Jane Austen died in 1817 at the age of 41. The nature of her fatal illness is unclear, but her recorded symptoms suggest Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As early as 1813, around the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Austen had suffered from back pain, pruritis, neuralgia, night fevers, and anemia causing weakness and discoloration of the face. She endured to compose another masterpiece or four. During these years she was dying in plain sight, but, it seems, almost invisibly. Her niece Caroline would write, “Aunt Jane’s health began to fail before we knew she was really ill.”

“Even in Austen’s arcadia, death lurks—along with other consequences of the fall.”

In Austen’s novels, death is both dreaded and denied. Her characters both obsess over mortality and look past it, out of fear of it and hatred of one another—troubling the familiar notion of her novels as drawing-room sketches, narrowly concerned with the mannerly courtship intrigues of the rural gentry. Even in Austen’s arcadia, death lurks, along with other consequences of the fall: hatred, fear, privation. As for class difference, it was not instituted primarily for the testing and vindication of meritorious young ladies, but gives cover to the cruelties we perpetrate without admitting it, the hatreds we deny we bear.

Emma, published in 1815, is Austen’s best novel and her most idyllic. Unlike all her other works, Emma stays in one place: the rural village of Highbury. Its heroine, 20-year-old Emma Woodhouse, presides over a little rustic hierarchy. “Handsome, clever, and rich,” Emma has everything she needs in Highbury. She has no need to jaunt to London, just 16 miles away, and she has never seen the sea. She boasts of her “independent resources” and declares that she will never marry:

Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield.

Two paradises ’twere in one. But evil is present in Highbury, and not only in the form of the slippery interloper Frank Churchill. It is woven into the social structure. Take the parlous lot of the village spinster, the good-natured Miss Bates:

[She] enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married. Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her into outward respect.

D. W. Harding notices this passage in “Regulated Hatred,” his important essay on Austen, which appeared in F. R. Leavis’s Scrutiny in 1940. Harding suggests taking the verb “hate” seriously. Most readers unthinkingly replace it with something softer: “frighten those who might scorn her,” “those who might look down on her.” These revisions preserve the politeness of Aunt Jane, and they spare readers from criticism. The words Austen wrote suggest that a lot of people in polite society are haters. Our hatred is regulated (if at all) by fear, or by social convention. Harding was a war psychologist who thought that people were evil, stupid, and a danger to each other. His reading of Austen deposed gentle Jane and installed a spinster with a vendetta. The author of Emma was herself “a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married.”

Harding rightly argues that the regulation of evil, not its eradication, is Austen’s goal. Relevant here is Mr. Darcy’s line in Pride and Prejudice: “Where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will always be under good regulation.” However compromised the messenger, the message is true: We have our vices, and the trick is to keep them under regulation.

“Christian morals in a temperate English version” was Graham Hough’s summary of Austen’s code. The exemplar is Emma’s eventual husband, George Knightley. Very much at home at his ancestral estate outside Highbury, Mr. Knightley is a knight inerrant—in that he does not err, nor does he wander abroad seeking battles. With sober eloquence, he regulates evil at home.

In a famous scene, the ranking Highburians have gathered for a picnic, and they begin a game of saying each one clever thing, or three dull ones. Miss Bates, “a great talker upon little matters,” cheerfully predicts that she’ll have no trouble saying a few dull things. Emma jests that her challenge will be to limit herself to three.

Once the picnic has broken up, Mr. Knightley administers to Emma one of the most devastating scoldings in literature. Miss Bates, he urges,

is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—

Knightley’s words are just (fair) and le mot juste (precise). Christian morals in their temperate English version acknowledge that fortune does not always favor the good-hearted. They regulate the hatred of the lofty for the low.

And they indict readers as the party of haters to whom Miss Bates is trivial and ridiculous. Her conversation is full of apple-dumplings, and the rivets of broken spectacles, and kitchen chimneys, and asparagus, and soup …. She stands in a line, from Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly to Richardson’s Pamela to Joyce’s Molly Bloom, of literary women with logorrhea. These ladies, with their fixations on domestic minutiae, arguably imparted to the English novel its domestic focus, and they are often read as posing a feminine challenge to conventional hierarchies of significance.

But Miss Bates’s femininity seems less pertinent than her socioeconomic status. Her household is poor and getting poorer. She prattles about gifts and favors from her friends, on whose charity she depends: “the beautiful hindquarter of pork you sent us.”

Emma, as first lady of Highbury, does not dwell on how beautiful the hindquarter of pork was, how sufficient for the maintenance of a modest style of life. Miss Bates’s unprovided, unattended spinsterhood is a biological and social failure, very different from Emma’s lofty resolution on celibacy. Emma has said that it’s not spinsters as such who are detestable, only poor spinsters: “It is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls.” If Emma does not hate Miss Bates, it is because she judges her not worth hating.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet’s aunt and uncle Gardiner are members of the rising merchant class, and Darcy’s recognition of their merit is celebrated by the novel as the passing of a test: He can get over his old-money snobbery and take people as they come. More celebrated by literary scholars is the subtext: New money is in circulation, and the landed gentry must accommodate a changing economic order. At the start of the 19th century, the disciplined bourgeoisie are on their way up. Less celebrated is the fact that some others are on their way down.

One of the young social critics in Whit Stillman’s Austen-haunted Metropolitan observes: “We hear a lot about the great social mobility in America, with the focus usually on the comparative ease of moving upwards. What’s less discussed is how easy it is to go down.” Stillman’s film antagonizes some viewers by restricting its concern to the precious precincts of America’s “urban haute bourgeoisie.” But it uses their lives to dramatize broader concerns. They wonder aloud whether their fathers are failures, indeed whether all old-money Americans are “doomed to fail.” They debate Charles Fourier’s utopian startup: One argues that “ceasing to exist is failure. That’s pretty definitive,” and elicits the retort, “Everyone ceases to exist.”

Like Stillman’s Manhattan, Austen’s Highbury is haunted by class descent and death. There is something spooky about the Bates household. Miss Bates warns a visitor, “Ours is rather a dark staircase.” This is an apology for her poverty: Windows are expensive, as are candles. It is also an expression of her sense that the world is full of peril. Watch your step, she warns, because she knows what hazards may befall you on your way up or (especially) down. Emma is full of fear—fear of change, above all. Miss Bates fears further decline. But the rich characters have fears, too. In the opening chapter, Emma’s former governess has just been married. Now,

her father and herself were left to dine together, with no prospect of a third to cheer a long evening. Her father composed himself to sleep after dinner, as usual, and she had then only to sit and think of what she had lost.

It was a melancholy change; and Emma could not but sigh over it, and wish for impossible things, till her father awoke. … He was a nervous man, easily depressed; fond of every body that he was used to, and hating to part with them; hating change of every kind. Matrimony, as the origin of change, was always disagreeable.

Emma shares with her father an intuition that change is fatal. Deaths break up households; so do marriages. Of course Emma does not want to marry: “I cannot really change for the better.” Best to remain the virgin daughter, immured in an unvarying household, a Regency Miss Havisham.

Emma’s father, like Miss Bates, is preoccupied with trivia. But whereas Miss Bates’s anxieties are produced by disorder in the body politic, the wealthy Mr. Woodhouse is haunted by bodily disorder. He rarely walks outside; fears open doors and “the dews of a summer evening”; almost gives up the ghost when he has to ride in a coach while snow is falling; idolizes his apothecary; considers wedding-cake unwholesome; and regrets that when he hosts people for supper, he has to inflict food on them—he advises a small apple tart, a small half-glass of wine, and no custard. He is forever seeking the perfect consistency of gruel: smooth and thin, but not too thin.

His awareness of mortality is paradoxical: He tries to deny it, by ceasing to metabolize. Many of us still seek a perfect consistency of gruel, or a perfect probiotic yogurt culture, or a perfect exercise regimen, giving death the tribute of denial. Like Mr. Woodhouse, we fear it, for our own sake and others’.

Or out of hatred. Near the end of the novel, death comes for Mrs. Churchill. She is the aunt and foster-mother of the heartthrob Frank Churchill, a wealthy woman with power over Frank and his connections. She never appears, but she is discussed constantly. We are told that she is ill-humored, odd-tempered, and capricious, that life in her household must be dreadful. She has long claimed to be dying of some undisclosed illness; its recurrences are pretexts for recalling Frank to her side and otherwise jerking him around. Nobody believes her—“As to her illness, all nothing of course”—until she up and dies.

“Austen’s vision … is sociologically narrow. But it is not shallow.”

To adapt Caroline’s comment on her Aunt Jane: “Mrs. Churchill’s health began to fail before we knew she was really ill.” It’s easy to believe that the women we hate will never die; it’s easy to believe the same about those we love. Austen was “a single woman, with a very narrow income,” rather than a powerful married lady. The chiming of their two deaths, heralded yet unexpected, points up the varying reasons for denying what comes to all.

Austen’s vision, comprehending the English gentry class and adjacent cohorts, is sociologically narrow. But it is not shallow. As the ascents of single young ladies are shadowed by the descents of single old ladies, the comic plots are shadowed by dark intimations: that there is less love and more hatred in society than we care to admit, and that the plots’ common end in marriage is not the end.

Julia Yost is a senior editor of First Things.

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