THE OTHER DAY, feeling a little jaded, your Charterhouse Chronicler decided to spend the morning in Bath, in order to soak in a little bit of much needed 18th century calm. Bath was the same as ever — beautiful cities invariably are; the only problem was that thousands of other people had had the same idea as myself the result being, not a restful stroll along the streets vith which Jane Austen ivould have been familiar, but the disconcerting idea that one had wandered into some sort of Regency theme park awash with tourists.
The current Jane Austen revival is dearly to blame. But not so fast. "Jane Austen revival" is a misnomer. Austen is the one English novelist (apart from Dickens) who needsno reviving for the simple reason that her popularity has never faded. Every other author has had their day and teen rediscovered, or waits patiently in the graveyard of literary reputations for resurrection at the hands of the arbiters of tastes. Fielding was once considered terribly vulga r, even downright rude, untilthis century hailed him as the great moralist. Other writers, including some quite recent ones, have not been so lucky. The once greatly poloular Hugh Walpole and Charles Morgan are now rarely heard of, let alone read. But not Jane Austen: her books have grown in popularity boll among highbrow scholars and ordinary readers with cach passing year. Her flamewill never go out.
THIS, OF course, puts all the fuss about ilm and television adaptations into perspective. But the fuss also makes m e a little afraid. I have been to, and survived (just) the breathtaking vulgarity of modem Stratford-uponAvon, centre of what tourist brochures undoubtedly call "Shakespeare country". I have heard too of "Brontë country", without feeling the slightest desire to go there. This latter seems to be a more legitimate concept: the Brontes' novels do, for the most
part, draw on their author's native ambience. But what, please, has Stratford got to do with Haulier or Othello or Romeo and Juliet? Never has a man's birthplace had less to do with the works he later went on to produce. Modern Stratford has nothing in common with Shakespeare; it is a tourist trap, pure and simple. There is, I know, a strong case for linking some of Shakespeare's sylvan settings to the Warwickshire countryside he knew as a lad, but comb his works as you will, you will find nothing of Stratford in them. The sad fact is, I suspect, that the Shakespeare industry had to set up shop somewhere, and fixed on the man's birthplace as good a place as any. To my mind they would have done much better to have chosen Windsor, with its superior motorway links and its proximity to Heathrow Airport; a Merry Wives theme park has infinite possibilities for bad taste. But come to think of it, Windsor's booked, isn't it?
As I hope will be apparent from the above, I am now concerned that Bath may find itself at the centre of a nascent Jane Austen industry. Such a monstrous idea ought to be strangled at birth. Austen does not need it. The only memorial she needs she has already got: a modest tombstone in Winchester Cathedral, and six novels that will never be equalled.
IT HAS IN the past been asserted by anthropologists (generally when they have had a little too much to drink in their Senior Common Rooms) that Austen is the nearest thing Anglicanism possesses to the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary. While the quiet spinster of Chawton may seem to be a world away from the Black Madonna in Poland, there is a point here that
deserves serious consideration. Each culture produces the icon that is dearest to its own heart. The present Pope is said to ascribe his survival of Mehmet Ali Agca's attempt on his life to the intercession of the Black Madonna. When Anthony Eden, that quintessential English gentleman, faced political ruin during the darkest hours of the Suez Crisis, what did he do? Fall on his knees and implore the aid of the Most High? Nothing quite so vulgar. He put on his smoking jacket and retired to his bedroom at Number Ten, giving strict instructions that he was not to be disturbed under any circumstances. He took a copy of Mansfield Park with him, and in his solitude communed with the spirit of the Virgin of Chawton, who never abandons those who love her, and after which, we can be quite sure, he felt much better.
After all, having faced the dreadful Mrs Norris on the page, he was surely ready for anything that General Nasser might do.
There is an infectious coolness, a sang-froid, that is at the heart of Jane Austen's enduring appeal. And this wonderful sense of detachment, this irony, rests on something else: the knowledge that behind the minutiae of social life we live in a world governed by a fixed moral order, which we violate at our peril, and against which clear judgments about people can be made. This in turn explains two further important facts.
We continue to read Jane Austen, indeed to turn to her for comfort in a distressed hour, because we want to live in a morally certain world; and no one alive today can write as Jane Austen did, because we don't. A society, such as ours, that holds moral relativism as its official creed, will never produce great works of art; it has to turn back to the past for them, and even then, as in the case of Jane Austen, it prefers prettified adaptations to the real thing.
0 UR MORAL decline goes hand in hand with our artistic decline. Jane Austen wrote in and about a
world the moral basis of which no one would have dreamed of questioning. (No reader could have failed to deplore Maria Rushworth's adultery, or approve Emma's marriage to Mr Knightley — both are clear cases of evil and good actions.) But nowadays no such consensus about right and wrong behaviour exists.
When a character in a Faye Weldon novel is uncertain of her course of action, the reader is equally in the dark. The same is true of characters in novels by the devoutly Catholic authors such as Alice Thomas Ellis and Piers Paul Read.
There may be private certainties, but there are no public truths to which all can adhere. Hence no contemporary novel has any moral form to it; and Art is primarily about the imposition of Form. Nowadays we must be content with good writers and perhaps great writing; but we must learn to do without great books.
David McLaurin's new novel, Tropical Darkness, is published by Duckworth at Z14.99