Revisiting Jane Austen

A couple of months ago I decided to start re-reading Jane Austen’s novels (some for the second time, some for the third).  I thought I’d record some thoughts about them, since it’s about 15 years since I had originally read these books.  I’ve just re-read Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.  Probably in the next couple of months I’ll read the last three – Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion.  

Northanger Abbey – Some things I took away from this re-reading.  This book is as much as defense of the idea of “the novel” as it is itself a novel.  Catherine Morland, its heroine, likes to read Gothic novels, and now and then whips herself into a frenzy by using the categories of Gothic fiction in her own life.  This is funny, but it’s also presented in a way that reminds the reader that this is what we all do with narratives much of the time.  The narrator of this book also, for time to time, helps herself to editorial comments about the nature of writing, art, novels, poetry, and the gendered categories in which her readership understands those categories.  This novel is, for the most part, “lighter” than the others, and more self-consciously literary. That’s not surprising I guess, seeing as it’s Austen’s first attempt at mature novel writing.

Sense and Sensibility – This is one of the first novels I remember reading fully (I was 19 I think).  I really never read books before that, except for a handful of mysteries or children’s books that I really didn’t pay much attention to.  I wasn’t one of those kids that read and re-read favorites over and over again.  I generally ignored whatever I was asked to read for school.  I bet in my life before that time I had read no more than 5 works of fiction cover-to-cover in anything like an attentive way.  So it’s interesting this was the third time I’ve read Sense and Sensibility.  Between readings #1 and #2, I probably read 30 other novels (it was about 2 years later).  Between #2 and #3 (it’s since been about 15 years) I’m sure I’ve read hundreds.  Reading it this time I can definitely see why it would have set me on a course to read so many other books.  This book’s main characters are Elinor and Marianne Dashwood.  Marianne is far more emotionally impressionable than her older sister Elinor, and falls in love with Willoughby, a dashing gentleman who leaves Marianne in hysterics.  The plot is well-known enough that I won’t summarize its details here.

The first time I read this book, strangely enough, I spent most of the pages identifying very strongly, even defensively, with Marianne.  This is not the ordinary way to read this book; it’s actually extremely counter-intuitive.  But I was taken with the idea that no one understood her, she alone had real feelings, etc.  That’s exactly how she sees herself, though it’s also a disaster that propels her down all sorts of self-destructive roads, and it’s basically not what the narrative voice of the novel endorses.  I wonder how I was so blind to that, but I take it to be a sign of a good book – I could take something from it that was totally alien to its author’s intentions.  I didn’t know that at the time either – I didn’t share the experience with anyone, I just had it.

A couple of years later, when I re-read it (now I was studying abroad in England, and was friends with several English majors) I saw how silly my first reading had been.  Just about everything Marianne says is ridiculous, and the narrator goes out of her way to highlight that ridiculousness. This time, it almost felt obvious in its affirming the virtues of Elinor’s restraint.  I now read it in an academically responsible way, following up on the footnotes in my Penguin Classics edition, which suggested that things like “sensibility,” “the picturesque” etc. were all ideological targets Austen was directing criticism towards through Marianne’s character.  I took that as interesting, and again, evidence this was such a great book.  I had been able to read it twice, at two different times, and come away with entirely different readings.

Just now, having read it a third time, it’s different again.  I was very mindful of those first two readings while re-reading it, and I think I ended up with a more balanced view.  I was able to see that, contra my first reading, there are definitely times where Marianne is shown as ridiculous.  There are also times though, now contra my second reading, where Elinor blocks herself from emotional experience in a way that is dialectically opposed but similar to the way Marianne over-exposes herself.  I also noticed that, towards the end of the book, Elinor, as her own romantic plot develops, is given over a bit to what she has recognized as the excesses in her sister.  This time through the book, I came to see that both sisters are characterized ambivolently enough to make them much more interesting than the simply naively romantic understanding I first had of this book, but also much more emotionally attuned than the academic, anti-Romantic piece of didacticism my English major friends and the Penguin Classics footnotes led me towards.

Pride and Prejudice – This time through, I was reinforced in my judgment that this book is exceedingly well-written, though perhaps not as emotionally trenchant as Sense and Sensibility.  The tete-a-tete between Elizabeth Bennett and Lady Catherine, very close to the end of the Third Volume (which I ended up reading aloud to Brooke) is really incredible.  I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say it reaches towards the heights of Greek drama’s great staged debates, or Plato’s dialogues.  Here though, Elizabeth and Lady Caterhine are not just debating ideas though – Elizabeth Bennett is breathtakingly defending her identity against an egregious and frightening attack that might have actually destroy her life if things did not turn out in her favor.  And at the time of that dialogue, she had no reason really to believe they would.

Still, though, this book is in-credible in another sense – the more literal one of its not being all that believable.  I shudder to say that (one of the least favorite things I ever hear people say about books, movies or television is “but that was so unrealistic!”) – but it’s true at some level.  Maybe a more charitable way of putting things is to say that in Pride and Prejudice, Austen has given us an anti-patriarchal and anti-petty-aristocratic fantasy.  Elizabeth Bennett is an idealized figure of protest, a sort of Jackie Robinson of the novel.  She’s perceptive, astute, verbally dexterous, and still beautiful, her father’s favorite, still gets the guy, and transforms her entire family’s social standing by her own power.  That’s a bit more than realism demands.

Some overall themes from all 3 books:

Austen’s irony.  I know I’m not even close to the first person to notice this or be taken with it, but it’s really her foremost rhetorical device.  The narrative perspective vacillates from the third-person-limited perspective of her heroine, outward to more third-person omniscient moments, but does not announce the transition at all.  The same thing happens in dialogue: direct and indirect discourse are switched between so rapidly, that sometimes, the direct quotations are sincere and sometimes they are sarcastic reconstructions of what was said.  The same goes for the indirect statements: at times, they are summaries of what was actually said; at others, they are hilarious, biting dismissals of what such a person would have said at such a time.  It’s really hard to write about this effectively, but the sense you get overall is an extraordinarily cynical, even bitter take on an entire universe of people, though it’s often presented in a way that makes it seem “charming.”  I think some of the movie renditions miss this about Austen – they will make fun of the Mr. Collinses, Lady Catherines, and Mrs. Bennetts, but the rest of the characters, even the whole social system, often have just as much scorn directed towards them, just in more subtle ways.  The period-piece preciousness of these massive BBC productions often misses the pointedness of the narration.

Consumerism.  I’m not sure why this never occurred to me before, but, the consumerist anxieties these characters bring to their lives are more or less exactly the same ones we 20th-21st century Americans bring to ours.  We live lives that are expected to be opulent without the actual means to maintain that opulence.  We have an enormous amount of status anxiety.  We worry about real estate and “improvement,” our carriages and how they present us to the world, we look to avoid work but require the money it provides us with.  The emotional strain of consumerist culture as it’s presented in Austen’s world is what is most similar to our era’s.  Also, the strange mix of privacy and publicity of the texting/facebook/twitter generation is really not so different from that of Austen’s drawing rooms, where any letter might be read aloud to anyone who might listen, and where anonymous or named short messages are received, dispatched, waited for urgently, etc.

I’ll write another installment after I read the other three books.

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