May 11, 1999
Re: Gard's Art of Clarity: Attitudes Towards the Underdog, the Vulnerable, & the Nervous
[Profuse apologies for length; the following is a response to all of June's and Nancy's posts since yesterday; I just get very excited when I start to talk about MP.]
I begin by adding in the jokes. At the opening of the essay, Gard feels a need to kid around. It seems the way to make people like MP is to make us laugh at ourselves for getting so excited at a book that places before us moral standards we don't come up to. Do not we see that we are worse prigs for feeling insulted? Perhaps it would also do the people who passionately defend the book some good if they would just admit the book has anachronistic unacceptable ideas which were someone to put them in a book today would at best seem patronising at worse something we would dismiss as Neanderthalian.
Gard says Austen is one of those authors whose books critics and readers mix together in their minds to form one great whole they call her 'world.' The books are not treated as separate entities. Among the other examples of this approach he describes there is J. F. Burrow's seemingly unimpressionistic enterprise: Burrows put Austen's 'common words' through compuetr analyses as follows:
Fanny speaks 6117 words, and on my reckoning, 'thinks' 15, 418. For Anne it is 4336 as against 5667. But, for Emma it is 21,501 as against 19,730 . . .'
I burst into laughter. Gard meant me to. Yet don't laugh. It is interesting to consider how few words Fanny actually speaks in the book -- and how often she sits and meditates to the point that it is Fanny's consciousness which shapes and dominates the book throughout -- although we could do high word counts for the other characters' thinking. Now Emma speaks as often as she thinks. Look how little Anne does of either -- yet it's her book. Burrows is not counting indirect speech in which we have the half-voice of the narrator intermingled with the character.
Gard also asks us to be impolite and ungrateful. After all, ought we not to ask when we confront a book of this sort whether the author is not 'patronising the reader.' Is this book 'addressed to a grown-up person?' Let us admit that what we do with those passages we instinctively recognise as not acceptable to us really is say, well it's an 18th century novel, only a novel. Do not we who love the book 'tolerate more than we would like to admit to a third party, no doubt in the interest of being tolerated ourselves?' If we are thus far honest, as June says, we may find ourselves not calling Austen a modern novelist.
I take Nancy's commentary on suffering to suggest her response is something like mine: I see in Gard a great discomfort with this book I don't share. I don't need to have it apologised for. Gard needn't tiptoe about it in this hesitating way. June has quoted the central question which Gard uses to capture what he thinks is so objectionable to many readers:
'The leading edge, [Fanny] provokes critic's feelings from constrained and dutiful pity, to admiration, to revulsion. Gard asks; "Does _MP_ really require the reader to accept values of passive suffering in the cause of tradition?" He then argues in a sense so qualified by highly wrought art as to nullify the need for grudging response or embarrassed apology.'
June has also picked out some of the other questions meant to pull up those who are so complacent about Emma:
'Gard asks why readers seem to be thrown by Fanny's confusions and initially dim views of life, whereas they are quite at home with, for example, the overconfidence of Emma ? The palpitations in the East room (1,xvi,152) come close to self pity, that least appetising of emotions.
JMary Lascelles complains the conception of Fanny does not show us 'youth relived.' June paraphrases further: 'Some have even seen Fanny's problems as similiar to a modern girl's problem with anorexia nervosa'.
Apparently what these critics can't bear is to identify with the underdog, the nervously sensitive person. Gard's comparison of Fanny's psychic state with that of a modern girl suffering from what has been labelled 'anorexia nervosa brilliant. Yes. People are always thinking in terms of crude symptoms, of external things they see. The problem with food is but an outward manifestation of something else. People who have relatives who suffer from this condition are by the way usually very ashamed of said relatives. Gard thinks one of the inner causes for this condition is having lived through deeply disturbing and alienating circumstances, such that the person is led absolutely to withdraw. Fanny is then holding on tight to conventions because these are a carapace protecting her 'precariously held calm'. Yes. Fanny requires a moral code as a 'prop for existence.' It is Fanny whom the noise and uncleanness of Portsmouth disturbs. Like June, I have always understood why Fanny cannot easily cope in such a household until she gets used to it, and then only slowly and in little increments.
Why do we fear the nervous? It's primitive: contagion. Deep in the human psychic is this fear the outcast will make us an outcast if we come too close and not simply because others will desert us. Read the famous book by Ernst Crawley: _The Mystic Rose_. (This book also goes a long way towards explaining something of what happened in the recent horrific shoot-out and bombing at Columbine High School in Colorado, Denver.)
The carapace can help keep the others away -- though not altogether. Mrs Norris has just too much talent for such a fragile barrier: she intervenes and slashes at Fanny by her 'peculiar knack of dressing the spiteful and domineering in the garb of conventional virtue.' I'm afraid that like Gard I am unable to find anything to laugh at in Mrs Norris. Indeed Fanny is not a prig at all. As Nancy says, 'self-defense comes in many forms.' Says Nancy,
'The wonder is not that Fanny is timid and humble, the wonder is that she has managed to have any principles and to stick to them under great pressure . . . Are principles only something that one holds to as long as it is fashionable and pleasant to do so?'
Actually I never read books looking for upright role models. To respond to a comment of June's: I don't consider Fanny a poor choice for a heroine at all, even if we didn't have an environmental backdrop against which to understand it.' The thing fiction can do is rip away the underside of life. To quote a line from Bobbie Ann Mason's book defending Nancy Drew stories, 'let us acknowledge the signficant real textures of our embarrassedly hidden lives.' It won't set us free. It won't make us happier. It won't change society. But it helps to share the truth of what we are. We often fail. We fail all the time all over the place in all sorts of ways. Any win we have is often criss-crossed by unpleasant unadmirable motives on our part of all sorts. The greatness of this book is to insist on that.
Now what's remarkable about Gard's presentation is that he knows this and seeks to get us to accept it surreptitiously. There is one point in the first and second parts of this essay (as June divides them up) where Gard refers to the memorable scene where Fanny faces a closed door and cannot get herself to open it. Finally, she breaks through. He links this a bit later to Fanny's trepidation over the dinner at the parsonage (made much worse by Mrs Norris). Then she is told Henry Crawford will be there, and we are told 'the prospect of being observed by him "was a great increase of the trepidation with which she performed the very aweful ceremony of walking into the drawing room"'. Gard remarks on the 'mock grandiosity' of the language which reminds him of Thomas Gray's Ode on the death of his favorite cat:
'Nevertheless, we get -- here in a short space -- an extremely powerful sense of what a nervous minefield the life of one "incumbered by refinement and self-distrust" is and has been up until this point in her development'
Nancy brings up A Simple Story. The strength of that book lies in Inchbald's attempt similarly to tell the truth about Miss Milner. Some of us will remember the remarkable scenes between her and Miss Woodley and her at Dorriforth at the climax of the first volume, especially those on the backstairs when no one is looking and those in front of others amid all the publicity of the dinner table. It is probably impolitic to ask the question why readers can take Miss Milner's absolute nervous 'bitchery' (excuse the word but it's accurate) and not Fanny's disquiet and quailing? Why they are willing in print or consciously to believe in the former and not the latter? It's probably better to lace your argument with little jokes.
-- There is indeed one element in human destiny that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. Our business is to continue to fail in good spirits. --Robert Louis Stevenson
Re: MP: Attitudes Towards the Underdog, the Vulnerable, & the Nervous
This is a continuation of yesterday's interchange over Gard's esay on MP, and I write in response to June's to me. I have to disagree with June over whether ours is a world where people are encouraged strongly to support the underdog and vulnerable (or powerless -- another word which comes from economic and political rather than psychological discourse). I think ours is a world where people are encouraged strongly to respect and admire aggression and power and it matter not in what service. Far from showing sympathy for someone who say has to go to a psychiatrist, the reality is that person had better hide the visits lest it get back to the boss, the community, the voters.
I don't think people have changed much in our Western Society since around the medieval period when the way in which we moralise began to be shaped by Christian language and Christian ideas. From the medieval, through the Renaissance into the modern period I suggest the evidence is overwhelming from people's behavior the individuals who are aggressive, power-hungry, are born to wealth and rank, are hard and selfish, amoral, have been the ones who win out in public spaces as the successful; they have probably succeeded in winning out in private space: in fact one of the things novelists show us since Richardson is how private despotism is exercised by just such personalities. What is different is until the middle of our century lipservice was paid to caring about the underdog; selflessness, integrity, self-sacrifice or abnegation, giving, kindness, tact, mutuality, reciprocation based on trust and honesty -- these were the virtues openly supported. It is said hypocrisy is the tribute vice paid to virture. Vice paid a good deal of hypocrisy to virtues people like Fanny exhibit. I would hazard a guess as many people reading MP in Austen's were as little keen on Fanny as there are today, but they wouldn't say it. As many might have liked Henry and Mary Crawford for their vices as well as gaiety, but would not say it. At most one would get the usual vague honorifics of vivacious and enjoyable, while Fanny might be called insipid which tells us very little.
There's another side to this transformation of what is said in public. I think before the 20th century (say the Bloomsbury era) we also would not get people talking openly in print about Fanny as nervous. We would not get the kind of intimate talk about qualities that people seek to hide that we do now. If people discussed Mary negatively, one might get a manipulative, but it would not go further. If people paid lip-service to what we may call the Christian virtues, they also didn't discuss those qualities of mind which didn't fit into the character types Fanny (and Anne Elliot and Elinor Dashwood and other of Austen's heroines) inscribe which have always been called things to hide. People have always wanted to talk strength, cheer. The Victorian reviewers developed a vocabulary to condemn the character types which are today much more openly discussed to which Fanny belongs: morbid. Let our novelists not be morbid. Let us talk about the norm. The word norm and the concept of probabilty become shields behind which a world of hurt which Christianity and other rational moralities cannot reach; in a sense they have little to say about what to do. It leads us down the path of pessimism -- MP is a dark book.
So our period is one which is far franker than any previous. The frankness cuts both ways.
What I like about Gard is he's not a literal reader. He doesn't stay in large literal categories but goes beneath the surface. Therefore he understands the novels. To return to Claudia Johnson there is a level on which she simply misunderstands completely because she literally sees a woman shown as weak and resents it; or one shown as poweful and likes it. In a way she cares about what she assumes is many reader's somewhat vulgar rejection of Fanny and Gard doesn't. Gard moves away from the gross ordinary categories when he talks about the characters and events in the book. He doesn't split and lump in the conventional ways we do today (gender, class). So he's can be more interesting, get beyond the usual platitudes.
There are lots of paradoxes to Gard's book once you think about it. I think the dialogue between Alec and Henry was preparatory to this chapter. Since Gard was going to go deeply in MP, see much, not read 'lightly', it was necessarily first to clear away the philistine, the man who stays on the surface and says here's a banal love story. Henry trots out the usual platitudes so they have been presented and that aspect gotten over. The book is cleverly structured.
Re: Gard's Art of Clarity on MP: 'Fanny is too serious a theme'
Before turning to Flaubert and Austen, Gard has a few words to say about the ending of MP -- and, once again Fanny. Gard's meditation on MP is centred on Fanny. He thinks her character is 'the tender subject' of MP; her character as 'too serious a theme' for the kind of novelising (pandering is what he means) which feeds a desire for a happy ending which violates many of the things she has stood for, especially because these are uncomfortable truths. He instances her conversation with Edmund when he reports to her that Mary and Mrs Grant are simply astonished at her refusal of their brother. As it is one of my favorite of her speeches and is echoed in a speech by Emma defending her refusal of Robert Martin on Harriet's behalf, I'll quote it:
'"I should have thought," said Fanny, after a pause of recollection and exertion, "that every woman must have felt the possibility of a man's not being approved, not being loved by some one of her sex at least, let him be ever so generally agreeable. Let him have all the perfections in the world, I think it ought not to be set down as certain that a man must be acceptable to every woman he may happen to like himself . . ."'
And then again:
'"He took me wholly by surprise. I had not an idea that his behaviour to me before had any meaning; and surely I was not to be teaching myself to like him only because he was taking what seemed very idle notice of me. In my situation, it would have been the extreme of vanity to be forming expectations on Mr. Crawford. I am sure his sisters, rating him as they do, must have thought it so, supposing he had meant nothing. How, then, was I to be -- to be in love with him the moment he said he was with me?" (MP, III:4 or Ch 35)
Gard says one of the many points reinforced by the novel ending in precisely the way it does is that 'mutual respect is essential for a good marriage.' We might change the word to relationship since nowadays so many people live together without marriage. I see another point made here. 'How, then, was I to be -- to be in love with him, the moment he said he was with me?' Also esential for any adult relationship is the idea both you and he (or she) are separate different people. The individual owes nothing and should expect nothing that is not part of the kind of reciprocated understanding and exchange of kindnesses which can evolve only over a period of time. Marriages break on the rock of disrespect; they break equally on the rock of expecting what you have not deserved or earned.
Virginia Woolf once said Austen's morality is a stern & austere. I think so. The beautiful humility of Fanny's character is only understood fully when you see its appreciation of humility in others. Edmund is not a stick, not a cipher. In our culture it's still not easy to show the kind of humility I am getting at in a man. I think Austen captures it finally (she had been trying to do so since Edward Ferrars on) in Mr Knightley when he proposes to Emma.
RE: Gard on Austen, Flaubert -- and Henry James
The last part of Gard's essay on MP is a comparison of Flaubert's art with Austen's. Gard's intention is to elevate Austen by arguing she deserves the same respect as Flaubert. Henry James is just one of several critics who have compared Austen to Flaubert in order to argue her art is an unselfconscious one. If we want to see what 'composition, distribution and arrangement' can do we must not look to Austen. She is a child of nature. Gard quotes Nabokov so I can here respond to Paul about Nabokov by saying that although Nabokov's essay on MP is excellent (and much respected), Nabokov was not really in sympathy with Austen. He regards her as a limited female (and part of her limitation comes from her lack of full sexual experience). Read the kind of language he uses about her in comparison with the way he talks about Dickens or Tolstoi.
I don't say Nabokov is wrong, mind you, only that he's not unbiased.
Gard then goes about once again to demonstrate how artful Austen is. He also outlines the many similarities between Flaubert's and Austen's books which June has summarised and commented on.
Gard means also to cut Flaubert down to size. Gard shows that Flaubert is certainly in his fiction, and moralises openly, is every bit as downright as Austen on, say Mrs Bennet: 'a woman of mean understanding . . . ' The famous remarks by Flaubert about how the author should be an invisible God, paring his nails, not caring about the reader is pulled out of context. Flaubert was protesting against the open endless didacticism of Harriet Beecher Stowe in her Uncle Tom's Cabin. One should show, not preach. There is nothing in the passage about eliminating the author from the text altogether. Then Gard quotes places where Flaubert deals swipes left and right to his characters.
One thing Gard does not bring up is that Flaubert has been regarded with such respect because he took himself very seriously. Read his letters and you see he regards himself as a Great Artist (Much Misunderstood and Underappreciated). As you frame yourself, people will frame you. Austen is the self-deprecator; Flaubert the self-promoter (though since the statements were written in private letters originally we should not accuse him of any agenda or self-advertisement to the public world).
Throughout his book Gard explodes myths about fiction which are often found in critics who (in effect) puff themselves up by puffing up their author. Thus a great deal of nonsence has been written about free indirect speech as first discovered by this or that author, in this or that century, and of course this or that critic. Gard demonstrates the use of indirect free speech in narrative can be found in classical texts. There has in fact been too much awe and mystery in the discussions of free indirect speech in the novel; it's not as hard to do as the critics make out. What is hard is to do it well.
Gard asks at the end of his essay on MP: what could James have had in mind when he denied artistry to Austen? I suppose the idea here is that most of our utterances have many motives, and some of these we may keep hidden as impolitic. I'll offer up what I guess Gard is getting at. James's statement is a denigration of Austen, so the question is, Why would James denigrate Austen? Answer: to elevate himself, to separate his art from hers so we wouldn't think he is such another old maid. Our Jane, your Janes, everyone's Jane, sweet virgin Jane who so comforts us with her tea-cozy fiction. (Nabokov uses the word 'lady' and 'cozy' in some of his descriptions of his instinctive reaction to and memory of the experience of Austen's fiction.) Well Henry didn't want to be dismissed as our Henry, your Henry, everyone's Henry, sweet virgin or asexual Henry who so comforts us with his beautiful fictions of ever-so-subtle fine spirits in rich fancy clothes.
On the other hand I do agree with James that a good deal of Austen's effects are not fully conscious, many are not at all conscious -- when we read her we read into what's there. I admit I have done so to some extent; unlike Austen who wrote of her niece, Caroline, upon whose first experience of her Austen-Knight cousins at Godmersham Austen first thought to create Fanny the way she did (the letter may be found in Jane Austen's Letters), I am not ashamed to say I prefer Caroline. I see that passage as typical Austen: consciously she says she prefers the Austen-Knight children, but she writes her novel from the stance of Caroline.
Re: Gard's Unclear (or Enigmatic) Art of Clarity
Gard does not use that much jargon; rather he has a way of referring to a set of attitudes he expects us to hold and nudging us. I find it paradoxical that in a book which criticises other critics for exclusionary practices and praises Austen for clarity there is this constant wink at us, and assumption he and we know what the ordinary is thinking or feeling so there's no need for him to go into the matter any more clearly than merely referring to it. A good example of this occurs just at the beginning of Gard's discussion of the necklace affair in MP:
'Shortly afterwards comes the episode of the necklace which provides a wonderfully subtle, telling and nervous dramatisation of the state of Fanny's soul; and, which often mentioned, has never so far as I know been understood in print (though I assume it is understood by the majority of ordinary readers . . .
Gard of course understands. Actually he is good on the episode as may be seen from the first clause in the above sentence, but he assumes we ordinary readers know what the episode is about and works from 'there.' He never explains 'there'. Gard criticises modern critics who exclude the ordinary reader from understanding Austen without great, extensive, and deep learning, especially as garnered from their books; well he has presented an even better kind of caste, the caste of those who just know :).
Not that I don't like the book. I do. I am enjoying it immensely. I just accept that all is not explained and carry on regardless. I also think this is one of the strongest chapters thus far.