Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Austen's Scale-Making

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Austen's Scale-Making

Article excerpt

TWO INCHES OF IVORY MAY BE THE BEST-KNOWN METAPHOR FOR Austen's novel-writing. (1) Compare to that modest figure "the totality of national life in its complex interaction between 'above' and 'below.'" This is what Georg Lukacs sees in Scott's Waverley Novels. Lukacs's favorite adjective for Scott's novels is "broad." Scott offers "the broad delineation of manners and circumstances attendant upon events ... broad, objective, epic form." (2) Not only broad but deep, able to reveal the full vertical sweep from base to superstructure. In comparison, two inches of ivory might seem to possess only surface and smallness.

Novels are inseparable from questions of scale, as Austen and Scott knew. In his review of Emma for the October 1815 Quarterly, Scott suggests that the modern novel shows the reader nothing "more interesting and extraordinary than those [incidents] which occur in his own life, or that of his next-door neighbours," offering "a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him." (3) Daily frequency and spatial circumscription are the measures that he uses to characterize the representational domain of the Austen-type novel. Positing "concentric circles of probability and possibility," Scott explains that, while earlier novels had hovered between the outer and inner circles, Austen chooses to remain within the inner ring of probability, which is only as wide as your own neighborhood, or what you can see from your own window. (4) In his first novel, published the year before, Scott sizes up his own project differently. Scotland's dramatic alteration provides the occasion for Waverley's writing, as well as its subject. "There is no European nation which, within the course of half a century ... has undergone so complete a change as this kingdom of Scotland." Waverley, like all of Scott's novels, takes on nations, centuries, and large-scale transformations. But it, too, is concerned with imposing measures on lived experience to enable its abstraction. In a well-known passage, Scott likens his novel's function to that of an artificial marker for measuring distance: "like those who drift down the stream of a deep and smooth river, we are not aware of the progress we have made until we fix our eye on the now-distant point from which we set out." (5)

Rather than assuming that novels are themselves large-scale, small-scale, or somewhere in between, this article will consider them as "scale-making projects." I borrow this phrase from anthropologist Anna Tsing, who shows how projects "that [make] us imagine globality ... locality, or the space of regions or nations" have become essential to steering the flows of global finance capital. (6) Tsing defines scale as "the spatial dimensionality necessary for a particular kind of view"; as she points out, "scale must be brought into being: proposed, practiced, and evaded." (7) Scale-making in the novel, I will argue, involves more than the representation of geographical space, cultural location, or even historical specificity. We can think of it as the act of representing the conditions of referentiality. The modern novel does of course refer to actual locations, subtly connecting them to a more primordial way of thinking about the space-story relationship, as Franco Moretti has shown. In this way, Austen and Scott bring into being an intimate sense of the nation as a certain kind of space: a "middle-sized world," in Austen's case, or one striated by internal boundaries, in Scott's. (8)

But beyond establishing relative spatial size or connection, the type of scale-making I will examine is the activity that allows actions, events, or perceptions of any type to be coordinated within a time or space. It handles time as a dimension of intersubjective action. Scale-making permits characters to anticipate, calculate, or perform movements, to occupy positions in space and identities over time. Scale-making is certainly part of the representational or imaginary infrastructure of empire, but not in the ways we have become accustomed to looking for in the context of the novel. …

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