We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Overreacting against Janeisms · 7 November 06

Dear Sylvia,

I thought I’d try to read one book of criticism about Jane Austen’s letters and fiction. At first I began to skim because while most of Emily Auerbach’s readings of Austen’s letters and novels (Searching for Jane Austen) are basically accurate, she cannot resist overreacting: she overpraises Austen in a hectoring way. Her book is marred by her continual scolding of the many many fools she has read who managed to leave their thoughts somewhere or larger impress on Austen’s reputation among a subset of readers. She opens with the fatuous students she found herself confronting when she taught a senior level English class dedicated to Austen’s novels:

"Forty undergraduates sit poised in their seats for the first day of English 467, a Jane Austen seminar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As I walk to the front of the class, I notice a striking fact: only one of my students is male. "My mother made me take this class," he apologetically explains. "Well, really I’m here because Colin Firth makes me swoon," admits a starry-eyed student who says she and her roommates have watched the 1996 BBC/A&.E version of Pride and Prejudice twenty times. "I want to learn more about Jane," says another. I sigh and take out my notes. It suddenly seems appealing to teach Milton to a class filled equally with males and females, none thinking of him as John or having seen film versions of Paradise Lost starring Hollywood’s lead­ing heartthrobs as Adam and Satan" (p. 1).

Throughout her book Auerbach is endlessly defending Austen, arguing against those who have misrepresented her, filled with resentment against the censorers and of course the perpetual repression and bad-mouthing representations of women which are part of the misrepresentation of Austen. What’s the use of this? (Someone on one of my lists today told me listening to a taped reading of NA led her to sympathize with John Thorpe, the obnoxious anti-semitic, lying woman-despising boor of NA.)

Worse, yet I think Auberbach finds sparkle (for example) in Austen where there is grimness, happiness where there is none, assurance where Austen did feel bad about herself. At moments, her too perfect Austen is as unreal as those false dripping sentimental Austens she cannot forget. Auerbach’s loss of perspective may be seen in her need to argue in a footnote that Radcliffe had never been to southern France so therefore the depiction of women’s powerlessness in Udolpho must be false (p. 102n12.) and to put down idiotic blurbs on mass market paperbacks (p. 94).

The book is an object lesson in what anyone who writes about any aspect of Austen’s art needs to ignore if she is to write something accurate about Austen or her art. I once wrote that the best thing that could happen about the biography was 100 years of silence because nothing sensible can be said that will persuade people("The Present Impossibility of Biography"); since this silence is not going to happen since too much money and reputation can be made by writing about Austen and it is a delight to dwell in her art and some of what has been developed from it (books and films, poetry and music), what one must do is exert self-control and pick a perspective or stance which avoids or escapes or (if possible) goes beyond this kind of overreaction.

Having said this, I find I should watch the movie Clueless. I will watch it late tonight after teaching. I must watch it since so many essays in film criticism dwell on it. Why? It’s popular; the commonality of people find it funny. For me Cher does not represent Jane Austen’s brand of comedy at all because I feel we are supposed to sympathize with vulgarity and actually be cheerful about hypocrisy. I find Austen’s wit (particularly in the early Juvenilia) to be aligned with Gay’s (of The Beggar’s Opera fame), with the important difference that Austen is looking at the world from what a woman could and did experience. Take for example the poem we are told Catherine Morland (NA) learnt by heart:

"The Hare and His Many Friends"

Friendship, like love, is but a name,
Unless to one you stint the flame.
The child, whom many fathers share,
Hath seldom known a father’s care;
‘Tis thus in friendship; who depend
On many, rarely find a friend.

A hare, who, in a civil way,
Comly’d with ev’ry thing, like Gay,
Was known by all the bestial train,
Who haunt the wood, or graze the plain:
Her care was, never to offend,
And ev’ry creature was her friend.

As forth she went at early dawn
To taste the dew-besprinkled lawn,
Behind she hears the hunter’s cries,
And from the deep-mouth’d thunder flies;
She starts, she stops, she pants for breath,
She hears the near advance of death,
She doubles to mis-lead the hound,
And measures back her mazy round;
‘Till, fainting in the publick way,
Half dead with fear she gasping lay.

What transport in her bosom grew,
When first the horse appear’d in view!

Let me, says she, your back ascend,
And owe my safety to a friend,
You know my feet betray my flight,
To friendship ev’ry burden’s light.

The horse reply’d, poor honest puss,
It grieves my heart to see thee thus;
Be comforted, relief is near;
For all your friends are in the rear.

She next the stately bull implor’d;
And thus reply’d the might lord.
Since ev’ry beast alive can tell
That I sincerely wish you well,
I may, without offence, pretend
To take the freedom of a friend;
Love calls me hence; a fav’rite cow
Expects me near yon barley mow:
And when a lady’s in the case,
You know, all other things give place.
To leave you thus might seem unkind
Be see, the goat is just behind.

The goat remark’d her pulse was high,
Her languid head, her heavy eye;
My back, says she, may do you harm;
The sheep’s at hand, and wool is warm.

The sheep was feeble, and complain’d
His sides a load of wool sustain’d,
Said he was slow, confest his fears;
For hounds eat sheep as well as hares.

She now the trotting calf addrest,
To save from death a friend distrest.

Shall I, says he, of tender age,
In this important carte engage?
Older and abler past you by;
How strong are those! how weak am I!
Should I presume to bear you hence,
Those friends of mine may take offence.
Excuse me then. You know my heart.
But dearest friends, alas, must part!
How shall we all lament: adieu.
For see the hounds are just in view…

by John Gay

If Catherine "learnt" this fable "as quickly as any girl in England" (and had understood it), she would certainly have been on guard against Isabella, not have been Isabella’s dupe, and we would have no story line for Northanger Abbey. Through his allusoin and many others in this opening chapter of NA_signals to us that we are not about to embark on a realistic novel in the same mode as those of _S&S, P&P, MP, Emma or Persuasion. What we have instead is a text that is only sometimes a novel with psychologically consistent characters; sometimes what we have is satire, a novelistic satire, in the mode of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Catherine is sometimes a device, a naif like Gulliver or Goldsmith’s Chinaman or Voltaire’s Candide. And then again she is sometimes a realistically conceived young woman. She is placed in a narrative which does not try wholly or all the time to persuade us we are in a simulacrum of the real world; rather this is narrative—all the allusions and formal parodies of this chapter continually remind of us of this as does the clear presence of a satiric narrator.

I savour the sardonic bitterness of this fable as I assume Austen did. And this shows me the difficulty of making a film from this material and why Austen shelved it dissatisfied. I know that Auerbach is making an argument analogous to the one I’ve just made, but it is continually framed by her scolding of others who cannot begin to understand and insistent overpraise and overreading of Austen’s texts. I should emphasize that once she gets into a reading of Austen’s novels, she is intelligent, perceptive, uplifting. Elinor Dashwood has "an excellent heart" (as has Marianne). Her discussion of P&P is exemplary (see particularly her discussion of the development of Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship in the context of the whole book’s themes and other characters, e.g.,

"As Elizabeth tells Jane, ‘It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began.’ Darcy shares this bewildered inability to pinpoint the moment when love began … if we try to find the precise moment … we disdover that the conversations right before this pits the two against one another like skilled lawyers in a courtroom … What a far cry the animated Elizabeth-Darcy exchanges are from the mismatched opening ‘conversation’ between Mr and Mrs Bennet. One reason Mr Bennet misses Elizabeth so much when she is away from home is that she functions as his subsitute soul mate, the one person with whom he can exchanged in verbal sparring and witty exchange of ideas … For Elizabeth, Darcy’s natural taste, educated mind, moral judgement, and honorable conduct reveal his gentlemanliness. Unlike her father … Elizabeth will not form a hasty ‘unequal marriage’ leaving her the ‘grief’ of being ‘unable to respect [her] partner in life’" (pp. 152-158).

She is right to align the work with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.

In going through some of this material I must keep in mind how necessary it is not to fall ito the trap that hurts Auerbach’s book.


P.S. I have been hesitating against going through with putting Lady Brilliana Harley’s letters online. Now I suddenly realize I could put James Austen’s Loiterer and some of his poems online. I agree with Auerbach that some of the Loiterers were written by Jane Austen. Hmmmn. Why not? This is the way an unconnected nobody like me can contribute to scholarship. I’ve not finished all the calendars I could do either.

Posted by: Ellen

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