Stephen Fry on Jane Austen
Love and Friendship actor, Stephen Fry, shares his thoughts on Lady Susan and the historical importance of Jane Austen’s work with HOME Digital in association with Virgin Media Business.
Lady Susan (the Austen novella on which Love and Friendship is based) has a great deal in common with the British novelistic and dramatic tradition of what used to be called, without embarrassment, the comedy of manners.
It’s worth remembering that the Latin for manners is, ‘mores’. We get our word, ‘morals’ from it. So comedies of manners are also comedies of morals, not just light, drawing room society comedies. Jane Austen is a phenomenal moralist; her stories strike at the very heart of how we question our behaviour and who we are. The world in which Lady Susan is set is a very interesting one. A few years later, Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge was published and the Romantics were born. Over the next five to ten years, that became a huge influence on British social life.
During the same period, the world was on fire because of the French Revolution. Wordsworth, who was just flourishing at that time, wrote the famous lines: “Bliss was it to be at that dawn alive, but to be young was very heaven.” So outside the world of a small country house, things were very threatened. The aristocracy could have been totally destroyed.
As Jane Austen continued to write, the threat of revolution was removed and replaced by another threat, Emperor Napoleon. This lasted until 1815, virtually the rest of her life. It may seem to us that Jane Austen was writing within a very stable social environment, because its rules were strict and people didn’t show emotions in the way we do, but there was fragility; alliances, love and the gap between them. Evelyn Waugh and Oscar Wilde admired her enormously, they recognized her qualities. During the time that Wilde was just coming into his flourishing and maturity as a writer, Jane Austen was beginning to be reassessed and understood to be the giant of letters that we now know her to be. By the time Waugh was writing she was already huge. David Cecil, the Oxford don, was an unapologetic Jane-ite, along with the great F.R. Leavis at Cambridge. They put Jane Austen right into the academic syllabus and into the intellectual pantheon as a great writer, whereas before she was almost considered too entertaining and almost too romantic.
It’s a well-known truth that the essential storyline of Pride and Prejudice is the essential storyline of almost every single romantic novel that’s ever been written since. ‘The dark unattainable mysterious brooding man…’ Lady Susan has the same lineaments of great romantic fiction but also great satire, and great depth. Romantic fiction makes for terrific entertainment as films, because you can delight in the characters’ lack of self-knowledge. We can all applaud ourselves for seeing how little these characters understand themselves, let alone each other, and we can also actually love them, and want them to come together in the right way. This is what comedy provides us with; a suggestion that society will heal the wounds that a lack of self-knowledge has created. Jane Austen mocks excessive sensibility fantastically, but she doesn’t mock love. Never mocks love. She knows that is real, utterly real.
The writer I would most compare her to, a hugely universal, wonderful comedian in his writing and yet so moral and so profound, is Anton Chekov. They both concentrate on humans within a closed system, a class system, and closed systems are the systems that are the most universal. A lot of people ask how Jane Austen can be considered a universal writer when her milieu is so small. That’s the point. She works in an extremely restricted milieu. How can such a small thing set in Regency England in the countryside, not even in London, matter across the rest of the world?
The most closed system that man has ever created has been music that follows a general harmonic, western Pythagorean rules. Everyone has agreed it is the universal language and yet it is appallingly specific. There are only 88 notes on a piano for example, and within the laws of harmony there are only a certain number of shapes and sounds you can make. And yet was there anything so universal? Similarly, with Jane Austen, there’s just so little she could do, the little minuet that the characters can dance is so constrained. It’s quite well known that she doesn’t have men talking to each other unless there’s a woman present in the room because by definition, she’s never heard men talking. She wouldn’t presume to understand how men spoke. So she painted herself into a corner, but it’s a corner where great fruit bloomed.
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