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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Jane Austen''s Rare Authorial Intrusions

Last week in Austen L and Janeites, Anielka Briggs challenged the groups to come up with examples of the rare instances in which Jane Austen’s narrative voice intrudes to the point of disrupting, if only for a moment, the flow of the story. I responded in a series of posts, which I will summarize here:

First I responded to a post by Deb Barnum where she wrote:  "I have never forgotten this unexpected sentence in S&S that just jumps off the page and think that Austen perhaps did not catch it in the final Vol. II, ch. XIV - the 6th paragraph begins: "I come now to the relation of a misfortune which about this time befell Mrs. John Dashwood..." The "I" is quite unexpected! and the only one I believe in the text as from the narrator - perhaps a vestige of an original letter format?"  END QUOTE

My gut tells me that it's not so much a vestige of an original letter format (although that is a possibility worthy of serious consideration), as it  is a reflection of the chatty, winking narrator of S&S, who often reminds me (probably not by accident) of Mrs. Jennings.

And Deb's catch prompted me to search the word "misfortune" in S&S globally, which, by my lucky guess, led me to the following narrative passage in Chapter 32 (4 chapters earlier than the one Deb found):

"To give the feelings or the language of Mrs. Dashwood on receiving and answering Elinor's letter would be only to give a repetition of what her daughters had already felt and said; of a disappointment hardly less painful than Marianne's, and an indignation even greater than Elinor's. Long letters from her, quickly succeeding each other, arrived to tell all that she suffered and thought; to express her anxious solicitude for Marianne, and entreat she would bear up with fortitude under this misfortune. Bad indeed must the nature of Marianne's affliction be, when her mother could talk of fortitude! mortifying and humiliating must be the origin of those regrets, which SHE could wish her not to indulge!"

While the narrator has not used the first person, and has not explicitly referred to the reader, those exclamation points, as well as the gratuitous explanation for not repeating what the Dashwood  girls had already felt and said, is pretty intrusive, and comes close to breaking the fictional dream.

Then, the next day, I could not  resist  some further sleuthing and came up with two other Austen authorial intrusions, which each appear in the final chapter of their respective novels. Like the one that Deb found in Ch.36 of S&S......

"I COME NOW to the relation of a misfortune which about this time befell Mrs. John Dashwood..."

....and the oft-cited one that begins the final chapter  of MP:

"Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I QUIT SUCH ODIOUS SUBJECTS AS SOON AS I CAN, impatient to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest."

.....they are each a sudden solitary eruption of first person narration:

First this one in Ch. 61 of P&P:

"Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid of her two most deserving daughters. With what delighted pride she afterwards visited Mrs. Bingley, and talked of Mrs. Darcy, may be guessed. I WISH I COULD SAY, for the sake of her family, that the accomplishment of her earnest desire in the establishment of so many of her children produced so happy an effect as to make her a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for the rest of her life; though perhaps it was lucky for her husband, who might not have relished domestic felicity in so unusual a form, that she still was occasionally nervous and invariably silly."

And then this one in Ch. 24 of Persuasion:

"Who can be in doubt of what followed? When any two young people take it into their heads to marry, they are pretty sure by perseverance to carry their point, be they ever so poor, or ever so imprudent, or ever so little likely to be necessary to each other's ultimate comfort. This may be bad morality to conclude with, but I BELIEVE IT TO BE TRUTH; and if such parties succeed, how should a Captain Wentworth and an Anne Elliot, with the advantage of maturity of mind, consciousness of right, and one independent fortune between them, fail of bearing down every opposition? They might in fact, have borne down a great deal more than they met with, for there was little to distress them beyond the want of graciousness and warmth."

And then, another day later still, I came up with this one from Chapter 20 of Emma: 

"With regard to her not accompanying them to Ireland, her account to her aunt contained nothing but truth, though there might be some truths not told. It was her own choice to give the time of their absence to Highbury; to spend, perhaps, her last months of perfect liberty with those kind relations to whom she was so very dear: and the Campbells, whatever might be their motive or motives, whether single, or double, or treble, gave the arrangement their ready sanction, and said, that they depended more on a few months spent in her native air, for the recovery of her health, than on any thing else. Certain it was that she was to come; and that Highbury, instead of welcoming that perfect novelty which had been so long promised it -- Mr. Frank Churchill -- must put up for the present with Jane Fairfax, who could bring only the freshness of a two years absence."

This famous passage in Emma does not contain an explicit first person authorial intrusion, but there is a strong implication that the narrator knows a great deal about those truths not told about why Jane F does not go to Ireland but goes to Highbury instead, and also knows a great deal about which of three unspecified motives led the Campbells to agree to Jane's extended visit to Highbury. A narrator who explicitly hints at unrevealed motivations in this way, not once but TWICE in the same paragraph, as to what turns out to be the central plot twist of the entire novel, is pretty intrusive--the role of objective reporter has been temporarily but explicitly undermined--the narrator is not only keeping an important secret from the reader, she's taking pains to tease the reader about that secret, to be sure to pique the reader's curiosity. The narrator is no longer a mind-reading robot, the narrator is a person---the author-- keeping teasing secrets from her readers!

I have always read that passage as the broadest possible hint to the alert, curious reader to try to discern what those unstated truths and motives might be. But the most important word in the whole paragraph is "treble", because it suggests to the REreader of Emma that there might be a third interpretation of Jane's coming to Highbury, one which was not driven by a secret engagement to Frank, but by ANOTHER secret motivation, one which is not explicitly debriefed in the novel text. And of course you know that my opinion since early January 2005 has been that this secret motivation is Jane's concealed pregnancy.

And then, finally Linda Thomas wrote:

“Here's a possible one from P&P, though it's not in the first person.  Does this qualify?
 "It is not the object of this work to give a description of Derbyshire, nor  of any of the remarkable places through which their route thither lay: Oxford, Blenheim, Warwick, Kenelworth, Birmingham, etc., are sufficiently known.  A small part of Derbyshire is all the present concern.  To the little town of Lambton..."

What's interesting to me is that, at the same time the narrator's intrusion forces the reader to step outside the fictional construct for a moment, the  narrator pretends that the novel is not a novel, by presenting Lambton and Pemberley as real places on a par with well-known ..”   END QUOTE

To which I replied: Bravo, Linda, I think it's a classic example, because it fits one of JA's repeated
patterns--the narrator stepping out of the shadows, ironically,  to tell us what she's NOT gonna tell us! ;)

We saw it in the guilt and misery passage at the end of MP, we saw it in the Emma passage I quoted earlier today about the treble motives not stated. JA uses her authorial soapbox very sparingly, and it seems one key purpose is to jar the reader into thinking about events that might be happening offstage---sorta like the old saying about telling people not to think of a pink elephant and then of course you HAVE to think of the pink elephant!

I believe JA was above all interested in point of view and in particular in sensitizing the reader to thinking about point of view as they read, and to open the possibility of multiple points of view on the same text. She knew that was the path to wisdom.

I bet there are a few more of them scattered through the novels.

And that’s more than enough for one post.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

P.S.  added 10/19/12 at 1 am EST:

I just did a little more checking, finding it hard to believe that no Austen scholar had previously systematically addressed this question before Anielka posed it earlier this week, and, sure enough, I found that John Mullan, in his 2012 book _What Matters in Jane Austen?", has entitled Chapter 19 as shown in my above Subject Line. In that chapter, Mullan covers ALL of the first person authorial intrusions which have brought forward during this recent discussion, as well as some others, and he gives plausible, insightful explanations for them. I saw nothing in the parts of his chapter that I could access online that in my estimation would support Anielka's theory of the novels as having been plays in earlier stages.

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