Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Jane Austen and the invention of the modern novel

This blogpost draws on an earlier blogpost from 12 September 2015 on this blog and expands it in the light of recent conversations with friends. I apologise for the undergraduate language used in this piece, but I have forgotten most of the literary theory I read for my first university degree.

When I first read Jane Austen, back in 2002, her novels quickly came to represent for me a point of excellence for the craft. I was struck by how mature they seemed despite having been published 200 years ago, and I came to the conclusion that she had discovered something new. What that was, was at first not entirely clear, but I had the inkling that it had something to do with the even tone she employed throughout her novels to describe every kind of emotion experienced by her characters from the greatest joy through to the deepest sorrow.

In my readings around her work I came a across a lot of books published prior to hers that lacked this sort of authorial disengagement. In epistolary novels, for example, which became popular in England in the 1830s, you can get some very strange orthography indeed when the writer is trying to express extremes of emotion experienced by his characters. The sentences break up in a cascade of dashes as the writer of the letter loses control of her emotions and they go careening off into the realm of the inexpressible.

Austen, who was born in 1775, critiqued such writing in her juvenilia, in the form of a series of short comical sketches written for domestic consumption during the 1780s and early -90s. In these sketches, she experimented with tone while also playing in a very critical way with the kinds of novelistic tropes - as she saw them - that fostered the emotional highs and lows she had grown suspicious of over years of novel reading.

She objected to the excesses of secular power implicit in the clunky plot devices that such writers used. Kidnapping, rape, elopement, murder, disinheriting, withholding of wages. The literature of the 18th century is full of democratically-minded writers using high-toned events in their narratives to achieve certain fictional outcomes, essentially to help to civilise a still very unfair era. They wanted people to be better, kinder, more empathetic. The political and legal structures that gave shape to the lives of people living in the broader community to which Austen herself belonged favoured a narrow ruling class. Austen, it has to be remembered, was a Tory, a backer of the king against Parliament, and so she found a lot of what was being published politically alien.

However she wanted to retain the psychological drama that Samuel Richardson had introduced into popular culture. It is notable nevertheless that her favourite Richardson novel was ‘Sir Charles Grandison’, which is about a good man with power and how he conducts himself in the world. Richardson wrote the novel because his readers were getting a bit tired of the venal male characters he was used to using in his books. Like Austen herself they wanted a bit of variety.

It should be remembered that the Austen family were great readers. Everyone from the youngest daughter to the head of the family read novels for pleasure, so young Jane had a wide audience for her hilarious sallies into the genre. Those were also the days of visiting, and a sheaf of papers would no doubt be taken along down the country lanes when the women went to pay a visit on a friend or neighbour.

What Austen came up with in order to support the kind of emotional registers that would allow the development of the psychological drama she sought to generate for readers like her immediate family was something that also enabled her to incorporate a quantity of humour into her novels.

This was to flatten out the expressive register of events throughout the novel. If everything was described with a delivery at a regular level of tone she would also naturally produce humour because what was something that in the realm of the novel was actually quite high-toned for the character would be uniform within the locus of description regulating things between the characters and the reader, in the fictive space itself. In this space, the author’s unique voice could be deployed effectively.

Austen manipulated the dramatic texture of her novels and introduced the irony that people nowadays still find so refreshing. The two things happened in tandem. In order to effectively introduce her authorial voice, she had to have realistic characters being driven by a realistic plot, a plot that your average reader could personally relate to. And she was quite aware of this quality of her books. She once in a letter described her work to a correspondent: “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour.” You level out the dramatic fabric of the novel and this allows you to do other things, such as deploy humour and investigate the psychological processes the characters are going through. Character development is something that Austen uses with great skill, and it is another aspect of her writing that sets her above most of her coevals.

The writers Austen herself admired came closest to doing something on the same level that she herself attained. I have already mentioned one novel by Samuel Richardson. There is also Maria Edgeworth, the Irish writer who was just a few years older than Austen herself but whose fame at the time was far greater than hers. And then there was George Crabbe, the naturalist-parson-poet whose short stories in iambic pentameters, like Austen's works, belong to the Augustan stream in the Romantic river.

Of course, everyone would agree that Austen tends to limit the scope of her novels by concentrating with such dedication to such narrow concerns as marriage and sex, but others would go on to furthering the reform project, such as Charles Dickens, in whose novels you get a much wider set of experiences and types of characters involved in the dramas the author invents. I think that Dickens is a wonderful writer, but I have to be honest and say that what he achieved would never have been the same without the example Austen offered.

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