A Review of Gloria Sybil Gross's In a Fast Coach with a Pretty Woman: Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson

The following review was just published in The East-Central Intelligencer: The Newsletter of the East-central/American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies, N. S. 18/23(2004), 30-32.

Gross, Gloria Sybil. In a Fast Coach with a Pretty Woman: Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson. AMS Studies in the Eighteenth Century No. 40. New York: AMS Pr, 2002. Pp. 208. ISBN 0-404-63540-7. $62.50.

Ground-floor window in Wyards, Jane Austen's niece, Anna Lefroy's house

In a book written to appeal to academic, college-educated, and heterogeneous and influential Janeite audiences, Gloria Sybil Gross argues that Johnson's texts inspired and encouraged Austen to treat "passionately" "subjects like unsatisfied yearning, rampant anxiety, and sexuality in astonishing ways." She believes that Johnson "mentored" Austen in the way she and others conceive he mentored a group of women who have (in a recent book by Norma Clarke) been labelled "Dr Johnson's Women" (5-7). Gross has no evidence to prove that Austen's characters, situations and tropes spring directly from Johnson's (30, 75, 87, 99, 114, 142, 167), or (in the case of Northanger Abbey) from an intemediary text, Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote (42-51). Thus she relies on psychoanalytical readings of analogies which exist equally between her chosen authors' and countless other eighteenth-century texts (e.g., 10n.19, 107-10, 123-27, 142, 150-51). Basically, she carves out a terrain of "temperamental affinities" (80) between Austen and Johnson to demonstrate her book's fundamental thematic contention: "Johnson and Austen share an all but obsessive preoccupation with the pathologies of family life" (20).

The book is comprised of a series of problematic interpretations of Austen's texts presented as self-evidently accurate. These are aligned with analogous interpretations of Johnson's texts. In some interpretations Gross argues that Johnson and Austen meant to reveal that conventional and competitive mores are cruel, hypocritical or simply inane (unrealizable). In others, these authors uphold these mores. Prefaced by a brief exposition of Rasselas as a meditation on the delusive "internal workings of desire" (59-60), Gross asserts that Sense and Sensibility discloses how "love in all its demonic, uninhibited splendor" ["cannot endure"] "in discreet bourgeois society, where money and class reign absolute" (61). However, the "soulful strain" of the book and its "potent forces of eroticism" excludes one of its chief exemplars, Colonel Brandon, whom, in an unacknowledged reading against the grain, she mocks as insuffiently unromantic (e.g., he has this "strange predilection for tubercular young girls," 72). After a brief Freudian exegesis of two Ramblers on marriage (165-67), Gross reads Persuasion (168- 191) to conclude that "real center of Persuasion is hatred" (181). The novel puts into "bold relief a most leering and grotesque epiphany of human nature" (181). Gross, once again, makes an exception for the conventionally alluring "villain," when she dismisses Anne Elliot's rejection of Mr Elliot's "delicacy, poise, and grace" with "Well, there is no accounting for taste: she prefers Wentworth" (180). She declares the book ends in a "treacly denouement" (which includes Anne's "lame" forgiveness of Lady Russell) because it is unfinished (179, 183).

The problem here is not so much the content of the analyses meant to subvert "hide-bound Victorian" pre-conceptions of Johnson stemming from Boswell and Macaulay's texts (1-4, 44) and views of Austen which produce reverential emotional films and readings of the novels as sentimental, complacent, and pious novels of renunciation (7, 40). Gross swerves between disparate audiences. She simply assumes what Roger Gard argued explicitly for: "the reading public" need not be intimidated by specialized historical knowledge or argument. Austen's novels may be fully understood through careful subjective close readings; there is no need for unusual perspicacity (The Art of Clarity [Yale UP, 1992], 2-11). Gross's book highlights conflicts which bedevil Austen criticism today: since the recent film adaptations of Austen's novels and the growth of JASNA's influence, critics feel they must speak to audiences who take away from a text (or film adaptation) passionately-held and often opposing misreadings which are understood to be central to these given readerships' self-images as well as cherished conceptions of Austen.

Gross also feels obliged to negotiate the divisive nature of academic Austen criticism. In one long note she argues that "ideological" or politicized thematic criticism is "risible" and makes literary criticism "irrelevant" (she refers the reader to an review by John Halperin which ridiculed Deborah Kaplan's Jane Austen Among Women). In another she implies that feminist criticism is too austere, "patronizing" and obtuse (11n.21, 133, 160-61n.2). In her text, though, she occasionally uses these critical schools: she contextualizes her scathing descriptions of Sir Thomas Bertram with Johnson's many remarks against slavery, "Austen's reading of abolitionist Thomas Clarkson while composing Mansfield Park," and references to recent politicized criticism (117-19, 131n13). Feminist and psychoanalytical texts are added to Johnson's for her reading of Emma as about a sexually-frustrated and "clueless" "idler" (133-57). Emma gratifies her appetites by possessing "sexpot" (157) Harriet ("an inspired bimbo," 20): "Now I am secure of you forever" (148). Mrs Elton's "egregious patronage of Jane" Fairfax (157) parodies Emma's relationships with everyone she meets but Mr. Knightley.

Gross continually resorts to disjunctive linguistic registers that jar incongruously with the texts discussed. Johnson's Ramblers are "wacky tales of woe" told by "insipid little chits" and "maniacal moms" (38-40), prefatory to an analysis of Austen's juvenilia, itself a prelude to a presentation of all Austen's texts as "libidinal" extravanganzas” (58, 85, 109). In her essay on the "pugilistic" (81) Pride and Prejudice, where Mr Collins is called "a stupendous stooge” (85); Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth's conversations, "merry little tussles” (92); and Lady Catherine, a grotesque "burlesque of Darcy" (87), Gross lambasts Mr. Bennet from a lexicon of moral indignation because he is an irresponsible father who has brought on "the family's misfortune, including Jane's unhappiness, Lydia's disgrace, and Elizabeth's worsening alienation" (92). The key to Mansfield Park is that "creepmouse" Fanny "lusts after cousin-brother Edmund" (124), which Gross explains as the desire to "violate" "a primaeval prohibition forcibly imposed (by some authority) from outside, and directed against the most powerful longings to which human beings are subject." Thus Fanny's anxieties and "terror" throughout the book stem "not from moral compunction but from harrowing fantasies of psychic retaliation" (125). Deliberately provocative phrases, stark and blunt media jargon and the language of literary criticism (mostly Jungian, Freudian and ethical-psychological) erase the understated, suggestive, and distantly-controlled focalizations of Johnson and Austen's texts: Gross's crude "pop" language flattens out and vulgarizes the subtle and distanced moving of the point of view in Johnson and Austen.

Ivor Morris's fine Mr. Collins Considered (1987) will provide a salutary comparison. It is a successful book written to appeal to the disparate audiences for Austen's books nearly 20 years ago. Morris gives full play to the nuances of Austen's texts through an array of readings rooted in an attempt to comprehend the complicated nature of Austen's perception of the various aspects of our experiences of life. Morris uses language which moves effortlessly between what Orwell called plain talking and mandarin styles. Gloria Sybil Gross is a perceptive reader of Austen and Johnson, and has written an excellent book on Johnson (This Invisible Riot of the Mind: Samuel Johnson's Psychological Theory [Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992) which shows none of the problems of her book on Austen.

What has happened between Mr. Collins Considered and In a Fast Coach with a Pretty Woman to lead to the jumble of languages and contradictions of the latter? Gross is responding to and herself using the dense, euphemistic and polemic discourses of deconstructive, feminist, and psychoanalytical criticism. She participates in the increase of Austen hagiography in the last decades: Austen's texts now function as canonical totems from colleges and money-making films, to the heritage and tourist industries. In addition, she uses what she perceives to be the idiolects of readers not trained to read or to write educated or polished literature, but simply habituated to vocabularies of popular magazine and widely-sold journalism. The result is a book whose importance is its language exposes the sources of the difficulties which beset someone attempting to write persuasive criticism of Austen's texts today.

Ellen Moody
George Mason University

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