October 20, 2000
Re: Stuart Tave: Limitations and Definitions
In the interests of making for discussion, here are a couple of ways of objecting to Tave's stance before we move on to his chaper, "The Expectations of Catherine Morland. I don't doubt that Tave's way of reading Austen is true to her text. He writes beautifully and eloquently in his impersonal way. June's summaries were beautifully apt and concise too. They took much hard work.
There is, however, a more recent school of thought which asks if the way in which Tave talks isn't excessively judgemental. Look at how he goes over the characters: it's Calvinistic, using the word to mean super-severe in its notion of virtue. He says it's easy to come up to Austen's demands, but is it?
A larger issue or objection: Tave begins his book with a defense of Austen's conscious morality placed in words of the largest generality. He says that the leap towards freedoms from limitations which hold forth a life of great intensity, greater power, superior vision, higher activity of mind, feeling, body, fulfillment of desire is impossible. Such freedoms are false. But are they? Is it not that Marianne was betrayed, that she was not wise enough to see the specific individual in front of her, not that her ideals were necessarily false. Marianne makes some good points, and Anne Elliot is a redrawing of Marianne. He asserts that Austen sees these leaps towards desire which is not conformity to society's will as false because they are reductive; they see less; they are self- defeating. The way he puts it certainly. The real freedom is not to live in illusion. This way Austen challenges our assumptions of powerlessness. However, the way he keeps us with him is never to go down to cases, to concrete instances. Does Austen challenge our assumptions of our powerlessness in living lives the way Elinor, Fanny and Anne do? Are they not powerless? and it's luck that sees them through, the inadequacies and evils of others.
Does Austen really challenge our assumptions that we are powerless or get us to accept this?
One could also say that he does something of what new deconstructionist critics do. He uses Austen to argue a highly conservative stance.
I did like this particular pattern he discerned -- or at least thought it particularly important: he says Austen's heroines all confront absolute loss before the happy ending kicks in: Catherine is kicked out of Abbey; Darcy is off to save Lydia; Fanny, Emma and Anne think their respective heroes are going to marry elsewhere. Fanny and Anne think this for quite a while -- about the length of a couple of volumes at least. We have here the romance theme of the heroine scourged. Austen is conscious of this romance theme in the way she words Elinor's distress in having to offer to Edward the living of Delaford (p 17).
I don't say this to denigrate Tave at all; I simply match his seriousness. He approaches this text with all the awe of a Matthew Arnold looking for how to live. Did Tave in his life accept things and see this as instances of power? At the end of his fine review of Emma, Sir Walter Scott has an appropriate objection to what he sees as one of the tendencies of Austen's fiction: he wonders if 'the youth' of England really need to be taught doctrines of conformity, prudence (which can be called selfishness): "It is by no means their error to give the world or the good things of the world all for love". There is, says Sir Walter, something to be said for the romantic, for the over-ideal. In this instance he talks of love, but what he is doing is what Tave swerves away from. Sir Walter concretises this idea of accepting limitations, rewords why people are told to conform, to accept, and the ethics of the position and its desirability come out quite differently.
We can also ask if one cannot read another trajectory into the novels, one which works to undermine and explode disillusioned strong stasis, stength in passivity, and insistence on holding to what is safe.
Again I don't say Tave is wrong, just that his way of wording his commentary leads us to accept what he is saying because he puts it so generally. Further that his position is precisely what Marilyn Butler argues so fiercely is Austen's: that of Freud's super- ego taken to strong lengths, self-abnegation, distrust of individual fulfillment away from social demands and the group. We are talking of how Emma is claustrophobic too.
Cheers to all,
October 25, 2000
Re: Stuart Tave: The Expectations of Catherine Morland
One can make the same sort of critique of this chapter as we did of the first. Once again, you can draw the moral inferences from the text which Tave draws, but having done that, it's not clear that Tave's single-minded opposition to fantasy, the imagination and spontaneous passion & affection in all its phases are Austen's. More importantly, if it is, it's by no means certain that deciding on the side of probable expectations and safety is a high morality. Last week I suggested that rather than presenting us with fictions which re-define powerfulness, Austen dramatises powerlessness. I aksed if this was the basis of her popular appeal to women?
This week I would ask of NA if it is not an oblique replay of the intensities of experience in romance by dramatising them within the conventions of verisimilitude. I wonder if NA is an argument that we must live with low expectations, assume nothing much will happen but the probable, and live within conventions in order to be safe and non-humiliated.
As I read the piece, several things struck me for the first time. First that Tave is a man and an older man. He does not identify with the heroine. She is a young girl, and, according to him, someone in need of 'a capable teacher'. In her iconoclastic 'JA and the Masturbating girl' Eva Sedgewick may have gone overboard in arguing that Austen presents us with frustrated masturbating heroines (through metaphor), but her argument that critics like Tave turn Austen into a Victorian schoolmarm is relevant here. How often does Tave tell us Catherine must learn this, she must discipline herself over here; she must be 'schooled'. And how. Well, by suffering, by humiliation. How often are we told by endless critics that other of Austen's heroines also 'must learn' this & that, be schooled, turn their inwards inside out at night and emerge disciplined. To what purpose? Why, to sit with their families :). I could quote endless lines from this essay in which Tave shows us Catherine suffering and says we are to approve of this:
"'Remember that we are English" the hero tells the heroine at the climax (197), and most bitterly did she cry (p. 37);
A special kind of suffering. What's that, pray tell? What kind of success are we talking about? Success in self-repression?
These are only a few. Tave assumes that Henry's schooling of Catherine is always just, always fair. He goes on about how Henry teaches her not to use 'nice' vaguely. But does Austen approve of this teaching in all cases. Eleanor Tilney is not so keen on all Henry's lessons.
Perhaps Austen is on the side of Henry's lessons, perhaps she contrives a couple of highly dramatic confrontations between Henry and Catherine. In a way some of these are worrisome -- as when Henry exposes Catherine to the ludicrousness of her nightmares about the general's murder of his wife, but himself does not, never in fact admits how tyrannised over he and his sister are and how miserable his mother probably was. Does Austen counsel her reader to accept such a life? If she does, is that a good thing? Although it's a bit of a stretch, I'd also bring in the word 'discipline': it has sadomasochistic implications -- especially in this period where we have so many gothic novels. In a novel intendedly about gothic novels, this resonance of schooling is not irrelevant.
Tave's arguments have a curious gap too. He shows us John Thorpe is a boor, Isabella Thorpe a spiteful menace, a liar, utterly unfaithful, without any sense that language should be used with some adherence to truth. Fair enough. But are these arguments that, 'therefore', we must accept a life lived based utterly on 'norms' such as Mr and Mrs Allen live within. Tave quotes Mrs Allen's 'I thought how it would be' as having a curious truth: after all Catherine's expectations of terrors are often thwarted -- but does that mean that life is therefore without terrors. Tave suggests that Austen never moves 'into the kind of reality' that includes 'violence, alarm'. He seems to think this kind of reality only exists in the 'extraordinary'. But NA is a novel whose basic mood is often anxiety, and Catherine is rightly awed by General Tilney. Tave says 'Nothing happens that man cannot meet with his proper ethical humanity, seeing what is right and acting accordingly' (p. 50). Really? What world has Mr Tave lived in?
Tave has picked up Mary Lascelles's alluringly put idea that 'romance is really very dull' and Austen shows us how alive with intensities real life is. He emphasises the first and almost forgets the latter. Austen's NA suggests that in the real nature of real life safety is by no means a norm. If we stay within conventions, it's to keep the protections of our society around us. Catherine did need the pounds Eleanor had in her pocket to give her. Had Eleanor not been the obedient daughter, would she have had these pounds? Tave has again stayed in the realm of the highly general, never taken his argument about Austen's moral teachings into concrete cases based on the novel in front of us.
If we move into concrete cases, we can ask if Austen is arguing that these heroines do right to abase themselves in front of themselves in order to teach themselves lessons in self-repression. Maybe this is what she is doing. We should keep our expectations low, never expect the curve of self-surrender to some intense emotion. Then we will never know disillusion, not be embittered, not be humiliated with the difference between what we have dreamed and what is in front of us. We cannot be fooled so easily by the Isabella Thorpes of this world. But if we are safe -- up to a point, is this a way to live a fufilled life? Tave is saying that this is what Austen's book is about. He has forgotten that Austen is very aware that the conclusion of her book is a contrived happy ending.
Tave dismisses the Northanger chapters as inferior to the Bath sections of the novel. How can we square this with the reality that much of his analysis hinges precisely on what happens at Northanger as it impinges on what has happened to Catherine and her brother in Bath. I wonder if Tave ever read the romances Austen did. Recently I read Mary Brunton's Self- Control and Discipline as well as Maria Regina Roche's Children of the Abbey. The woman who imitated these -- as Austen does -- did not dismiss the emotions and realities encapsulated and dramatised in romance. It's Tave -- the older tenured male professor who stays with the surface meaning of the novel that romances engender 'artiful dominance' over the reader to urge from her 'a contrived surrender of the possession of her mind', and are therefore bad.
It may be that this is Austen's conscious purpose, or the way she would have didactically justified her writing this book. However, her imagination has taken us well beyond such a limiting platitude. Again it may be that women are attracted to this platitude because it justifies their retreats before the hardness of the world and the fearfulness of what lies beyond Northanger or in the recesses of minds. Austen's text is resonant enough for us to wonder about the recesses of the General's mind, Isabella Tilneys, Frederick's, even Henry's.
I am also simply bothered by Tave's use of the word 'odd'. He makes a great deal of it. It seems from his reading of Austen's words that to be odd is to be wrong. But Henry and Eleanor Tilney are decidedly odd. Marianne Dashwood is a very odd person. Elinor Dashwood acts very oddly from the world's norms. Who could be odder than Colonel Brandon? The characters remark upon it. Mr Bennet is super-odd. Anne Elliot's response to the loss of Captain Wentworth is certainly unusual as the world goes, which is what is meant by the word 'odd'. The Juvenilia are very odd. Emma is a strange book, all about a heroine who is constantly keeping her thoughts to herself, desperately trying to rearrange what people are saying so as to avoid the least discomfort in conversations, yet so hemmed in herself. Tave uses the word 'odd' as it comes out of the naturalistic dialogues to produce an argument for conformity.
The first time I read this essay I liked it very much. I still think it is motivated by a high seriousness and has such a beautiful nobility of tone. Tave wants to find high seriousness in Austen's book -- however, it is a high seriousness divorced from the commonplace realities of life, one which shows he has never identified with the woman at the center of the fiction, thought about what it must have been like to be a powerless young girl surrounded by the dull, the limited, and, although they are not in this novel, those desperate for some kind of wealth and prestige and interest and pleasure in life without the economic wherewithal to make it probable. I am here referring to her brothers' lives.
Again, we have to look at the words which sound so earth-shaking in their tones, and bring them down, deflate them -- as Austen herself would have in her era. Take this sentence about what Elinor Dashwood must (there's always this 'must') learn:
It demands a greatness to determine a probability in spite of oneself.
How does it translate into concrete actions in our lives? I wonder what expectations Mr Tave had when he set out in life. He chose, after all, to study the imagination, to make his career there. Did he dare because he had the right connections, so there was a probability of a good niche for him? It does demand a kind of greatness -- stern self-discipline -- to face life's limitations. But is this all? It may be that this is Austen's moral. I don't say no. It may be that this is why women are allured by such books with contrived happy endings where the heroine gets her beautiful dreams because she has such a good heart and was lucky enough to meet someone who recognised and valued it. However, this is not life. It's romance. And I daresay Mr Tave took risks. If he didn't, he missed out and knows less about life. Perhaps this is why he can write in this way, disconnected from concrete realities, especially those which limit women.
I recently read a very different kind of analysis of NA by Judith Wilt: it's called Ghosts of the Gothic and deals with the gothic novels of the period (Lewis's Monk, Radcliffe's novels, and the more minor ones), and then moves into Austen, George Eliot and D. H. Lawrence. In another book by Coral Ann Howells, Love, Mystery and Misery (about gothic romance), Howells says Austen like the minor novelists never questions the code of feminine submission seriously, only at most jabs at it. Wilt tries to argue that Austen uses romance to explore what this submission means. Its machinery permits her to. I recommend both these books as antidotes to Tave.
Cheers to all,
Re: Stuart Tave: The Expectations of Catherine Morland
October 2, 2000
NA and Persuasion sold very poorly; the edition had to be remaindered. It would appear that the publisher who refused _NA_ was right to hesitate. These two novels only began to have an audience after James Edward Austen-Leigh produced his Memoir and began the cult. Austen herself worried over the nothing exciting happening in Emma, that it lacked entertainment in the sense the common reader understood it, and despite Scott's laudatory review, it too fell out of favor until after Austen-Leigh's Memoir. Emma really picked up interest after Wayne Booth's seminal book on the virtuouso technique, and of course the further growth of the Austen cults, communities, films, and reality that Austen's name sells not only books but gains people attention if they write on her.
The heroines in Austen are powerless: they are as dependent as Austen herself. Luck saves them. Emma is a case in point. What does she ever really effect? she gets her father to have a modern table. Had Mr Knightley really gone for Harriet, she would have lost him. That's why she has her dark night of the soul. Mr Knightley has it right at the opening of the book about her managements of other people's affairs. The books appeal to women because they dramatise the world as women have mostly experienced it but then provide a happy ending anyway.
Cheers to all,
Re: Austen Cults and Communities
October 27, 2000
Brian Southam's essay is nearly 20 years old. It was written just as JASNA was starting up, and is somewhat obsolete in the sense of truly covering the ground adequately. In the recent Cambridge Companion to JA, Claudia Johnson's 'Austen Cults and Cultures' describes the differing kinds of Austen studies, of Janeites and Anti-Janeites, and of the very differing popular reponses (movies, among them). It is no longer a question of oppositions. Nonetheless, not all opinions are socially acceptable. Carolyn Heilbrun's recent Writing a Woman's Life which opens with some cogent remarks on how Austen's biography has been policed from various interested (I use the word in its original sense) points of view, and if you want to try hers, so she suggests, you will be seen "as entering a discussion that does not exist". Some people on this list may know Carolyn Heilbrun as Amanda Cross.
Although the evidence is as ever skewed (see above on cults and cultures and policing), it seems as if the one book to be mildly popular in the 19th century was P&P. It was followed by S&S and the reason almost seems because it had a similar title. The two were a pair. Jan Fergus's book, JA: A Literary Life, finds in P&P the pattern she says Janice Radway found in the popular women's books she studied women reading. MP had a 'cult' following of more intellectual, serious types (George Eliot, the women novelists like Margaret Oliphant), religious people. Emma first came into popularity in the 20th century, admired for its art: it was the artist's book in France, or so it is said (Flaubert admired it, remember "Emma" Bovary). Nowadays of course 'Jane Austen' is famous because she's famous. The two words sell. The irony of the older BBC NAL film is it has substituted the types and moods and situations, the nightmare dream sequences of Radcliffe's novel for Austen's. Gothics have always been liked. See Freud. It is interesting that the recent BBC Persuasion was truer to the text: I would agree that there are women today have the same amount of power as Austen's heroines :). Anne Elliot may present a slightly different face to the world, but the inner life (not written up truthfully except in serious fictions according to Carolyn Heilburn) is still with us. So it would seem to movie-makers.
Cheers to all,
October 30, 2000
Re: The Issue of Powerlessness
In brief response to Anne's interesting posting, I'd just like to say the issue of powerlessness and what is power, its nature, its results, nuances, is fascinating and, I suggest, important to Austen herself. I have no time this morning to try to tweak out of the texts other various inferences and commentaries.
It should be remembered that when I respond to these critical texts, I am responding to them. So when I respond to Tave that what he is doing (in effect) is celebrating powerless under a specious definition of power, the comment is to be seen as part of a debate, not isolated in and of itself. All statements exist in contexts and take their meaning from these. There are many other comments Tave makes about NA which I argued with, which could similarly be taken off and applied to NA or Austen's novels in general. Or one could simply agree with and accept Tave and apply his ways of reading straight. It may be that in her novels as a group Austen is consciously arguing for self-controlled resignation. The question would be, is she? If so, is that all that is there or does her imagination take her elsewhere and beyond that? Claudia Johnson and many other modern readers believe so. And then there's if she is on the side of repression, discipline, living out one's existence in a private secresy, is that to be admired? Marilyn Butler says, no, no, no.
The point of reading criticism is partly to break through tired discussions with a new perspective.
Cheers to all,
Message: 15 Geoff commented:
In Edward Ferrars Austen
is commenting on male powerlessness -- or perhaps the
powerless of all those who are under the thumb of
someone else who owns the property. Edward is paralleled
with John Willoughby, and I'm not sure we weren't to learn
something about Mr William Elliot which would have made
sense of his behavior as someone powerless or under
the power of someone else.
However, there are males and females who are powerless
because it is (in Austen) nearly impossible to alter someone
else's character. In this camp are Mr Bennet vis-a-vis
Mrs Bennet, Emma vis-a-vis her father. Frank Churchill
could have defied his aunt, but there is no defying the Mrs
Bennets or Mr Woodhouses of the world.
Cheers to all,
In Edward Ferrars Austen is commenting on male powerlessness -- or perhaps the powerless of all those who are under the thumb of someone else who owns the property. Edward is paralleled with John Willoughby, and I'm not sure we weren't to learn something about Mr William Elliot which would have made sense of his behavior as someone powerless or under the power of someone else.
However, there are males and females who are powerless because it is (in Austen) nearly impossible to alter someone else's character. In this camp are Mr Bennet vis-a-vis Mrs Bennet, Emma vis-a-vis her father. Frank Churchill could have defied his aunt, but there is no defying the Mrs Bennets or Mr Woodhouses of the world.
Cheers to all,