Wednesday, 17 October 2012

How to do things with words

There’s a nice piece on ‘re-reading Austen’from Alison Croggon in Overland 208 I finally managed to read on the bus earlier in the week. You should read it, too (there’s no need for you to catch a bus, though); it’s written with Croggon’s customary wit and perceptive intelligence, and offers a novelist’s and technician’s view of Austen. We’re both ‘habitual re-readers,’ but I think writers read differently to the rest of us, and re-read differently in illuminating ways.

Croggon’s main point – that the etymological links between ‘propriety’, ‘proper’ and ‘property’ are key to the whole anti-Romantic comedy and vocation of the novels – is well made and important. I still, from time to time, have students approach me imagining that I’m going to be in sympathy with claims that Austen is outdated, narrow, conservative and generally outside the realms of what the politically-engaged critic ought to find interesting. How untrue! She is, as Croggon points out, quite specific in her range of social representational ambitions, to be sure, but these are pursued with a ruthless and clear eye. A passing encounter with the vast literature exploring all of Austen’s many philosophical and critical dimensions should give any of those with pretensions to be her detractors cause to blush. I’ve lost track of the many hours of stimulation Jocelyn Harris’ Jane Austen’s Art of Memory and Marilyn Butler’s Jane Austen and the War of Ideas have given me, to name only two classic texts.

But is romance lost along the way? (I mean romance here in the sense the Beach Boys use it in ‘Barbara Ann’, and am not going to worry over literary history). It’s a symptom of the anxiety behind all those He Man poses of the best figures of literary criticism’s high moment last century (men reading books!) that they felt the need so insistently to separate a ‘proper’ reading of Austen from the dangerous frippery of the Janeites. From Edmund Wilson to Wayne Booth the rhetorical line continues, although, since feminism, one of the great pleasures of academic life has been the collective realization this separation needn’t be so: it’s among the Janeites that some of the best critical responses have been produced, Sedgwick’s ‘Jane Austen and theMasturbating Girl’ most famously.

Croggon’s too canny and deft a reader to fall Wilson’s way, but I wonder at some of her divisions. For her Austen is ‘a most determined anti-Romantic, in every sense’, a writer who, re-packaged in the marketing materials of ‘chick-lit,’ produces novels quite other than the ‘escapist models of romantic passion’ they’re promoted as exemplifying.

You get her point, of course: the best comedy in the novels comes from their clear-sighted sending-up of the absurdities and limitations of the very social world they serve, as comedies, to sustain and affirm. All of the satire here – and it's a very prudent satire, and all the more biting for that –is hard to fit into ‘romantic’ modes of appreciation without under-reading.

This, for example, one of the funniest moments in Pride and Prejudice, was suppressed in Joe Wright’s atrocious film version:

Persuaded as Miss Bingley was that Darcy admired Elizabeth, this was not the best method of recommending herself; but angry people are not always wise; and in seeing him at last look somewhat nettled, she had all the success she expected. He was resolutely silent however; and, from a determination of making him speak she continued,

``I remember, when we first knew her in Hertfordshire, how amazed we all were to find that she was a reputed beauty; and I particularly recollect your saying one night, after they had been dining at Netherfield, "She a beauty! -- I should as soon call her mother a wit." But afterwards she seemed to improve on you, and I believe you thought her rather pretty at one time.''

``Yes,'' replied Darcy, who could contain himself no longer, ``but that was only when I first knew her, for it is many months since I have considered her as one of the handsomest women of my acquaintance.''

He then went away, and Miss Bingley was left to all the satisfaction of having forced him to say what gave no one any pain but herself.

Take that, socially unbalanced society figures!

Finance, property, standing, and prudent social and emotional investment are all, in Austen, inseperable from the texts’ erotic or emotional economy, something Auden sends up nicely:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Besides her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me 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.

That doesn’t exhaust the matter, however; for all that her ‘romance is all about prudent behaviour, and at its root this prudence is fiscal and pragmatic’ (Croggon’s phrase) it is also romance itself, and this is why I think she can’t be denied her place in the marketing of chick-lit.

This scene – from chapter 9 of volume 1 of Persuasion – makes the counter-case perfectly. It’s one of the most sexually daring passages in the whole of English literature, and certainly one of the most emotionally affecting. Anne Elliott, oppressed by her ghastly family and relations and out of all hope of again finding love with Captain Wentworth, is caught in an upsetting and familiar situation:

“Walter,” said she, “get down this moment. You are extremely troublesome. I am very angry with you.”

“Walter,” cried Charles Hayter, “why do you not do as you are bid? Do you not hear your aunt speak? Come to me, Walter, come to cousin Charles.”

But not a bit did Walter stir.

In another moment, however, she found herself in a state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her, though he had bent down her head so much, that his little sturdy hands were unfastened from around her neck, and he was resolutely borne away, before she knew Captain Wentworth had done it.

Her sensations on that discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings. His kindness in stepping forward to her relief – the manner – the silence in which it had passed – the little particulars of circumstance – with the conviction soon forced on her by the noise he was studiously making with the child, that he meant to avoid hearing her thanks, and rather sought to testify that her conversation was the last of his wants, produced such a confusion of varying, but very painful agitation, as she could not recover from, till enabled by the entrance of Mary and the Miss Musgroves to make over her little patient to their cares, and leave the room. She could not stay.

What makes this so moving? The brilliance of the writing is important, obviously; Austen’s use of free indirect discourse here to have her narrator track the disorder and arousal of her character’s feelings in their very inarticulate confusion matches almost anything the Modernists achieved. James Wood takes this passage to exemplify free indirect discourse in his discussion through How Fiction Works; it’s an example of what D.A. Miller calls Austen’s ‘secret of style,’ the anonymous No One of style itself her exercising mastery.

But what, again, of the romance? It’s such a complex passage: of course it’s not because ‘her conversation was the last of his wants’ (he still loves her, how can she not see this?) but what makes her so affected? There’s a powerful physical sense to the scene, for sure, the excitement of contact with a beloved, but distant, person, but what stands out for me is the way the jumbled pattern of the last paragraph’s free indirect discourse allows the narrator to fuse our sense of both his moral decency – or understated kindness – with a sense of the intense pleasure and distraction physical contact brings.

The choice, in other words, and here Persuasion is for me the triumph of all the novels, is not between realism and ‘witty fantasy’ or ‘escapist passion’ but through them both. What Austen offers – scandalously, and in ways which make her our contemporary – is a model, in prose, of the education of desire, of its transformation and elevation. The ways in which the meanings of ‘sense’ and ‘sensibility’ have changed between her time and ours make this clearer still: it’s by the process of sense that sensibility (hers, and ours) takes on its positive charge. The path to clear-headedness is to be through a fantasy suitably ordered and directed (Wickham and all those cads as tests and delusion!): Wentworth's ability to recognise the need for, and to carry out, a simple but vital domestic intervention, and to act with kindness, are what make him so attractive.

Austen, for me then, remains the best realist at the very moments she working with fantasy.


D.A. Miller’s Jane Austen, or, the Secret of Style came out from Princeton in 2005. The Auden lines are from ‘Letter to Lord Byron.’