Jane Austen: New Perspectives

Jane Austen: New Perspectives

Jane Austen: New Perspectives

Jane Austen: New Perspectives

Excerpt

There is a wonderful passage in Fanny Burney's diary when the company at Mrs.Thrale's house at Streatham assembles to contemplate the "tearful eyes" of Miss Sophy Streatfield. "I would ensure her power of crying herself into any of your hearts she pleased," announces Mrs.Thrale. "I made her cry to Miss Burney, to show how beautiful she looked in tears." When the audience is ready, Miss Streatfield cries, although smiling all the while. " 'There now,' said Mrs.Thrale, 'she looks for all the world as if nothing had happened; for, you know, nothing has happened.' "

This is very much Jane Austen's opinion of physical emotional displays and their contemplation, that indeed nothing has happened, but it is an opinion running counter to sentimental thought, which found such displays both aesthetically satisfying and morally improving. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments,Adam Smith derives morality from feeling, itself often resulting from a contemplation of feeling in another. The one contemplating changes places with the one suffering and feels a similar emotion. So strong is this kind of sympathy through specular contemplation that emotion is raised even if the original cause is unknown. The philosophical emphasis on spontaneous emotion through looking at emotion is connected with the use of tableaux of domestic affection and distress, a common element in the sentimental work of, for example, Henry Mackenzie and Helen Maria Williams.

To Jane Austen, such emotional looking seemed as absurd as it did to Mrs.Thrale when she thought of Sophy Streatfield crying her way into anyone's heart; a refusal to provide sentimental tableaux to educate the emotions marks Austen's novels, especially the early ones, written when sentimental literature was still dominant. In Northanger Abbey, where one might expect the tableau of family separation, one hears that Mrs. Morland parted from her daughter "with a degree of moderation and . . .

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