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<---More Recent 75. Narration in P&P 74. Austen and Politics Earlier Answers-->

Name:Ms Russo
Question 76 Jane Austen, Thankyou very much for your response to my email it is very much appreciated. The information that you gave me is quite helpful. However, since emailing you I have changed my angle a little. Instead I am going to focus on investigating why Jane Austen's novel's have lasted so long, and are still applicable to society today. I am going to look at and read other female authors works during Jane Austen's time who were very popular whilst they were alive, Fanny Burney's 'Evelina' and Maria Edgeworth's 'The Absentee', however today are nearly unheard of and whose works are quite dated. Do you have any reponse to this investigation, I would love to hear your opinion on the subject.
Reply Dear Ms Russo,

Well of course I might end up writing ‘against myself’ here. But, after all, I was a writer and all those modern adaptations of me are a somewhat ambiguous tribute, a new form of literary canonisation which isn’t directly assessing me as a novelist (note adaptations of minor or bad writers—Galsworthy, for example). So perhaps the contemporaries you mention are unjustly undervalued. Then again,m not everybody likes me—Mark Twain was almost apoplectic over all these effete ‘gentleman’ types in frilly Regency clothes. Then again, excitement over the actors isn’t a direct tribute to me, though there are crossover points—the way I wrote up Lizzie Bennet as sprightly and attractive, for example, gives an acting opportunity for the female lead. Could Edgeworth and Burney produce anything comparable? Perhaps these people are [precursors], and you might like to note what I edited out. Did they have qualities, virtues I didn’t have? Did I narrow things down in social terms, evicting the lower orders from my novels in a way these others didn’t? Are my novels conservatively inflected in a way theirs aren’t? Should films be made of Edgeworth and Burney novels, and would this in fact be a tribute? Is their use of language clumsy compared with mine? Am I better at apportioning authorial commentary and dialogue? Why was Edmund Burke so excited by Fanny Burney (her work I mean [‘Evelina’ was the one he went particularly mad over, I think?]) Was I a sort of literary burglar with respect to these people? Possibly I was a beneficiary of previous talented efforts in the area, by Burney, also influenced by Dr. Johnson, for example? Are my plots more exciting, more ideologically significant, are my textures and local language use more amusing?

Again, what, if anything, do these people have that I don’t? Did I have them in mind in my defence of the novel in Ch. 5 of Northanger Abbey? (My attitude to the effects of novel-reading in the novel’s larger analysis is more ambivalent.) Is their ongoing neglect unjust? Do I simply have wit and the secret of style these others don’t? Why do modern novelists find my plots as prefabricated structures good to use? Is it that they already compose recognition-patterns for a huge audience which already knows about me through the adaptation, or is it their intrinsic superiority to those of these other people? What about our chronology and our reactions to each other? I know Maria made very little of my Emma –almost sounds a bit like a John Thorpe of Northanger Abbey there, if I may say so. What about the remarks about fellow-novelists including those about novels and Burney’s in particular in Northanger Abbey? Do they help? You recall my joke about the young fellow in specs, just up at Oxford, who believes ‘Evelina’ was written by Dr. Johnson? Does this fit in with my defence of novelists as ‘an injured body’, perhaps, with Burney at the front of my mind here? Is John Thorpe’s reaction to Camilla a reflection of his general chumpishness? Do these people, finally, share my mordant analysis of human motive, etc.? Are we, finally, in the same class? I’d rather you found out the virtues of these other people and didn’t just use them as whipping-girls for my greater gifts (‘foils’). I’m nice that way. Good luck my dear.

With best wishes

Jane Austen

March 15, 2005 01:53:25 (GMT Time)

Name:Rhian Cox                     Top
Question 75 Why is Jane Austen important?
What did she accomplish?
How did she accomplish it?
Reply Dear Rhian,

Sorry,, as a ‘genteel portable sort of invalid’ I’ve been too unwell to get to my eighteenth- century computer recently. I can say something about the question but I’m sure you wouldn’t wish me to do all the work. I provide the compass, or orienteering. You’ll get more out of this if your put yourself into it, I’m sure. It’s a long time since I wrote P&P. Let me see . . . Ah yes, the magnificent Elizabeth Bennet. The story is partly told from within her head, or her sensibility, and even when the narrator seems a separate being her thoughts creep close to characters ‘she’ ‘likes’, especially Lizzie, but the process isn’t as throughgoing as it is, to much more ironic effect, in Emma. When Elizabeth can’t see what’s going on, often the reader can’t. Especially in considering what Mr Darcy might be up to. Her hypothesis is that he has withdrawn as the family has ceased to be respectful after young Lydia’s elopement with Wickham, and the comments of Collins, the reactions of the neighbourhood, and the distraught parents seem to confirm that all is lost on the side of reputation.

So in one sense a surprising narrative hinge is Lydia’s inadvertent confession to the effect that Darcy attended her wedding in London, which leads to the revelations of Mrs Gardiner’s letter—to the effect that Darcy has paid off Wickham’s debts and arranged for the wedding and restored order so far as he can, blaming himself for not letting people know about Wickham’s earlier attempt to elope with his pathologically shy sister Georgiana, also fifteen at the time. This too, like the essential information revealed to Elizabeth by Mrs Gardiner, was revealed in a letter, this time by Darcy, written from Rosings and handed over in the grove near Hunsford. Letters have an important ‘narrative’ role here. The story originally led up to Elizabeth’s refusal of Darcy in Hunsford parsonage, of all places, after Mr Collins himself had said she would never get another offer. The irony is that here Elizabeth’s good qualities seem to tell against her. Her anger on her sister’s behalf, her scorn for people who marry for purely financial considerations, and perhaps her naivety in believing Wickham’s original lies about Darcy lead her to reject Darcy for reasons which ironically show how worthy she is to be a good and ‘great’ man’s wife. This is disastrous and traumatic, but it makes the narrative and the psychology of the book more interesting. (Places also punctuate the narrative, and the other false climax in the book is Elizabeth’s first visit to Pemberley as an embarrassed tourist, when she is then accepted as a guest, and, implicitly as a prospective wife. This movement upwards is cancelled by news of Lydia’s elopement, which ironically causes Darcy’s disappearance. This is another great dramatic irony of the narrative here. My narratives are full of such ironies, and reveal character and ideology as they unfold. My narrative voice is as if omniscient but often creeps close to the consciousness of the characters who interest me most, and here Elizabeth in particular. The famous opening sentence of the novel, universally acknowledged as a good one, is unassigned to any individual character but suggesting the preoccupations of many of them, and those of the Hertfordshire milieu of the beleaguered Bennets, suggesting how marriage aspirations are bound up with material considerations, preparing us for the perspectives of the desperate Mrs Bennet, the prudent Charlotte, and the ironic disdain for such motives shared by Elizabeth, Mr Darcy and perhaps Mr Bennet. From a point of view of understanding the narrative, in a sense, the clever title, Pride and Prejudice (his and hers), you might say, conceals possible other titles the narrative might indicate to be appropriate: The Sisters, for example, referring to Elizabeth and Jane as the admirable daughters of the house which, afflicted with the entail which will see the Longbourn property ‘descend’ to Mr Collins’, is under considerable pressure; or ‘The Bennets’, as in my fragment The Watsons, indicating that the narrative subject is the story or fate of the whole family. (at the end, instead of a mere concentration on the triumph of Darcy and Elizbeth, we have swift vignettes of Mrs Bennet who becomes a bit less silly, Mr Bennet, still eccentric but much happier knowing his Lizzie and Jane are well settled. We worry about Lydia, married to an opportunist and gambler who does not love her, less about Kitty, who improves, rejoice in the friendship of Darcy with the Gardiners, rejoice to see Darcy’s initial arrogance tamed and Lizzie’s misunderstanding of his underlying character corrected. We worry about Mary, who wanted Mr Collins, but she too became less conceited and I told relatives that in due course she married respectably. But that was outside the covers of the novel itself. Good luck--in teasing some things out for yourself.

With best wishes.

Jane Austen.

March 15, 2005 00:41:44 (GMT Time)

Name:Ms Russo                     Top
Question 74 I am planning to do a critical analysis on Jane Austen and other female writers during her time: George Eliot and Marie Corelli. I want to focus on the issues and themes that Jane Austen discussed in her novels, she focused on dissenting against the social convetions of her time; marrying for love or for money, patriarchal society, women and education and so forth. However there was a great deal occuring during Jane Austen's time, for example the French Revolution where as Austen focused on her own small world, the landed gentry.Why did Austen focus on these themes when she could have addressed political issues? Were female authors writing the same thing as Austen at that time or did they focus on political and global issues?
Reply Dear Ms Russo,

You have composed a long, potentially interesting question (or questions?) which contain a number of remarks and assumptions which need unpicking (your actual title will need to be shorter, I suppose and you raise a number of issues). (Er--much more seriously (!) you also fail to recognise my reality as Jane Austen in propria, as it were, persona!)

One key point is your definition of ‘the political’ and we need to ask where ‘the political ‘ends’. Quite intimate relationships and situations can have a political implications, and I’m not sure if that isn’t precisely ‘what I came to say’. Also behind that is the equally interesting question of what a novelist is and what ‘they’ should be doing. A novelist’s task is to write a novel, which means entertaining an audience, or if ‘entertaining’ is too frivolous for some of us, give aesthetic pleasure and satisfaction, narrative (and linguistic?) enchantments. I began in the most unpretentious way imaginable, with family skits and squibs, a sort of clown at the Anglican rectory. I couldn’t set off with a programme of ‘including the Most Serious and Significant Historical Events of My Time’, especially as I dealt with intimate social and individual relationships in a world I knew at first hand. (On the other hand, there may also be a critical issue in that lady novelists were supposed to be more domestic in their interests. There is a book by Nancy Armstrong about this you might wish to consult.) Also my famous pronouncement about choosing two or three families in a country village to work on (a casual remark in a letter doesn’t cover what I was doing in my novels, which progress by negating or qualifying each other –politically, if you will.

Some critics seem to wish novelists were actually historians, and I was quite good at laughing at people who wanted me to fulfil a pompous public programme. In this way I was able to mediate historical issues. Indeed, these are always mediated by, and, it’s healthy to say, subordinate to fictional components and narrative requirements which make the novel what it is. In addition, to cite one acute point made in Northanger Abbey, history (writing) itself contains a quotient of fictional elements, but often fails the entertainment test despite this. (The point about these points in NA is also, and contradictorily, the heroine Catherine Morland’s laughable intellectual callowness.) The instances you give of my subject matter are indeed political, and the idea that the other issues you mention are more so, or more worthy of attention, might be accused of being rather gross and patriarchal, perhaps. I was not heaving cutlasses on His Majesty’s ships, for example, but I was much preoccupied with the doings of the navy at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, for example—two of my brothers were on active service and became Admirals. The results flood into Mansfield Park and Persuasion. Mansfield Park also deals with slavery and the abolitionist arguments as well as the Napoleonic wars, with rumbles of revolt on Antigua and the naval alacrity and squalor of Portsmouth-- but in mediated, subtle, attenuated ways. Emma alludes to the facts of slavery in a discussion of governesses, and cultural capital and the economic base are in a way, the subject of the novel. My novels deal with the political, constantly, intrinsically, and the ideological is by way of being their home base. Sense and Sensibility posits the latter terms as the basis of a kind of social protest even if it foments personal behaviour formally found reprehensible. The radical term exacts more respect than the programme of the novel seems to announce. The theme seems to be one of Anglican recuperation as Elinor and Marianne marry a colonel and a clergyman, but many issues and attitudes are mooted which are challenging to the status quo even as familiar ethical sentiments are validated. The ancient regime is under attack in Persuasion, as the mores of old Lord Chesterfield, and the snobby spirit of Old Bath has its wings clipped. Formally, in genre terms, it looks as if Ladies in my time wrote novels about personal morality and attitudes which might even include anti-feminine satire (as titles like ‘The Female Quixote’ and ‘Self Control’ indicate, rather than formally embodying the mild radicalism and feminism of Mary Wollstonecroft’s The Wrongs of Women. (But see my fragment The Watsons for a more openly anti-patriarchal and potentially radical stance). But as it is, my apparently Anglican novels contain progressive elements and implications. See books by Mary Waldron and Marilyn Butler for more historical contextualising and information about the minor authors who surrounded me. And –best of luck to you, my dear!

With best wishes,

Jane Austen.

March 14, 2005 22:36:41 (GMT Time)