She was not an unshockable blue-stocking;
If shades remain the characters they were,
No doubt she still considers you as shocking.
But tell Jane Austen, that is if you dare,
How much her novels are beloved down here.
She wrote them for posterity, she said;
‘Twas rash, but by posterity she’s read.
You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle-class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
Auden, “Letter to Lord Byron” (1937). I thought of this passage yesterday as I was re-reading Mansfield Park, which I take to be Austen’s greatest novel, one of the greatest novels ever written, and a terrifyingly blunt and unblinking revelation of the selfishness and cruelty that most ordinary people are capable of. I read this book and I wonder how many monsters there are in the world who simply lack the power to inflict the pain on others — especially on the weak — that they want to inflict.
(Also: apologies for my inability to get Tumblr to format the verse properly.)