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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Jane Austen's Didactic Goals as an Author: Teaching Readers to Read Their Own Lives Better

I've  previously written on several occasions about my understanding of Jane Austen's didactic goals as an author, how she wished to teach readers to read their own lives better, by first learning to her specially designed novels better.

Here are a couple of earlier posts in that vein:

 Yesterday I reiterated my longstanding opinion in this regard in Janeites & Austen L as follows: "Jane Austen was looking to foster her readers's thinking outside the box, that was the primary didactic goal she had in mind..."

In Janeites, my premise was questioned, on the hypothesis that JA would have done a better job of it and more people would have seen it in 200 years. I.e. JA was a genius and could have written her stories so that the lesson was more obvious.

I replied as follows:

I've addressed that point many times, but am very happy to address it again, perhaps more clearly than before.

The most significant fact I see in that regard is the clear progression through her novels of increasing overtness of the shadow stories. By the time she publishes Emma in early 1816, she has learnt from her experience over 5 years as a published author that readers were NOT picking up on the shadows in S&S, P&P, and MP. So, I infer, she decided to put the mystery that was already there in more veiled format in the first three published novels, into much more explicit terms in Emma.

That's why, for starters, she put an overt "gotcha" in Emma (our finding out in Chapter 46 that there's been a whole different story going on just beyond Emma's awareness for the first 5/6 of the novel). THere's nothing like that in S&S, P&P and MP.

And that's also why you have broad narrative winks like....

"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." That's JA telling us that there are things happening in the novel that the narrator won't lie about, but also won't tell you explicitly. There's nothing like that in S&S, P&P, and MP.

And how about this whopper....

"Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material". That's JA telling you that she's not going to debrief everything that happens in her novels, even at the end. You're going to have be a proactive elf, and dig, struggle, puzzle, work hard to see into the shadows she so artfully creates. And, yet again, nothing like that in S&S, P&P, and MP.

And of course, there's Mr. Weston saying "There are secrets in all families, you know" .

In short, you don't see passages like that in the first three published novels, even though, as my research has shown me, they are just like Emma in being filled with shadow stories, hidden reversals of character, etc. It's not that Emma was a radical departure from the earlier novels, it's that she decided to reveal more of the shadows that were there from S&S onward.

My best sense is that (ironically) JA initially overestimated her readers' capacity to catch her irony! She was herself, by 1811, at age 35, so deeply immersed in it, having been refining her craft and her mastery of irony in words for more than twenty years with obsessive focus, that she really could not anticipate how completely taken in her readers would be, how they'd all be (in Miss Bates's terms) "a little deaf". Because she was human, she could not entirely escape the subjectivity of her own immersion in her fictional shadow worlds, and somehow remember how it was to be different than that--maybe she really was born so different from other people, even the smart people that filled her family, that she was already conscious of her genius at age 10. I think so.

Anyway, because of the kinds of passages I've quoted above, that's why Emma is the one Austen heroine who has famously and brilliantly and implicitly been identified as "clueless" by Amy Heckerling---even though, actually, all my research has shown me that they are ALL clueless--especially Elinor, Elizabeth and Anne, while Fanny and Catherine, ironically, are much less clueless.

So, to recap, by the time she is writing Emma, she realizes she needs to bring that cluelessness front and center. And even so....the readers mostly STILL did not get it. It was just too radically new a way to write novels, the world still has not caught up to her two centuries later. But there were those--like Haden the apothecary, like Mrs. Pole (aka the widow of Erasmus Darwin), like Martha Lloyd, like Anne Sharp, who were in on the secret, I am convinced. JA was not entirely alone in her own world, and thank god for that, to have been completely unknown as the genius she was would have been a form of hell.

And so, back to my claim of didactic intent on JA's part: Take the Zen aphorism that Lizzy Bennet utters seriously, as a manifesto for JA's didactic goals as a novelist:

"We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing" My way of resolving the paradox of this aphorism is to translate it as follows:

"To really teach people how to see their world more objectively, by being very very conscious of their own subjective pride, prejudice, sensibility, and persuadability, you can't just write a textbook that explicitly and linearly instructs them to "Be careful of your subjectivity leading you astray!" You can't learn that sort of wisdom from a textbook. The only way to teach this lesson through a book, is to provide fiction that induces in the reader the actual experience of seeing the world through the eyes of the heroine, and being misled just like the heroine, such that, upon REreading, you begin to realize how you've been deceived by the author, and then that begins the healthy and very educational process of learning to view the world from a variety of perspectives outside one's previous comfort zone.

That's how you begin to gain more insight as to how to live one's own daily life being aware that there are secrets and deceptions everywhere in human society, so embrace that reality, and get smart about how to maneuver in such a world, or you'll be eaten alive. THAT'S knowledge worth knowing, and it can only be earned that way, proactively, with struggle, not passively, like taking a sip from a baby bottle. But then, thing went very wrong--she died before she could write any more novels, and (more important) before she could (eventually) feel safe revealing her shadow stories to the world.

She was Ulysses/Odysseus, wanting to first plant a million Trojan Horses (i.e., copies of her novels) in every literate home in England. Then in a one-page publication as a by then famous and well-respected author, she could have revealed the essence of the Jane Austen Code, and her radical feminist message, and it would not have been possible for the genie to be stuffed back in the bottle by the male powers that be, many of whom were (ironically) Janeites, because (a la DW Harding), they did not recognize that they themselves were the satirical targets of her exquisitely regulated hatred!

So, much as they would then have liked to emulate Sir Thomas....

"Sir Thomas was in hopes that another day or two would suffice to wipe away every outward memento of what had been, even to the destruction of every unbound copy of Lovers' Vows in the house, for he was burning all that met his eye." would not have been possible. Women all over England would have been empowered to organize in order to smash through the sexist barriers, beginning with the right to vote, changing marital laws, etc etc.

But then, in 1818, before JA was cold in the grave, a nightmare alternative scenario was enacted instead. Henry Austen published his biographical notice, and the Myth of Jane Austen was born, and from that instant forward, only those few who instinctively enjoy puncturing myths have been able to peek around the myth and begin to figure out what was going on under the surface. Although I saw the shadows of Jane Austen on my own for the first time in July 2002, my research since then has relied on countless other pioneers who've each seen some small piece of the puzzle, and have all provided me with what I could not supply out of my own imagination, in order to see Jane Austen as she really was.

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