to its cinematic presentations, which emphasise superficialities. Austen uses lashings of irony and is caustic about trivialities.

The upheavals and wars sparked by the French Revolution are not mentioned, but other contemporary realities are. For example, the Dashwood sisters’ money-grubbing half-brother, responsible for their financial fall, coldly calculates the financial worth of each of their marriage prospects ― with declining value as the bloom of youth fades.

He also mentions the expense of enclosing the common on his estate. The practice of “enclosure” was used by the landed gentry to increase the value of their holdings at the expense of the peasantry, simply by walling in what once was open land.

Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village captures enclosure’s cost: “Amidst thy bowers the tyrant's hand is seen/And desolation saddens all thy green/One only master grasps the whole domain… Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.”

Such is the origin of the money that funds the opulent parties and easy life of Austen’s characters.

The Dashwood sisters grapple with the spreading capitalist money relation, but Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley plumbs its psychological depths in Frankenstein.

Drenched with poetical references (especially Milton’s Paradise Lost), other literary allusions and contemporary scientific research and world exploration, Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley’s fantasy brings the repressed feelings of her times to the surface.

The book touched a popular nerve, achieving resounding success as a novel, a play and later as a much reprised film story. Its enduring qualities come from the way that Frankenstein portrays, in nightmarish form, capitalist alienation.

First published in 1818, the social atmosphere at the time was greatly affected by the bloody suppression of the Luddites in Britain.

Between 1811 and 1817, this mass workers’ movement smashed mechanised textile looms. At one point, there were more British soldiers in action against the Luddites than against Napoleon’s army.

Austen uses the authorial narrative voice in Sense and Sensibility, but in Frankenstein the characters speak for themselves in a series of interwoven narrations.

The narratives of the scientist Victor Frankenstein and the creature he created are framed by a polar explorer’s letters. This allows the story to allegorically unfold amid an image taken from the inner-most circle of Dante’s Inferno, where Satan, permanently encased in a sea of ice, endlessly beats his wings. It is a devastating metaphor for capitalism.

As is well known from endless re-tellings, the mad-scientist Frankenstein fashions a creature from parts taken from the dankest places. This eight-foot-tall “monster” then fatally pursues him.

Karl Marx, writing three decades after Wollstonecraft Shelley, describes how the capitalist class, applying the latest scientific discoveries, built its factories ― the “dark Satanic Mills” denounced by William Blake ― and created the modern working class.

These workers were originally peasants cleared from the land by enclosures. Crowded together in foul urban slums, from these workers’ prodigious energy came the great capitalist fortunes.

However, by gathering workers into large bodies, the capitalists facilitate their collective power. Thus, what the bourgeoisie produces, “above all, are its own grave-diggers”, Marx wrote in 1848.

These workers have no productive property, only the sweated labour they can sell. Frankenstein’s creature reflects these realities when he says: “Of my creator I was absolutely ignorant; but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property.”

However, the creature has a penetrating insight into Frankenstein’s society. Without money or high birth, a person must live “as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profit of the chosen few”.

Marx was of the generation after Austen and Wollstonecraft Shelley and Michael Lowy says he incorporated and expanded upon the Romantics’ intimations.

“Neither apologetic of bourgeois civilisation nor blind to its achievements,” Lowy says, Marxism aims to “integrate both the technical advances of modern society and some of the human qualities of pre-capitalist communities”.

This promises, according to Lowy, to open “a new conception of labour as a free, non-alienated and creative activity”.


From GLW issue 1002