Jane Austen: The novel and social realism

Professor Kathryn Sutherland discusses Jane Austen’s ground-breaking use of social realism and her focus on the mundanity of everyday life. Filmed at Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton.

Jane Austen seems to be saying in her novels, that reading carves out a private space for the reader – a space in which they can indulge fantasies and also work over their own moral dilemmas and problems through the activities of others and I think this is what she saw as the purposes of her own novels – that she combined a close social realism with a certain moral seriousness – a belief that the actions of the novels – the kinds of activities her characters are indulging in, which after all are the activities of everyday life – the activities like falling in love, the relationships between parents and their children, getting on with one's neighbours, trying to work out who means us well and who might not – the ordinary morality of life. She is feeding that into the novel and suggesting that the new novel that she is carving out, should be concerned with those issues. And this is new, because the novel as she finds it, in the early 19th century, is full of extravagant plots, adventures, improbable incidents and what she strips away is that improbability – concentrating instead on the lives of people rather like the rest of us – if we accept that the rest of us are, as it were, the middling classes and the gentry.

If we try to reduce her novels to their plot elements we find that there is very little there – you know, these are not the stories of abandoned babies who find themselves kidnapped and sent off to sea and eventually discover that they are the long lost children of dukes. These are novels in which, you know, the most important the things that may happen are whether or not we can afford to have a ball in the village, when exactly we will put it on and whether we will follow it with a picnic. You know, that can be the whole of Jane Austen's plot. In her own day, readers quickly realised that she was doing something new in the novel and she gained a very respectable reputation as an ambitious novelist.

Two further new ingredients that she brings to the novel, are the interior space that she carves out for the heroine. Instead of her novels being a string of adventures that are enacted in the world outside, the psychic space of the heroine becomes increasingly important. We see this developing in the novel as she works with it and so it's at its most intense in her later novels – in Emma and Persuasion, for example, where we find that we spend as much time inside the heroine, as we do engaging with the events outside and I think the other really important ingredient, is her introduction of conversation into the novel and by that I mean something like the real exchanges that real people have. So you find that they are conversations that stumble, where characters speak across each other, where characters sometimes begin to mimic one another, as we do in conversation. The novel before Jane Austen tended to have monologues. The characters expound dramatically across a room, one to the other and indeed after Jane Austen, that's often the way with conversation. She is quite remarkable, I think, in bringing something natural into the novel and that's her contribution to the development of social realism at this time.

I think a sign of how well she was developing many of these natural features in the novel, is that several of her readers did write to her and say, ‘Oh, Mr. Collins – he's obviously our vicar’, or – another character, Mrs. Elton, ‘She's just like somebody I know – you must know her too.’ The assumption was that Jane Austen was not just describing, as it were, a fictional distillation of her own society, but people recognised people they knew within her characters and this, of course, caused her great amusement and as she said, she was making it up – but she's making it up from the observable ingredients of real life.

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