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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Jane Austen's excellent satire on the relationship between history and fiction

In Austen L and Janeites, Diana Birchall made some interesting comments on Jane Austen's Letter #4 and its apparent dearth of reference to current events in the wider world, and I responded thusly:

[Diana] "She'd rather talk of dresses in her letters *to Cassandra*! Very few letters to her brothers survive but there's no talk of dresses in them....I can't make much of an argument for her being interested in politics, though. We might say she lived at a time when it wasn't accepted for women to talk politics, but London aristocratic ladies certainly did, and in fact one of the few "political" mentions in the novels is Mary Crawford writing to Fanny and saying, "You have politics..." (so she need not tell them). Mary Crawford is a London lady, of course."

Diana, even without any of the subtextual discoveries I've made in regard to JA's strong interest in politics from a young age until the very end of her life, it suffices to merely collect the _existing_ scholarship on this subject (which is now voluminous, performed as it has been by well in excess of 50 different Austen scholars over the past 4 decades, with new stuff coming out every year) to conclusively demonstrate how interested JA was in politics over her entire writing career. The in-jokes about English history in The History of England _alone_ are sufficient to show how widely read Jane Austen was in history at age 17. My own personal sense is that JA was most fascinated by the exercise of power by human beings over other human beings, both on the micro and the macro level. Games people play, if you will.

And on the point of female literacy, I am certain that JA was in strong agreement with Mr. Darcy _and_ Mary Wollstonecraft about the benefits to young women from reading deeply on a wide range of subjects, not merely in fiction.

"I don't take Catherine Morland's "from politics it was an easy step to silence" as evidence, because Catherine is seventeen and ignorant"

Ah, Catherine knows much more than you realize--she just lacks confidence in her own knowledge and abilities, a lack of confidence which, alas, Henry, Mr. Passive Aggressive, persistently mocks and aggravates in a very ungentlemanly way---although _he_ thinks he is being (in Mrs. Elton's words) a "thorough humourist".

But the author who could write the following conversation (in Ch. 14 of NA), subtly disguised as an illustration of Catherine's ignorance, was one who knew _both_ history and fiction very well:

[Catherine] “That is, I can read poetry and plays, and things of that sort, and do not dislike travels. But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in. Can you?”

[Eleanor] “Yes, I am fond of history.”

[Catherine] “I wish I were too. I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all — it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention. The speeches that are put into the heroes’ mouths, their thoughts and designs — the chief of all this must be invention, and invention is what delights me in other books.”

“Historians, you think,” said Miss Tilney, “are not happy in their flights of fancy. They display imagination without raising interest. I am fond of history — and am very well contented to take the false with the true. In the principal facts they have sources of intelligence in former histories and records, which may be as much depended on, I conclude, as anything that does not actually pass under one’s own observation; and as for the little embellishments you speak of, they are embellishments, and I like them as such. If a speech be well drawn up, I read it with pleasure, by whomsoever it may be made — and probably with much greater, if the production of Mr. Hume or Mr. Robertson, than if the genuine words of Caractacus, Agricola, or Alfred the Great.”

[Catherine] “You are fond of history! And so are Mr. Allen and my father; and I have two brothers who do not dislike it. So many instances within my small circle of friends is remarkable! At this rate, I shall not pity the writers of history any longer. If people like to read their books, it is all very well, but to be at so much trouble in filling great volumes, which, as I used to think, nobody would willingly ever look into, to be labouring only for the torment of little boys and girls, always struck me as a hard fate; and though I know it is all very right and necessary, I have often wondered at the person’s courage that could sit down on purpose to do it.”

“That little boys and girls should be tormented,” said Henry, “is what no one at all acquainted with human nature in a civilized state can deny; but in behalf of our most distinguished historians, I must observe that they might well be offended at being supposed to have no higher aim, and that by their method and style, they are perfectly well qualified to torment readers of the most advanced reason and mature time of life. I use the verb ‘to torment,’ as I observed to be your own method, instead of ‘to instruct,’ supposing them to be now admitted as synonymous.”

[Catherine] “You think me foolish to call instruction a torment, but if you had been as much used as myself to hear poor little children first learning their letters and then learning to spell, if you had ever seen how stupid they can be for a whole morning together, and how tired my poor mother is at the end of it, as I am in the habit of seeing almost every day of my life at home, you would allow that ‘to torment’ and ‘to instruct’ might sometimes be used as synonymous words.”

[Henry] “Very probably. But historians are not accountable for the difficulty of learning to read; and even you yourself, who do not altogether seem particularly friendly to very severe, very intense application, may perhaps be brought to acknowledge that it is very well worth–while to be tormented for two or three years of one’s life, for the sake of being able to read all the rest of it. Consider — if reading had not been taught, Mrs. Radcliffe would have written in vain — or perhaps might not have written at all.”

Catherine assented — and a very warm panegyric from her on that lady’s merits closed the subject. END OF EXCERPT FROM NA

"...though Henry Tilney does *try* to introduce the subject, which shows he doesn't think it improper to discuss politics with ladies."

Diana, I'd say instead that Henry feels threatened by Catherine's native intelligence and her unnerving tendency to notice the nakedness of the Emperor.

What Henry _ought_ to have replied, as he did elsewhere in NA to one of Catherine's inadvertent bon mots, was "An excellent satire on the relationship between history and fiction!"--but he was not generous enough to do that. And of course the person who deserves full credit for that satire is JA herself---an author cannot create a naif like Catherine who knows much more than she realizes she knows, and a man who feels threatened by her intuitive wisdom, unless that author knows that "much more" and then some!

And JA's main complaint with historical and contemporary political writing, as voiced by Catherine, was not that it was uninteresting, but--as Catherine expresses it at Beechen Cliff--that it was so severely gender biased, i.e., that it ignored or distorted the role of, and impact upon, women, of world and national events. Her novels are, in a very significant way, a corrective of that ignoring and distorting. Her novels are fictionalized forms of feminist social history, which tell us more today about life as it was actually lived _by women_ two centuries ago than any male-written nonfiction book of the day can tell us now.

That's why the very astute Annabella Milbanke, mother of the computer pioneer Ada Lovelace, wrote the following about Pride and Prejudice in 1813:

"I have finished the Novel called Pride and Prejudice, which I think a very superior work. It depends not on any of the common resources of novel writers, no drownings, no conflagrations, nor runaway horses, nor lap-dogs and parrots, nor chambermaids and MILLINERS, nor rencontres and disguises. I really think it is the _most probable_ fiction I have ever read..."

I bet Milbanke loved Northanger Abbey, too, after it was published, with its explicit and exquisite satire on the subject of the probable. NA in fact teems with sophisticated but covert satires on many issues that were the subject of intellectual discussion among the likes of Hume, Locke, Smith, et al--discussion which JA herself clearly had read, understood....and then critiqued in her veiled way.

"However, Jane Austen's own reading gives another clue. Her fulsome adoration for such books as Captain Pasley's on military policy or Clarkson's History of the Abolition of the Slave Trade does not sound like the reading matter of one who is as frivolous as you imply."

And these are only the tip of a very large iceberg of books that JA read, even if we limit our tally to the Letters themselves. JA read copiously, fiction and nonfiction, on dozens of subjects, and do you doubt that she also talked and corresponded about the world with all of her highly educated and widely traveled brothers as well?

"Her letters do show what she thinks what would interest and amuse her sister, that's all. "

I'd say that much more often it was that these letters were passed around wherever CEA happened to be, and it was "impolitic" (ha ha) to let a lot of people know how widely knowledgeable and widely read JA really was. Once again, NA is our touchstone:

"A woman especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can."

_That_ is the most important reason why JA's letters to CEA so often seem to be much ado about very little. E.g., I doubt that JA could have moved among the Godmersham set so freely, making "field observations" of the behavior "in the wild" of her wealthy dinner companions, had they all been aware of who she really was as a person!

But then think about JA's letting her hair down and writing to Martha Lloyd what JA really thinks about the Prince Regent, and you get a rare surviving glimpse of what JA would have written about in all of her letters, if she had not wished to conceal the full extent of her knowledge from those who could not be trusted with that information.

Cheers, ARNIE

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