Jane Austen was a load of re that I snipped off

Hallie O'Donovan hallieod at indigo.ie
Sat Jun 16 16:53:16 EDT 2001


>On Mon, 11 Jun 2001 01:49:09 +0100, Ven wrote:
>>and Paul said
>>>  I don't know the book of which you speak well enough to make
>>>  deliberate comment, but this doesn't make sense to me: surely, if Mary
>>>  is a malingerer and a social climber, then she should be treated as
>>>  such?
>>Interesting. One of the things my English teacher used yto
>>complain about was my tendency to ask why the author hadn't
>>written a character differently or turned the plot another way. I'm
>>still doing it which is how this bit of the argument got started. If an
>>author wrote it that way is there anything more to be said?
>It's not that there's nothing to be said, it's that the question "Why didn't
>the author write the book differently?" can be a dead end.  It goes to
>motive, which is unknowable.  Anything we might say about why Jane Austen
>made Mary a whiny hypochondriac rather than a genuine sufferer is pure
>guesswork.  Guesswork, moreover, that usually supports our own theses at the
>expense of the author, who isn't around to defend herself.
>One aspect of postmodern criticism--a mainstay of feminist criticism as I
>was taught it--is the strong reading.  A strong reading is one that denies
>the obvious things the author "intended" you to understand or believe.  It
>means not taking the text at face value, not accepting the overt
>conclusions.  It's important to feminist criticism because it's how you look
>for hidden or subjugated voices (though I hate using that word).  It's like
>reading Conrad's _Heart of Darkness_ from the woman's point of view (either
>the native or the fiancee).
>Anyway, you can ask those questions, but I don't think you can draw any
>conclusions about the author from the answers you come up with:
>>Well, this brings me to a bit of argument I've been meaning to bring
>>up, concerning author's predjudices. Suppose a character in a
>>nineteenth century novel is presented as stupid, comically ugly and
>>irredeemably vulgar mannered. It's designed to arouse sympathy
>>for the young man  whose father wants him to marry this fright for
>>her money.  But suppose this character is black, and we know
>>from other sources that the author was actively racist, does this
>>not change the picture we have of her and of the author's intent?
>>Can we still treat her as the author depicts her? The author in
>>question is Thackeray, the book Vanity Fair.
>Again, the author's intent is problematic--and I don't know what other
>sources you cite as evidence of Thackeray's racism.  (I also haven't read
>the book.  It's on my to do list, okay?)  If you've got an author who always
>depicts black characters as stupid, ugly, and vulgar, then you can probably
>not trust that depiction.  But his intent doesn't matter.  He could be
>maliciously racist.  He could be ignorant.  He could be completely
>misinformed.  All of those are still just GUESSES.
>Besides, I really don't think it matters.  Reading isn't about illuminating
>the mind of the author.  It's self-revelatory, as I think I said before.
>You might be passionate about discrediting racism, and criticize _Vanity
>Fair_ with that end in mind, but continuing along that line to draw
>conclusions about the author is just a dead end.  You're reading the text,
>not its writer.

Oh what the heck.  I haven't finished my other replies, but am still 
going to jump back in here.  Are we playing "friendly cop, mean cop" 
in our defense of Jane Austen/defense of Ven's dislike of Jane 
Austen, Melissa?  ;)  (Or should I not reveal more of our Evil Plan?)

I *was* going to  reply to this that I agreed whole-heartedly with 
the statement:

>I do find it
>acceptable to step outside the parameters of a book for the
>purpose of criticism.

while still believing that deciding that JA was hateful solely on the 
basis of Mary's being a malingerer and a snob, was probably not 
justifiable.  (But I didn't write this as I couldn't come up with any 
word less obnoxious-sounding than "justifiable".)

I'm pretty sure that this happened before you joined the list, Ven, 
but one of the times I rashly spouted an un-thought-out opinion here 
concerned a similar case, which for me was Dahl and his 
anti-semitism.  (And iirc, which I'm pretty sure I do, Melissa 
defended my right to dislike Dahl's work on that basis!)  Surely this 
goes back to the view of criticism which Deborah described as Reader 
Response.  If Ven has encountered something which describes Thackeray 
as a racist, or I read of Dahl's anti-semitic statements, and we find 
evidence of that in the text, it will obviously affect our experience 
of reading.  In saying that those anti-semitic statements affect my 
reading, I'm not going anywhere near saying that it was Dahl's intent 
to make Willy Wonka's factory like a crematorium, or anything about 
his motive in describing a punishment which sounded rather like The 
Final Solution.  (Although this is not at all the only reason I 
dislike Dahl.  And I haven't read _Vanity Fair_ either, so I'm using 
my example because I obviously can't really address Ven's.)

So of course we're reading the text and not the writer, but 
contextual information about the writer (if trustworthy, which is a 
whole other can of worms, I admit) is one thing which can add a lot 
to our understanding of the text.  Which may or may not increase our 
liking of it.

But this doesn't mean that I think the process works in the other 
direction - that the character of Mary in _Persuasion_ proves 
anything about Jane Austen - especially after remembering Mrs. Smith. 
A bit late for the discussion, unfortunately, but still.  (She was 
the widowed friend of Anne's from school, who was an invalid, 
presented completely sympathetically.)

>Melissa Proffitt
>(interested in a strong reading of _Aunt Maria_ with Maria as the victim,
>but I think it might be impossible or simply distasteful)

I'm going to HAVE to read _Black Maria_ again soon now.  Something 
I've been avoiding rather.


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