G. K. Chesterton, Jane Austen, and Politicians
Good writing often depends on imaginative connections. Thus when G. K. Chesterton noticed a writer in a leading daily paper rhapsodizing about the new attitudes of women which would make a difference in the General Election of 1930, he was immediately struck by the writer’s citation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The writer somewhat smugly insisted that today’s women were much more sophisticated in their appraisal of men, as evidenced by the fact that any modern woman would see through the insincerity of Austen’s Mr. Wickham in five minutes.
Chesterton first commented that the critics who talk about the sentimental gullibility of Jane Austen’s characters obviously haven’t read Jane Austen, who cast about as critical and even as cynical an eye on the conventions of her time as any author before or since. In the case of Mr. Wickham, who for a time turned even the main character, Elizabeth Bennett, against her future husband Darcy, Chesterton observed:
Jane Austen was a much more shrewd and solid psychologist than that. She did not make Elizabeth Bennett to be a person easily deceived, and she did not make her deceiver a vulgar imposter. Mr. Wickham was one of those very formidable people who tell lies by telling the truth. He did not merely swagger or sentimentalize or strike attitudes; he simply told the girl, as if reluctantly, that he had been promised a living in the Church by old Mr. Darcy, and that young Mr. Darcy had not carried out the scheme. This was true as far as it went; anybody might have believed it; most people would have believed it, if it were told with modesty and restraint. Mr. Wickham could be trusted to tell it with modesty and restraint. What Mr. Wickham could not be trusted to do was to tell the rest of the story; which made it a very different story. He did not think it necessary to mention that he had misbehaved himself in so flagrant a fashion that no responsible squire could possibly make him a parson; so that the squire had compensated him and he had become an officer in a fashionable regiment instead.
But I was talking of connections, and the attentive reader will remember that Chesterton’s attention was caught by the allusion to Jane Austen in connection with the General Election. Hence he went on to make a contemporary application:
Mr. Wickham was, or is, exactly the sort of man who does make a success of political elections…. [H]e is made for Parliamentary life. And he owes his success to two qualities, both exhibited in the novel in which he figures. First, the talent for telling a lie by telling half of the truth. And second, the art of telling a lie not loudly and offensively but with an appearance of gentlemanly and graceful regret…. [The politician’s] power consists…in getting [people] to be content with his sketchy and superficial version of the real state of things. Nothing tends more happily to this result than the shining qualities of Mr. Wickham; good manners and good nature and a light touch…. If such palpable nonsense were thundered by an orator, or shouted by a demagogue, or in any way made striking and decisive, even the House of Commons would rise in riot or roar with laughter. Nonsense so nonsensical as that can only be uttered in the tones of a sensible man.
As I say, good writing often depends on imaginative connections, and the best writing depends on imaginative connections which are also true. As in Jane Austen’s time, modern women, just like modern men, seem unable to “see through” modern politicians.
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