In 1950 Edmund Wilson had found neither Shakespeare’s nor Austen’s reputations affected by the changing trends of taste.1 That the canonical status of the two authors remained unchallenged might be true and pleasing, but for readings of their work to remain unchanged would be worrying. Writing of her decision, when an undergraduate in the late 1950s, to publish a book on Jane Austen, Marilyn Butler says that she was ‘puzzled by what seemed a very curious shortage of collective memory in my seniors — a propensity to read a writer of a past age as she could not have been read in her own time, could not even have been read in our mothers’ time, and this without much apparent curiosity about why we were doing it’.2 Butler may be referring to critics of the Leavisite close reading or American New Criticism schools, which professed to put a frame around a text and ignore questions of biographical and historical context in order to focus on the verbal texture, the internal relations of the literary language. Butler and Alistair Duckworth redress this and return to a historicised and, in Butler’s case, politicised criticism. All subsequent analyses of Mansfield Park have or could have benefited from the work of Duckworth, whose The Improvement of the Estate (Cambridge, 1971) took up from where Lascelles left off in providing close critical reading allied to historical contextualisation.
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