More Jane Austen (was: Re: Lit. Crit., etc.)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at
Wed Jun 6 14:26:23 EDT 2001

On Tue, 5 Jun 2001 23:54:52 EDT, JOdel at wrote:

>In a message dated 6/5/01 3:58:53 PM, Melissa at writes:
>>?I also thought, the first time, that he'd suddenly changed into this
>>completely different person, and it was disconcerting.
>>It isn't until the end, when all is resolved, that he finally explains
>>the change he went through to Elizabeth (and by extension to the reader), but
>>by then the book is over. 
>But are we taking into account just how experimental this form of the novel 
>still was at the time P&P was written?

When I had this reaction I was only taking into account my own preferences
in reading for pleasure.  :)  But this is an *excellent* question and it's
gotten me thinking along other lines--and wishing I knew more about the
early development of the novel.

> I will not claim that it had not ever 
>been done beore, but surely Austin's shifting viewpoint (from tightly focused 
>from Lizzie, and no one else's viewpoint, to to that of a partisan narriator, 
>but a separate one -- i.e., NOT an omnicient narriator or one that is 
>completely disengaged from Lizzie's points of reference. ) was not all that 
>common. The narriator of S&S, although also partisan, was more detached than 
>the narriator here, and that of Northanger Abbey, quite solidly looking on 
>from outside the action.

As I said, I know almost nothing about the novel structure in Jane Austen's
day.  I know that _Northanger Abbey_ was either satire or pastiche on that
form, and I suspect that the narrative voice in that book closely resembles
what other writers such as Mrs. Radcliffe were doing.  But for her other
novels, it's very possible that Austen used a unique style.  I imagine that
she *was* one of the first to use this limited but separate narrator--as you
say, neither the voice of the character nor an omniscient one.  The
novel-form examples I can think of from before her time were all first
person limited.  And the omniscient narrator comes, I think, from the essay
form that was so prominent in that period as well (which also had the
first-person-limited POV).

> This partisan narriation limits the story in that 
>the reader never does get a really good handle on Darcy, which is a serious 
>flaw in an otherwise sucessful book. (It has been admitted by even the most 
>ardent Janeites that she does not really excell in her portraits of the 
>heros. Henry Tilney is probably the most uncomplicatedly attractive of the 

I think the way she draws her heroes is what makes them so appealing to
modern readers of romance.  In never allowing us inside Darcy's head--in
keeping him at a distance and perhaps a little vague--she's created a
perfect example of the Mysterious Stranger, that great romantic icon.  Any
details she leaves out can be filled in by the reader--another romance-novel
technique, something that lets the hero appeal to a wide variety of women
with a wide variety of tastes in romantic heroes.  

Myself, I don't see this as a flaw.  Austen's heroes take shape for the
reader through the perceptions of the women whose stories they are a part
of.  This is yet another form of feminist criticism, by the way--the search
for women's stories in literature.  One of the things I disliked about the
recent A&E miniseries of _Pride and Prejudice_ is that it did occasionally
dip into Darcy's point of view, which to me seemed to miss this aspect of
the book (that it's fundamentally one woman's story, never mind what the
title says).  But I would really like to see a rewritten version of the
novel, making Darcy the main character and Elizabeth the shadowy
half-developed one.  Call it _Prejudice and Pride_. :)

>I have heard it claimed that Austen is probably about as far back as we can 
>go in the development of the novel and still find something which a modern 
>reader can (not necessarily does, obviously) find accessible. I am inclined 
>to agree.

That seems fairly likely, especially if it means that it's the earliest
novel that a modern reader can read as if it were a modern novel.  Daniel
Defoe was about a century earlier; _Robinson Crusoe_ was published in 1719
and _Moll Flanders_ came out in 1722.  (I looked these dates up.)  I think
people can and do still read these books, and _Crusoe_ in particular uses
that shipwreck/survival story that has been popular for ages.  But those are
still very different from the modern novel; it's the story rather than the
technique that keeps them alive in popular culture.  Most of the people I
know have read _Pride and Prejudice_; I know no one who has read _Robinson
Crusoe_.  Which could simply mean that I have low-brow friends, but

What was strangest to me was when I realized that to Austen's
contemporaries, her books would be analogous to our mainstream fiction
today, instead of historical (the way we read them).  I don't know why that
struck me as odd; it's so obvious.  I suppose because it also got me
wondering about the fate of her contemporaries.  The novel form was thriving
in Austen's day, despite being sort of trashy, but her contemporaries mostly
disappeared.  It started me thinking about which books being written today
are going to appeal to audiences two centuries from now.

Melissa Proffitt
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