07 January 2011

Rediscovering Austen

Jane Austen (Tony Tanner) case study

They say, 'one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other'. That rightly applies to Jane Austen, who probably has as many die-hard admirers as skeptics. Her enduring popularity continues to bewilder a section of authors and literary critics who find her novels and concerns too remote and limited to be taken seriously. Her growing fame mystified her contemporaries like Charlotte Bronte and Mark Twain who repeatedly wondered aloud what all the fuss around her was. Many derisively said that if you had read one Austen novel, it was as good as reading all of them.

Austen's popularity in the critical sphere has gone through periods of ups and lows, but her appeal among regular readers has never shown the slightest signs of a decline. Austen's constricted, over-decorous society of the 18th century might seem a bit ludicrous to modern readers. But the prim liveliness in her stories, the sparking wit and characters edged with delicious irony have enthralled generations of readers, and the charm and appeal of her works remain undiminished.
More importantly, even though she based all her stories in a certain class of English gentry and dealt primarily with themes of domesticity and marriagablity, it was still a legitimate microcosm of the larger society and for an acute reader, these are stories that offer much insight about the times Austen lived in. Of course, her enduring popularity remains a fascinating subject for research, and many of her critic-admirers have done penetrating studies on Austen's world, trying to reassert her genius.

One of the case study books on Jane Austen I perused recently was by critic Tony Tanner, who provides a provocative though stimulating study of her novels. Some of Tanner's focus is on disproving through analysis of her novels that Austen was not the sequestered spinster with scant knowledge of the outside world, as she was believed to be. All his seven essays - each dedicated to one novel are illuminating and unfurl a world of meanings, pointing to the larger themes and subtexts present in Austen’s narrative choices.

The period Austen wrote was one where great changes were taking place. Politically, England was engaging in a war with Napoleon Bonaparte. The Romantic movement was challenging the Age of Reason, where many of the old ways was being considered too priggish and stifling. Jane Austen grew up on eighteenth century rationalism and was loyal to its principles that honoured limits and boundaries. She was respectful of social systems and old values, and laid a lot of emphasis on sense and prudence. In fact, she was also particular about manners, class, and propriety in her earlier novels. But this last aspect changes once we come to her last novel, Persuasion, as Tony Tanner’s critique brings out.

Tanner’s book points at a certain recurrent theme in Austen’s novels that most of her readers might have detected already – the struggle between ‘stillness’ and ‘energy’ – sense v/s sensibility, prudence v/s impulse and sobriety v/s indulgence. The only heroine in whom we see a congruence of reason and energy is Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Her spirit, wit and liveliness are seen to be a source of great delight in an otherwise dull and inferior society. Tanner rightly thinks that this happy coming together of pragmatism with a fairy tale touch of romance in Pride and Prejudice is what offers the novel its unfading relevance. However, this vibrancy is not found in Austen’s other works and the analysis points at how she grew skeptical about too much effervescence and energy. Austen’s fear of ‘unfettered movement’ and ‘openness’ was evident in Sense and Sensibility, where she creates a romantic figure in the form of Marianne, who she treats with ‘an ambiguous mix of sympathy and satire’

The larger issue Austen deals with is that of individual impulse and social order. The elder sister, Elinor is a preserver of ‘screens’ in that it she ‘who is constantly trying to smooth and harmonise potentially abrasive and discordant occasions, giving the raw social realities a vaneer of art’. Marianne is the opposite and ‘demands that outward forms exactly portray or project inward forms’. She will have none of the hypocrisy and will speak her mind at all times. But Austen sees the impossibility of this situation, where if everyone were to behave according to their own whims and impulses – then there would be no society at all, and only anarchy.

Sense And Sensibility was Austen’s first novel and Tanner speaks of how it is largely considered the author’s weakest novels due to the ‘crude antithesis’ in the schematic separation of qualities of both sisters. This is done for greater clarity, but critics found it primitive and much similar to the moralistic fiction of the past age. Yet, Tanner believes and I wholeheartedly agree that things are never black and white in the novel, and Austen’s sympathies lie with both Elinor and Marriane. Tanner expresses his disappointment with the novel’s brusque ending, where Marriane is ‘tamed’ after her sickness and marries a man she had never fancied earlier. What can be said here is that Austen – though sympathetic about romance and individual choices – is a far greater advocate of reason. Since society was the ‘unalterable given’ to her, she believed her characters had to negotiate within those spaces and find happiness.

While Austen’s tenor was more light –hearted in Pride and Prejudice, it grew positively severe in her third novel, Mansfield Park. It was a time when new cities were coming up, and London was emerging as a fashion centre. Austen knew the quiet life of the country-side, which she loved, would sooner than later feel the ripples of this change. “Jane Austen, then, was living in a diminishing enclave of traditional rural stability just prior to a period of convulsive, uncontrollable change,” writers Tanner. So while the theme of energy versus stillness continues in Mansfield Park, the novel is also about ‘rest and restlessness, stability and change and movable and immovable’.

It is also probably Austen’s most metaphorical works, and she creates at the centre a heroine – Fanny Price – whom most readers have had a dislike for. Unlike her other heroines, Fanny is staid, still and faultless. ‘It is regarded as the story of a girl who triumphs by doing nothing’. Against Fanny’s stoicism and moral rectitude, she juxtaposes a shifting world, and inhabits it with ebullient, exciting characters. The two ‘outsider’ brother-sister team, Mary and Henry Crawford are products of the stylish London society. Outwardly, they are charming, witty and jolly people. Austen places at the centre of the novel a theatrical performance that is staged by the denizens of the Mansfield Park mansion. It is done when the patriarch guardian of the house, Sir Thomas is away. Such a practice is not encouraged here where everything is orderly and as per convention. Putting up a play per se, is not a crime – Tanner points out. It is the underlining meaning of the act that Austen uses. The masks, the stage, the darkness, the role-playing foster an atmosphere of illicit affairs and dubious activity- turning a ‘temple of order’ into a ‘school for scandal’ so to say. It is this corruption of character and corrosive impact on society that Austen brings out. And to drive home her point, she shows the manipulative, mercenary and utterly superficial nature of the Crawfords.

For all of Austen’s conservatism, one of the other aspects that emerges in her novels is her slow disenchantment with society itself. Even while she treats her society as a given, almost immovable (Mansfied Park) against external forces, it was hardly as if she couldn’t detect the evil elements and developing cracks from within. It’s not surprising then that Elizabeth Bennet once she finds an equal companion in Darcy retires to the wonderful estate of Pemberley – away from a certain kind of society that both of them dislike. In Mansfield Park also Austen distinctly points out the corrupting influences and the rot within. However, her belief in her society appears total at this point, and she restores its place of pride, by making someone like Fanny Price the mistress of Mansfield Park.

Austen, however, could also see the limitations of this world and unfairness to women. Emma’s dangerous fetish for match-making is precisely born out of her lack of proper employment. “In Emma’s society, there is no room for manoeuvre, no room for rearrangement, no room for any kind of escape. In short, there is no room…it explains a lot about Emma’s spirited imagination, which is constantly unfixing and refixing things in a most irresponsible way,” writes Tanner. (Here too, Austen’s partiality to ‘sense’ over ‘sensibility’ is evident. Emma’s flightiness and frivolity is juxtaposed against the quiet confidence and wisdom of a Jane Fairfax and Knightley.)

But Tanner believes it is Austen’s last fully published novel, Persuasion which shows so clearly her disillusionment with her society. The theme of prudence v/s impulse continues here too, and Austen does not change her side. She still emphasizes the virtues of stillness over rash movement. This of course alludes to Louisa who in her impulsiveness has a dangerous ‘fall’ – but the author also distinctly becomes softer about matters of the heart. Anne – the quiet, useful heroine of the novel – is ‘persuaded’ by her governess Mrs Russell in good faith to give up her lover Wentworth since he isn’t well-settled enough. Seven years have passed and Anne is still single, and greatly regrets turning down the one man she so desperately loved. Wentworth is now a Captain in the Navy, and doing very well for himself. Many themes unfurl themselves in this setting. Firstly Tanner believes, and this is a clearly emerging picture, that many of the old authorities are now defunct. The society itself is growing increasingly moribund and stagnant. This is evident in the way Austen portrays Anne’s father, as a man given to excess and someone perfectly useless. Similarly Mrs Russell’s advice about Wentworth turns out to be dead wrong, demonstrating clearly that many of the old criterias for judging have become invalid. But the most damning indictment of her society comes from the fact that Austen now sees an alternative set of values and way of life in the Navy. Austen could see that the land-owning elite in England did nothing during the war and it was the Navy which saved the country. She is very appreciative of them in the book, admiring their openness and their sense of gender equality. I didn’t notice it till Tanner points out in the book that perhaps for the first time Austen has written very lyrically about the sea in Persuasion. The end sees Anne moving away from her own society -there isn’t any left ! – and joins Wentworth on the sea. This is a big departure in an Austen novel.

Besides the larger themes that emerge from Tanner’s critique, intermittently, there are also some exquisite readings he makes of certain scenes. Like the one in Pride And Prejudice, where Elizabeth Bennet joins her uncle and aunt to visit Pemberley. It is the most memorable and significant scenes in the novel. Elizabeth’s heart has already softened towards Darcy after his letters, and this entry into his grand mansion is also a metaphorical opening into what she will now see as the real Darcy. Tanner points out how the truest portrait of Darcy in the most private part of the house upstairs; downstairs he is only visible in ‘miniature’ - this implies that the further a man moves away from his house, the most chances there are that he can be misrepresented. “Standing before the large and true image of the real Darcy, Elizabeth has in effect completed her journey.”

Some of Tanner’s observations are speculative, but still there’s a great deal of originality and insight in his readings. And indeed this prompts the reader to think anew about Austen. Certainly her 'small world' had more things going on that one would imagine. And Tanner brings that aspect forth.


Alexander said...

Yeah! Will order and be reading this one day, for sure. After the novels of course.

Beautifully written and beautifully illustrated, Sandhya. Thank you.

I wonder if this is the portrait for which Maugham remarked that the painter might have done Jane an injustice; I think she's sweet; she might from time to time be sour as well, but surely not bitter.

'...to be fond of dancing was a certain step towards falling in love' - so damn true! Pity I can't dance. :(

But I, though a perfect Austen neophyte, can't but think if Tony Tanner is not somewhat on a wrong track. Why should Jane's conservatism, neglect of society and great events be criticised at all? On the contrary, I should think that the absence of such things make her book(s) so compelling and enduring, because she can concentrate on her characters, and human nature - to borrow from Maugham - changes little. I don't think Jane would have been half as popular today had she bothered herself with the Napoleonic wars or with the emerging Romantic movement.

And I think I can draw a relevant parallel with Maugham. For he too was sometimes accused that he was not critical enough towards contemporary society, didn't have many great ideas in his writings, passed the two World Wars in silence, didn't contribute to any literary revolutions, bla-bla-bla, bla-bla-bla, to cut the long story short: he was too old-fashioned and conservative (though he did write quite provocatively for his time about marriage, love, passion, affection, sex, and some other things, but that's another story). The only significant historical event Maugham chronicled in his fiction - totally unconsciously, or at least certainly not on purpose - is the decline and fall of the Roman, oops, pardon, of the British Empire. Likewise Jane, that's why his books still sutvive: because they deal with people, not with events, and are not the former the sole cause for the latter anyway?

Of course there's one huge difference between Maugham and Jane: he travelled everywhere, she hardly travelled anywhere. Yet, on the base of 'P&P' only, Jane is anything but provincial, as one might expected. Indeed she is - to borrow from Maugham again - perfect. Nobody has ever picked up 'P&P' prouder and more prejudiced than I did. Yet I was swept off my feet anyway. That says something. Also, we all know that travel does not necessarily make one wiser or more tolerant.

Now I am tempted, yet again, to start another novel of Jane, but it will have to wait to finish several dystopian ones first.

In passing, dear, I regret to say that 'Middlemarch' is so far a near complete disaster. I just can't get through the language, apparently my English is by far not good enough for this novel: for 15 pages I have to use the dictionary more often than for 250 of Maugham. Rather discouraging. Attempts continue.

Yet the 'Middlemarch' problems are nothing compared to my first meeting with Henry James: the short story 'The Beast in the Jungle' which is neither short nor a story. I will quote myself from another place: if a simple sentence which makes clear sense is likened to a straight rope, then James' prose surely can very accurately be described as an Inca Khipu!

PS About conservatism, I can draw a musical parallel as well: Rachmaninoff (1873-1943). Until the end of his life he was despised by the modernists because his music remained tonal and he firmly refused to write some atonal, but oh so modern, noise-like garbage. Sad, very sad indeed.

sandhya said...

Hey Alexander, I must tell you I had a great time reading this book. There were times I thought Tanner was very speculative. He references many thinkers in the evolution of Austen's titles and narratives, to leave a trace of probability that she was intellectual enough. One interesting comparison he makes is between King Lear and Pride And Prejudice, as both are about 'prejudice' and 'misjudging' - though their endings are drastically different.

You raise an interesting point about Tanner unnecessarily looking for Austen's engagement with the larger issues of her time. I don't think Tanner believes that she was very much interested in the political happenings of her time. But his point is that 'she was AWARE' . The impact of the outside world was felt by Austen and those impressions invariably made its way into her novels.
What I think Tanner is concerned about is Austen being viewed as any other writer of sentimental novels of her time. Tanner wants to establish a certain 'ambition' and 'depth' in Austen's works. So he draws attention to the subtext of each of her's narratives, that offer genuine social insights into her world.

Like Austen, Maugham too never experimented with form etc. But certainly, Maugham I find more eclectic in his choice of subjects, and one can't deny that much of that came from his travel and his adventurous life. Of course, he prefered to write about people, their private lives, their deepest fears, their inner-most desires and perversions, and in this he went a great distance!
I still think Pride and Prejudice is the loveliest, most charming book, but it's precisely the kind of novel Maugham would never attempt. Maugham had seen enough of the world, understood its miseries, the transience of relationships and the doomed nature of love to ever promote the idea of felicitious marriages.
Middlemarch is a great book, and yes I agree, it can be a tough read. I took about 3 months to read it, because I wanted to savour every bit of Eliot's masterful prose. But yeah, it kinda fills you up fast. The beauty of the launguage and emotional power of the narrative are very overwhelming.

Alexander said...

It must be a grave fault in me that one of my first prerequisites for a great book is readability, Maugham's pernicious influence no doubt. I am quite sure 'Middlemarch' is a great book and George Eliot's prose is masterful, but as it seems for now I have add that it is too great and too masterful for me. Perhaps too intellectual as well.

sandhya said...

Readability is of course the most important thing - no one can or should ever deny that. But it's also true that Austen can appear repetitive, even though she's enjoyable at all times. The surface structure never changes, the themes are more or less the same...so an author like Austen is always under the threat of being undermined critically. In such a scenario, fresh perspectives on her works can help.