Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Jane Austen: In Search of Time Present. (Conference Papers)

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Jane Austen: In Search of Time Present. (Conference Papers)

Article excerpt

Julia Prewitt Brown is the author of Jane Austen's Novels: Social Change and Literary Form as well as books on the nineteenth-century novel and Oscar Wilde. She is currently a professor of English at Boston University.


How DID JANE AUSTEN understand the experience of passing time? How did she conceive of history? In asking these questions, we enter immediately into contradiction, for Austen's concern is clearly with events which are particular and individual rather than instances of the application of a general principal of historical change. It could be argued that all novelists are concerned with the particular and individual nature of events rather than the generalizations that may be drawn from them. Yet while the novelist may say, "This event happened once and for all to these particular people," he or she may also show those particular individuals to be in the hands of a larger force. This type of novelist says to us that if we understand the workings of this force (for example, of divine providence, natural law, or social circumstance) we understand events in the novel--that is, we can now make sense of the course of human history.

This is not the case with Jane Austen. Austen's novels manage to make sense of the experience of passing events without positing the existence of an intelligible grand historical construction or scientific law by which to understand them. The aim of this essay is to show how Austen achieves a vital sense of the present, and to suggest why this achievement is especially important at the particular historical moment in which she lived.

Before discussing Austen's novels, however, it may be useful to consider by way of contrast a novelist who does place an intelligible historical construction on the chaos of events--Thomas Hardy--although one could also mention, in this regard, writers as different as Fielding, Tolstoy, or Thomas Mann. Published in 1886, Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge is a blatant illustration of his theory that human events operate according to inexorable laws of fate. The story begins with a horrific scene in which a drunken man auctions his wife and daughter to a passing sailor at a country fair. His efforts to locate his family after he is sober end in failure. Nineteen years pass. The husband is now a prosperous man and mayor of the town of Casterbridge--and what happens? The wife comes back into his life, as we have known she would from innumerable hints in the narrative, disrupts the mayor's settled respectability, and the story ends in tragedy.

Austen wrote at the beginning of the century in which the determinism exemplified in Hardy's plot would become a dominant mode of understanding experience and so we are not surprised to find hints of it in her novels, but these are only hints. Actions of course have consequences in all of the novels, and social forces, such as market constraints and class divisions, are great, but Austen always imagines the present as vital and unpredictable, not predetermined by the past in any rigid, mechanical sense. Unlike the return of the wife in The Mayor of Casterbridge, for example, Captain Wentworth's return in Persuasion is not given to us as an inevitability, nor do we read his appearance as a sign that the mistakes of the past will be rectified. The heroine herself "could just acknowledge within herself [the] possibility" of marrying someone else (211).

It's worth noting that this sense of contingency is not intrinsically optimistic. I say this because much has been made of the optimism implied by Austen's happy endings, as if a happy ending in itself cancels the conditionality inherent in all that precedes it. By the same token, there is something oddly consoling in the all-inclusive, deterministic logic of Hardy's novel. In order to appreciate this we need only imagine a more probable conclusion to The Mayor of Casterbridge: the wife and child vanish forever and the husband lives out his life never knowing what happened to them. …

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