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In The Opposing Self (1955) Lionel Trilling has the following to say about Jane Austen in his essay on Mansfield Park. Once again, one must marvel at the prescience of a great artist-observer:
It was Jane Austen who first represented the specifically modern personality and the culture in which it had its being. Never before had the moral life been shown as she shows it to be, never before had it been conceived to be so complex and diffcult and exhausting. Hegel speaks of the “secularization of spirituality” as a prime characteristic of the modern epoch and Jane Austen is the first to tell what this involves. She is the first novelist to represent society, the general culture, as playing a part in the moral life, generating the concepts of “sincerity” and “vulgarity” which no earlier time would have understood the meaning of, and which for us are so subtle that they defy definition, an so powerful that none can escape their sovereignty. She is the first to be aware of the Terror which rules our moral situation, the ubiquitous anonymous judgment to which we respond, the necessity we feel to demonstrate the purity of our secular spirituality whose dark and dubious places are more numerous and obscure than those of religious spiritualiy, to put our lives our lives and styles to the question making sure that not only in deeds but in décor they exhibit the signs of our belonging to the number of the secular-spiritual elect.
Only with social media and doxxing, the Terror is not so anonymous. Some so-called feminists have done their best to tear down Jane Austen’s reputation, but her popularity remains, I think, and will. Culture does change, but human nature endures. A great novel is always relevant.Published in