Monday, July 17, 2006

Great Books (V): Austen

My indifference to the novels of Jane Austen has been a source of suspicion to friends, and of mild anxiety to myself. Am I still the fifteen-year-old who made fun of Mr. Knightley's entrance at the tops of the stairs, "slick, black and creamy [sic]" like a pint of Guinness? I hope not.

Still, I can't share Denby's enthusiasm, even as I am persuaded of Austen's gifts as a moralist and social critic. My quandary is made a theme in her first published novel:
"I think you will like him," said Elinor, "when you know more of him."

"Like him!" replied her mother, with a smile. "I can feel no sentiment of approbation inferior to love"

"You may esteem him."

"I have never yet known what it was to separate esteem and love."
Like Elinor, "I do not attempt to deny that I think very highly of [Austen] – that I greatly esteem [her], that I like [her]" – but I cannot go further: I do not love Jane Austen.

There is no question of justifying this disdain, but I can perhaps explain it. What I miss in Austen's prose – at least in Sense and Sensibility, which I read for the first time last month – is any sense of physical reality. Its absence is almost eerie. Thus, none of her protagonists have faces: Elinor and Marianne are first described, programmatically, in Chapter 10. And apart from functional descriptions of cottages and estates, the material environment is barely there. Like Edward, Austen will not praise a landscape "on picturesque principles": their common sense prefers a straight to a crooked tree, but nothing more.

This virtual absence of colour, space and movement is deliberate, I think: it is part of an experiment in writing only about character and society. But it, too, becomes a theme. Marianne walks, runs, falls, is carried, swoons, cries, sweats, groans, shakes: she is the only one who has a body, and it almost kills her. Only when her physical beauty is dulled by grief and illness is she permitted to wed.

Readers have been willing to accept, on Elinor's muted testimony, that she feels as strongly as her sister – and to criticize Marianne for doubting her. According to Ryle, the novel asks, "must Head and Heart be antagonists?" And it answers – correctly, in Ryle's view – that they must not:
Marianne and Elinor are alike in that their feelings are deep and genuine. The difference is that Marianne lets her joy, anxiety or grief so overwhelm her that she behaves like a person crazed. Elinor keeps her head. (Gilbert Ryle, "Jane Austen and the Moralists")
If Elinor loves Edward, however, it is without the somatic vigour of Marianne: she makes no sharp distinction between love and esteem. As the novel ends, her sister's "lively friendship" for Colonel Brandon fades into devotion. Can we suppose that Elinor has ever felt more than this for Mr. Ferrars?

Neither of them controls her passions; it is just that Elinor's are less intense. Think of her lenience to Willoughby in the scene of his thoroughly incredible confession.
She felt that his influence over her mind was heightened by circumstances which ought not in reason to have weight; by that person of uncommon attraction – that open, affectionate and lively manner which it was no merit to possess; and by that still ardent love for Marianne, which it was not even innocent to indulge. But she felt that it was so, long, long before she could feel his influence less.
When Elinor's emotions are violent – as they are on a few occasions – their subsidence is alarmingly prompt. "Much as she had suffered from her first conversation with Lucy on the subject [of her engagement to Edward], she soon felt an earnest wish of renewing it." And when Edward finally proposes, she is so "overcome by her own felicity" that "it require[s] several hours to give sedateness to her spirits". Marianne would be exalted for weeks.

Austen tempts us all to read against the grain – as in Denby's perverse apology for Mrs. Bennet. Is it going too far to say that Sense and Sensibility condemns, not Marianne, but the institutions that make impossible or imprudent any form of love that is more than mutual esteem?


Anonymous Kenny said...

Reading Austen as condemning those institutions that make passionate love 'impossible' would certain be novel. But if we travel ahead in time a bit and look at Pride & Prejudice (for which Sense & Sensibility was largely a sketch) I don't think this reading can be sustained. If what you say is true, then it would seem that the hero of P&P is not Elizabeth with all her esteem for the most moral and dispassionate of all Austen characters, Darcy, but Lydia, whose ruination by Wickham would be a tragedy wrought by Georgian institutions--not a personal failing. This doesn't hold up well against the text, and, worse, dissolves all connection between the characters and their actions. I find this latter consequence a bit repugnant. So when looking at the Austen corpus as whole I think it's hard to avoid the moralistic reading.

As for the want of bodies in Austen, I think this is a foible of Austen's youth. This is sacrilege, but Persuasion is her only really mature novel. Anne Elliot is much more a flesh-and-blood character than the bits of social etherea you find in S&S, so you might be more moved by her than you were by the Dashwoods.

7:02 AM  
Anonymous JIC said...

I was about your age when I first was forced to read Austen, and I hated it. Mostly because I tended to hate anything that I was told was "classic" or "genius". (I still tend to run away from whatever is held in high esteem by the general public).

I fell in love with Austen when I read Pride and Prejudice again, some twenty years later. The lack of physicality that disturbs you is one of the things I appreciate most. By delving into the psycho-emotional states and moral values of the characters, I think we have a better picture of the real Regency society. I think it's amazing how little people have changed.

Additionally, this absence of physical description, allows for lively imagination, permitting Janeites--regardless of their culture--to insert themselves in her stories.

I understand that you are not a Janeite, and I appreciate your thorough examination of her work. Your mind may change...

12:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like Kieran's idea that we could read S&S as condemning the institutions that force women to practice extreme self-repression – or simply have weak feelings to begin with – in order to thrive.

The first thing to say in response to Kenny is that it is Jane in P&P whose feelings are muted or hidden, and she is not rewarded for that--she almost loses Bingley because he's not sure she likes him. Nor is it right to see Elizabeth as mild or repressed; she may be prudent but she is also passionate. Finally, Lydia is not a plausible parallel for Marianne, because there's no reading of S&S on which Marianne is just a ditz – she's clearly supposed to be an appealing and intriguing character, whereas Lydia is not.

Both novels take the institution of the patriarchal family to task: we see how women are confined, miseducated, and generally disempowered by careless fathers and unjust laws.

3:53 PM  
Anonymous Kenny said...

It's not I think Austen sides with repression over passion; I don't think that dichotomy is the one Austen is interested in. Elizabeth and Darcy, and indeed Jane and Bingley, succeed because of their moral upstandingness. Lydia falls in with Wickham simply because she is reckless and dissolute. Facts about the number of decibels at which each emotes run orthogonal to all this.

It's true that Jane is separated from Bingley in part because of her reserve. But notice two things: Jane and Bingley's separation is the result of Darcy's character flaw--pride--and is eventually righted by his more fundamental moral nature. And secondly, the person who first remarks on Jane's reserve is Charlotte, whose thoughts about marriage I think Austen more pities than celebrates. Ending up with Mr. Collins is surely no triumph for her matrimonial philosophy! Thus even Jane's saga is an essential element of the moral structure of the novel.

There is indeed no homomorphism between Dashwoods and Bennets. I didn't mean to suggest the S&S be read in strict analogy with P&P, just that any suggestion of Austen's thematic intentions in S&S and overall has to reckon with what she does in later novels, especially P&P.

I should add that I do agree that Austen's novels are critiques (or satires) of particular institutions and customs. But to suppose that she means run a broad critical brush over the social structure of Regency England is too bold. Supposing that Austen is criticizing marriage and social hierarchy per se reads far too much modernism into her. In many ways the heroes of Austen's novels (Colonel Brandon, Darcy, perhaps Knightly, and Captain Wentworth) and their wives serve as vindications of English social tradition.

11:00 AM  

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