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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Jane Austen the Freest of Spirits

By serendipity, today I came across “Jane Austen as Free Spirit”, a 1987 review of Tony Tanner’s widely influential take on each of the six novels, a review written by C.B. Cox, who I am guessing is one and the same as Carroll Cox, a longtime participant in Austen-L.

What caught my eye in particular in Cox’s review was his welcome seizing on one strand of thought in Tanner’s book, relative to the substantive (in addition to stylistic) importance of Jane Austen’s writing style. I.e., if I am hearing Tanner and Cox correctly, they seem to agree that the way Jane  Austen wrote was a form of self-liberation from her society, as if her writing was her “wings”. I see Jane Austen as the freest of spirits, she soared in solitary space above her world, as only Shakespeare and a handful of other  great writers have done over the centuries.

But better to let Cox and Tanner speak for themselves, I found each of the following quotations very thought provoking, even as my own take on them differs  from theirs as to “what it all means” in terms of interpreting Austen’s meaning.

[Cox quoting Tanner with approval]  “In [Tanner’s] opening chapter [of  his book Jane Austen] he contends that what matters in a work of art is not the degree or kind of referentiality or content: "Rather it is the writer's moral relation to language. The overriding concern of Jane Austen's novels-and of many of her heroines-is the nature of true utterance." In her novels, he continues, language is everywhere abused, often to cruel and terrible ends. Just as thoughtless language can be an insidious destroyer of the human, so the most responsible employment of language not only makes for the dignity of the human but has powers and strengths of salvation.”

[Cox again quoting Tanner with approval]: “The prose tends to balance out into patterns of antithesis and parallelism. Emotion is thus not denied but contained by her rhetoric. In general she mutes, excludes or eludes any kind of violence in her discourse. If she avoids over-direct expression, excessive and potentially distracting particularity, striking metaphors, too markedly arresting peculiarity and idiosyncracy of individuation, and tends always towards the conceptual, the general, the communal, the sense and values which should be held 'in common', this is because she is constantly enacting and recreating a requisite decorum and propriety in her language.”

“For Tanner the true Marianne in effect by the end of the novel has died. This view underrates the values of rational self-control enacted by Jane Austen's prose. She is not afraid to suggest that a young woman passionately in love with a worthless but handsome young man will be much happier if she marries an older man, reliable, honest and loving, if less sexually exciting. The end is offensive to romantic fantasy and indeed Brandon is not well-realized in the novel, but the clarity of the prose, its discipline and good sense, enact the values he represents.”

“Anne's marriage to Wentworth represents a triumph of individual integrity over social form. Jane Austen always placed most emphasis on this kind of renewal through clarity of consciousness rather than on the limiting powers of social fragmentation.”

“For Jane Austen to love someone is to know him in his actuality, his authentic existence, and to adapt one's own individuality to this context.”

“We cannot know how Sanditon would have developed, but I'm convinced that Jane Austen would have maintained through her discourse the soul's power to transcend society. Her heroines find liberty in marriage; Jane Austen created her own living space, her own freedom of mind, through the clarity of her art.”

I am curious to hear what any or all of the above brings up for the rest of you.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: The serendipity of my finding Cox's review was in my following up on my posts during the past week about Jane Austen's complex allusion to Hamlet in Mansfield Park. Coxs review included the following passing quotation (with witty dissapproval) of QD Leavis:

"Q.D. Leavis says that Mansfield Park is as full of prophetic ironies as Macbeth and that "the Mansfield stage is finally as strewn with corpses of ruined lives as the stage at the end of Hamlet with dead bodies." This kind of language is gloriously out of tune with Jane Austen's achievement."

I strongly disagree with Cox, I think Leavis's sharp intuition had glimmered upon an entirely intentional and highly ironic resonance created by the freest of spirits, Jane Austen, who in this way paid Hamlet its final Mansfield Park homage. The rest is  (pregnant) silence.  ;)

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