Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets

Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets

Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets

Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets

Synopsis

This elegant and thoughtful work offers an important new way of understanding Jane Austen by defining the fundamental impact and influence of British Romanticism on her later novels. In comparing the earlier and later phases of Austen's career, Deresiewicz addresses an important yet neglected issue regarding her work: the longstanding critical consensus that Austen's last three novels ( Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion) represent far greater artistic achievements than do her first three ( Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice).

Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets offers a rich account of the differences between the two phases of Austen's career. In doing so, it contextualizes her later novels within the British Romantic movement and the works of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, and Byron. Through close readings of Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, Deresiewicz reveals the importance of Romantic ideas in Austen's later work, considering the ways in which the novels investigate hidden mechanisms of psychic and affective life, including "substitution," "ambiguous relationships," and "widowhood." Deresiewicz's innovative approach and its emphasis on Romanticism opens up new perspectives on Austen's later novels by exploring their patterns of imagery, narrative logics, and social and historical dimensions.

Excerpt

The long interval that elapsed between the completion of Northanger
Abbey in 1798, and the commencement of Mansfield Park in 1811, may
sufficiently account for any difference of style which may be perceived
between her three earlier and her three later productions … “I”n her
last three works are to be found … a deeper insight into the delicate
anatomy of the human heart, marking the difference between the bril
liant girl and the mature woman.

—-J. E. Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen'

Jane Austen's nephew may have gotten his dates slightly wrong, but he was the first to identify one of the most striking facts about his aunt's work. Though her six novels were published within about six years of one another, the last three represent manifestly greater artistic achievements than do the first. While that much has been a critical commonplace since the days of Austen-Leigh, it has never been anything more than a commonplace—often noted, scarcely ever discussed. Early phase and major phase, as I will call them: Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice; Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion. The former brilliant, cutting, breathtakingly assured, the latter something still more: deeper, denser, more complex, more confounding. Their incontestably great artistic merits notwithstanding, the novels of the early phase are essentially straightforward marriage plots, intricately designed but morally and emotionally unambiguous. In the major phase, Austen discards her allegiance to reason and resolution to emerge as an explorer of uncharted and disturbingly equivocal regions of selfhood and relatedness. From a maker of marriages, she becomes an investigator into “the delicate anatomy of the human heart.”

What accounts for this change? Again, pride of place must go to AustenLeigh. Jane Austen was twenty-three—a brilliant girl, in her nephew's terms—when she finished the last of the three manuscripts that would later . . .

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