Posts Tagged ‘Austen’

Jane Austen and pornography

Now that I have captured your attention with the title, let me get a few boring bits out of the way before getting on to the meatier part of the story. (Is “meatier” really the word I want to use here? Never mind – let it stay.)

I’m afraid that the Times is behind a paywall, so this link possibly won’t be of much use to most readers. But in case you are a subscriber of the Times, do please have a look at this. For the rest, I’ll summarise as best I can.

Jenni Murray, presenter of the BBC Radio 4 programme Woman’s Hour, and author of the recently published book A History of Britain in 21 Women, speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, has advocated teaching children about pornography. She notes, quite rightly, that pornography is now all-pervasive in our society, and that we cannot get rid of it. Under the circumstances, she argues, it is better that children were to be educated on the matter, “so that at least those girls know and all those boys know that not all women are shaved, that not all women make that bloody noise”, and so on. In other words, to teach the children that what they see in pornographic films is but a fantasy.

This seems well-intentioned enough. Except that I don’t know that I would fancy being the teacher in one of these “analysis” classes.

For one thing, it is difficult to know how one can “analyse” pornography without being morally judgemental. Kant, I gather, had told us that each human being is an end in herself, or himself. I am no philosopher, but this does seem to me a splendid base on which to build our morality. Put simply, human beings are subjects, not objects, and are hence entitled to respect. In pornography, however, each human being is an object, and nothing more. Thus pornography is built upon a base that is inherently demeaning, and is, by definition, immoral. I am not sure how much more there can be to “analyse”.

Of course, it could be that Jenni Murray was quoted out of context, so I do not want to say much more here on this particular matter. But I do want to comment on her reference to Jane Austen, as that brings us close, I think, to one of the recurrent themes of this blog. Ms Murray is quoted as saying:

We give our kids Jane Austen to read and we say “OK, let’s analyse it, what is it saying and what does it mean?”

Why not put boys and girls together in a class, you show them a pornographic film and you analyse it in exactly the same way as you teach them to read the other cultures that are around.

Quite apart from the desirability or the morality of showing pornography to children, what strikes me here is the absurd notion that literary culture (of which Jane Austen is treated as a representative) and pornographic culture are merely two of many “cultures that are around”, and that, by implication, both are equally worthy of being taught, and that both can be analysed “in exactly the same way”.

But the works of Jane Austen should be taught not because they are representative of one of the many “cultures that are around”: they should be taught because they are amongst the finest products of our civilisation. That’s it. No other reason. If we do not believe that certain works of literature have inherent value that elevates them above certain other works of literature; and that the finest examples of literary culture civilise us and humanise us in a way that, say, the culture of pornography cannot; then there’s no point studying literature at all. We might as well just “study” pornography. In “exactly the same way”.

I’m afraid this is the kind of insulting nonsense one gets to when one embraces cultural relativism. What a wonderful future we envisage for our children! We cannot even communicate to them the peaks of our human civilisations, because we have stopped believing in such things ourselves.

“The Portrait of a Lady” by Henry James

This post is not primarily about the plot of The Portrait of a Lady, but inevitably, elements of the plot do emerge. So it is best to issue what is commonly known as a “spoiler warning”.

             Some think it a matter of course that chance
Should starve good men and bad advance,
That if their neighbours figured plain,
As though upon a lighted screen,
No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.

  • From “Why Should Old Men Not be Mad?” by W. B. Yeats

Flicking through a printed copy of The Portrait of a Lady, one finds long sections that are on the page intimidating blocks of print, with what little clear white space there is only visible at the end of the paragraphs, alternating with equally long sections of dialogue, with clear white space in abundance. Of course, most novels contain sections of narrative and sections of dialogue, but rarely are they quite so distinct from each other as they are here. James liked dialogue: much of the novel can read like a play, with important information conveyed to the reader through what the characters say. Take, for instance, the climactic scene towards the end as Isabel discovers Madame Merle’s secret:

“Ah, poor creature!” cried Isabel, bursting into tears.

It is a surprising reaction in many ways, even given what we know of Isabel’s generosity of spirit: it’s a remarkable person indeed whose immediate reaction on learning that she has been betrayed and abused is to feel sympathy for her betrayer and abuser. But we get to know what Isabel thinks at this point purely from what she says and does – much as we would do if she were a character in a play or in a film.

James makes his dialogue do much of the narrative work throughout the novel. It may be objected that no-one really speaks as these characters do – that no-one, James himself possibly excepted, could be so precise and so articulate in their verbal expression. But if we can accept Shakespearean characters speaking in blank verse, I think we can accept also James’ characters speaking in exquisite Jamesian prose: it is part of the convention, part of the pact we make with the author. There are a few other things we need to agree as part of this pact: we need to agree that the author is an omniscient narrator, but that he won’t always give us the benefit of that omniscience; that he is happy to enter into the minds of different people, but that he will choose whose minds he wishes to enter into at any given time; that he can show us whichever scene he wants, but that the choice of which scenes to show and which he prefers to suppress will, once again, be entirely at his discretion; and so on. These are the rules of the game, as it were. So of course the narrator knows from the start the secret of Madame Merle; many readers, I think, will guess the secret for themselves long  before it is revealed, and may even wonder why Isabel is so slow in guessing what is so obvious; but the narrator, omniscient though he is, confirms the secret only when it is presented to Isabel, and not earlier. What the reader learns, which of the reader’s suspicions are confirmed, and when, are all strictly controlled by the author, and the ground rules are that we, the readers, must submit to this.

James’ felicity with dialogue, idiosyncratic though that dialogue may be, makes it perhaps surprising that he fared so badly as a dramatist. As is well-known, he tried, presumably inspired by Ibsen, whom he admired, to refashion himself in the mid-90s from a novelist to a dramatist, but failed miserably. I should try to get hold of some of his plays just to figure out why they are, by common critical consent, such failures as drama, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the scenes of dialogue only work in his novels because of that one element novels have but plays don’t – the narrative passages. All that is so remarkable about his passages of dialogue – the registering in what is said of the subtlest shifts in perception, or the finest alteration of the balance of power between the characters – seems to rely on the narrative around it to set it off: without all those pages blocked with print, and with barely any clear white space visible to relieve the reader’s eye, the dialogue would, I think, have fallen flat; but, once set in the context of the narration, it’s a different matter entirely. The dialogue in the early chapters is little more than conversation, but as the novel progresses, it becomes far more than that: it depicts the intricate interplay of the characters, and of the seemingly intangible shifts in the way they perceive each other, and themselves. And it is these long narrative passages that alternate with the dialogue that make this possible.

These narrative passages are almost purely internal: they describe what is going on in the characters’ minds – what they perceive, what they think they perceive. There is very little description, if any, of what the characters look like: what impression we get of their appearance we get merely from what they say and do, and from how they react to each other. And neither does James seem very interested in a sense of place: he will give us a few lines to set the scene, in the manner, as it were, of stage directions in a play, but once the dialogue starts, there’s where the interest lies – in what the characters say and think and perceive, and not in where they are. Quite often, in the middle of these scenes of dialogue, I’d quite happily forget whether the dialogue is taking place in an English country house, or a terrace of a Florentine villa, or amidst the ruins of Rome. That may, of course, be because I am a bad reader, but the point is, I think, that in this novel, it doesn’t matter much: when, say, Myshkin and Rogozhin exchange crosses in The Idiot,  we are always aware, and, indeed, it is important to be aware, that the scene is taking place in Rogzhin’s vast, gloomy old house; but when say, Ralph Touchett warns Isabel about marrying Gilbert Osmond, it matters little where this takes place: James’ interest seems focussed almost entirely on people, not on places.

James’ shaping of the novel is also curious. Most readers will agree that at the centre of the novel is a dissection of a bad marriage, so it is rather surprising that the man Isabel marries doesn’t make his entrance till almost half way through. The novel is in roughly three movements (it seems appropriate here to borrow terminology from music), each of these movements ending with an important scene between Isabel and Caspar Goodwood, the disappointed suitor who remains nonetheless devoted. In the first movement, we are mostly in Gardencourt, an English country estate somewhere near the Thames in Berkshire, and the choice of the name is far from accidental: it is a clear reference to the character Grandcourt in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, a work to which this novel clearly owes much (as it does also to George Eliot’s Middlemarch); but it is also a reference to a prelapsarian state in the Garden, a state both of innocence and of inexperience: Isabel Archer here, though intelligent and independent of thought, is also innocent, and lacks experience of the world; and this world is, indeed, all before her. Isabel must make her decisions on how, and where, to take her place in it. For Gardencourt is also a court – a place where judgements and decisions are made, with far-reaching consequences.

At the start of the second movement, the serpent enters the garden, in form of the very charming and accomplished Madame Merle, and Isabel, now wealthy (thanks to the manoeuvring, unknown to her, of her cousin Ralph Touchett), soon leaves the Garden to engage with the evils and temptations that reside outside. The decision she eventually makes, we can see quite clearly, is a wrong decision – a disastrously wrong decision; and James does not hide from the reader its wrongness: we are actually given scenes of Osmond and Madame Merle conspiring with each other like conventional villains from melodrama on how best to entrap the innocent Isabel. There are shades, certainly, of Mary and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, and  of  the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses; and also, I think, of the Gothic thriller: the innocent heroine who marries a villain, and who is then persecuted and terrorised by her husband, is a staple of the Gothic mystery novel, and is, indeed, the basis of the plot of one of the most famous examples of the genre – Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White. (Later in James’ novel, the villain even has his daughter locked up in a convent! It is indeed astonishing how happy James was to use motifs from the old-fashioned melodrama even while pushing forward the art of the novel.) But although we can see all this villainy clearly, Isabel can’t, and James, in this movement of the novel, has the hardest of tasks: he has to show us his heroine acting foolishly, and against the best of advice, and yet convince us somehow that she is nonetheless intelligent; he has to show Gilbert Osmond both as a villain of a Gothic novel, and yet also as someone whom Isabel can credibly accept. This is not an easy task for the novelist to accomplish, but, as one of his own characters might say, James brings it off quite beautifully.

Of course, we do have to accept that someone who lives in a villa in Tuscany and does not have to work for a living is actually “poor”, but once again, that’s part of the pact we have to make with the author: in the milieu he is depicting, Gilbert Osmond is, in comparative terms at least, “poor”. He is also middle-aged, a widower, generally undistinguished, and in every sense, one would have thought, an unsuitable match for the wealthy, young, and beautiful Isabel (at least, one thinks of her as beautiful, though I don’t think James says so himself directly); but his very seeming unsuitability is among those things that draws Isabel to him. Back in Gardencourt, she had rejected the extravagantly eligible Lord Warburton – wealthy, young, handsome, titled, and by nature kind and generous – at least partly because, one suspects, he was so very eligible: Isabel wanted to experience life on her own terms, and make her own decisions, and so, to this end, any decision determined by conventionality and approved of by custom is from the start dismissed. This determination not to abide from the stultifying demands of conventionality, and to make her own way, does indeed, in James’ hands at least, indicate on Isabel’s part an independence of mind and a certain intellectual pride that indicate intelligence, even when, as here, both that independence of mind and that intellectual pride are so woefully misdirected.

Not that Gilbert Osmond is a stereotype villain: James is happy to use elements of the Gothic thriller, but that is not the genre in which he is writing. Osmond does indeed woo and marry Isabel for her money, but her money, though a necessary criterion for Osmond, is not in itself a sufficient criterion: he wants power – power over other people; and the idea of power over Isabel, who, it is thought, had turned down even a wealthy and handsome English aristocrat, excites Osmond’s sensibilities. Osmond is an unforgettable portrait of a man who lives primarily by his ego, and whose principal delight lies in having that sense of ego heightened by exercising power over others.

It is in the third and longest movement of the novel, which begins some years after the second movement had ended, that it all unravels: it is here that we are given the anatomy of a failed marriage. Isabel is, predictably, unhappy: in the patriarchal society she inhabits, her husband has easily assumed a dominant role. And Osmond too is unhappy with the marriage: Isabel, her pride still intact, keeps aloof as best she can, and does not flatter her husband’s ego as he had hoped she would. They generally tend to keep out of each other’s way.

This third part begins not with Isabel or with Osmond, but with Edward Rosier, a character we had only very briefly glimpsed earlier, and whom I certainly did not remember by this stage. It is almost as if Isabel’s story has ended, as all good stories should, with a marriage. We do see Mr and Mrs Osmond after a while, though they seem at first more supporting characters rather than leading characters of the drama; but even here, we sense how unhappy Isabel is, and how dissatisfied Osmond is, despite having had his way: she does not openly defy him, but neither does she submit to the power he wishes to wield over her. It is many more chapters before we actually see them together: the person whom we see with Osmond, close to Osmond, is not is wife, but, rather ominously, Madame Merle.

Things come to a head with the various machinations around the marriage of Pansy, Osmond’s innocent daughter now on the verge of adulthood. Edward Rosier wishes to propose to her, but Osmond, while not disapproving, has higher things in mind for his daughter: she, too, exists, as far as he is concerned, primarily to serve his ego. So Osmond is casually and calculatedly rude to Rosier. He has bigger fish in mind: Lord Warburton, a few years older than when we had first seen him, but still very eminently eligible. And Lord Warburton appears interested in Pansy, although Isabel suspects that the interest not to be wholly sincere, and, observing all proprieties though he may be, his chief aim is to be close to her, Isabel. And Isabel has too much pride to yield to this.

This situation sets up a series of tremendous scenes in which the dialogue is more, much more, than the somewhat inconsequential conversation it had been in the early chapters of the novel: the more James tells us about his characters, the more we find every word they speak weighted with meaning and significance. The balance of power is intricate: the slightest thing can alter it. And perceptions of where one stands in the struggle for power can be as powerful as the thing itself.

Isabel warns off Lord Warburton. Not explicitly, but she knows how to do this kind of thing without being explicit. Osmond senses Isabel’s part in Lord Warburton’s withdrawal: he has no hard evidence, but does not require it. All this brings about a series of conflicts between husband and wife that are among the most dramatic scenes in all fiction, though very little, as such, happens. Everything relies on the reader being aware of the shifting balances of power between the characters.

It all leads leads to a denouement that frankly breaks the heart. I did not remember from my last reading some thirty or so years ago just how affecting this ending was: I suppose that, as with so much I read in my younger days, I had not been a good enough reader, nor had been sufficiently mature emotionally, to take it in adequately. This time round, I found an emotional directness that I had not expected from James. In his later fiction, he often allowed emotional scenes to take place off-stage, such as, say, the final meeting between Milly Theale and Merton Densher in The Wings of the Dove; but here, James presents directly scenes of the deepest of emotions, of the most tender of feelings, with a lack of embarrassment I am tempted to describe, despite James’ own well-known aversion to Dickens, as “Dickensian”. I really had not remembered this ending being quite so affecting. However, this ending did not spring out of nowhere: it could not have been so affecting had James not laid the necessarily groundwork for it with such painstaking care earlier in the novel. And so exquisitely is the novel structured, that to understand properly what happens at the end, we must consider it from the very beginning: James’ decision to delay the entrance of Gilbert Osmond till almost half way into the novel is, after all, no mere whim: this novel is, one must remember, the portrait of a lady, rather than the portrait of a marriage.

It is in the prelapsarian and innocent wold of Gardencourt that we begin. The very opening sentences suggest a sense of calm and inactivity that quite belies what is to come afterwards. I have often wondered whether there has been another novel of comparable stature that has so unpromising an opening:

Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.

This is what, on this side of the Atlantic, we would describe as “twee” – self-consciously arch and affected and cloying. It suggests a world where everything is delightful and lovely, where nothing really changes, where even the drinking of tea in the afternoon becomes a “ceremony”. This could almost be the opening of a Wodehousian idyll. The setting is right for Wodehouse – an English country estate, wealthy Americans, and so on. But James is not writing a country house comedy any more than he is a Gothic thriller: instead of Bertie Wooster, we have a somewhat different kind of English aristocrat – Lord Warburton. It is into this static situation that Isabel Archer emerges, and, quite literally, sets the novel in motion.

These early chapters proceed at an extremely leisurely pace, as if nothing of any great moment lies on the horizon. A flashback tells us of Isabel’s background, and of how she came to be where she is; and a flashback within a flashback gives us some more detail of Isabel’s past. Isabel is characterised in these early chapters principally by how the other characters react to her: all three men in Gardencourt fall in love with her. Mr Touchett is an old man, but he almost from the start develops for her a deep paternal affection. Meanwhile his son, Ralph, finds himself utterly entranced by his cousin; but he knows he is seriously ill and dying – this prelapsarian garden contains its shades – and he doesn’t even pause to consider a future for himself with Isabel – or, indeed, a future for himself at all. And there is also Lord Warburton, who makes possibly the most delicate of proposals in all literature, and is turned down: Isabel is looking towards other horizons. If the world is all before Isabel, she will explore it, and find her own place in it, on her own terms.

The pace is so leisurely here, that the reader may well wonder where, if anywhere, all this is leading. There are elements of humour, it is true, and some of that humour is – quite surprisingly, once again, given James’ aversion – “Dickensian”. Henrietta Stackpole is a name – like Caspar Goodwoood –  that could easily have been invented by Dickens, and her general air of uncouth brashness provides a much needed contrast to the endless refinement of moneyed and aristocratic England that James presents. And as for the brusque and peremptory manners of Mrs Touchett, there seems to me more than a touch of Betsey Trotwood about her. There’s an element of Dickens also, I thought, in the cameo appearance of Mr Bantling, and the talked about, though never seen, Lady Pensil (how Dickens would have loved these names!) But despite this occasional touch of Dickensiana, we are unmistakably in Jamesworld – a world of moneyed and leisured people, whose work, should they work at all, is of no interest to anyone (and certainly not to James); a world where the young and wide-eyed visitors from the New World meet the more cynically sophisticated environment of the Old. Not that James’ characterisations are in any way schematic: Lord Warburton, of the Old World, is principled and very much a man of integrity; while the villains, Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle, are expatriate Americans; but the novel turns on the encounter between moral innocence and moral corruption, and in James’ fictional world, these states are represented respectively by the New World and the Old.

The first movement of the novel ends in London, with Isabel’s meeting with Caspar Goodwood, who is devoted to her, and has followed her to Europe, despite there being little hope of his being accepted. He is everything lord Warburton isn’t – rough-edged, energetic, vigorous, and all the other qualities befitting a denizen of the New World. Isabel’s rejection of Caspar turns out to be more difficult than her rejection of Lord Warburton: she did not even have to think about rejecting the English aristocrat, but after declaring her final rejection of Goodwood, she sheds tears. But she has a sense of her own destiny, and Ralph, already under a death sentence, and the only one not to declare his love for his cousin, persuades his father to leave to Isabel much of what had been marked out for him. So, soon into the second movement of the novel, Isabel finds herself not merely searching for her destiny, but with the means to do so. The world is indeed all before her; but beside her is Madame Merle, and in her calculated coils, Isabel, although she doesn’t realise it, is helpless.

The pace is slow; nothing much appears to be happening; but all the seeds are carefully planted that are later to flower to such devastating effect. It is only after all these seeds have been planted, after all these elements have so carefully been put into place, that James allows Gilbert Osmond to make his entrance. And, with an insidious sense of inevitability, the unthinking happens: the proud, intelligent Isabel, who had turned down Lord Warburton and even Caspar Goodwood, who is loved hopelessly and selflessly by her cousin Ralph, falls prey to, of all people, the scheming Gilbert Osmond. He and Madame Merle engineer Isabel into accepting.

The second movement ends as the first had done, with Caspar Goodwood once again meeting with Isabel, this time to ponder uncomprehendingly on the proud, independent searcher coming to this of all ends. And once again, the meeting moves Isabel to tears.

But the story is not over yet: we have the final tragic movement yet to come. And the drama that is let loose here is electrifying. In scene after scene, James tightens the tension, knowing precisely to what extent to turn the screw at each scene; and in between these scenes are those passages of narration, increasingly metaphor-laden. One metaphor in particular struck me:

After he had left her, Madame Merle went and lifted from the mantel-shelf the attenuated coffee—cup in which he had mentioned the existence of a crack; but she looked at it rather abstractedly. “Have I been so vile all for nothing?” she murmured to herself.

  • From Chapter 49

The coffee-cup in which there is a crack is an image that very obviously foreshadows the central symbol of James’ later novel, The Golden Bowl. There, the crack had been a fine in an otherwise exquisite bowl of gold, but it was a fatal crack: the bowl was bound eventually to break. It is a mysterious and enigmatic symbol purely because its most obvious interpretations are too banal given the weight James gives to it, and we are forced therefore to peer further. Why does this crack in the coffee-cup resonate so powerfully both with the reader and with Madame Merle at this point?

For Madame Merle has been vile, and she has known it. James, rather disconcertingly, refers quite frequently to the “horror” and the “terror” felt by Isabel, almost as if she really were a protagonist in a Gothic horror novel. And the adjective “evil” is used to describe Osmond and Madame Merle. This may seem somewhat over-the-top to some readers, just as the use of the same word in Mansfield Park in relation to Mary and Henry Crawford is seen also to be a gross overstatement, but James is as serious as Austen was: to seek to exert power over others is indeed, both to Austen and to James, an evil, and that it happens in a real world rather than in some Gothic world of dungeons and torture chambers does not make it any less evil.  Gilbert Osmond and Madame Merle are clearly, without any exaggeration, forerunners of the evil spirits Peter Quint and Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw, who also seek to “possess” other human beings for their own ends.

But by the end, Madame Merle is defeated. Isabel has a sudden intimation of the evil in the relationship between Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond when she enters a room, and is struck by the way the two are positioned with respect to one another:

Madame Merle sat there in her bonnet, and Gilbert Osmond was talking to her; for a minute they were unaware that she had come in. Isabel had often seen that before, certainly; but what she had not seen, or at least had not noticed—was that their dialogue had for the moment converted itself into a sort of familiar silence, from which she instantly perceived that her entrance would startle them. Madame Merle was standing on the rug, a little way from the fire; Osmond was in a deep chair, leaning back and looking at her. Her head was erect, as usual, but her eyes were bent upon his. What struck Isabel first was that he was sitting while Madame Merle stood; there was an anomaly in this that arrested her. Then she perceived that they had arrived at a desultory pause in their exchange of ideas, and were musing, face to face, with the freedom of old friends who sometimes exchange ideas without uttering them. There was nothing shocking in this; they were old friends in fact. But the thing made an image, lasting only a moment, like a sudden flicker of light. Their relative position, their absorbed mutual gaze, struck her as something detected. But it was all over by the time she had fairly seen it.

  • From Chapter 40

It is a simple impression made in a split second, which contains nothing really to alarm, or even to disconcert, but which nonetheless strikes Isabel as somehow wrong, although what precisely is wrong she would not have been able to explain. It is a sudden glimpse into a previously unseen world, and, although what is glimpsed is vague and intangible, it sets off a “sudden flicker of light” in Isabel’s perceptions. She knows, she senses, that she is, somehow, the victim of these two. But Isabel is unarmed, because she lacks knowledge: she does not know enough to pinpoint even to herself the nature of that which she so powerfully senses.

Later in the novel, when she does have the knowledge, when Madame Merle’s secret is known to her, the balance of power shifts. Madame Merle now senses that Isabel knows something of her secret, but how much Isabel knows, she cannot tell:

The person who stood there was not the same one she had seen hitherto; it was a very different person—a person who knew her secret. This discovery was tremendous, and for the moment she made it the most accomplished of women faltered and lost her courage. But only for that moment. Then the conscious stream of her perfect manner gathered itself again and flowed on as smoothly as might be to the end. But it was only because she had the end in view that she was able to go on. She had been touched with a point that made her quiver, and she needed all the alertness of her will to repress her agitation. Her only safety was in not betraying herself. She did not betray herself; but the startled quality of her voice refused to improve—she couldn’t help it—while she heard herself say she hardly knew what. The tide of her confidence ebbed, and she was able only just to glide into port, faintly grazing the bottom.

  • From Chapter 52

In The Golden Bowl, when Maggie Verver faces the adulterous Charlotte Stant, she senses that she now has power over her: not only does she know of Charlotte’s affair with her husband, she knows also that Charlotte is aware of her knowledge; but what Charlotte isn’t aware of is how much she knows. And Maggie enjoys the power she now has over Charlotte by deliberately not telling her, and leaving her to the agony merely of conjecture and surmise. I think something similar happens at this point between Isabel and Madame Merle: Isabel senses that it is she who now has power over Madame Merle, and, like Maggie Verver, enjoys the enjoyment of this power by remaining silent:.

Isabel saw all this as distinctly as if it had been a picture on the wall. It might have been a great moment for her, for it might have been a moment of triumph. That Madame Merle had lost her pluck and saw before her the phantom of exposure—this in itself was a revenge, this in itself was almost a symptom of a brighter day. And for a moment while she stood apparently looking out of the window with her back half turned, Isabel enjoyed her knowledge.

  • From Chapter 52

Madame Merle is retires from the fray: Isabel has won. Like Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl, she returns to America: in Jamesian terms, she gives up the fight. Like Princes Eboli in Schiller’s Don Carlos (and in Verdi’s opera of the same name, based on Schiller’s play), Madame Merle is shamed into defeat. Isabel is triumphant.

But it is a strange sort of triumph. There remains still her deeply unhappy marriage. Gilbert Osmond had, on his last meeting with Isabel, taken the moral high ground: it is he who is, both in his own eyes and in the eyes of the world, in the right, and Isabel in the wrong for even thinking of defying her husband’s wishes. Isabel had lost in that particular confrontation: the balance of power had been all on Gilbert’s side. But she had defied him nonetheless: she had travelled to England on her own, to visit her dying cousin Ralph.

And it is in the magnificent scene at Ralph’s deathbed that we reach the culminating point of the novel. Here, as in the scene in Anna Karenina where Anna lies close to death, there is no room any more for dissimulation: in the presence of death, so solemn and so majestic, all involved seem to share a higher state of consciousness. The love between Isabel and Ralph is perhaps the only one in the entire novel that has been, and is, entirely sincere, and entirely mutual. Isabel had previously been careful not to reveal to Ralph that she was unhappy in her marriage, as the satisfaction Ralph would receive on being proven right would have been far outweighed by his unhappiness on the same score; but there is no room for untruths now, not even kind untruths: Ralph and Isabel speak to each other from the deepest recesses of their hearts. It is a scene I had not expected from James. It is almost as if he is daring the reader to feel embarrassed by so unadorned, so naked a depiction of the most deeply felt of human emotions.

“He married me for my money,” she said.

She wished to say everything; she was afraid he might die before she had done so.

He gazed at her a little, and for the first time his fixed eyes lowered their lids. But he raised them in a moment, and then—

“He was greatly in love with you,” he answered.

“Yes, he was in love with me. But he would not have married me if I had been poor. I don’t hurt you in saying that. How can I? I only want you to understand. I always tried to keep you from understanding; but that’s all over.”

“I always understood,” said Ralph.

“I thought you did, and I didn’t like it. But now I like it.”

“You don’t hurt me—you make me very happy.” And as Ralph said this there was an extraordinary gladness in his voice. She bent her head again, and pressed her lips to the back of his hand. “I always understood,” he continued, “though it was so strange—so pitiful. You wanted to look at life for yourself—but you were not allowed; you were punished for your wish. You were ground in the very mill of the conventional!”

“Oh yes, I have been punished,” Isabel sobbed.

  • From Chapter 54

I was caught up short at the point where Ralph declares himself to be happy: I was sure I had read another scene in another novel where a man, in the throes of the greatest of griefs, also declares himself happy, but I couldn’t remember at first which novel it was. Then, eventually, it came to me: it is in a novel written by that author James professed to dislike – Dickens; and it occurs when Bob Cratchit, grieving for his dead child, calls around him the rest of his family:

“… But however and whenever we part from one another, I am sure we shall none of us forget poor Tiny Tim — shall we — or this first parting that there was among us?”

“Never, father!” cried they all.

“And I know,” said Bob, “I know, my dears, that when we recollect how patient and how mild he was; although he was a little, little child; we shall not quarrel easily among ourselves, and forget poor Tiny Tim in doing it.”

“No, never, father!” they all cried again.

“I am very happy,” said little Bob, “I am very happy!”

  • From Chapter 4 of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

We may say that Ralph is “happy” because he can speak to Isabel before he dies, and that Bob is “happy” because he still has the rest of his family, but in both cases, I think, the author is encouraging us to peer deeper: the “happiness” in both cases comes, I think, from their having been, and continuing to be, so close to another human being as to be able to experience emotions of such depth, even though that experience is so full of pain.

The death scene is the novel’s emotional high point: it doesn’t so much put human affairs in their context, but, rather, heightens them; the presence of death confirms the moral seriousness of human affairs, and of what humans do to each other. But the novel isn’t entirely finished yet: there is still some unfinished business to attend to. As at the end of the previous two movements, Caspar meets and speaks once again to Isabel; and this time, he offers a way out. Much has been written on why Isabel refuses. I think this ending is inevitable: one has only to imagine Isabel accepting Caspar Goodwood’s proposal to realise how unsatisfactory an ending this would have been. Isabel has to refuse because, despite all that has happened, she has still her pride, and her self-respect. In The Lady From the Sea, a play written by Ibsen some four years after the publication of this novel, the title character, Ellida Wangel, had chosen well: her husband is a decent and kindly man; but given that the choice had not been entirely free, Ellida finds herself questioning its validity. Now, it is unlikely that Ibsen would have read James’ novel, but, whether by design or by accident, Ibsen had presented in Ellida Wangel a corollary of Isabel Archer: where Ellida questions even a correct choice because it had not been free, Isabel accepts an incorrect choice because it was: wrong though that choice was, in every respect, it was made in absolute freedom, and Isabel known that she is honour-bound, to herself if no-one else, to accept the consequences of what she had chosen so freely.

And neither is she choosing, I think, to remain a victim: armed now with knowledge she had previously not possessed, she is now capable of resuming the struggle with Gilbert Osmond, this time on equal terms. And I do not think it is merely wishful thinking on my part that she will emerge triumphant – that she will vanquish Gilbert Osmond as surely as she had vanquished Madame Merle. The real struggle is still to come: we are only at the beginning.

“Persuasion” by Jane Austen

Having now re-read all six of Austen’s full-length novels, each of the last three – which I take to be her masterpieces – takes us by surprise given what had preceded them. After the sunny ebullience of Pride and Pejudice, Mansfield Park surprises us with its dark and sombre demeanour. After the tense drama of Mansfield Park, Emma surprises us by its smiling pleasantness, and its gentle and leisurely – one may almost say “loose-limbed” – tempo. And, after the seemingly – but only seemingly – carefree nature of Emma, comes Persuasion, a tale of passion.

This may seem a strange thing to say about a Jane Austen novel. After all, is Austen not cool and detached, aloof and ironic, forever viewing from beneath arched and amused eyebrows the frailties and follies of humanity? Well, yes, she is: the principal protagonist of this novel, Anne Elliot, comes from a hideously snobbish and self-regarding family, and Austen does not spare them. But – and this is a point I don’t think I grasped when I first read these novels – great works of art are not restricted to a single tonality. Anne herself does not share the blinkered view of the world of her father and older sister, and neither is she, as her younger sister is, a petulant airhead: she has about her a natural poise and dignity that are often considered to be innate features of aristocracy – qualities that the rest of her family, proud and self-conscious though they are of their aristocratic lineage, appear conspicuously to lack – but, beneath that exterior, she has the capacity to think clearly, to ratiocinate, and to feel. Like all Austen heroines – even, to a significant extent, Emma, who, for all her faults, has sufficient sensitivity to understand she had been wrong and sufficient humility to reform – Anne Elliot has self-awareness. She is capable not merely of conversing with herself, but also of interrogating herself, of being aware of her own weaknesses and shortcomings. Take, for instance, that marvellous passage where she tells the young Captain Benwick, heartbroken by the untimely passing of his betrothed, to read more than merely that which indulges his emotions:

…she thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings that ought to taste it but sparingly. (I,xi)

Dr Johnson could not have put it better. Here, we have reason and good sense, a view of life which, while not rejecting the importance of human emotions, warns against excess, advises balance, advocates a sense that would keep sensibility under a decorous control. But later that night, Anne Elliot interrogates her own self:

…nor could she help fearing, on more serious reflection, that, like many other great moralists and preachers, she had been eloquent on a point on which her own conduct would ill bear examination. (I,xi)

Sense and sensibility, that had been packaged out to different characters in an earlier novel, co-exist here in a single character – and, despite outward appearance of calm and control, the sense cannot control the unruly sensibility in her mind. Anne Elliot understands how she should feel, but she knows equally well that she has not the power to act according to her understanding: passion here is not something that can be controlled by the will, any more than it can in the stresses and storms of the novels of the Brontës.

Anne is in her late twenties: this makes her considerably older than the heroines of Austen’s other novels, who are stepping out for the first time into the world of amorous and of sexual emotions. Anne, unlike the previous heroines, has a back-story: some eight years earlier, when she had been nineteen, she had fallen in love with a young naval officer, Wentworth, but, in view of his lack of a suitable family pedigree, and his seeming lack of career prospects, she had been persuaded to turn him down. Now, eight years later, Wentworth, now a naval captain and a worldly success, returns into her life; and she realises that the passion she had harboured remains still, unabated. The persistence of human passion is not a theme one would expect from a novelist often regarded as cool and detached; and, indeed, the tempests that rage are internal: Anne is far too self-collected and too poised to make an exhibition of herself. But the tempests are, nonetheless, real, and with an art so understated and so delicate virtually to defy analysis, Austen depicts a state of mind in which the slightest thing can carry with it an emotional, and, indeed, an erotic charge that is frequently startling. For, amongst other things, Persuasion is an erotic novel.

Perhaps I should at this stage clarify what I mean by this. I do not mean that the novel contains explicit descriptions of sexual acts. Of course, the mores of Austen’s time would not have allowed for this, but I don’t think Austen would have included such scenes even if she could. For the erotic and the pornographic are distinct from each other, and not merely by virtue of the fact that the former one may display openly on one’s shelves while the latter has to be hidden away: I mean, rather, that the pornographic is concerned only with the physical aspect of sexual attraction, while the erotic, while not denying this physical aspect, encompasses far more: the erotic is concerned with a desire for and an attraction to a person. And it is not to deny the importance of the physical to say that in human perception, there is far more to a person than the physical. It is not that the physical is eschewed, but neither is it the sole, or even the central feature of the erotic. And this is what Austen conveys in Persuasion: she depicts with an astonishing vividness and immediacy what it is like to be attracted to a person.

Even before Wentworth appears again into Anne’s life, Austen depicts in Anne a sense of eagerness, and also, at the same time, a sense of an overpowering uncertainty and perturbation – even dread. When they do meet, they keep a decorous distance from each other; but there are two scenes in which the erotic frisson – the “erotic” as characterised above – is electrifying. They are seemingly minor scenes: no onlooker to either scene would have detected anything approaching the erotic. But Austen understood the nature of the erotic better than most: it is, after all, a state of mind. The successful depiction of the erotic lies not in the physical detail, but in the minds of the characters.

In the first of these scenes, Anne is tending to a nephew who is ill, and, as she kneels next to the child’s bed, another child jumps on her, and prevents her from standing up. At this point, Wentworth takes the unruly child from Anne’s back. That is all. And yet, once Anne realised what Wentworth has done, a veritable storm rages in her mind:

Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings. His kindness in stepping forward to her relief, the manner, the silence in which it had passed, the little particulars of the circumstance, with the conviction soon forced on her by the noise he was studiously making with the child, that he meant to avoid hearing her thanks, and rather sought to testify that her conversation was the last of his wants, produced such a confusion of varying, but very painful agitation, as she could not recover from, till enabled by the entrance of Mary and the Miss Musgroves to make over her little patient to their cares, and leave the room. She could not stay. (I,ix)

The second scene is similarly unremarkable – at least when viewed from the outside: Wentworth, observing Anne to be tired of walking, helps her into a carriage. And that is all. But once again, seen not from the outside but from the perspective of Anne’s fevered consciousness, the effect is electric:

Yes – he had done it. She was in the carriage, and felt that he had placed her there, that his will and his hands had done it, that she owed it to his perception of her fatigue, and his resolution to give her rest. She was very much affected by the view of his disposition towards her, which all these things made apparent. This little circumstance seemed the completion of all that had gone before. She understood him. (I, x)

As in the previous scene, there is no physical detail at all: we are told “his will and his hands had done it”, but where those hands had touched her, and how, or, for that matter, what part his will had played, there is not the slightest inkling. Eroticism, as ever, is a state of mind, and few, one suspects, understood it as well as Austen did.

This vagueness in both scenes of what precisely was done physically reflects Anne’s own perception of the events. She cannot tell precisely where his hands had touched her, so confused is her mind, so electrified her consciousness. Neither in the earlier scene did she at first know just who it was who had relieved her from the troublesome child:

In another moment, however, she found herself in the state of being released from him; some one was taking him from her … (I,ix)

“Some one,” says the narrative voice – injecting into the moment a tremendous immediacy by switching for the moment from the past tense to using the participle (“…was taking…” rather than “took”), and allowing us to discover who this “some one” is only when Anne herself does so. We do not need to be told precisely how Anne feels: the mode of the narrative itself communicates so powerfully erotic a charge that direct statement becomes superfluous.

We find this intense identification of the narrative voice with Anne’s own perceptions throughout the novel. Take, for instance, that wonderful scene where Anne once again is in the presence of Wentworth:

Her eye half met Captain Wentworth’s, a bow, a curtsey passed; she heard his voice; he talked to Mary, said all that was right, said something to the Miss Musgroves, enough to mark an easy footing; the room seemed full, full of persons and voices, but a few minutes ended it. (I,vii)

Anne’s eye only half-meets Wentworth’s, and for the rest, Anne sees nothing. She hears, but nothing she hears seems to register. And the narrative voice allows us to see no more than what Anne sees, to take in more than Anne does. Anne sees nothing of Wentworth because she has her eyes averted. The narrative does not explicitly tell us this, but it’s not hard to infer. And from this inference, we may make a further one, and discover for ourself why Anne keeps her eyes averted. The tumult in Anne’s mind needs no overt narration.

In no other novel by Austen has the focus been so intensely upon a single character. An outline of the plot would suggest that this is, as it were, an ensemble piece, but all the characters, Anne excepted, seem almost to be on the fringes. They may interest us in passing: Austen will from time to time drop some intriguing details about them; but they are never allowed into the spotlight. Take for instance the Musgrove’s elder son, now deceased; this is all we get about him:

The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year … (I,vi)

It’s a cruel joke. There’s much warmth of feeling in this novel – how can it be otherwise given its themes? – but there are tonalities there also other than warmth, and Austen was certainly not averse on occasion to a bit of coldth. The passage quoted above continues:

… that he had been sent to sea because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before. (I,vi)

There is much material here for the novelist to expand upon. This boy had been sent away because he was a nuisance to the family, but had died. Now, whatever that boy may or may not have deserved, whatever the extent to which his loss is grieved, the family that sent him to sea to be rid of him must, at some level, unless they were completely unfeeling (as the Musgroves aren’t), be embroiled in guilt. Austen could certainly have explored this had she wanted to – one can hardly imagine any novelist doing it better – but she dismisses it all with a heartless (though admittedly funny) joke. And this is because, I think, she doesn’t want any other theme or strand to compete with the theme she has placed at the centre – the reawakened passion of Anne Elliot. Where her previous novels had expanded to take in its cast of characters, this contracts, leaving only Anne at the centre, and all the others at the fringes. Even all the machinations in Bath – of William Elliot’s plots to ensure that Anne’s father does not remarry, his plans to wed Anne and secure his inheritance, and so on – are little more than sketched in, and seem barely to register. And the discovery of William Elliot’s true character seems almost perfunctory: Anne does not find this out for herself from her own experience, but is told it all by her friend Mrs Smith. (And one suspects that not all her evidence would hold up too well in court.) But Austen could afford to be cavalier with the plot, because the plot, such as it is, is not what is important here.

Persuasion was published posthumously, and the title of the novel is, I gather, the invention of Henry Austen, Jane’s brother, although we do not know whether Henry had discussed the matter with his sister before her death. It seems, though, a perfect title: the idea of persuasion, and its repercussions, both moral and emotional, run throughout the novel in various guises. There are two major acts of persuasion (alongside many minor ones) in the novel: the first, occurring before the start of the novel, is that of Anne’s being persuaded to reject Wentworth; and the second, which forms the principal theme of the novel, is of Anne’s persuading herself that her passion is yet alive. (Wentworth, presumably, persuades himself likewise, but since the narrative focus is so firmly on Anne’s consciousness, we only get to know what Wentworth feels when he discloses himself to her at the end.) What is particularly interesting is that, despite the emotional turmoils Anne undergoes, she feels no bitterness about the past: the advice she had received, from Lady Russell, who was acting, in effect, as a sort of surrogate mother, was not only well intended, but, very possibly, good advice. How easy it would have been for Austen to have presented Lady Russell as yet another hideous snob, like Lady Catherine de Bourgh in Pride and Prejudice. But Austen resists that: persuasion from a figure such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh could easily be dismissed as immoral and tainted, and if Austen does not present Lady Russell as another Lady Catherine de Bourgh, it is because she wanted the reader to take her persuasion seriously. Certainly, the reasons given for the persuasion are serious enough:

Anne Elliot, with all her claims of birth, beauty, and mind, to throw herself away at nineteen; involve herself at nineteen in an engagement with a young man, who had nothing but himself to recommend him, and no hopes of attaining affluence, but in the chances of a most uncertain profession, and no connexions to secure even his farther rise in the profession, would be, indeed, a throwing away, which she grieved to think of! Anne Elliot, so young; known to so few, to be snatched off by a stranger without alliance or fortune; or rather sunk by him into a state of most wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependence! It must not be… (I,iv)

As it happens, Anne’s youth is killed anyway:

Her attachment and regrets had, for a long time, clouded every enjoyment of youth, and an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect. (I,iv)

But this is not to say that Lady Russell had necessarily been wrong: there is more than one way that the enjoyment of youth may be clouded, and bloom and spirits lost, and while unrequited love may be debilitating, so may “wearing, anxious, youth-killing dependence”. We can never know what really lies down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened. And as if to re-iterate the possibility that what lay behind that unopened door may also have caused pain, Austen moves the narrative forward with two instances in which impetuosity leads to a fall, and subsequently, to suffering: first, when Anne’s nephew falls and hurts himself, requiring Anne to stay in Uppercross to help tend to him; and later, there’s Louisa Musgrove’s more serious fall down the steps of the Cobb in Lyme Regis that renders her unconscious, and puts, for a while, her very life at risk. Now, if Austen had used this motif only once, we could have passed it by as a mere plot mechanism, but when a novelist of her stature uses it twice, we need to take it more seriously. Impetuosity does indeed have its consequences, and they are considerable.

So aware is Anne of the possibility that, despite the emotional tempest raging inside her, Lady Russell may indeed have been right, that even towards the end of the novel, she is open to persuasion, once again by Lady Russell – sense desperately trying to overrule sensitivity – to marry William Elliot. And Anne may indeed have done so were it not for Mrs Smith’s revelations:

It is just possible that she might have been persuaded by Lady Russell (II,ix)

The moral problem with persuasion is that the persuader claims to see on behalf of the persuaded what lies behind that door we haven’t opened down the passage we haven’t taken. The right to make this claim is questionable, but so is silence in the fear of justified apprehension. Neither sense nor sensibility has here the monopoly on wisdom.

Despite the often elegiac tone of the novel – elegiac for the lost bloom of youth, for passions unfulfilled and thwarted – Austen’s view was, ultimately, optimistic. If, in Emma, the solution to not perceiving adequately is to learn to perceive adequately, so here, the solution to a bad decision in the past is to reverse that decision if the opportunity arises in the future. And here, the opportunity does indeed arise: the ending is conventionally happy. Indeed, in Anne’s declaration of the strength of feeling and of the intensity of emotion that woman can possess, it is ecstatic. All the tensions that had accumulated through the suppression of human erotic desire, this absurd but nonetheless beautiful and ennobling desire we humans have for each other, find here their release. But major key though the ending may be, the principal tonality of the rest of the novel is very much in the minor: it is a lament for human loneliness, for passion thwarted, for the lost bloom of youth. One wonders if, had Austen lived longer, her fiction might have taken a more decisive turn towards the tragic, and with a greater preponderance of minor keys. Perhaps. But one never knows: her comedy is every bit as expressive as tragedy can be; and she was, after all, constantly surprising us.

Jane Austen’s writing desk

This is the house in the small Hampshire village of Chawton into which Jane Austen moved with her mother and sisters in 1809.

Jane Austen's house in Chawton

Jane Austen’s house in Chawton


And this very small desk is the one on which Austen used to write. It was on this desk that she revised Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility; and on which she wrote Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion.

Jane Austen's writing desk

Jane Austen’s writing desk


The village of Chawton itself is idyllic. There’s everything you’d expect from a traditional English village – a pub serving good English ale, a village church, …

The village church in Chawton

The village church in Chawton


…and even cricket on the village green.

Cricket on the village green

Cricket on the village green

“Emma” by Jane Austen

Of all the novels of Austen, the plot of Emma is perhaps the most difficult to summarise. This is not because it doesn’t have a plot, but because the principal events that shape the plot are internal rather than external. Here, a character perceiving reality in a certain way is a major plot development, a character beginning to perceive things in a new way a dramatic climax. This is not to say that there aren’t external events: there are accepted proposals, declined proposals, people falling in and out of love, people thinking they’re in love – all those various events that populate all Austen novels. But what gives these external events significance here, to a greater extent, I think, than in Austen’s other works, are the internal events: that is where the drama of the novel principally lies. As a consequence, the scale of the drama is here reduced: we are certainly in a very different fictional world from the sombre and dramatic Mansfield Park, which seems at times to stray even towards the oppressive world of Richardson’s Clarissa. But just as Austen had seemed determined to remove Mansfield Park as far as possible from its bright and sunny predecessor, Pride and Prejudice, so she seems here equally determined to remove Emma into a fictional world as far removed as possible from Mansfield Park. It’s not that there is no plot here; it’s not even that there’s no drama. But to find the either, to see this novel as more than a mere pleasant sunlit idyll in which everything rambles on agreeably and nothing much really happens, we have to look closely at the nuances and at the fine detail. For in Emma, it’s the smallest points, the tiniest gestures, that contain the drama.

Take for instance the point that may, I think, be considered the turning point of the entire novel – the picnic at Box Hill: Emma can’t resist cracking a rather mild joke at the expense of the tiresome Miss Bates, and Miss Bates is hurt. The joke itself was not particularly malicious, and the hurt was not so grievous that Miss Bates cannot quite happily welcome Emma to her house the very next day. A minor event, one might have thought, in the unremarkable lives of a set of unremarkable characters. And yet, Austen, with the most delicate and understated of artistry, makes this seemingly trivial event the turning point of a novel of over 400 pages.

The scene is worth examining in some detail. On the surface, nothing much happens. Miss Bates has not been involved in the “plot”, insofar as there has been a plot at all: she has not been involved in any way in any of Emma’s matchmaking schemes, and nor has Emma ever speculated on her feelings or thoughts, as she has on the feelings and thoughts of others. Miss Bates is simply a tiresome chatterbox, who natters on and on endlessly without ever even in error communicating anything of the slightest interest. Emma finds her absurd and tiresome, and she is not the only one: we, the reader, can hardly fail to find her absurd and tiresome also. So when Miss Bates says that she is sure to say three dull things as soon as she opens her mouth, Emma can’t resist a rejoinder:

“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me – but you will be limited in number – only three at once.”

It takes the slow-witted Miss Bates some time to realise that the joke is at her expense, but once she does, her reaction, far from being angry, is sad and humble: she recognises how disagreeable she must be to others. There is something curiously dignified in her realisation, and also, even in a matter so slight as this, something almost infinitely sad. The matter is so slight indeed that Emma doesn’t even notice; but Mr Knightley notices, as Miss Bates confides to him her perception of her own disagreeableness; and we, the readers, notice. And since we, the readers, have so often regarded Miss Bates as Emma has done, as tedious and disagreeable, this sudden realisation of her humanity, of the vulnerability of her feelings, comes to us as a sort of admonishment. The scale of the drama may be reduced in this novel, but, once one has adjusted one’s receptivity to that small scale, even so apparently slight an incident as this takes on a tremendous dramatic weight.

Later, Mr Knightley remonstrates later with Emma on her thoughtlessness, and she is as admonished as we, the readers, have been. The next day, Emma makes a point of visiting Miss Bates, possibly with a half-formed intent of apologising. In most other novels, we would have had here a scene of overt acknowledgement of guilt, and of redemption, but here, with the scale of the drama reduced, such a scene would be out of place. Miss Bates seems unaware that Emma has anything to apologise for, and the conversation never even touches on the previous day’s excursion to Box Hill. But the slightest gestures are important here: that Emma has made the gesture at all of visiting Miss Bates is sufficiently significant to restore her into Mr Knightley’s good opinion.

And from this point on, the plot unravels. Not so much, perhaps, in terms of external events – although the death of Frank Churchill’s aunt does open the door for various matters to be happily resolved – but, more importantly in a novel in which the principal focus of interest is internal rather than external, the plot unravels in terms of what goes on in Emma’s mind: the understanding that she has been needlessly cruel to a harmless old lady who had not deserved such cruelty is the first step towards the unravelling of various internal matters – of various misperceptions and delusions that Emma had harboured in her own mind, both about others and about herself. Emma begins for the first time to understand her own self. The novel may seem superficially to be a gently rambling idyll, but this is what it has all been leading towards. In Austen’s previous novel, Mansfield Park, the protagonist Fanny Price is rewarded because, throughout, she, and only she, has perceived clearly; here, in contrast, Emma has misperceived everything all along; but, since this novel is, unlike its predecessor, a comedy, the clouds of her misperceptions lift by the end one by one, leaving only the clearest of blue skies. Austen doesn’t often use the weather as anything other than plot devices, but when, as we approach the end of this novel, we are presented with a rain that plays no part at all in furthering the plot, we should sense its wider significance:

The weather continued much the same all the following morning; and the same loneliness, and the same melancholy, seemed to reign at Hartfield–but in the afternoon it cleared; the wind changed into a softer quarter; the clouds were carried off; the sun appeared; it was summer again.

– from Chapter 49

Not, it must be conceded, that the clouds in Emma had ever been darkly threatening. If Austen had indeed set out to write a novel as far removed from its predecessor as possible, she must remove even the possibility of tragedy. In Mansfield Park, the clouds had been threatening indeed, and a happy ending for the protagonist Fanny could only be achieved by the unhappiness of others around her: the final pages there depict a very uncertain heaven. But from the very first lines of Emma, we know that we are in an idyll, a delightful comedy of manners; and comedies of manners, we know, do not end in tragedy, or even in uncertain heavens. The interest lies in seeing not if the clouds will lift, but in how they lift. And we know that as and when they do lift, they will lift for all, and that not even the deplorable Eltons will be excluded from universal happiness; for, deplorable though they both are, they do seem rather to like each other. There is no Malvolio or Jaques by the end who cannot or will not be reconciled.

With this assurance offered, the dramatic immediacy that had informed Mansfield Park is conspicuous here by its absence: even when things go disastrously wrong – even when, thanks to Emma’s meddling, a possible happy marriage for Harriet Smith is turned down – we don’t worry: we rest contented in the assurance that it’ll all and end up right by the end, and that the very worthy Mr Martin, who had proposed to Harriet and on whom Emma had so snobbishly looked down, will not languish too long under the pain of rejection. Indeed, whatever pain of rejection he suffers is not even depicted, as that would have broken up the happy and genial surface of the work.

But this happy and genial surface should not blind us to the dangers of Emma’s misperceptions, nor, indeed, to their unpleasantness. Mr Martin appears only as an incidental character, but even from what we discern of him incidentally, we perceive a genuinely worthy man, a man possessing nobility of nature if not of social status. For Emma to look down upon such a person cannot be seen as anything other than unpleasant. And her persuading Harriet to turn down Mr Martin’s proposal on the ground that he, given his social status, ranks far below her in terms of human worth, is as absurd as it is reprehensible. Not only does this rejection cause the worthy Mr Martin pain (a pain we may easily infer even though it is not depicted), it jeopardises also the future of Harriet, a sweet but empty-headed young lady whose future is indeed most uncertain.  Emma is, as all readers acknowledge, a flawed character, but I am not sure it is often acknowledged just how deeply flawed she is: Austen has, indeed, to use all the considerable art at her disposal not to alienate the reader from her heroine.

Indeed, she goes further: she ensures that Emma charms us. Before writing the novel, Austen had referred to Emma as “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”, a remark that inclines me to think that Austen employed irony as liberally outside her novels as she did in them. For she lavished on Emma as much natural charm as she could, making all her flaws appear as consequence not of an ill nature, but of a certain lack of understanding; and we are convinced that once that understanding does come, these flaws will vanish. Quite how Austen manages to persuade the reader of this, it is hard to say. Perhaps it is in the presentation of Emma’s refined manners; or of her patient forbearance of her hypochondriac father; or, perhaps, of the obvious affection that the knightly Mr Knightley has for her. More importantly than any of these, I think, Emma is capable of introspection: it is this quality, above all, that sets her apart from the odious Mrs Elton, who, mean-spirited and objectionable though she is, is a sort of image of Emma as seen in a grotesquely distorting mirror. Emma takes a strong dislike to Mrs Elton, and with good reason: Mrs Elton is snobbish, self-centred, patronising, and self-aggrandising. She takes Jane Fairfax under her wing purely for the purpose of self-aggrandisement, to demonstrate both to herself and to everyone else her own superiority over her protégé. And Emma herself is guilty of every one of these faults that she can see so clearly in Mrs Elton: for Emma too is snobbish, and self-centred; and Emma, too, takes another person –  Harriet Smith – under her wing purely for the purposes of self-aggrandisement. What raises Emma above Mrs Elton is partly Emma’s refinement of manners, and partly a certain personal charm – a quality that eludes analysis, but which Austen depicts unerringly; but mainly, I think, Emma is raised above Mrs Elton by her ability to look into herself, and to examine what she finds. Until the final section of the novel, this ability is, admittedly, but partly used, but we are left in no doubt that it is present; and so, when she does come to look into herself fully, and acknowledge her many errors, the reader is not taken by surprise. Indeed, if anything, the reader warms to her even more.

For this is among the sunniest and warmest of novels. The small-town life that Austen so often depicted – those few families living close together, and, despite incidental absurdities which are mainly to be laughed away rather than grieved over, bound together by ties of mutual acquaintance and of friendship – is here celebrated. The pace is leisurely: Austen seems to relish depicting the measured pace at which everyday life proceeds. There is a genuine affection in her depiction of the small town of Highbury:

 …while she was still hanging over muslins and changing her mind, Emma went to the door for amusement. Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury; — Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office door, Mr. Cole’s carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.

– from Chapter 27

Here, it seems to me, is Austen’s rationale for lack of overt drama: a “mind lively and at ease” does not require overt drama, as it can see “nothing that does not answer”.  What overt drama is inherent in the story Austen actually suppresses: we do not witness Robert Martin’s pain of rejection, and neither do we know of the extent or the reason of Jane Fairfax’ sufferings until it is all over. The setting is idyllic, and whatever clouds are present we know will lift.

The tale set in this most idyllic of settings is a tale of transgression and redemption – of crime and punishment, if one wishes to be fanciful about it: except there is no real punishment here. Emma transgresses, recognises the nature of her transgression, and redeems herself; there is no punishment involved, for her transgression is a common one, one that we are all guilty of, and not really worth punishing. This transgression of Emma’s is a favourite theme of Austen’s – that of perceiving wrongly: Catherine Morland, Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth and Darcy, just about everyone in Mansfield Park except Fanny – they all perceive wrongly. But Austen proves far from censorious about this: not understanding fully, or understanding imperfectly, this world we live in, is a common affliction, and while not understanding adequately one’s self or the world one inhabits has tragic potential, Austen, unlike Hardy, preferred to see it as comedy: the remedy for misperceiving the world is to learn to perceive it better. And that it is possible to do so is cause for rejoicing.

This is a very different vision of life from that presented in Mansfield Park, or, from what I remember from my previous reading some years ago, that presented in her last completed novel, Persuasion. But in each new novel, Austen seems intent on not repeating herself: although the themes may be similar, she is determined to see these themes from as many different perspectives as possible. Here, her perspective is forbearing, optimistic, and, despite her naturally waspish wit, gentle. While, by temperament, I find myself drawn more towards the sombre drama and passion of Mansfield Park, it’s easy to see why Emma has so many devoted admirers: it is a work of optimism and of geniality, while in terms of artistry, it ranks with her finest work.

“Mansfield Park” by Jane Austen

It is, I think, fair to say that …

Now, always mistrust an essay or a posting that starts with such words. But I am going to go ahead and start with these words anyway.

It is, I think, fair to say that Mansfield Park is the Austen novel that her fans tend least to like. And the reason this novel is so frequently disliked – if the comments I frequently find around the internet are to be trusted – is that Fanny Price is not considered by many readers a likable character.

Now, disliking a protagonist seems to me, for reasons well articulated here, a poor basis for disliking a book. But the question of whether or not we like Fanny is not, perhaps, one that is easily dismissed. For while the reader’s personal like or dislike of Fanny has, or at least should have, no bearing at all on the reader’s judgement on the book’s literary qualities, it certainly has a very strong bearing on how the reader interprets the book. The reader who sees Fanny as priggish, repressed, and overly censorious of human frailties is bound to interpret this novel differently from the reader who sees her as clear-sighted, possessed of moral integrity, and, indeed, heroic. One may try, of course, to be more sophisticated as a reader, and see in Fanny both admirable and not-so-admirable features, but here again we run into difficulties, for those aspects of her character that may be regarded as admirable are precisely the same aspects that may, with equal justification, be regarded as reprehensible: the principled and the priggish are not different qualities, but, rather, the same quality seen from different perspectives. And where Austen herself stands on all this, from what perspective she views her creation, is hard to discern given the various levels of irony she employs throughout. Following immediately on the footsteps of the eminently reader-friendly Pride and Prejudice, Austen here seems to go out of her way to make things as difficult as possible.


Fanny is the still centre of a turbulent world. While the various uncontrolled passions – or whims, or passing fancies – drive the other characters this way and that, Fanny remains in the midst of it all, not herself by any means passionless, but with a quiet and undemonstrative constancy. And being so still, and being, further, an outsider, she can see clearly what others cannot. Towards the end of the novel, Fanny is in Portsmouth, away from what many readers consider the “real” action of the novel: and this “real” action is resolved off-stage, as it were, with the turbulence of the various other lives merely reported to Fanny, and to the reader, second hand, through letters and through newspaper reports. Many have found fault with this: even Nabokov thought this a structural flaw. But let us give Austen benefit of the doubt on this matter: the decision to keep the static Fanny in the foreground and to relegate the seemingly more interesting turbulence of the other characters to the background, even in the climactic sequence, is a conscious artistic decision, and not one arrived at lightly. We have, indeed, been given a foretaste of this earlier in the novel in the very intricately choreographed sequence in Sotherton, where Fanny sits alone, still, observing the various other characters in motion all around her, all grouping and re-grouping with each other. Austen’s focus of the interest is not so much what these other characters do, but the repercussions of what they do in Fanny’s mind.

In the sequence that forms the denouement of the novel, Fanny is placed in Portsmouth, away from all the other characters who had, with Fanny, populated the novel up to that point. When the storm breaks, it breaks off-stage: it is merely reported to us. But, unless we are to assume that Austen had miscalculated badly on a point as important as this, we must conclude that it is not this storm in the background that forms the climax of the novel, but, rather, what Austen has placed in the foreground. It is here that we should search for the novel’s denouement.

Certainly, this off-stage storm solves all Fanny’s problems: she is entirely vindicated in her resistance to Henry Crawford; it paves the way for Sir Thomas Bertram to realise that it is indeed Fanny who is the daughter he had always wanted – i.e. Fanny becomes a fully-fledged member of the Bertram family, a position she had not till then held; her fears concerning Maria – fears that only she had entertained – prove well grounded; and, like so many protagonists of other Austen novels – Catherine Morland, Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse – Edmund is freed from false perception. All birds are killed with this one single stone; her foes all utterly vanquished, Fanny is triumphant. And yet, this personal triumph of Fanny’s, so complete and so unreserved, could only come about through misery for everyone else: a happy ending for Fanny could only come about with the destruction of others’ happiness. Maybe this is why it is so easy to dislike Fanny. But it’s unfair to dislike Fanny for this: she had not willed this, not even unconsciously; indeed, she feels genuinely sorry for those whose suffering forms the basis of her triumph. And if we dislike Fanny even for her magnanimity, as many seem to do, we must turn the moral lens of the novel on to ourselves; and doing so is rarely comfortable. It is little wonder this novel is not widely liked.

But if these off-stage events that lead to Fanny’s triumph in the Mansfield world – a world in which she had previously occupied that uncertain status that is somewhat above that of the servants and yet below that of the family – cannot be considered in themselves the resolution of the novel, then where exactly does this resolution lie? To answer this, we need to consider carefully the themes that have been laid out with such subtlety and intricacy in the rest of the work.


The novel tells of a journey from adoption to acceptance. We start with a brief resume of the older generation: the three Ward sisters make – rather as the Bennet sisters had done – three unequal marriages: one makes a brilliant marriage with a titled landowner; another weds a clergyman – not a particularly good marriage, but, thanks to her brother-in-law, one that becomes reasonably comfortable; and the third, disastrously, marries “a lieutenant of marines, without education, fortune, or connexions”. It is on the next generation that the novel focuses.

Mrs Norris, the Ward sister who had married the clergyman, and one of the great monsters of literature, in one of her most hateful moments accuses Fanny, progeny of the bad marriage, of ingratitude, “considering who and what she is”. Mrs Norris has no doubt that who Fanny is determines also what Fanny is. Fanny takes even this gross insult with her customary meekness and patience, but she herself, not quite one of the servants but neither one of the family, cannot be entirely sure on this point: what, after all is she? As someone who had been displaced from her native environment aged only ten, and who had occupied a most uncertain position within her new environment, Fanny’s identity – “who and what she is” – is far from clear.  Although from the same trunk, the branches of the Ward family have grown in very different directions, and within a mere single generation, the common origin from that single trunk seems barely visible.

Fanny is the only one of Austen’s heroines whose childhood is depicted. Despite being marked by the special favour of adoption into a rich family, her childhood does not appear particularly happy: wrenched at the age of ten from the only environment she has ever known – from her parents, from her siblings, her friends – and placed in the somewhat cold and unfeeling environment of Mansfield Park, where she faces mean-minded hostility from her Aunt Norris, and general indifference and disregard from her other aunt and her cousins (Edmund excepted), her situation is not one we are likely to wish on any child. And yet, Austen seems careful not to engage our empathy too strongly with this child. One need only look at how Dickens depicted the childhood of David Copperfield, or how Charlotte Brontë depicted the childhood of Jane Eyre (another ward in an unloving family), to see what Austen might have made of these chapters. Of course, it can be argued that engaging the reader’s sympathy so directly is very much counter to Austen’s classical temperament: the circumstances described here are such that some measure of sympathy for the child is inevitable anyway, and any further prompting on this score on the author’s part becomes a loading of the dice, and mere wallowing (a charge to which neither Charles Dickens nor Charlotte Brontë could entirely plead innocence). But it becomes difficult to account for Austen suppressing at this stage of the novel the death of Fanny’s sister. Fanny had been particularly attached to her sister, and one can but imagine that the news of her death would have made on her a devastating effect. And yet, it is only relatively late in the novel that this event is so much as mentioned. And the only reason I can think of for Austen to suppress this event at the point where we may have expected it to have been narrated is that she wants to maintain a certain emotional distance between the reader and Fanny. Even when we are taken into Fanny’s mind – as we often are – the reader is invited to judge the workings of that mind from as objective a perspective as is possible.

And some readers have judged Fanny very harshly indeed. She is the most morally upright of all Austen’s protagonists, and even for her moral uprightness she is upbraided. This is not to say that censorious judgements of Fanny are necessarily wrong: indeed, Austen, having refused to enlist our sympathies for her heroine further than is unavoidable, gives us perfect freedom to judge her any way we want. It is, indeed, the author’s refusal to guide our moral judgement in this matter in this most morally serious of novels that makes it so very troublesome.

Austen seems to me actually to go further: not only does she refuse to direct the reader’s moral judgement, she makes it difficult for the reader to exercise that judgement. For, very soon after the start of the novel, she introduces the brother and sister Henry and Mary Crawford, characters of tremendous vivacity, charm, and wit; sparkling and effervescent; and tremendously attractive. These people are, indeed, everything Fanny isn’t. Austen, in short, invites us to like characters whose very existence seems a sort of reproof to Fanny.

Yet it would be very wrong to accuse Fanny of lack of feeling, or even lack of passion. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet has combined charm and vivacity with a depth of feeling, but here, the two do not go together: Mary Crawford may possess the former, but it is Fanny who possesses the latter. No-one in the Mansfield circle possesses such depth of feeling as Fanny shows for her brother William, or for Edmund. Consider, for instance, her feelings on Edmund’s letter when he presents her with a neckchain to wear at the ball (one of the novel’s many symbols):

Two lines more prized had never fallen from the pen of the most distinguished author—never more completely blessed the researches of the fondest biographer. The enthusiasm of a woman’s love is even beyond the biographer’s. To her, the handwriting itself, independent of anything it may convey, is a blessedness. Never were such characters cut by any other human being as Edmund’s commonest handwriting gave! This specimen, written in haste as it was, had not a fault; and there was a felicity in the flow of the first four words, in the arrangement of “My very dear Fanny,” which she could have looked at for ever.

(From Chapter 27)

No-one else in Mansfield Park, Edmund once again possible excepted, is capable of such feelings, of such an emotional reaction. Indeed, so Romantic are Fanny’s sensibilities, it is difficult to forget that she is a contemporary of Wordsworth’s:

Fanny spoke her feelings. “Here’s harmony!” said she; “here’s repose! Here’s what may leave all painting and all music behind, and what poetry only can attempt to describe! Here’s what may tranquillise every care, and lift the heart to rapture! When I look out on such a night as this, I feel as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to, and people were carried more out of themselves by contemplating such a scene.”

(From Chapter 11)

Later, speaking to Mary Crawford, Fanny seems even more explicitly Wordsworthian:

“… How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time, and the changes of the human mind!” And following the latter train of thought, she soon afterwards added: “If any one faculty of our nature may be called more wonderful than the rest, I do think it is memory. There seems something more speakingly incomprehensible in the powers, the failures, the inequalities of memory, than in any other of our intelligences. The memory is sometimes so retentive, so serviceable, so obedient; at others, so bewildered and so weak; and at others again, so tyrannic, so beyond control! We are, to be sure, a miracle every way; but our powers of recollecting and of forgetting do seem peculiarly past finding out.”

(From chapter 22)

But Mary, we are told, is “untouched and inattentive”. Fanny, observing this, returns to more trivial matters that she knows will interest Mary more.

No-one else seems to share Fanny’s depth of feeling, or her fine sensibilities (here so conspicuously married to sense). Not even, perhaps, Edmund: although he is certainly the most sensitive of the family, he has still to learn to perceive clearly. But Fanny, the outsider, can perceive very clearly indeed: the Bertram household, together with the Crawfords and the Grants, seem to constitute a veritable Vanity Fair, with everyone driven to some degree or other by self-regard, by selfishness, by thoughtlessness, by malice. Fanny can see all this, but she is silent – too silent, in many readers’ estimation; but that is hardly to be wondered at: had she spoken, those around would be as untouched and as inattentive as Mary had been.

Fanny’s silence, though censorious up to a point (as it must be, given how clearly she sees), is not, however, without compassion: she can see how great a fool Mr Rushworth is, and yet when his intended, Maria Bertram, walks off with Henry Crawford during the visit to Sotherton, Fanny naturally feels sympathy for him. She is, indeed, perhaps the only character in the entire novel who does feel sympathy for this great booby of a man. More surprisingly, Fanny can even feel sorry also for Julia when, in those famous chapters describing rehearsals for the play, Henry Crawford snubs her by showing quite openly his preference for her sister Maria:

…Maria felt her triumph, and pursued her purpose, careless of Julia; and Julia could never see Maria distinguished by Henry Crawford without trusting that it would create jealousy, and bring a public disturbance at last.

Fanny saw and pitied much of this in Julia; but there was no outward fellowship between them. Julia made no communication, and Fanny took no liberties. They were two solitary sufferers, or connected only by Fanny’s consciousness.

(From Chapter 17)

The entire sequence of the rehearsals that ends the first of the three parts is one of the many virtuoso passages in the novel, although, perhaps, given how harmless the entire enterprise may seem to modern readers, it is possibly the easiest to misinterpret. In particular, Fanny’s objections may seem prissy: they aren’t. In the first place, everyone concerned knows that they would not have been doing this had the owner of the house, Sir Thomas, been present: when he returns unexpectedly in the midst of the rehearsals, they all know without having to be told that these rehearsals must stop instantly. And in the second place, under the guise of play-acting, some very real feelings come to the fore – rather as they do in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte – and, as Fanny can see (though no-one else can), these feelings, rooted as they are in mere vanity and selfishness, and lacking in depth or in sincerity, are dangerous and destructive. Maria, though engaged to Mr Rushworth – an engagement she has walked into of her own free will, and which she does not break off because she rather likes the idea of being mistress of Sotherton – responds to the cold-blooded and calculating flirting of Henry Crawford with “triumph”; she is indifferent to the feelings of her future husband, and takes delight in humiliating her own sister. Mary Crawford, on the other hand, has her own plans concerning Edmund. The entire enterprise develops such a momentum that not only is it unable to stop, it sucks in everyone: even Edmund finds himself thinking up excuses to become part of this, and one wonders how even Fanny could have held out had not Sir Thomas’ unexpected return put an abrupt  end to all the shenanigans..

But though Fanny can see clearly, and even sympathise, she must keep all she feels to herself: the others, like Julia, make “no communications”, and it is not Fanny’s place to take “liberties”. Like many a narrator of tragic tales, Fanny cannot do anything about what she sees.

But the novel, in the latter half, takes a sinister turn: Fanny is no longer merely the observer of events, but becomes a participant. Henry has taken it into his mind that it would be amusing to win Fanny’s heart. Rather like the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangeruses, Henry and Mary plot together, and aid each other in their amoral schemes and stratagems. But in the course of this charm offensive, something rather strange happens: Henry genuinely seems to fall for Fanny, and he proposes. From this point onwards, Fanny becomes the focal point of the plot itself. Sir Thomas, who has a genuine regard for Fanny, goes to the little room – the “little white attic” that Fanny had made her own – and observes a symbolically fireless grate. He is perturbed by this: Fanny must, he insists, have a fire. And she must also have a husband.

It is a measure of the subtlety of Austen’s characterisation that although Fanny has been represented up to that point as quiet and tractable, we are not surprised to see her refuse the offer of marriage. And the persuasion she resists is extremely subtle. It is noticeable that the pressure to marry Henry does not come from the more unlikeable characters of the book: Aunt Norris is quite conspicuous in these pages by her absence. Rather, the pressure comes, insidiously, from those very people who actually care for Fanny – from Sir Thomas and from Edmund. Not that they have any intention to be cruel, or to force Fanny against her will: but, rather, they think the marriage will be good for her; that she does not yet understand herself; and that her mind, with persuasion, can be changed. Unlike the cruelties practised on Clarissa Harlowe in Richardson’s novel – a character who in many ways foreshadows Fanny, not least in her quiet determination not to submit, whatever the odds – Fanny is, in this moment of greatest danger, treated with perfect civility and kindness. And, if anything, this makes her resistance all the more difficult.

And so, to teach Fanny a lesson (although Sir Thomas wouldn’t have seen it in such terms), Fanny is packed off to Portsmouth for a few months, so she can see the life she would have been condemned to had it not been for the Bertrams.

It is certainly a very daring step to change the locale so dramatically at so late a stage in the novel. It comes almost as a shock to the reader: it is certainly a shock to Fanny. Austen isn’t, in general, particularly noted for conveying a sense of place: not that she is bad at it – at this stage of her artistic development, she was in complete control of her material – but possibly, this is the sort of thing Dickens might have achieved more memorably. Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, despite his self-proclaimed attempt to be “fair”, couldn’t resist comparing Austen’s description of the sea from this section of the novel unfavourably with a similar passage from Bleak House. But it’s an unfair comparison: if there are certain things Dickens could do better, there are also certain other areas where Austen’s art remains peerless: comparisons at these levels are pointless, and not, perhaps, the best way to appreciate the art of either writer.

The depiction of what goes on in Fanny’s mind at this stage is masterly. The dirt, the clutter, the cramped conditions, the noise – everything to which Fanny is unaccustomed, and which to her appears insupportable – are conveyed partly through detailed description of the physicality, but, more powerfully, through the depiction of the impact they have on Fanny herself. Inevitably, Fanny finds herself comparing Portsmouth, her original home, to her adopted home Mansfield Park:

Such was the home which was to put Mansfield out of her head, and teach her to think of her cousin Edmund with moderated feelings. On the contrary, she could think of nothing but Mansfield, its beloved inmates, its happy ways. Everything where she now was in full contrast to it. The elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony, and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquillity of Mansfield, were brought to her remembrance every hour of the day, by the prevalence of everything opposite to them here.

(From Chapter 39)

And here, it seems to me, is the denouement . On returning to her origins, she realises her true identity: it is that of her adopted home. Everything about Mansfield – “the elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony, and perhaps, above all, the peace and tranquility” – she finds she values, and cannot do without. Fanny now knows who and what she is, and the rest is mere plot.


Although, admittedly, it is the development of this plot that allows Fanny to assert her identity. But this assertion seems to me but a coda – albeit a powerful one – to the drama that, thematically, at least, has already been resolved.

Sir Thomas’ world collapses: as with Sir Leicester Dedlock in Bleak House, his peace of mind, built as it was on illusion, cannot survive the revelations of the various cracks in the fabric of his family that he had not previously noticed. But in the embers is something that doth live: Fanny, he realises, is the daughter that he had always wanted; and Edmund begins to see clearly – as clearly, indeed, as Fanny had done. And a particularly nasty fate awaits the monstrous Mrs Norris and the sinning Maria: they are to spend the rest of their lives together, in what strikes me as a rather Dante-esque punishment for them both. Oh – what a play Beckett might have written about Maria and Mrs Norris living out their futile days, and tormenting each other for eternity!

But all of this is in the coda. In Pride and Prejudice, the union of Elizabeth and Darcy had been the point at which the drama had been resolved, but Mansfield Park is a far more intricate work. Despite the happy ending for Fanny and for Edmund; despite the complete vindication of Fanny, and the fulfilment of her passions; it leaves behind troubling questions that are more easily felt than articulated. If Austen had never written anything beyond Pride and Prejudice, I doubt we’d have considered her to be capable of something so troubling and so very intricate as this. No wonder it isn’t better liked!


How about this for a plot of a 19th century novel?

A young man of independent means, not particularly handsome as such but extremely polished and self-confident, eminently eligible and unutterably vain, delights in winning the hearts of ladies. Not that he cares a whit for any of them: he is utterly cold-blooded and unfeeling. He does it because it flatters his vanity. His sister, beautiful and vivacious, is a confidante of his, advising and helping where she can. It is a thrilling power game. Once, out of boredom, he decides to have a go at a rather prim, quiet and softly-spoken young lady – a ward of a family, at that, and not likely to be endowed with a large dowry. It is a challenge for him – something a bit different to re-invigorate his jaded sense of pleasure. But far from being bowled over by such eminent attention, she keeps her distance. He is a bit puzzled at first: no-one had ever resisted him before. But he sees this as a challenge: he is determined to win her heart, as his vanity will not allow him to walk away unsatisfied on this score. But in the process, a strange thing happens: he really does find himself in love with her. It is something he had never felt before. He ends up proposing, but she, unaccountably, and to the great distress of her guardians, refuses. He keeps open his offer, sure that eventually he is bound to win her affections. He behaves, for the first time in his life and despite himself, with honour and with sensitivity.

But then, away from the young lady to whom he has proposed, he meets up with another lady whose heart he had won earlier. This second lady is married now, to a rich young booby whom she despises. Our hero, unused to letting anything stand in the way of instant gratification, begins an affair with her, and the affair is discovered. The future for the lady, whom her great booby of a husband soon divorces, is blighted; but as a man, he can escape without too great a stain on his character. However, his prospective marriage with the woman he had despite himself come to love, comes to nothing, and this once proud heart-breaker is left pondering on what might have been.

This is not my plot, of course. It is from Austen’s Mansfield Park, slightly embellished and with the centre of gravity moved from Fanny Price to Henry Crawford. But just that shift makes for what could be a very different but equally great novel. A meta-novel, if you like. Imagine what Henry James could have made of such a plot! Or, for that matter, Jane Austen herself!

I have already speculated on how Anna Karenina might have been had Tolstoy focussed on Dolly rather than on Anna. And I can’t help wondering what sort of novel Austen might have written had she focussed, say, on Charlotte Lucas rather than on Elizabeth Bennet: a young woman, handsome, intelligent, and sensitive, knowingly marries a man she knows to be a complete idiot for the sake of her future security. Could this have developed into one of the great 19th century novels of adultery, I wonder?

Or how about this for a plot:

A young lady of a passionate nature, orphaned and without means, is invited to become companion of a recently widowed distant cousin of hers. Having no other option, she accepts. This widow has a young teenage son, pampered and handsome. The young lady, intense and passionate, is violently attracted to him. The violence, if not necessarily the passion, is returned: in one incident, the pampered boy, in a fit of rage, throws a hammer at her. He is immediately horrified by what he has done, but the scar, both real and symbolic, remains upon her lip. Later, when the boy comes of age, they embark on an affair: the sex is intense and violent. She fantasises about displacing the boy’s mother as the Lady of the House, as surely as she has displaced her from the boy’s heart.

But the boy is not as attached to her as she likes to think. For all the passion and the excitement, he finds her exhausting. Despite being the spoilt son of a rich mother, he is actually quite a decent, easy-going chap at heart; and, given his good looks and his natural charm, he is popular with the ladies. He eventually leaves home, and is happy and relieved to get away from his mother’s companion. She, noticing this but refusing to accept, is eaten up with jealousy. A violent jealousy.

And then, the storm breaks. The young man has eloped – not with a society lady, but with a girl from the working classes. An orphan at that – a fisherman’s niece. He has genuine feelings for her, and she is dazzled the idea of becoming a lady, but society will not, of course, accept a union across such disparate social classes. He cannot even bring her home to his doting mother, who is now heartbroken. So he travels around Europe with her, pretending to be husband and wife; but even there, they cannot mix with English expatriates, as her social background is all too apparent. As for her, this life is not what she had expected: she is desperately lonely, and is torn with guilt and remorse. She spends all her time grieving, and becomes severely depressed. The young man eventually becomes fed up with her constant moaning, and deserts her. But his mother’s companion, who loves him still with a passion as violent as ever, is determined to seek out this presumptuous upstart, and punish her for having, as she thinks, destroyed her happiness.

Now, wouldn’t this have made a terrific novel? Instead, Dickens keeps Rosa Dartle, Steerforth and Little Em’ly in the background, while filling the foreground with the dull David Copperfield, the even duller Agnes Wickfield, and the unbearably tedious Dora Spenlow, who is a sort of Madeleine Bassett without the laughs.

Any other ideas for meta-novels?