By Deborah Yaffe, Sep 17 2018 01:00PM
Dissing the members of the British royal family -- at least the popular ones -- is not for the faint of heart.
Jane Austen confined her criticism of the royals of her day to her private correspondence, where she revealed her dislike of the Prince Regent (later George IV) and her not-unmixed support for his slandered and abused wife, Princess Caroline.
Sandi Toksvig, the current co-host of TV’s Great British Bake Off – known to American audiences as The Great British Baking Show – was unwise enough to do her dissing in public.
Back in 2013, Toksvig, then known as a radio personality, told the Guardian that she wasn’t excessively impressed with Prince William’s willowy wife, the former Kate Middleton.
“Kate Middleton is not enough for me. We used to admire women who got their place in life through marriage and having children, but I like to think we've grown up a bit,” Toksvig said back then. “I can't think of a single opinion she holds – it's very Jane Austen.”
(The first quarter of 2013, not long after the announcement of the royal couple’s first pregnancy, was rife with Kontroversial Kate Kommentary: Just a few weeks before the Toksvig interview, novelist Hilary Mantel had caused a minor kerfuffle by comparing Princess Kate’s* public image to that of a “shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore.”)
A few days ago, Toksvig took the opportunity to apologize for her 2013 remarks, insisting she had meant no offense and hoped that Kate had taken none. I, however, have a different view of the matter. It seems to me that the person who deserves Toksvig's apology isn’t Kate Middleton but Jane Austen.
Because whether you’re referring to the novelist herself or to her fictional heroines, there is nothing “very Jane Austen” about holding no opinions of anything. Elizabeth Bennet has no ideas of her own? Emma Woodhouse is a shrinking violet? Marianne Dashwood keeps her mouth shut and defers to the views of others? And don’t even get me started on the strong-minded woman who created these mouthy, opinionated characters.
As so often happens, "Jane Austen" in this context doesn't actually mean "the novelist Jane Austen," or "Jane Austen's books," or "Jane Austen's characters." Austen's name is used as shorthand, signifying a cluster of ideas, attitudes and social arrangements that she herself did not create and did not necessarily endorse.
Probably Toksvig meant to say that it is “very Jane Austen” for women to earn their social positions through marriage and childbearing. Fair enough: Austen does write about a world in which that’s the case. But that’s not “very Jane Austen”; it’s “very nineteenth-century patriarchy.”
* Oh, OK: the Duchess of Cambridge. But we all call her Princess Kate, don’t we?