Thursday, 21 July 2011

The Knowing of Jane Austen

"She knew what she knew, like a sound dogmatist: she did not know what she did not - like a sound agnostic," G. K. Chesterton wrote of Jane Austen, in his The Victorian Age in Literature. A tiny, but pretty clear, portrait of unreasonableness: Austen, sufficiently provincial to believe that the confines of her time and place are all in all: knowing what lies within them with unquestioning certainty; utterly ignorant of what might lie outside them, ignorant even that there is an outside them.

But, I wonder whether this really describes the limits of Austen. Perhaps she did know what she knew, but she also, sometimes, did not know what she knew, being prone to lapses into that kind of knowing for which the things we humans know are to be held in some contempt and at a remove. At the close of Mansfield Park, Austen writes thus of the final union between the protagonist, Fanny Price, and her long time love, Edmund Bertram:
I purposefully abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people. - I only intreat every body to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire.
No dogmatism here, Mr. Chesterton: only the most open and inclusive of knowing, only a knowing so aware of its not knowing that it will presume to sketch but the mere outline of a plot, leaving the reader, with all of her knowledge, to fill in the rest. No agnosticism, either: but the explicit statement that she knew what she did not know, humbly handing over to every reader the determination of appropriateness in the timing of true love, aware that her sense of timing would have its limitations and not ring true for all.

A great show of reasonableness, then, to counter Chesterton's portrait. But what kind of reasonableness is this, that is so knowing as to back away from its task, so knowing as to relinquish its duties? It is the reasonableness of knowing you don't know, the reasonableness so knowing of the partiality of human ways and means that it holds them at an arm's length, in some disdain.

It is, perhaps, for this reason that Austen has been more or less plucked out of that tradition of women novelists clustered around the end of the eighteenth century (they have not been taken very seriously on account of the limited nature of their work) and transplanted into the Victorian Age, as befitting a writer of our time, a writer who too showed contempt for her trade all the better to raise herself above it.

We might turn here, at last, to Aristotle, in whose Poetics it is written that the superior forms of poetry give precedence to that which is universal in their story, turning only then to the particular episodes that go to elaborate it. That which is universal, Aristotle explains, is that which is integral to the story, in the case of Mansfield Park, the simple event that the heroine wins the hero of her desires, unalloyed with the mere elaboration of that event in terms of when and how it took place. It is for this reason, for Aristotle, that "poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history": for poetry makes salient the universal features of what happens or might happen, whereas history is bound to the detail, arbitrarily (Aristotle's judgment) unfolding, without necessity, sometimes even without probability, merely of what actually takes place.

Aristotle explains this point by analogy with painting, observing that there is little pleasure to be had from the painter who applies (even exquisitely beautiful) colours at random, when compared with the effect produced by the outline of an image in black and white.

In 1816, Austen famously wrote to her nephew, James Edward Austen, of "that little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour": a comfortingly artisan image of the writer at work, painstakingly constructing a likeness in tiny scale and with fine materials; but Austen's contempt for this process, the contempt that changes her image of the artisan into that of the artist, is expressed, not just with the tone of irony with which Austen so frequently positions herself above the arbitrary vicissitudes of the events and the characters that elaborate her plots, but also with the account she gives of her nephew's writing style, with which the description of her own style is intended to contrast: "strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow." With which style of writing would Aristotle have approved? Certainly not, the one characterized by variety and glow; much more likely, the one undertaken with a fine brush (to keep the lines sharp) on pale background and with a view (this was why "miniatures" of their daughters were often commissioned by noblemen, to encourage the ardour of potential suitors) to achieving, not a mere likeness of the subject (the stuff of "history"), but the essence of their personality as well (the stuff of "poetry").

There is a kind of knowing that is mostly attributed to young women, who are perceived not only to employ their feminine wiles but to do so in a manner so conscious of their attractions that the effect is unpleasant, as if the young woman in question were setting herself above the round of human relations even as she also engages in it. It may be this kind of knowing that separated Austen from her contemporaries, and made her much more a writer of our time than she was a woman of her own.

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