The Improvement Of The Estate: A Study Of Jane Austen’s Novels, by Alistair M. Duckworth
Although this book is by no means a new study, it remains one of the more important studies of Austen’s novels because it takes her seriously as an author coming at a transitional period and one who had a high degree of support for Christian morality and ethics as well as a belief in divine providence. The author notes that although Austen’s desire to support the harmony of individual and social needs through the support of marriages and education (including, it should be noted, the education of women and the education of men by women) remained present through out her books that she was responsive to changing social concerns and highly critical of the atomization and materialism and spiritual vacuity of England. The author points out that Austen was likely a somewhat conservative character, and not the radical leftist that she is viewed as, although it must be noted as well that Austen’s views with regards to women as well as her defense of novelists demonstrates that she was by no means a reactionary. If she took her faith seriously–and the books would indicate that she did, she was not a blind supporter of tradition but rather someone who sought to elevate women through a recognition of their moral importance, not to disrupt the forces of order and decency within her society as others have often argued.
This book is between 200 and 250 pages long and it is divided into five somewhat lengthy chapters. The book begins with a note on citation, a preface, and an introduction that notes some of the critical and textual contexts of the author’s argument and the conversation about Austen and her works in which it is a part. After this the author talks about the importance of the estate to Mansfield Park and the importance of that work in understanding Austen as a person (1). This is followed by a look at various aspects of Northanger Abbey and Sense & Sensibility and their discussion of Austen’s early approach and her view of gentry society and the family estate (2). After that comes a discussion of the reconstitution of society in an alliance between godly merchants, gentry, and nobles within Pride & Prejudice (3). After this comes a discussion of the dangers of individualism that can be found within Emma (4), mostly through the perspective of its heroine. After this comes a somewhat melancholy look at the abandonment of the estate in Persuasion (5) as well as a postscript about its further abandonment in Sanditon, after which the book ends with an index.
It should be noted that Austen’s skill at irony and multiple layers of meaning and possible interpretations of her texts has meant that people tend to read Austen as they are and not necessarily how she is. Indeed, it is one mark of a great writer that they can be profitably misunderstood by those who read themselves into the text rather than seeking to learn from the text as it is. This book is not the result of someone seeking to make Austen say what he wants to say, but rather someone who takes Austen’s work seriously and as part of an overall moral view which seeks a dynamic tension between longings for improvement with those for stability and heroines who are assertive and those who are more restrained. Interestingly enough, the author takes a close reading to not only the heroines and to their place as well as to what change they make but also of the heroes and what they mean when it comes to Austen’s interest in the gentry and in their place within society. Indeed, Austen shows herself to have been highly critical to the mindless search for progress that characterizes much of the history and politics of not only her era but also our own. And if she became increasingly pessimistic about the ability of a godly heroine to drastically improve her own larger world, she certainly did not grow to appreciate the attitudes that characterize so much of what is written about her by those who wish to make her a standard-bearer of their own idiotic causes.