Saturday, March 19, 2011

Week 6, Jane Austen

Notes on Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice

Historical Note: the Regency Period lasted from 1810-20, with the Prince Regent becoming George IV upon his father George III’s death in 1820; he reigned until 1830, when William IV became king, and then comes Victoria in 1837.

The late Georgian period that marked Austen’s life (1775-1817) emphasized elegance in language, dress, and manners, but it was a period of revolutionary tumult on the Continent and of looming changes in British life-patterns stemming from the Industrial Revolution, which begins to take shape around 1780. Not everyone in England had a chance to realize the era’s ideal of gentrified elegance. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were marked by economic hardship and displacement for many ordinary people, and the signs of the times could be ominous: the “Peterloo Massacre” against working people that Carlyle reflects upon in 1843’s Past and Present occurred in 1819—workers were becoming dangerously self-aware of their class status and power, and England’s rulers began to fear that there would indeed be (as Carlyle later put it) “precisely as many revolutions as are necessary.” But Jane Austen is no working-class radical; her real-life world and the world of her novels revolve around intricate social rules (written or unwritten) and complex negotiations between men and women of respectable standing. Still, Austen doesn’t promote dull conformity to social norms just for the sake of “fitting in.” She is capable of examining her social system’s claims on individuals and couples as a detached observer—at least to the extent that anyone can be such. Her ability to reaffirm that system without simply propagating its most tendentious claims, in my view, puts her on a level with Shakespeare the royalist and bourgeois whose drama nonetheless cuts through a great deal of ideological hype. Moreover, while she is capable of describing a knave, she seems to be at her best when dealing with fine distinctions between characters who would strike less refined eyes as entirely good or entirely bad, and with customs that require a similarly refined examination.

While Austen, who died of Addison’s disease at 41 without having married, concentrates intently on courtship, marriage, and family relations in her novels, it would not be out of order to suggest that she has a touch of the feminist about her in an age that we, as inheritors of a long critical tradition, remember mainly for its male romantic poets. Austen is not a political revolutionary like her older contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Nonetheless, her views on men’s distaste for crediting women’s potential and accomplishments bear some similarity to Wollstonecraft’s. Anne Elliot’s pronouncement in Book 2, Chapter 11 of Persuasion that “Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story” (188) is not the remark of an author who accepted the age’s more reductive claims about the relative value of men and women. Taking that idea somewhat further would yield Wollstonecraft’s or, later, Simone de Beauvoir’s, point that if it is hard to know exactly what women can do, that is because men have never really given them a chance to find out. To use de Beauvoir’s existentialist terms, men have always kept for themselves the status of authentic agents in the world, jealously guarding the right to prove themselves by physical and intellectual activity, while women have been assigned the status of the “inessential other” who exists as a necessary facilitator of male authenticity.

The Development of the Novel.
The role of women such as Jane Austen in shaping the novel as a distinctive modern genre out of their immediate domestic milieu is itself an interesting story, and it is an instance of the kind of accomplishment that so many men have denied was desirable or even possible for women. Virginia Woolf’s treatise A Room of One’s Own makes this point at length, so I’ll just refer readers to it here. (It’s in the Norton Anthology, Vol. 2C.) The novel is an ancient literary form, if by “novel” we just mean “a long fictitious narrative of some complexity.” The Golden Ass of Apuleius or the Leucippe and Clitophon of Achilles Tatius would qualify as novels by that definition. But for the most part, we tend to deal with the genre as one that developed in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the first instances being Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Aphra Behn’s Oronooko, and thence to the great eighteenth-century rivals Richardson and Fielding.

With regard to the modern novel’s origins, the central opposition between romance and the novel is worth noting: the romance genre had been around throughout the medieval period, and it deals with chivalric knights carrying out quests for their ladies and the true religion. The Arthurian legends by authors such as Chr├ętien de Troyes and Thomas Malory are fine examples. There is also Cervantes’ ironic treatment of the romance genre in Don Quixote and Spenser’s use of it to immortalize Queen Elizabeth in The Faerie Queene. One characteristic of romance is that it is filled with the dilemmas proper to an entirely ethical universe—it matters very little where characters such as Spenser’s Red Crosse Knight are with respect to any particular locality—they can be in a mythologized or make-believe place with strong characteristics, in a never-never fairy-land only vaguely delineated, or somewhere in between—but it matters a great deal what choices they make and what actions they undertake. As the romantic-era satirist Thomas Love Peacock says in “The Four Ages of Poetry,” the Elizabethan dramatists (still fond of romance plots) used period and place merely because they couldn’t dispense with them altogether—because, as Peacock puts it, “every action must have its when and where.”

The seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British novel, by contrast, comes into play at a time we might call the “early modern era,” and its main characteristic is realism—that is, it purports to represent faithfully the characters and social environment of the real people who are buying novels and reading them. The genre seems to have begun flourishing thanks to an increase in literacy and leisure amongst the increasingly powerful, though not necessarily ascendant, commercial or middle class in England . It is a kind of literature that could only succeed where the average reasonably comfortable individual’s sensibilities and moral assumptions are widely understood to carry weight, and where this class wants to see its operative assumptions mirrored back to it in works of art. Richardson ’s heroines Clarissa and Pamela aren’t princesses or religious anchorites; they are ordinary “bourgeois” individuals. And that sort of person is beginning to matter, even if it won’t be until the mid-nineteenth century that they control the British government. The dilemmas of characters in many novels turn upon interrelated ethical, monetary, and class-based situations—for example, Richardson’s Pamela must worry about maintaining her honor in a world that seems always to be threatening the notion of chastity upon which it depends. And a male character is apt to face challenges to his respectability, his standing in the community. (The servant classes bring to mind fears of downward mobility—perhaps that is why they are sometimes treated with ambivalence by narrator and characters alike.) The bourgeois individual displays strong characteristics, but the concept itself is fragile—the modern individual is defined by threats even as he or she is proclaimed to be the center of the universe.

Jane Austen’s Emphasis.
Austen gives us a variation on the emphasis I have described. She deals not so much with people who are “just like” the common early nineteenth-century urban reader, but instead with those a rung or two above them on the social ladder. Vivien Jones, author of the Oxford edition of Persuasion's Appendix B (214-17), describes Austen’s focus clearly: she doesn’t deal much with the greater landed gentry, but is instead “interested in the types of people who lived more precariously on the margins of the gentry proper, but whose connections, education, or role in the community gave them the right . . . to ‘mix in the best society of the neighbourhood’” (214). These individuals aren’t exactly great lords and ladies—they are on the outer edge of the gentry proper, and have to take up some stance or other towards that more privileged and stable inner group.

Jane Austen is too civil (and too respectful of the duties owed to a family patriarch) to condemn any of her patriarchs in the various novels. Still, these inheritors and carriers-on of the primogeniture system aren’t always paragons of masculinity; sometimes, as with the father of Emma Woodhouse in Emma, they are pleasantly ineffectual, while at other times, they are unpleasantly ineffectual, as is Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion. Then there is Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park, who is consequential enough, and neither all menace nor all kindness—he’s somewhere in between. I think the same might be said of Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice.
The romantic period and the Regency (1810-20) coincide, but most of the people who fit in with either term didn’t keep the same company. It strikes me that Jane Austen is interestingly “in the middle” here. One of the things romanticism reacts against is Regency high society’s emphasis on etiquette, lineage, and all the finely polished surfaces of life. Jane Austen doesn’t reject these things and is, strictly, no romantic. (In Persuasion, we can see from her representation of the romantic poets as the textual companions of the melancholy Captain Benwick that she thinks of them more or less as a “school,” the way we do, and that she is somewhat amused by the vogue of Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron.) The finer things in life have their charm for Austen, but when taken too earnestly, they make for a brittle and heartless outlook on life. Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion is a parody, but a parody only makes sense if there’s something out there in the real world –a style, or a particular set of people—that readers recognize as genuine. And so he might well be understood as a vehicle for implicit criticism of a certain tendency towards hollowness and empty formalism in Regency values.

Austen’s indirect criticism is a far cry from Carlylean thundering against “game-preserving dukes” and “sham aristocracy,” but it is criticism nonetheless. In Pride and Prejudice, again, she offers some pointed criticism of Mr. Bennet in the words of his daughter Elizabeth – in Vol. II, Chapter 19, the narrator says that “Elizabeth, however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father's behaviour as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.”

If Austen were around today, she would probably write sagely about the difference between people who choose their car, their mate, their neighborhood, their job, and their pets with concern for nothing but the opinions of like-mindedly snobbish people, and those who have a keen sense that while the fine things in life are indeed very fine, they should not be conflated with morality or human worth. She sets forth a rather gentrified version of the New Testament’s wisdom that “there where you heart is, will be your treasure” (Matthew 6:21). The good things in life matter, but how much you think they matter says a world about you—it’s a matter of degree. That this question of degree is partly decided for us by forces beyond our control is obvious—consider how Sir Walter must have grown up to be as oblivious as he is to any deeper concerns for the value of humanity; he is the product of an entire class, not a willful and perverse individual. Anne Elliot in Persuasion, as well, is shaped by her upbringing. Her early disadvantage in life isn’t (as it is for Fanny Price in Mansfield Park) a matter of coming from an impoverished family, but is rather the result of her heartless father’s incapacity to appreciate anyone of genuine merit. Because she is superior, Anne is treated as an “insignificant other” in her family circle—a situation that has produced a remarkably sensitive and wise individual, whose response to the challenge for mutual “persuasion” between herself and an equally remarkable former suitor it is Austen’s task to set before us and examine.

Austen as Psychologist.
I find Adela Pinch an excellent critic of Jane Austen’s work, and in particular I like what she has to say about that author’s ability to render the “contents” of a person’s head without demanding—or even wanting—us to accept the character’s viewpoint as the simple truth. As Pinch says, even a direct quotation by a character is no guarantee that we are getting the unvarnished truth or the purely accurate perception; instead, we are being invited to examine the thought process involved and the statements made. Austen is interested in the intricacies of what we call personal identity. This is a genetic concern that allies her with the male romantics, no doubt, but the milieu within which she explores subjectivity formation and perpetuation gives a different flavor to her work than we find in, say, Shelley or Wordsworth. A heroine like Anne Elliot in Persuasion, or Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, or Fanny Price in Mansfield Park isn’t formed by the mountains and lakes as Wordsworth is in The Prelude, and she isn’t a self-absorbed, wistful philosopher as the Coleridgean poet-figure tends to be. Neither do we get the sense of that ineffable pre-existent and pre-linguistic “self” we can derive from a poem like Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality.” I can’t imagine Jane Austen spinning a fiction around the notion that “trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home.” Instead, for Austen, while there may be some nameless, pre-existing core of identity that we call a “self,” her emphasis is on her characters’ ceaseless interaction with their environment and with other characters.

This need not mean that the person who develops out of this process isn’t strong—Anne in Persuasion is one of Austen’s most sympathetic and moving characters; as Deidre Shauna Lynch writes in her introduction to Persuasion, Anne is a rare kind of heroine in that she is not a foolish young lady who has much growing up to do, but a relatively mature woman who must come to terms with her own past in order to move forward with her life. She seems wise beyond her years, and much of her strength seems to come from having been forced to deal with people who have no idea of her real value. You may be special, but you can’t really escape what others think you are—especially if, as in the Regency milieu of Austen’s novels, you are largely dependent on those people for social and economic support. We notice that Anne continues to treat her flawed relatives with some regard even when a person of less maturity would kick them in their polished teeth. What we have in Persuasion, finally, is a slow, patient love story about two quiet, remarkable, reticent individuals: Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliot. They must reaffirm, if not really rediscover, the worth they saw in each other eight years ago, and reaffirm their “elective affinity” amongst so many one-dimensional herd animals or otherwise misguided people. The methods of “persuasion” involved in this victory for true companionship are fascinating to trace, and they don’t always, or even usually, have to do with outright words and deeds. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy must work through their own strong combinations of the title's two “qualities,” and it might be said that it is these very flaws that draw them together and allow them to overcome the more destructive aspects of both “pride” and “prejudice.”

Austen is always concerned with the intricacies of relations between the sexes, both before and within the institutional sanction of marriage. If any certainty is to emerge for the various novels' lovers, it will have to be wrought from the slippery “pseudo-gentry” environment in which they find themselves. The courtship process, if successful, results in an accord between them that essentially balances the tensions of this world—at least with regard to the characters around them whom they cannot avoid for long—and filters out what isn’t essential to their understanding with each other. On both the personal, familial level and on the larger collective, social level, Austen’s point is not to condemn people or the system, but to put all necessary factors in perspective. In Persuasion, Anne and Captain Wentworth must maneuver into a position where they can choose each other in their own right, persuade each other of their compatibility and mutual value. In doing this, they perform the Austen alchemy of transmuting the term “value” from its economic and class connotations into its more genuine sense rooted in fundamental human worth. How does one person come to know the value of another? What is balance between intellect and emotion in arriving at this estimation? In Shakespeare’s terms from The Merchant of Venice, “where is fancy bred, or in the heart, or in the head?” And at the societal level, what would it take to arrive justly at such a social order as we find in Regency England, with its fine manners and insistence on “fitness” in all things? There’s no evading the difficult attempt to supplement custom, rank, and easy grace with merit.