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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

More of my thoughts about Jane Austen vis a vis Hannah More

The following are two posts I made this morning in Janeites and Austen-L regarding Jane Austen vis a vis Hannah More.

First, I thank Christy [Somer] for her extracts from Coelebs, which prompted me to take a close look at Hannah More's actual writing for the first time, as opposed to reading _about_ More, which is what I had previously done.

So, in addition to reading here and there in the essay on Religion which both Edmund Bertram and Mary Crawford covertly alluded to, I also read the Preface and first ten chapters of Coeleb, enough to get a good flavor of More's mature writing style and a sense of her stance on matters of religion and psychology.

My sense is that JA had a very mixed ambivalent attitude toward More. On the one hand, More's high intellect, great erudition, independence of thought, classically elegant writing style, and passionate engagement with the interface of religion and psychology, would all have been apparent to JA, and would have met with JA's strong approval. On the other hand, however, I think JA parted ways very decisively with More on questions of how a strong, intelligent woman should act in the world.

Here are two passages from early in Coelebs which to me provide good examples for illustrating the sharp parting of paths between JA and More:

"This error, I conceive, arises from religion being too much considered as a mere institution of decorum, of convention, of society; and not as an institution founded on the condition of human nature, a covenant of mercy for repairing the evils which sin has produced. It springs from the want of a conviction that Christianity is an individual as well as general concern; that religion is a personal thing, previous to its being a matter of example; that a man is not infallibly saved or lost as a portion of any family, or any church, or any community; but that, as he is individually responsible, he must be individually brought to a deep and humbling sense of his own personal wants, without taking any
refuge in the piety he may see around him, of which he will have no benefit, if he be no partaker."

While superficially, it might seem that JA would agree with what More advocates in the above passage which could be said to describe what someone who wishes to be a force for good in the word, i.e., a human "angel", I think that there was a radical difference between JA and More in terms of both (i) the degree to which a true Christian ought to acquiesce in societally-sanctioned injustice, and (ii) what actually constitutes "injustice" in various social contexts. I.e., the _angel_ is
in the details, and I believe JA and More differed strikingly in the details. What should the good Christian do in order to "repair the evils which sin has produced"? And, behind that question, what is "sin", and what are those "evils"? These latter two questions must not be begged, they are crucial. I think that there was only partial overlap between JA and More in answering both of those questions.

The way they each approached the writing of fiction was also very different. As More candidly acknowledges in her Preface, she really was not a novelist by either temperament or learning. Those first 10 chapters of Coelebs were nonfiction treatises in very thin disguise, there was not even the beginning of what fiction really is, which is showing and not telling. There is nothing but telling in Coelebs, and what a contrast that is to JA's novels, where there is nothing but
showing, and on the rare occasions where there is telling, it is, in my opinion, ironic, and masking a deeper showing. Which is one of the many reasons why the world reads JA's novels, and does not read Coelebs. In this regard, it's also very revealing that More famously had serious reservations about the morality of the theater, which of course and not coincidentally is a theme at the center of Mansfield Park. What the text of Coelebs reveals is that More had absolutely no gift for dramatization, which, as JA well understood, was at the heart of the craft of the great novelist, a craft in which JA had few peers and no superior.

So it does not surprise me at all that JA read Coelebs very carefully, as well as, I am sure, a great deal of More's nonfiction writing as well. She read it, learned what she could from it, she gave it all a lot of thought, and then, in my opinion, went her own very different authorial way.

Then I responded to the response I received from Nancy Mayer as follows:

[Nancy] "However, More's first popularity, her first money earned, and her first
acquaintances in literary circles were all in the theatre. More wrote plays which were produced by Garrick. It was generally understood at the time that she could have made her living and her name as a dramatist. It was after she had been feted for her success in the theatre that she was influenced by Wilberforce as to religion and gave it all up. She returned home and never again attended the theatre. At least one of her plays was produced after she turned evangelical.
She had sold the copyright so had no control of the product. NO producer will willingly and deliberately put on a play he knows will fail, so we must assume that Miss More's play had some dramatic qualities. "

I was judging based on what I read in Coelebs, and it was clear_ there_ that, whether as an intentional renunciation of dramatic writing in favor of an extremely intellectualized didactic style, or some mysterious loss of ability from when she did write plays, More was writing in a style which was the furthest thing from writing for the stage.

[Nancy] "Also, the rules of fiction were different at that time. There was no rule to show not tell. IN fact some good books have a great deal of telling in them. "

Sure, there are novels with a great deal of telling which have value in other ways, but the "rules of fiction" as you put it have existed as long as there has been fiction, regardless of whether early writers of fiction abided by them or not. It is an aesthetic principle which grows organically out of the nature of fiction writing itself, it is not a fashion or a trend that changes with the times. As I understand the essence of that principle, it has to do with creating or simulating a real-life experience for the reader, or "mimesis"--a skilled writer of fiction who shows rather than tells gives the reader a sense of being there as the action occurs, and, as in real life, being forced to make judgments of what is happening on his or her own. I.e., showing generates an active reader, telling generates a passive reader.

It took a long time for fiction to mature as an art form to the point where this principle is now more or less universally recognized---I know I am not alone in thinking that _Tom Jones_ would have been a much greater masterpiece if Fielding has cut out about 150 pages of self indulgent meta-commentary. It is a rule which can be broken successfully on rare occasions by writers of genius who strive to create a completely different aesthetic experience for the reader. Writer who, like Picasso
in visual art, deliberately break the rules to achieve a breakthrough to a new aesthetic goal. Just as Rembrandt was an epitome of representational art, but then we have Picasso breaking the rules of representation, the way that postmodern writers break those rules in a fictional context.

More's didactic telling is definitely _not_ in that postmodern category. And to her credit, More more or less acknowledges this shortcoming in her Preface--she as much as admits she is writing a simply dramatized moral treatise--like a much longer version of those Cheap Repository Tracts you mentioned--and she does a good job on those limited terms. But as novel writing, even though her mode of expression is uniformly intelligent and well written, in the end of the day, it's not good fiction-writing. There is no "mimesis" of real life.

[Nancy] "There are many things it is easier to tell about than to show. There are also actions I wish more authors would tell and not show."

Yes, but in my opinion, fiction which makes the reader work to discern meaning, and which plays with ambiguity because life itself is so often ambiguous, is great fiction. That is JA's greatest mastery, in my opinion, that even on repeated rereadings, JA continually challenges her readers to struggle to interpret ambiguity. And, ironically, that is why I consider JA's didacticism to be directed toward an entirely different audience than More's. More was writing for readers who were very happy to passively accept her telling them what was moral and what was not. JA was writing for an entirely different kind of reader, one who really wished to learn for him or herself how to make moral judgments. JA was, in a way, Socratic, her writing is, in a way, one question after another.

[Nancy] "More certainly made much more money from her writing than Jane Austen ever did."

All of which only proves that More was extremely intelligent, knew exactly what she was doing, and was successful at it--but that does not make her a fiction writer worth reading today, for any reason other than, ironically, that JA alluded to More in JA's novels, which _are_ worth reading today!

[Nancy] "Also, isn't there some danger that 21st century non Christian definitions of sin and redemption are being introduced here? Jane Austen was not a product of the 20th century. Also, in the vocabulary of the time in religious discourse, sin and evil had different definitions than present day secular critics might give them."

I think JA's novels and letters are the primary evidence which demonstrate that JA had a very sophisticated sense of morality and spirituality, where she went far beyond straightforward, conventional formulations of same by the likes of Hannah More. As I opined in a recent post, the question of the nuances of JA's sense of morality and spirituality is one that should not be begged, by assuming she would
have held to conventional ideas of her time. My sense of JA is that she was way ahead of her time in many ways, and this was one of them. Like More, she took morality and spirituality very seriously, but in my opinion, her morality was very different from More's, as I will elaborate in another post I will send within the next hour, revealing some "more" of JA's veiled reactions to More's writings!

Cheers, ARNIE

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