Academic journal article Style

Who Evaluates Whom and What in Jane Austen's Novels?

Academic journal article Style

Who Evaluates Whom and What in Jane Austen's Novels?

Article excerpt


Many commentators of Jane Austen's fiction have expressed the view that she is particularly difficult to catch at her narrative game. Speaking of E, (1) almost universally held to be the most complex and the most elusive of her novels, Virginia Woolf famously wrote that if you read it twelve times over, "at every fresh reading you feel anew that you never understood anything like the widening sum of its delights" (Southam 266). Lionel Trilling added that "the difficulty of Emma is never overcome. We never know where to have it. If we finish it at night and think we know what it is up to, we wake the next morning to believe it is up to something else; it has become a different book" (122). More recently and more generally, Irvin Ehrenpreis has expressed the bafflement of all those who try to establish what Austen (or, her narrator) is "up to" in her novels:

   So the explicitness of the novelist is sometimes only apparent, and
   at other times is a game played with the audience. By sounding
   blunt and outspoken in many of her judgments, Austen entices unwary
   readers into assuming that she is straightforward.... But it
   remains true that when Austen does plainly set forth her judgment,
   it is as I have said--quite reliable. (118)

However, while certain commentators have put their fingers on Austen's invisibility (for a recent example, see Miller's 2003 Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style), others have seen her novels as mirroring a definite world view--a world view which has been interpreted in diametrically opposing ways. A traditional reading of Austen as an upholder of the patriarchal values of her society has been challenged by "revolutionary" and/or feminist readings of the novels as subtle critiques of those same values. S&S has been interpreted as a satire on (excessive) sensibility, but some readers have observed that Marianne/sensibility is shown to be much more fascinating than Elinor/sense (Nardin 10). MP--the litmus test of Austen studies in this department--has been read as an evangelical plea for old gentrified England and as a covert manifesto against the moral and social strictness of Austen's time. (2) How can these positions be reconciled with Reginald Farter's (1917) image of the author as a joycean divinity, indifferently paring her fingernails elsewhere?

   ... impersonality comes as the first ingredient in the specific for
   immortality. The self-revelation of the writer must be as severely
   implicit as it is universally pervasive; it must never be conscious
   or obtruded.... She is there all the time, indeed, but never in
   propria persona, except when she gaily smiles through the opener
   texture of "Northanger Abbey," or, with her consummate sense of
   art, mitigates for us the transition out of her paradises back into
   the grey light of ordinary life, by letting the word 'T' demurely
   peer forth at last, as the fantasmagoria in "Mansfield Park,"
   "Emma" or "Northanger Abbey" begins to thin out to its final pages.
   (Southam 248)

It comes as no surprise, of course, that Austen's novels generate opposing interpretations: all great literature is supposed to do so, and conversely, the ability to instigate different readings has long been identified as a stigma of literary greatness. What is at once interesting and baffling is that these opposing readings appear to be equally justified, that there is ample textual material in Austen's novels to support them both. At the same time, there seems to be uncertainty as to whether Jane Austen watches over her novels as a Victorian commentator or as a modernist detached observer. Is there a "point" to her depiction of English gentry between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, or is there not? And if that "point" is there, what is it exactly?

From our postmodern position in history, we might dismiss all the business of finding a "point" in Austen's fiction--in all fiction--as self-evidently irrelevant. …

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