Dr. Johnson once took time, among the cornucopia of his observations, to note that the young and old will always be in conflict, and Prof. Patricia Spacks has made something of a study of that long enduring battle, especially when the armies clash on the literary field.
There have been, all through the centuries, a number of efforts to deal with adolescence, and, while it may have brought small comfort to those afflicted by those most troublesome years of fragile egos and anxiety, it has given their elders something to do, between parlour games and est sessions, depending on the epoch at hand.
Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Philip Roth and James Joyce have all had a whack at it, and since Spacks was in town last night to talk about "Generational Conflict in Jane Austen," one might take a guess at her preference.
"She believed that decorum was very important, of course," explained Spacks in the Folger Library's booklined brown-toned reading room, but at the same time it was always Austen's high-spirited young heroines who balanced the scales between sense and sensibility, while their parents went around generally making a hash out of things.
Austen was right in the middle of two different attitudes toward those walking the tightrope at childhood's end. The 18th century believed that children were actually wretched, tainted creatures who had to be cleansed of original sin and had to be reformed, and the 19th century had visions of all these little cherubs running around in danger of being corrupted by society unless their parents were there to guide them in goodness.
The 20th century, she said, has dealt with the problem in its usual muddled way by turning the whole problem over to the media, which has tried to glorify adolescent values by turning them into adult ones.
"Freud defined the values of maturity as work and love -- that is committed love," said Spacks, while the media promoted the values of adolescence -- "an irresponsible kind of love and the pursuit of pleasure, which is fine for adolescents, but..." and the "but" spoke worlds of just how fine it was for adults.
Despite all this rampant irresponsibility and canonization of the world of options, Austen apparently still exerted something of an influence on her latest generation of readers. Spacks recalled how just a few years ago, a young woman student of hers at Wellesley came to tell her that she was getting married, and that it was all due to "Pride and Prejudice." Her student had read to her boyfriend of many years the passage where Austen's heroine, Elizabeth Bennett, and Stephen D'Arcy managed to make the declarations the reader was hoping they'd make all along.
She went off to take a nap when the reading was over, and when she awoke, her lover proposed. Just the sort of thing Jane Austen would have loved.