What’s Been Happening to Jane Austen?

What’s Been Happening to Jane Austen?

Pritchard, William H

THERE’S AN ADMIRABLE SORT OF READER for whom the above question doesn’t need asking, since what’s been happening to Jane Austen has been happening ever since Walter Scott assured readers that “Those . . . who delight in the study of human nature, may improve in the knowledge of it, and in the profitable application of that knowledge, by the perusal of such fictions as those before us.” Such general readers find it eminently natural and highly pleasurable to reread the six finished novels at regular intervals, always encountering something to make the latest reading a fresh one. They may or may not pick up unfinished or unpublished (during her lifetime) works like Lady Susan or The Watsons or Sanditon, and they may or may not be moved to look at recent biographies, the best of which is by Claire Tomalin. But I suspect they will stay clear of the fearful parade of books and essays produced by academic critics of the writer, specialists in this or that area of Austen-work that, in one way or another, those critics will demonstrate to be very “problematic” indeed.1

An even more recent biography of her is a mini one by the late Carol Shields, herself a skilled novelist, in the Penguin Lives series, and it may be a good place to begin for readers who never felt impelled to seek out a life of Austen (in my case the disinclination has been similar to not much caring about Shakespeare’s life).2 Carol Shields won my sympathy early on when she addressed the problem of deciding what to call her subject: The Novelist?; Ms. Austen? (“unthinkable”); Miss Austen (but her sister Cassandra deserves that title). “Jane” is also unsatisfactory, while “Austen on its very own possesses an indelicacy.” So we’re left with “Jane Austen”-or at least that’s the form Shields applies, even though it’s politically incorrect not to call her “Austen,” since one speaks of “Dickens” or “Trollope.” Shields’s book puts forward nothing revelatory about her subject (she goes along with Claire Tomalin’s suggestion that Jane Austen died of a lymphoma, rather than the Addison’s Disease that had been earlier favored). But I’m in her debt for directing me to Sanditon, the novelistic fragment Austen gave up on three months before she died, which Shields thinks not only “as vigorous and inventive as her earlier work,” but also shows her on the verge of widening her scope as a writer. At any rate, to my fresh, untutored eyes Sanditon’s twelve chapters contain some of the finest and funniest comedy in all of Jane Austen’s work.

You would never gather that, however, from rereading the pages on Sanditon that conclude William H. Galperin’s The Historical Austen.3 “The Body in Persuasion and Sanditon” (watch out for anyone writing about The Body these days) is the last of eight chapters written throughout in an absolutely jawbreaking idiom and a manner of nothing less than wall-to-wall solemnity. Mr. Galperin is intelligent, a scholar, has read every previous book about his subject and a good many besides, but his insights tend to get expressed in a style like the following from the Sanditon chapter:

In raising the spectre of the antireal, particularly as a contestional mode where realism is concerned, I am not suggesting that probabilistic fiction maintains a referentiality independent of either contrivance or of the many complications that language as an arbitrary and figurative apparatus, brings to any verbal act. I am suggesting only . . . (etc.)

I worked hard at this book but kept breaking down at moments like the following, only part of a much longer sentence:

. . . so her project overall is virtually suspended between certain generic imperatives, the majority clustering around free indirect discourse as an armature of the realistic imagination, and a generic memory (for want of a better term) where, in modes ranging from allegory to epistolarity, reading and interpretation may ultimately supersede narrative authority.

“Project,” by the way, is another of the dread overused words of which the armature of current literary commentary is enamored.

Who would guess from reading such discourse, as the friends of Michel Foucault like to call it, that Sanditon contains perhaps the funniest sequence in all of Jane Austen, as its sensible heroine, Charlotte Heywood, takes tea with the hypochondriacal Parker sisters and their brother, observing the peculiar “enjoyments in Invalidisms” of Arthur Parker and his buttered toast:

. . . “I hope you will eat some of this Toast,” said he, “I reckon myself a very good Toaster; I never burn my Toasts-I never put them too near the Fire at first-& yet, you see, there is not a Corner but what is well browned.-I hope you like dry Toast.”-“With a reasonable quantity of Butter spread over it, very much”- said Charlotte-“but not otherwise.-” “No more do I”-said he exceedingly pleased-“We think quite alike there.-So far from dry Toast being wholesome, I think it a very bad thing for the Stomach. Without a little butter to soften it, it hurts the Coats of the Stomach. I am sure it does.-I will have the pleasure of spreading some for you directly-& afterwards I will spread some for myself.-Very bad indeed for the Coats of the Stomach-but there is no convincing some people.-It irritates & acts like a nutmeg grater.-” He could not get command of the Butter however, without a struggle; His Sisters accusing him of eating a great deal too much, & declaring he was not to be trusted; – and he maintaining that he only eat enough to secure the Coats of his Stomach;-& besides, he only wanted it now for Miss Heywood.- Such a plea must prevail, he got the butter & spread away for her with an accuracy of judgement which at least delighted himself; but when her Toast was done, & he took his own in hand, Charlotte c^sup d^ hardly contain herself as she saw him watching his sisters, while he scrupulously scraped off almost as much butter as he put on, & then seize an odd moment for adding a great dab just before it went into his Mouth.

If any literary commentary can rise to the challenge presented by the rich vein of comic humor evident throughout Sanditon, it certainly can’t do so in language as employed by Galperin.

In his attempt to read “against the grain” (why is this a good thing to do?) and show how not-enough-noticed aspects of Austen’s novels subvert or qualify the “normative momentum of the courtship plot,” Galperin is ingenious to the point of absurdity. He discovers, for instance, that the real villain of Sense and Sensibility is Colonel Brandon, since Brandon withholds or “micromanages” information that might have averted particular unfortunate events. Remarkable that it has taken almost two hundred years and tons of writing about the novel for this discovery to have been made. In a like manner, who would have thought (until 2003) to title a chapter about the charming, touching, and earliest of her novels, “Narrative Incompetence in Northanger Abbey”? For Galperin the incompetence partly resides “in the narrator’s obtuseness regarding same-sex relations among women in the novel, which variously circumscribe and direct Catherine’s affective life.” Reading this my eyes excitedly widened, wondering if I had missed something in the novel just reread. The “obtuseness” partly resides in how the narrator pays insufficient attention to the fact that Catherine Morland and the new friend she meets at Bath, Isabella Thorpe, spend time reading novels together and sharing their enthusiasms for them. It seems that the narrator fails to recognize sufficiently the depth of this same-sex attachment.

But according to Galperin it is in Catherine’s fondness for Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor, altogether more worthy figures than the vulgar and unpleasant Isabella Thorpe, that the narrator’s (may we not say Jane Austen’s?) narrative incompetence most clearly shows itself. Catherine’s delight in Eleanor, and her anguish when Isabella arranges an outing that conflicts with Catherine’s previously made engagement to go driving with the Tilneys, seems in Galperin’s eyes to have little to do with Henry and everything to do with his sister. He quotes Catherine’s pained cry to Isabella: “‘This will not do . . . I cannot submit to this. I must run after Miss Tilney directly and set her right’.” For Galperin “there is little doubt that, by comparison to the other pursuit that has preoccupied Austen’s narrative thus far, namely the pursuit of a ‘single man . . . in want of a wife’ [the allusion is to the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice], Catherine’s following of Eleanor marks an “alterity that the narrator seems unable or unwilling to recognize.” It is fitting that this preposterous condescension to Austen’s “incompetence” should issue in yet another critical buzzword-“alterity.”

Although not his main concern in The Historical Austen, Galperin is happy to contribute to recent sexings-up of the novelist, referring in the Northanger Abbey chapter to “a treatment of the homoerotic bond uniting Mary and Fanny in Mansfield Park.” There follows a quotation from the aptly-named Misty G. Anderson, whose article “The Different Sorts of Friendship: Desire in Mansfield Park” finds that this homoerotic bond “emerges as a protest against a narrative mandate of heterosexual closure as well as a social and political act countering the tyranny of the culturally prescribed ending of marriage.” Galperin does not, but might well have referred in this “homoerotic” connection to two rather more publicized essays than Misty Anderson’s: “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” (in Tendencies, 1993) by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and “Was Jane Austen Gay?” by Terry Castle.4 The vulgarity of Castle’s title may perhaps be laid to those at the London Review of Books where she published a review of Deirdre Le Faye’s 1995 edition of Austen’s letters. Noting the intensity of the novelist’s feelings for her sister Cassandra and for her niece Fanny Knight (whom Castle says she was infatuated with), Castle nevertheless draws back from making what she calls “the vulgar case for Austen’s homoeroticism.” In a postcript to the review, she is content only to claim that “the culture at large reinforced-far more than our own culture does today-same-sex intimacy of all kinds.” No one is likely to attempt refutation of such a large and vague claim.

Sedgwick’s title-for which she is indeed responsible, and which surely provided her with a spasm of pleasure, since it would offend “conservative” admirers of Austen-promises much more than, so far as I can see, it performs. She cites a “a particularly devastating bedroom scene” from Sense and Sensibility in which Elinor Dashwood, roused from sleep, finds her sister Marianne in torment, writing a last letter to the Willoughby who has betrayed her. After treating us to heavy doses of Foucault, Sedgwick compares the Elinor-Marianne scene to a nineteeth-century case history, “Onanism and Nervous Disorders in Two Little Girls,” then concludes that “If what defines ‘sexual identity’ is the impaction of epistemological issues around the core of a particular genital possibility, then the compulsive attention paid by antionanist discourse to disorders of attention makes it a suitable point of inauguration for modern sexuality.” Got that, reader? This reader, who didn’t get it, lacks the desire even to begin “arguing” with such prose, and so it seems appropriate that eleven years after the essay was published no one to my knowledge has even bothered to “refute” Sedgwick’s contention that Marianne Dashwood’s “erotic identity” is “that of the masturbating girl.”5

After the linguistic contortions of Galperin and Sedgwick (Terry Castle, by contrast, writes clearly and wittily), it is a relief to open a book that begins, “All of us who read Jane Austen early-say, at eleven or twelve, the age when she began writing-were lost to the siren lure of her work.” Although I don’t know who belongs to that crowd of “us” (certainly not me) who began reading her at such an age, the siren voice of D. A. Miller has struck its first note.6 Mr. Miller has written about Jane Austen previously-in the first chapter of his first book, Narrative and Its Discontents (1981)-about “narratability” and “closure” in the novels. One feels the presence in that book of Barthes and Foucault, who play a significant part in Miller’s thinking about writing and other matters and who are heard from also in his lively and original essays on Dickens, Trollope, and Wilkie Collins in The Novel and the Police (1988). Then Miller’s books became more personal, less academic, indeed saucy, in Bringing out Roland Barthes (1992) and in Place for Us: Essays on the Broadway Musical (1998). The flavor of his increasingly “outrageous” prose may be conveyed by some sentences from the book about musicals-it is filled with the most inward lore about the genre-when he recounts his schoolboy habit of rushing home after classes to belt out musical comedy songs in the basement of the Miller house. (A full-page photo is provided of the young Miller, decked out in a toothy grin and playing the accordion.) He proceeds to affirm the connection between loving musical comedy and being gay, in a paragraph headed, as all the book’s paragraphs are, with a bold-faced-type allusion to a song, this one from Carousel-“You’re a queer one, Julie Jordan.”

To recognize the Broadway musical for one of “the signs,” the stupefied audience of network television has become as competent as the professionally trained psychiatrists and literary critics to whom Tennessee Williams once threw a subtly flavored bone when he conveyed the “latent homosexuality” of a character by the fact that as a youth the sweet bird had sung in the chorus of Oklahoma! In the admittedly monstrous case that he isn’t gay, the aficionado of the Broadway musical must resign himself to being thought so, or work as hard as Frank Rich to establish his improbable but true sexual orientation.

This is good, strenuous fun, the product of someone who stakes everything on the clever unobvious moves of his original sentences, his Style.

I capitalize the word because Miller, in speaking of Jane Austen, does so, calling her the epitome of Style or Austen Style or Absolute Style. In Austen, style is impersonal; No One speaks it; there is no enunciator, no person to be intuited from its matchless sentences. For Miller and those others in the group of eleven-year-olds who discovered Austen Style in “the creative eye of daydream”

we saw ourselves already wielding, already flashing the wondrous brand: saw its brilliant surface dazzle our enemies, and its sharp point, when they persisted in attack, pierce them to the quick: saw, to crown everything, its genius for detachment-for clean cuts-sever us once and forever from all the particulars of who and what we were, including of course those most responsible for the pain of our being thought peculiar.

Better, even, than musical comedy after school in the basement! But then this discovery of Style puts the “boy all wrong,” at least so it happened to Boy Miller when he found that Austen Style had, as it were, “put him in a dress,” leaving him to make an “asinine transvestite spectacle” of himself that would spell “the most awful social doom imaginable.” As a capping anecdote for this “doom,” he quotes Leo Bersani’s “Is the Rectum a Grave?,” an essay containing the “classic putdown” where one gay man exposes another’s pretensions to manhood by finding, after having been picked up at the gay bar and taken home to the seducer’s flat, the complete works of fane Austen gracing that flat.

Yet it is possible, even exercising the utmost sympathetic recognition for Miller’s jouissance, to wonder exactly what it all has to do with the secret of Style in Jane Austen. Late in the short book’s final chapter, Miller confesses to practicing “ever-necessary watchfulness” in the fear that his own literary style will betray itself, will commit some “scarlet illiteracy” or “ludicrous suggestion of the signifier” that, having caught such a lapse in himself, will make him feel “the full force of the shame I imagine I would have felt if I hadn’t.” But then the watchfulness in turn needs to be watched, since “where style is concerned, neither must one be too careful, or the desired effect will rigidify into affectation, a manner that, like certain muscular spasms, chokes the underlying nerve.” From the sentences I’ve quoted thus far, it may be agreed that “arch” is a feeble word to characterize Miller’s full-time effort at practicing a writing so “close” (he is in favor of close reading) that affectation (or archness) will be totally absent. Readers of the book will decide for themselves the degree of his success; but it (the style) does threaten more than once to usher, ever so elegantly, Jane Austen into a back seat.7

From the outset, Miller is determined to go too far in his self-presentation as Austenphile (“Enough! or Too Much”-William Blake), and the following sentences seem wilfully determined to make his critical audience a very exclusive one indeed:

I have so far presented the feminizing shame of Style (a shame that Style at once incurs and inflicts) as a very narrowly distributed abjection, peculiar to the minuscule band of juvenile Austen readers by whom it is first sustained, or to the closed company of the gay subculture in which it is post-traumatically confessed and mimed. A vulgar psychological reading might even find it most relevantly peculiar to myself, whose interest in Austen and the question of (her) Style would be reducible to this “personal” history.

One wonders just how vulgarly psychological such an inference would be? (I must confess this “reading” occurred to me.) He continues:

One way or another, in short, this question must seem circumscribed within the already vehemently circumscribed social category of the male homosexual; it is his “thing” or not even that: his thingy.

Miller’s thingy receives most extended display in the twenty pages that follow this claim and provide a fiercely close reading of a scene in Sense and Sensibility where Elinor and Marianne (mainly Elinor) observe, in a London shop, a young man later identified as the despicable Robert Ferrars (brother to good Edward), who inspects at great length a number of toothpick cases while remaining impervious to the sisters waiting to carry out an errand of their own. But Robert does give them a few broad stares, enough to imprint on Elinor’s mind a person and face “of strong, natural, sterling insignificance, though adorned in the first style of fashion.” Miller emphasizes the brutality of style with which Robert Ferrars is presented, then goes on at length to read the whole thing in sexual terms. Robert is “almost a gay man”; the “cause of Elinor’s animus is the insignificance with which Robert afflicts one thing in particular: male heterosexuality”; his “fetishistic to-do over a mere toothpick . . . hints perhaps that he can’t perform with a woman”; his attitude is “unheterosexual”; his manner is a “little bit of protohomosexuality.” Summing up: “Having entirely given up virility, the various behaviors that give masculinity its content, he has nonetheless retained the phallus that gives them their ideal form.” Where does all this come from? When a bit later Elinor is introduced to Robert Ferrars, his manner assures her “that he was exactly the coxcomb she had heard him described to be.” A good strong depreciatory word, coxcomb, but evidently not strong enough to bear the heavy freight Miller invests the scene and character with.

This is not to disparage the effort, just to respond to Miller’s boldly unqualified conviction that the secret of Austen Style can only be discovered through what looks to me like sex overkill. His book is at his best when it proceeds, as in the following passage, to show how Austen Style

presupposes and enforces, its author’s own under-representability, a condition I can describe most simply . . . by observing that the realism of her works allows no one like Jane Austen to appear in them. Amid the happy wives and pathetic old maids, there is no successful unmarried woman. . . . The social grounding is insufficient not of course for this woman to exist-she does, she is Jane Austen-but to entitle her existence to the same dignity of novelistic representation that she gives Elizabeth and Emma, or even Mrs. Elton and Lady Bertram. Like the Unheterosexual, the Spinster too resorts to Style, the Utopia of those with almost no place to go.

Excellently said, until perhaps the final sentence where the “like” induces a bit of discomfort. Miller’s discussions of Pride and Prejudice, Emma (“the melancholy of Austen Style”), Persuasion (“the sacrifice of the very essence of Austen Style”) and Sanditon (“the formal ruination of the Austen novel”) are fresh and provocative. (He shows how in the last named its signifiers go out of control-though to these eyes and ears that doesn’t prevent it from being a fragment full of splendidly comic bits.) He is excellent on free indirect discourse in the writing, and his own identity as a “Stylothete” (he likes the word) means there’s never a page without a lot going on in writing so dense as to make abstracting from it, as in the attempt above, virtually impossible.

Ten years ago, Miller began a short piece, “Austen’s Attitude,” as follows: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Perhaps most attached to this commanding sentence is the frightened soul who has never recovered from the terrors whose reign in Austen’s novel it pronounces. “Jane Austen and the Secret of Style enacts such a recovery on the part of D. A. Miller, even as the Absolute Stylist Herself remains unwrung.

1 Since 1992, a year that saw publication of what seems to me the best critical introduction to Jane Austen’s work (Jane Austen’s Novels by Roger Gard), there have been over six hundred books and other items about the novelist. Claire Tomalin’s Jane Austen: A Life was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1997.

2 JANE AUSTEN, by Carol Shields. Viking. $19.95.

3 THE HISTORICAL AUSTEN, by William H. Galperin. University of Pennsylvania Press. $39.95.

4 Sedgwick’s essay is collected in Tendencies (Durham, NC, 1993); Castle’s is in Boss Ladies, Watch Out!, (New York, 2002).

5 A leading Sex and Gender scholar, Sedgwick is famous for her homemade prose, an example of which may he found in the same essay: “And for that matter, if we are to trust Foucault, the conceptual amalgam represented in the very term ‘sexual identity,’ the cementing of every issue of individuality, filiation, truth, and utterance to some representational metonymy of the genital, was a process not supposed to have been perfected for another half-century or three-quarters of a century after Austen; so that the genital implication in either ‘homosexual’ or ‘heterosexual’ to the degree that it differs from a plot of the procreative or dynastic (as each woman’s desire seems at least for the moment to do), may mark also the possibility of an anachronistic gap.” Yes, most definitely a possibility.

6 JANE AUSTEN, OR THE SECRET OF STYLE, by D. A. Miller. Princeton University Press. $19.95.

7 His watchfulness however isn’t total, since he speaks of “the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice (which, in a pardonable lapse, William Prichard [sic] once called the first sentence of Jane Austen).” No footnote directs me to where or when (or if) I called it that, but this may just be-like the spelling of my surname-a pardonable lapse on Miller’s part.

Copyright Hudson Review Summer 2004

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