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"No, Emma, your amiable young man can be amiable only in French, not in English. He may be very aimable, have very good manners, and be very agreeable; but he can have no English delicacy towards the feelings of other people - nothing really amiable about him."

"You seem determined to think ill of him."

"Me! not at all," replied Mr Knightley, rather displeased: "I do not want to think ill of him. I should be as ready to acknowledge his merits as any other man; but I hear of none, except what are merely personal; that he is well grown and good-looking, with smooth, plausible manners."

Jane Austen: `Emma' (1816)

The generally successful careers of the Austen brothers - in the Navy, the law, the Church - illustrate the relative mobility of the English class system, and the steady tide of prosperity which made it relatively common at the end of the 18th century for young men to better themselves. Had times been less prosperous for the gentry, Jane Austen might have written less sanguinely about the role of the individual within society. Had they been more prosperous for her, she might not have seen so clearly theeffect on her class of its increasing wealth.

She is the gentry's greatest artist, and she arises at a time when they seem to be still at the height of their power, influence and prestige... In England, the gentry had steadily over the centuries acquired complete legal ownership of the land... England had no peasantry: only tenant-farmers and agricultural labourers, who had the civic advantage of not being legally directly subordinate to the gentleman, and the disadvantage of having no rights whatever to the Land. On his own estate and in his village the English gentleman enjoyed a position of unique autonomy.

Marilyn Butler: `Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background 1760-1830' (1981)

JANE AUSTEN is the only English writer whose admirers regularly used to refer to her by her first name. Rather like Margaret Thatcher, who tiresomely spoke of Churchill as "Winston", readers who talked about "Jane" fondly believed they were supping on the ambrosial essence of English culture. That type of cultural essentialism (as it is now known) disappeared a couple of decades back, and we're now much more interested in the historical and ideological forces which shape works of art. But the cultic status of "Jane" still holds in certain quarters, and when Edward Said linked Mansfield Park with the West Indian slave-trade in his Culture and Imperialism, some reviewers were enraged. There are certain writers you criticise at your peril. As a Labour MEPfatuously remarked of Clause 4, they are at the "deep roots" of the culture.

In Emma, the aimable but unamiable Frank Churchill is the type of figure who was attacked by the reactionary Anti-Jacobin Review. They wrote, in 1798, that the "regicides of France and the traitors of Ireland find ready advocates in the heart of our metropolis, and in the seats of our universities". Frank Churchill has a first name which suggests he is French and therefore not, frankly, English, while his surname (significantly, it's adopted) links him with the brilliant Whig general - Winston's ancestor - who betrayed James II and ushered in the Glor-ious Revolution with a foreign king at its head.

But Knightley, the perfect gentleman, is named for St George the patron saint of England. And, as if the patriotic point isn't clear enough, his home is called Donwell Abbey - so he represents the Church of England, tradition, heritage, or what Austen calls "true gentility, untainted in blood and understanding". Describing his estate, she praises "English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive".

Now look what Butler has to say about the gentry - and how subtly that last adjective naturalises what was in fact an extremely oppressive political system. 1816, the year of Emma's publication, was a time of depression and discontent, with a major riot in London's Spa fields in December. I can't help thinking that Emma's tedious, sweet old selfish dad is a benign portrait of the mad and reactionary George Ill. The novel is dedicated to the Prince Regent, whom Austen privately detested, a contradiction no amount of secret irony can explain.

"But Jane Austen is a great, timeless, transcendent novelist," comes the cry from the wheatfields. "You can't drag her down into the mud like this."

Neither Butler nor Said deny that Austen is a great writer, but neither is prepared to fall down and blindly worship an (in some ways) polemical text that has been ripped out of its social context: the dismal year which followed Wellington's victory at Waterloo. Butler challenges ahistorical readings of a period which is still known as "Romantic" - although it wasn't until the 1860s that the term was posthumously clamped on to a very mixed body of writers. Writers do not exist in isolation, she says - writing and publishing are social activities. Texts are living things that are collectively produced, not fossils we rescue from dried-up river beds after the flood of history has subsided.

Take William Blake. Butler wants to argue that we shouldn't read his work as though he was "singlehandedly the author of his own text". We need to recognise the "corporate author", the urban sub-class linked to the vast body of Dissenters who tried to uphold the principles of the Glorious Revolution - and who often supported the American and French Revolutions. Early reviewers of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads linked that work with Tom Paine's The Rights of Man and attacked the poems which used "mean" (that is, non-genteel) language.

For some critics, it's a straightforward choice between admiring writers whose political opinions they share and disliking those writers they disagree with. But although Emma might be simply - crudely - anti-Jacobin, it is also a subtle psychological portrait of a young woman growing up in a very limited society from which there is no romantic possibility of escape.

The novels, therefore, are also critiques of the new individualism, built on an ethic of social responsibility and duty. Faced with competition and a society that felt increasingly atomised, Austen is no more complacent than is a very different writer like John Clare, England's most gifted nature poet.

So Jane Austen's fabled two inches of ivory had a social message etched on them. Think of all those rural post offices the government recently tried to close - where would "Jane" have stood on that issue?

Next week: The opening paragraph