ABSTRACT

It is important to notice what Leavis does not say. He does not say that Jane Austen arrives at the right moral conclusions about life; indeed a criticism he makes of Johnson’s complaint against Shakespeare is that “Johnson cannot understand that works of art enact their moral valuations”.3 Nor does he suggest that the moral code which emerges in Jane Austen’s novels is one which, if we admire her as a writer, we should in some sense be prepared to adopt, or at least to approve. Indeed the question arises whether the word ‘moral’ is being used with anything like the force it traditionally has. Jane Austen’s work is not said to be ‘moral’ in a sense in which it could alternatively be described as ‘immoral’, but rather as opposed to ‘amoral’. And this of course is very close to Arnold’s proclamation that “A poetry of revolt against moral ideas is a poetry of revolt against life”. Jane Austen is said to have “an intense moral interest . . . in life”, and this in turn is characterized as “a preoccupation with certain problems that life compels on her as personal ones”. The moral significance of her work, then, lies in its dealing seriously, or intensely, or maturely with experience. The opposite of this would be triviality, or sentimentality, or self-deception. Neither Arnold nor Leavis is committing himself to the proposition that no serious work of literature is ever morally

bad; but this is because the notion of the ‘morally bad’ in any traditional sense hardly seems to exist in their systems at all. To insist that a serious concern with certain problems of life is a ‘moral’ concern is not the same thing as to say that it is a morally good concern; it is rather to say that it is the sort of concern which is in the province of morality, or which is the material of moral judgements. Jane Austen takes a moral interest in life, which is to say that she takes a serious interest, and the criterion of that is that she has produced serious works of art.