Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’

How I came round to liking the novels of Jane Austen

For my posts on individual novels of Austen, see here.

Not that long ago, I used to find myself frankly puzzled by the high regard, indeed, by the reverence, in which Jane Austen was held. And this reverence was discernible not merely in the casual reader, or in those who, influenced no doubt by various lightweight adaptations, saw her novels as essentially chick-lit in fancy costume: those whom I admired for their taste and for their critical judgement seemed also unanimous in their regard for Austen.

So I had a choice of three options: I could claim that those who enjoyed Austen were fools unable to see through the hype, and that I, possessing superior discernment, knew better (this is the default position on the internet in such matters); or I could shrug my shoulders, and accept that we all have different perceptions, and that not everyone can take in everything; or, thirdly, I could have another go, and see if, this time round, I could at least see something of what her admirers clearly see. Now, there are many things about my former self that I find myself disliking, but I am glad this former self of mine eschewed the first option, found himself dissatisfied with the second, and went for the third. For now, having re-read all six of her complete and full length novels (the shorter and unfinished works are still waiting in the wings), I can not only see why her admirers admire her so, I have come to share much of that admiration myself. I won’t claim to be a fully paid-up Austenite: our individual temperaments inevitably lead us in different directions, after all; but now, when Austen is praised as a novelist of the foremost rank, I find myself inclined to agree, and to join in the praise. Is not our capacity to change over time quite wonderful?

Of course, this is all very inconsistent in me, but consistency is not really, I think, something to be praised: a mind and a soul impervious to change bespeak a spiritual dullness and an inability to look beyond our immediate horizons – as if these horizons of ours encompass all that need be encompassed. Change is not merely to be welcomed, but to be actively sought – change in our thinking, our tastes, our critical judgement; change in our moral and aesthetic values.

Towards the end of Antony and Cleopatra, Antony, who had thought that he knew himself, discovers to his surprise that he doesn’t. He looks at a cloud, and its shape seems to him constantly to change:

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.

He wonders at this, and finds his own self just such an amorphous body:

… here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape …

This is the self-knowledge he acquires in the course of the drama: he comes to know that he doesn’t really know himself at all; there is nothing solid that he can grasp, and all is as water is in water.

Antony is overstating, of course: we need not take this as Shakespeare’s own view. It is a mistake to take the thoughts of a character at the edge of human experience as representative of authorial wisdom. For, whatever Antony may think at this point, there is clearly a continuity between what we are now, and what we used to be; the human personality, for all its multiple facets that so puzzle Antony, retains a unity amidst the diversity. But it’s this diversity that makes humans so endlessly fascinating – a diversity the nature of which is so mysterious, even to ourselves, that it becomes impossible to say whether any change we undergo over time is the acquiring of new characteristics and the discarding of old, or whether it is, rather, the emergence to the fore of existing but previously unobserved elements.

If any reader who has stuck with me so far into this post is worried that I am now about to launch into intimate autobiography, and detail how I have changed over the years, please rest assured that nothing could be further from my intention: this blog is not, thankfully, a confessional. However, it has long struck me that the books that I value or have valued highly in different periods of my life, and my reasons for valuing them, do constitute an autobiography of sorts. And my progress, within a mere few years, from a dislike for Austen, or, at best, a grudging respect, to an unfeigned and unalloyed admiration, very possibly marks out in me new ways of looking at things, new perspectives. Which would give me cause for introspection were I given to navel-gazing.

Perhaps I hadn’t paying sufficient attention in my previous readings. I tried to interrogate my old self: what was it about these novels that I disliked? I don’t think I ever bought the view of Austen as a purveyor of chick-lit in fancy dress, even though legions of her fans did: she was quite clearly a far more serious writer than that. But I did, I think, find her very formal and decorous, and, as a consequence, distant; I formed the impression of her as detached, as lacking in passion; I saw her as looking down censoriously on her own creations from a moral high-ground; I found her too severe, too cold, too unwilling to sympathise with the common flaws and weaknesses of our shared humanity; I found a lack of warmth; and it seemed to me frankly worrying that her laughs were always at the expense of others: never was there an open and generous laugh – what I’d describe as a Dickensian laugh – in which we may all join.

All this seems damning. In some of them, I had been simply mistaken: for instance, Austen is certainly not short of passion – as is surely obvious from even the most cursory reading of Mansfield Park or of Persuasion (and how that insensitive oaf that was my former self could have missed this I really cannot imagine). As for my other criticisms, there is more than an element of truth to them, but they are not the whole truth. What I failed so dismally to see, I think, was that major works of art are not restricted to a single tonality; that what they present merely on the surface can be deceptive. Why, I had asked myself in my previous reading, is Emma Woodhouse to be taken to task for being unkind to Miss Bates when the author herself had presented Miss Bates in precisely the terms in which Emma had seen her – as no more than a tiresome old bat? I think I can now answer that question: Miss Bates is a tiresome old bat, and Austen sees no reason to present her otherwise; but she was wise enough and compassionate enough to know that even tiresome old bats have feelings, and that these feelings are sacrosanct. To have presented Miss Bates as anything other than the tiresome creature she is would have been merely pious and sentimental; Austen does better – much better: she allows us to think of Miss Bates in the same way that Emma does, so that when Miss Bates’ feelings are hurt, we find ourselves every bit as mortified as does Emma. And as a consequence, if we had looked down on Miss Bates before, we feel ashamed for having done so; and if we had looked down on Emma before, we no longer can; for how can we consider ourselves to be above that in which we find our own selves implicated? Far from looking down from remote heights on the flaws of humanity, Austen involves us in them.

The key to my greater understanding – for such, I hope, it is – came when a friend referred to Austen’s novels as “Mozartian”. Now, as a fully paid-up member of the Mozart fan club, I am constantly surprised when people pronounce his music to be twee, lacking in passion, shallow, and all the rest of it; for, underneath the elegant perfection of his surfaces, there seem to me to lie inexhaustible depths of passion. Was I being similarly obtuse, I wondered, in failing to look beyond the formal and decorous surfaces of Austen? Having now re-read these six novels, I can only conclude that such was precisely the case. Not that Austen is now an author close to my heart: she isn’t. Nonetheless, I did find myself charmed by Pride and Prejudice; I found myself utterly absorbed in the sombre drama that is Mansfield Park; I found myself quite swept along by the passion – yes, passion – and the eroticism of Persuasion. Emma, I confess, I found hard work, but its artistry and its seriousness of purpose are in no doubt. Even the two earlier works, Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, though novels of somewhat lesser substance than the masterpieces that followed, remain remarkable works.

So, while our substance may not be of infinite plasticity, while we may not quite be, as Antony had thought, as water is in water, we do have the ability, I think, to look beyond our own individual horizons, and see what we had not previously been capable of seeing. Not that we’ll give ourselves the opportunity to do so if we keep on simple-mindedly rating works in terms of “Like” or “Dislike” as we do Facebook posts; nor if we do as Goodreads urges us, and fix works produced by minds greater than our own on some insipid scale from one to ten. And it may sometimes be the case that one’s temperament is so far removed from that of the author, that not even the greatest willingness, open-mindedness and flexibility on the part of the reader can quite reconcile one to the author’s artistic vision. But it sure is worth a try!

On Jane Austen, love, and instant erections

Pardon me, gentle reader, for the coarseness of the title, but the coarseness isn’t mine. I am merely quoting Andrew Davies, who dramatised the phenomenally successful mid-90s BBC production of Pride and Prejudice :

“Pride and Prejudice is all about sex and money, about young people with pumping hormones,” explained Davies, who has cornered the market in TV and film adaptations of classic novels. “Darcy is supposed to marry this sickly aristocrat, but as soon as he sees keen-witted, rosy-cheeked Elizabeth Bennet panting from a walk, he gets an instant erection.”

I have not seen the adaptation, and so will refrain from commenting on it. But, despite being only a relatively recent convert to Austen, and yet to count myself a fully paid-up Janeite; and despite Mr Davies having no doubt lived with this novel for far longer than I have; it seems to me that his assertion that Pride and Prejudice is “all about sex and money” (my italics) could do with some scrutiny. For if this is indeed what Pride and Prejudice is all about, my own reading of the novel is quite considerably wide of the mark.

That Austen was keenly aware of the significance of money and of the social status it confers is a commonplace observation. And yes, Austen was also keenly aware of, and depicted (albeit with the utmost delicacy), sexual attraction. One may say that this delicacy on her part was dictated by the conventions of her times – conventions that didn’t allow her to write of, amongst other things, instant erections; and that, indeed, if she could, she would, but she couldn’t, so she didn’t. And further, that had she had the good fortune to live in our own less squeamish times, when talk of “instant erections” raises not even the most conservative of eyebrows, she would eagerly have ventured into areas that had in her own time been closed to her. For, as we all know, Austen was, like all others whom we see fit to admire, modern: and so far in advance is modernity in all respects from what had come before, there can surely be no greater praise than that.

An enterprising publisher is even now making available works from the past as their writers – unimpeachably modern  as they were in outlook – would no doubt have wished to write them, and would have done  if only they could. In these re-writes, Catherine Morland is introduced by Henry Tilney to “a whole new world of eroticism … where sex knows no boundaries”; the mutual passion of Holmes and Watson is at long last realised; and what Mr Rochester says to Jane Eyre about his own instant erection, dear reader, I blush even to acknowledge.

The idea behind these re-writes, I must admit, I find quite funny – but that’s only because I retain still an immature, schoolboy sense of humour. I don’t know, though, that I find the idea so funny as to want to read these re-writes: the joke would wear out pretty damn quick, I imagine. But I doubt the publishers are being serious. I doubt also whether Martin Amis is being entirely serious when he writes:

These days, true, I wouldn’t have minded a rather more detailed conclusion–say, a twenty-page sex scene featuring the two principals, with Mr. Darcy, furthermore, aquitting (sic) himself uncommonly well.

At least, I hope he isn’t being serious: I’d hate to imagine the man who declared war against cliché endorsing the clichéd perception that physical representation of sex can adequately represent the reality of love. For, pace Andrew Davies, Pride and Prejudice is not all about sex and money: central to the novel is the theme of love. Sex and money, yes, are present; and yes, these things are important. But when Elizabeth asks Darcy towards the end of the novel why he had admired her, he does not reply – and nor would he have replied even if the conventions of the time had allowed it – that he loves her for her body, and that he finds her “hot”: he replies: “For the liveliness of your mind”. He loves her for her personality; he loves her for being for the person she is. And if we in our enlightened modern times find this merely soppy; if we feel that there can be nothing beyond the physical, and that love can be nothing more than instant erections; then, it seems to me, Jane Austen, living though she did in her benighted times, was wiser by far than our modern selves.

“Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen

Though published posthumously in 1817, Northanger Abbey was the first of Austen’s six novels, and, according to the advertisement accompanying the publication, was “finished” in 1803. It was in 1803 that publishers Benjamin Crosby & co had bought the rights to this novel, but they subsequently decided not to publish it. Austen bought back the rights, but, despite the publication of her subsequent works, did not, for whatever reason, try again to get this published. And it remains a matter of some controversy amongst scholars to what extent, if at all, the text that was posthumously published in 1817 was the same as that “finished” in 1803. Brian Southam, for one, believes that Austen had revised and re-written the text substantially since 1803, but he appears to be in a minority on this. It is impossible to be at all sure on this point, as there is little to go by except internal evidence of the text itself.

Compared to her later novels, the scope here is certainly modest; but the writing is very assured, and of great sophistication. Neither tells us much: there have been writers at the peak of their powers who have written works modest in scale; and novels as assured and as sophisticated as Buddenbrooks or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter have been written by their respective authors when only in their mid-twenties. Neither is there much that can be read from there being in the novel two distinct strands, which, though adroitly spliced together, do appear to indicate different levels of artistic ambition: there have, after all, been many other instances of slightness giving way, during the course of writing, to matters of greater substance. The most obvious example of this is Don Quixote, which, to begin with, is no more than a satire on chivalric romances, but which assumes greater stature as it progresses. Although Northanger Abbey is a work of a very different nature, something similar happens here also: it starts as a sort of parody of certain kinds of fiction, but soon, other more important themes come to the fore, displacing from the novel’s centre the parodic element.

The parody, as is well known, is of Gothic novels. The very opening sentence tells us that Catherine Morland is very different from the kind of protagonist readers may have been expecting:

No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine.

Catherine is ordinary: no great beauty, no great intellect – no great anything really. Her childhood years are covered with a prose of delicate and mischievous irony that was to become Austen’s trademark. But the irony is entirely affectionate: Catherine’s ordinariness, though ironically contrasted with what one might have expected from a heroine of a Gothic romance, is never disdained.

When Catherine is a teenager, on the threshold of maturity, the Allens, well-off neighbours, offer to take her to Bath. Austen offers us images of various stereotypes of Gothic literature, only to dash them with delicious anti-climax:

When the hour of departure drew near, the maternal anxiety of Mrs. Morland will be naturally supposed to be most severe. A thousand alarming presentiments of evil to her beloved Catherine from this terrific separation must oppress her heart with sadness, and drown her in tears for the last day or two of their being together; and advice of the most important and applicable nature must of course flow from her wise lips in their parting conference in her closet. Cautions against the violence of such noblemen and baronets as delight in forcing young ladies away to some remote farm-house, must, at such a moment, relieve the fulness of her heart. Who would not think so? But Mrs. Morland knew so little of lords and baronets, that she entertained no notion of their general mischievousness, and was wholly unsuspicious of danger to her daughter from their machinations. Her cautions were confined to the following points. “I beg, Catherine you will always wrap yourself up very warm about the throat, when you come from the Rooms at night…

Austen also points out the various Gothic elements in which the journey to Bath was lacking:

Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn to introduce them to the hero. Nothing more alarming occurred than a fear on Mrs. Allen’s side, of having once left her clogs behind her at an inn, and that fortunately proved to be groundless.

All this debunking is amusing, but while they may be sufficient for a sketch, they cannot be expected to form the entire substance of a full-length novel – even of a novel as short as this. And in any case, Austen herself seems after a while to lose interest in debunking the Gothic: there are more serious concerns.

For, if the novel had – as seems probable – its beginnings in debunking Gothic fantasy, then the theme of greater import that arises from such debunking is the recognition of reality. And this Austen found far more interesting. In Bath, after an initial few days in which nothing much happens, Catherine becomes acquainted with the Thorpes – in particular, with Isabella Thorpe (who becomes her close friend), and with her brother John. Catherine possibly senses that Isabella is an airhead and her brother a bumptious bore; but if she does, she does so only vaguely. Her mind is still essentially that of a child, unable adequately to perceive reality for what it is. And it is the development of her mind, of her perceptions, that is the real theme of the novel. The ordinariness that is required to debunk Gothic pretensions becomes in its own right the principal focus of interest; and Austen was among the first of the great nineteenth century novelists to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. The human mind contains, after all, mysteries and wonders that are more fascinating by far than all the secret passages and torture chambers of Gothic castles.

The development of Catherine’s perceptions is achieved with a supreme mastery. After being introduced to the refined Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor, Catherine finds herself, albeit unconsciously, preferring their company to that of the Thorpes. And hidden even more deeply in her consciousness is that she has fallen in love with Henry. Her distress in thinking that she had behaved badly to the Tilneys, and her mortification in imagining what they think of her behaviour, are communicated with the lightest but surest of touches. We, the reader, may know that she is worrying over nothing; but we nonetheless sympathise with her worrying, and do not look down upon it.

The mock-Gothic element reappears for a few chapters when Catherine is invited to Northanger Abbey, the Tilneys’ home. Here, under the influence of various Gothic novels, she imagines that General Tilney, the father of Henry and of Eleanor, had murdered his wife. Possibly, this is where the idea of the novel had started. But if it had, Austen doesn’t now show much interest in it: far from drawing it out, as she could so easily have done, she puts a stop to it as soon as she can, setting Catherine right on these matters. Indeed, in the context of what has been achieved in the novel so far, these chapters may even seem somewhat crude: Catherine’s mistaking the character of Isabella, and mistaking her own feelings for Henry, are more subtle and more interesting by far than her mistaking General Tilney for a murderer.

Perhaps a more mature Austen could have achieved even more; perhaps a more mature Austen would have made more of Henry than the perfect paragon of virtue and goodness we see here. But what we get is remarkable enough. The theme of growing into adulthood, of beginning to see the world as it is, is a popular theme in fiction, but rarely, if ever, has it been done better. Indeed, so engrossing are the psychological insights, that when the plot has to move on, the emphasis on the events rather than on the subtleties of the mind seems a bit of an intrusion.

The climax comes when the general unceremoniously orders Catherine from the house, with no explanation given. Catherine is devastated, not only on account of the insult offered her, but also for other reasons – reasons of the heart, which she is only now beginning to recognise. But the strength of character Catherine reveals in her devastation is a mark of how far she has travelled, and the extent to which she has grown.

I suppose one could point to a structural flaw in that the climactic point of the story (Catherine’s eviction from Northanger Abbey) does not coincide with the resolution (Henry’s subsequent proposal to Catherine, and their marriage). Indeed, the chapters containing this resolution seem to appear almost as a sort of epilogue. But that’s a minor point. And if this is to be counted a flaw, it’s one Austen never repeated in her subsequent work.

***

Northanger Abbey has all the hallmarks of an early work – the first steps of a writer who will later go on to achieve even greater things. But these first steps aren’t by any means merely tentative: the relatively unambitious parody of the Gothic – which, I’d guess, was conceptually the starting point of this work – is soon overtaken by themes that, though clearly related, display a far greater artistic ambition. I am now looking forward to reading (not really re-reading, since I got so little from my earlier attempts) the novels in which this artistic ambition blossomed more surely.