Notes After Austen (Updated, Again, Again)

Each summer I re-read all of Jane Austen. This year, I decided to post a bit about it on Facebook, just some notes and jottings, noting more. I will move future FB posts here as I go so you might want to check back periodically. (Original posts and comments are on my FB page.)

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Mr. Collins, proposing to Elizabeth Bennett: “And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affections.” Austen! Hard to think of any sentence whose form more completely stutifies its content. All you can do is bow and delight.

Finished Austen’s *Emma* this morning, and was struck by the final chapters more than I recall being before, particularly the similarities between Emma and Frank Churchill, remarked upon near the end by Emma herself. We might say that both Emma and FC are ‘imaginists’ to use the novel’s own term for Emma, but Emma’s imagination mostly imposes on herself, while FC’s imposes on the entire village (more or less): Emma fools herself, FC fools Emma, the Westons, and many others. Still, like FC, Emma manages to emerge from all her foolings uninjured, ‘the child of good fortune’ (Knightley’s description of FC). In the end, Robert Martin, by proposing yet again to Harriet Smith (and by being this time accepted), saves Emma from the one lingering secret she has kept from Knightley, and a raider of neighboring poultry yards motivates Emma’s father to allow her to marry sooner rather than later. — The child of good fortune, indeed! What a remarkable novel.

Reading *Mansfield Park*, my favorite of Austen’s novels. Chaps 8-12., roughly, are given over to differentiating Fanny Price from Mary Crawford. Although the word does not, so far as I recall, occur until Chap 9, and there not in application to either woman, — the word ‘disinterested’, as Austen used it so often in *Emma*, hovers over the differentiation. Fanny is disinterestedly engrossed in everything around her on the trip to Sotherton; Mary cannot manage disinterested engrossment in anything. She can be engrossed (if that is the right word) only where she is *interested*. She can see only for her own sake, not for the sake of seeing, or, better, for the sake of the thing seen. And so she is unseeing, blinded (“she saw Nature, inanimate Nature, with little observation”). Worse, Mary’s blindness is communicable, infecting Edmund as well as herself, although he has a restive sense that something is wrong with Mary, and wrong with him for being unable to *observe* it clearly. It will take Fanny a long time, and much suffering, to clear Edmund’s vision.

Austen’s ability to force characters into hearing what they do not want to hear, in a form to warm and wound the heart all at once. *Mansfield Park*, Chap 27, Edmund to Fanny, discussing his hopes and ‘misgivings’ about Mary Crawford, his planned proposal: “You are the only being upon earth to whom I should say what I have said; but you have always known my opinion of her; you can bear me witness, Fanny, that I have never been blinded.” But blinded and blind he has been and is.

Reading the amazing 34th chapter of Mansfield Park, the chapter in which Austen shows the character of Henry Crawford to the fullest. He is a man of genuine powers, agreeable to a remarkable degree. But for Austen — as Tave has shown — the relationship between ‘agreeableness’ and ‘amiableness’ is always under investigation. The two terms are so intimately related that they can be — and often are (by Austen’s characters, in life) — conflated. In many ways, their relationship is much like that between ‘truth’ and ‘validity’: they can be mistaken for synonyms, but they can part company. In the chapter, Crawford reads Shakespeare aloud so well that he eventually entrances even the reluctant Fanny, but as the conversation turns to reading aloud well (more generally) and eventually to reading Scripture aloud well, and to preaching, Crawford cannot manage himself for long. For all that he says of which Fanny approves of, he eventually wanders into the peculiar careless self-regard that is her aversion. Fanny involuntarily shakes her head in disapproval. Crawford sees her reaction but cannot really understand it. He sees nothing to repent of: he was sincere in what he said. Of course, Crawford is so thorroughly admixed with the false that even what he says sincerely is gainsaid by his being the speaker. — But that is part of the problem. He can talk ‘sincerely’ about himself but with no proper response to the things he ‘believes’ about himself.

Finished MP. Lots of thoughts, but here’s one. There’s a fascinating subjunctive paragraph as the novel ends, one that details a successful bid by Crawford for Fanny. Its tone suggests that it details what *almost* happened. — But that’s false. To use the lingo of analytic philosophy, the world described is no *nearby* possible world. Given Crawford’s watery character in the actual (fictional) world, the stoutness of resolution that bid involves makes it quite *distant*. The tone, I believe, is Austen’s narrative voice ventriloquizing Crawford’s own, showing his point of view on the unfolded events, his very unhappy sense that a different, better life was *almost* in his grasp.

MP is a novel about conscience, consciousness and the (intertwined) corruptions of each. The stress on vision and blindness figures a stress on moral vision and moral blindness. The late, severe language on the Crawfords, on Mary’s mind as ‘bewildered’, ‘darkened’, and similar language about Henry’s, has been built to in careful stages. The long, centerstage section on the MP theatrical accomplishes much of the work, as conscience, its use, abuse, and absence is displayed. As the literature on conscience bears out, and as Austen understood full well, there’s no blameless exit from the predicament of an erring conscience: the person in the predicament is damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t. She either does what her erring conscience demands, and does wrong, or she violates her erring conscience and so does wrong. Austen elongates the section because of the delicacy of the predicaments of the characters. No one’s conscience is simply absent, but various consciences are being abused. Mary and Henry’s err in crucial ways. So too Maria and Julia’s. Edmund’s actions cause Fanny so much distress because she sees him violating, and even laboring to befuddle, his own (non-erring) conscience. Fanny herself is worked upon by the theatricals, and is dangerously close to duplicating Edmund’s folly. The unexpected arrival of Sir Thomas saves her from having to choose whether to play (read) Cottager’s wife. The problem with the Crawfords is that they do not just have bad ‘principles’, though no doubt some of their ‘principles’ are bad: they can’t see clearly enough as to justly apply principles of any sort. Their consciousnesses themselves are corrupt. They do not and will not see.Near the book’s end, Henry suggests to Fanny that, married to him, she will become, in effect, his conscience. Fanny rejects the imputed role. No one can be anyone else’s conscience. But she reminds Henry that he does not need her. Each of us, she tells him, has in him or her what is necessary for determining right and wrong. I find that line tragic: Abstractly, Fanny is right, and her saying what she says is charitable. But it is not clear that Henry, the particular concreted human being, has any longer in him what he needs to determine right and wrong. Beneath his errors of conscience lurks a more fundamental moral debility, the protoplasmic untruth in which his heart itself is and has long been afloat.

I’ve started S&S, more on it soon, but, for now, a couple of final notes on MP.— For a great deal of her life (and of the novel) Fanny seems almost voiceless. No one hears her, seeks out her thoughts (except Edmund). But she hears herself, the voice of her conscience. Fanny listens to Fanny, even when no one around her does, and despite no one around her else listening to himself or herself. — I’m thinking I will write an essay on MP. “The Moral Grandeur of Fanny Price”. — The Crawfords are such smiling villains. Complicated, gifted, they call forth sympathy and regret as they repel. Seeing them for what they are requires keeping in mind something J. L. Austin once pointed out in a footnote (about the dangerous tendency to conflate succumbing to temptation to losing control of oneself). Imagining himself succumbing to temptation, to taking his own and someone else’s serving of ice cream at High Table, Austin asks: “But do I lose control of myself? Do I raven, do I snatch the morsels…and wolf them down…? Not a bit of it. We often succumb to temptation with calm and even with finesse.” Just so the Crawfords, at least until Henry’s ‘etourderie’ (Mary’s word) with Maria.

S&S: Austen’s gift for delivering crucial character descriptions in ways that can easily slip past the reader: Early in S&S, when Colonel Brandon must cancel the pleasure party to Whitwell, Sir John tries to reverse Brandon’s decision by reminding Brandon of the sacrifices made to attend that morning (it’s after 10am). The two Miss Careys have come from Newton, the three Misses Dashwood walked from the cottage, and Willoughby “got up two hours before his usual time”.

Austen, S&S.
— More one-liners than in Emma or MP. The prose is far less complicated. Reminds me a bit of passages of H. James before he rewrote them and after he did (although Austen’s are obviously not the reworkings of passages).
— The very careful apparent parallel constructed in Marianne’s situation with Willoughby and Elinor’s with Edward Ferrars. The contrast then from the beginning between Marianne self-feeding misery and Elinor’s efforts at self-command, made all-the-more strenuous by facing an almost omnipresent tormentor in Lucy Steel. Lucy’s clever, coldly cruel indirection in her speeches to Elinor — wow. She strikes home with dagger-point precision while seeming all smiles and amiability. “She looked down as she said this, amiably bashful, with only one side glance at her companion to observe the effect on her.” Ouch. What Austen gives with one hand she takes back with the other.
— Austen’s careful foreshadowing of Lucy’s capacity for clever cruelty (the foreshadowing does not come long before the revelation of the fact) and of Lucy’s sister Anne’s blunt cluelessness (the foreshowing does come long before the decisive effect of the revealed fact).

More on S&S

— It’s easy to miss, despite her being the center of consciousness in the novel, that S&S really is the story of Elinor and Edward. The story of Marianne and Willoughby (and later, Brandon) plays a contrapuntal role in the overarching structure. Elinor’s story is ‘told’ by and in the telling of Marianne’s, in Elinor’s moments of identification with and distance from Marianne. It’s easy to lose sight of this in part because Elinor’s self-command creates inner stillness, and that inner stillness can seem (and often does to Marianne and to Mrs. Dashwood) like a lack of feeling. But it’s not that at all, as Marianne will come to understand. That inner stillness costs Elinor tremendous exertion.

— The wonderful, subtle similarity between the nasty letter from Willoughby Marianne receives in London and Lucy Steel’s torment of Elinor! We will later discover that Willoughby’s letter was dictated to him by his wife-to-be, making it all-the-more like Elinor’s torment by her rival.

More on Austen.

Much to think about as I finished S&S, but I wanted to note something that carries across the novels I have read — the notion of *tolerable happiness*. Austen uses the term repeatedly (along with a variant, ‘tolerable comfort’) in the novels, and it characterizes the happiness of the novels’ happy endings. I suspect that Austen is doubling meaning here — a not-uncommon feature of her prose. ‘Tolerable’ can describe that which can be borne or endured; it can also describe that which is moderately good or agreeable, that which is not contemptible. (In *Emma*, I believe, we also get the phrases ‘happiness a la mortal’ and ‘finely chequered happiness’, both of which belong to this discussion.) Austen knows that what we often want when we want happiness is moments of transport, of body-leaving joy (there are such moments in the novels) but she also knows that such moments are (grammatically) *moments*: such happiness is intolerable; it cannot be borne, supported, for long: the business of embodied living goes on, a la mortal. The happiness that will satisfy is one that is moderately (another doubling word in Austenian contexts) good, agreeable, supportable. It is happiness compatible with wanting rather better pasturage for one’s cows…But, someone might ask, what of Emma and Knightley’s ‘perfect happiness’? That sounds more than tolerable, at least in the second sense? — True. — Still, I wonder if the ‘perfect’ there is not a bit of deliberate ironic archness, a bit of Emma’s imaginist point of view entering into the narrator’s voice? Not that I mean they were not happy: but rather that their perfect happiness was, after all, perfectly tolerable.

Austen.

— I’ve been accompanying my reading of Austen with sallies into Crabb’s English Synonyms. Crabb, prefacing the work: “Should any object to the introduction of morality into a work of science, I beg them to consider that a writer whose business it was to mark the nice shades of distinction between words closely allied could not do justice to his subject without entering into all the relations of society and showing, from the acknowledged sense of many moral and religious terms, what has been the general sense of mankind on many of the most important questions which have agitated the world.” It seems to me that this captures a deep ambition of Austen’s novels, her writing.

Austen, *Persuasion*.

— While *MP* is my favorite Austen novel, Anne Elliot is my favorite Austen character. — The beautiful handling of Anne’s history with F Wentworth, the proposal, and eventual parting: it is easy to understand even if not to agree with the views of all the interested parties. And the subtle ways Austen shows the reader just how deeply in love Anne was (and, really, still is). Much of the novel’s power is drawn from the continuing strength of her feelings, her constancy.

Austen, *Persuasion*.

— Two observations. (1) In an early paragraph about the mutual affection of Anne and Frederick, Austen’s notes that “the encounter of such lavish recommendations could not fail…they were rapidly and deeply in love.” And so they were, and so they are. Anne, although the least self-deceived of Austen’s central characters (she is certainly less self-deceived than Frederick — but then he was the one rejected, not the one who did the rejecting), is self-deceived about the continuing strength of her feelings for Frederick. Austen shows this to the reader (even before Anne realizes it) in the comments about her loss of ‘bloom’. The return of it later in the novel is not due to Lyme’s sea breezes but to her gradual rehabitation of feelings that have long been treated as alien, abandoned. When Anne first sees Frederick in person, the meeting deeply unsettles her, and she finds that to “retentive feelings” eight years may not be a long time, indeed not much time at all. But despite that acknowledgment, she will continue to resist her feelings, sure that Frederick is no longer for her. (What a wonderful phrase, “retentive feelings” — a ‘conative’ word modified by a ‘cognitive’ one, and their conjunction tells us a great deal about Anne’s mind, in the sense of ‘mind’ that is so important in Austen, the sense that Ryle delineates in his famous essay.)

(2) The fall of Anne’s sister’s son and the consequent events not only allow Austen to delay the first meeting between Anne and Frederick but they serve to foreshadow the fall of Louisa in Lyme and that fall’s consequent events. That’s obvious enough I suppose, but I am embarrassed to say I never really recognized it before. More on that soon.

Austen, *Persuasion*:

—”Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy could never have passed along the streets of Bath than Anne was sporting with from Camden Place to Westgate Buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume along the way.” Beautiful. I love it when Austen lets the prose spring into poetry. Such a paragraph. The play with ‘p’ and ‘sp’s!

— Anne is, in general, clear-sighted, self-commanding. That she is renders the three moments when she completely loses herself and her senses all the more memorable: when Wentworth first sees her again (and she him) at Uppercross, when she first sees Wentworth again in Bath, and when she realizes what his comments and stammering mean at the concert (“He must love her”).There are two other similar moments: one when she finds out that Wentworth is not in love with Louisa (“joy, senseless joy!”) and the other after reading the note Wentworth writes to her while she talks with Captain Harville (“It was an overpowering happiness.”)

Austen, *Persuasion*

—The early scene in which Anne’s nephew, Mary’s son, falls from a tree and breaks his collarbone is crucial to the tale. It establishes Anne’s willingness to help and presence of mind in an emergency. I recall reading once that Tiger Wood’s pulse rate fell when he lined up a put. Something like that, less reductively captured, seems true of Anne. It matters later, of course, in Lyme, in the aftermath of Louisa’s fall, but it also helps to underscore just how in love with Wentworth Anne has been and still is. She loses her senses in various scenes, always because of him, but in (other) emergencies, she exhibits a coolness and readiness that Wentworth himself fails to equal. (The exquisite irony of the ship’s captain failing in a moment of extremity, lapsing into an absence of mind, inability, while this slip of a woman, Anne, remains in control, thoughtful, able!) Wentworth overpowers her in a way nothing else does. So much of the book works only if we come to believe in Anne and the reality and justice of the depth of her love. We know relatively little of Wentworth, and some of it, certainly, *seems* unflattering, but we take Anne’s word for it — and we should.

*Emma*. I was caught today by an opinion of *Emma* held by Mr. and Mrs. James Austen, recorded by Jane Austen. She notes that they liked the book, but that they thought “the language different from the others; not so easily read.” This is perhaps the thing that has stood out to me above everything else in reading the novels this time. The complications of the language of *Emma*: it doubles more, shimmers more, twists more. Although Austen is ever fascinated by self-deception, it is in *Emma* that she makes the very center of the novel’s consciousness the most deeply self-deceived of any of her primary heroines. That requires Austen to do so much more in the writing, to find ways to allow the reader to see the deception and to see past it. Austen’s strategy and tactics for doing so are a study by themselves. To borrow a favorite Austenian term, the language of *Emma* “imposes” on itself, on the reader, but Austen takes care to make the imposition discoverable.

*Northanger Abbey*

Reading the novel this time, what struck me was the feeling of the emergence of a power, of Jane Austen herself. Guy Davenport has a collection of essays entitled *Every Force Evolves a Form*, and *NA* is Austen, an emerging force, evolving her form. To do it, she has to write herself — and her heroine — out of the fantastic, the romantic, call it the metaphysical, and reorient herself — and her heroine — on the probable, the commonplace, call it the ordinary. Most difficult of all, Austen has to demonstrate that her callow heroine’s modest victories over her ignorance, her undisciplined imagination, and her reticence to judge for herself satisfy more deeply than the knowing romantic heroine’s triumph over murderers, black veils and skeletons. And just to make it harder for herself, — because, why not? she is a power — Austen uses her authorial voice to mock, scold and pity Catherine for the modesty of her victories: especially for returning home, evicted and confused, in a hack post-chaise, — worlds away from Cleopatra in a chariot. Austen dares her reader to acknowledge what Austen wants to be acknowledged: the romance of our ordinary lives, the triumph in modest victories over ourselves.

 

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