In 1687, Isaac Newton published his laws of motion and universal gravitation, which reigned supreme in physics for over 2 centuries, until more and more experimental phenomena were found not to obey Newton’s laws. It took Einstein and his theories of relativity, and then the giants of quantum physics, to generate a paradigm shift, and demonstrate that Newton had not been entirely wrong, only incomplete. Einstein & Co. showed that Newton’s laws worked perfectly well enough to explain the physics of ordinary human life, hence their long intellectual hegemony---but when more powerful technology revealed special conditions under which Newton’s laws of time did NOT work, outside the box thinking like Einstein’s was required, to explain it all. He famously illustrated his radical new theories with thought experiments, such as inviting readers to imagine themselves chasing light beams—and thereby kindled the imagination of lay people, enabling us to hypothetically enter into another point of view, a radical new perspective from which the special validity of his theories could be grasped.
So, why do I, a lawyer who blogs about Jane Austen’s fiction, lead off with a brief, highly oversimplified history of modern physics? Because as I began to write this post about an error in point of view which has held sway in Austen studies for the past 150 years, I realized that there was an instructive parallel to be drawn between the hidden structure behind Jane Austen’s novelistic scenes, and the hidden structure behind time and space. As I’ll show you, both involve a radical change of perspective, required in order to see a bigger picture. And now I’m ready to tell you about the (relatively) universal heroine-present scenes in JA’s novels.
POLLOCK’S LAW: One of the most often cited memes in the history of Austen scholarship was first stated in 1860 by Sir William Frederick Pollock (2d Bart.), a passionate Janeite whose grandfather was saddler to King George III, and whose writer brother Walter Herries Pollock was a close friend of Wilde, Kipling, Stevenson, and other famous authors. Pollock’s article published in Fraser’s Magazine included this influential praise of JA’s authorial scruples:
“Miss Austen never attempts to describe a scene or a class of society with which she was not herself thoroughly acquainted. The conversations of ladies with ladies, or of ladies and gentlemen together, are given, but no instance occurs of a scene in which men only are present.” END QUOTE
Over the past century and a half, Austen scholars have universally cited this dictum as gospel—so much so, that it’s fair to call it Pollock’s Law, because it has never been challenged, either as to the factual accuracy of Pollock’s textual observation, or as to JA’s presumed motivation for this universal limitation; and also because it purports to explain a major feature of Austenian fictional structure.
Well, it has never been challenged…until now. I’m here today to revise Pollock’s Law, and to show that Pollock, like Newton, was not wrong so much as incomplete, in failing to see a larger context than the absence of male-only scenes in JA’s novels. I.e., I suggest to you that those men-only scenes are actually only a subset of a larger whole, i.e., scenes where her (always female) protagonist was present. Pollock’s claim that JA scrupulously refrained from writing about scenes she had not actually witnessed herself in real life failed to explain why there are also (almost) NO scenes with women-only, or with both men and women present, but sans the heroine. In Vonnegutian terminology, the men-only scenes are a granfaloon, but the heroine-always scenes are a karasses, i.e., the group that really matters.
It’s easy to see why Pollock’s explanation has prevailed for so long. As many Austen scholars have pointed out, his claim is quite consistent with the authorial coaching JA famously gave to her writing niece Anna in an 1814 letter, about not writing about the manners of a locality she had never lived in herself.
Now, I could question Pollock’s unspoken but dubious assumption that Jane Austen, who grew up as the younger sister of 5 older brothers in a small rural household, never eavesdropped on boys-only talk in another room while she was growing up. As a little girl, she might well have been invisible to Revd. Austen, James, Edward and Henry, the way Fanny Price is invisible to Tom, his parents and aunt. JA was a born writer, and writers are notorious eavesdroppers, so it’s clear to me that JA was not averse to sometimes listening to conversations she was not supposed to hear.
However, let’s go with Pollock on this one for argument’s sake, because even then, I have a much better explanation for why there are no Austenian men-only scenes: JA’s novels are extremely unusual, because all six are told almost entirely (meaning, over 97%) from the unitary point of view of one character--the protagonist—who, obviously, is female in each novel!
There are only a tiny handful of narrative exceptions, when we’re unambiguously privy to:
Darcy’s thoughts and feelings about Elizabeth in P&P;
Knightley’s thoughts and feelings about Frank and Jane in Emma;
Charlotte Lucas’s courtship strategizing in P&P; and
a couple of other briefer windows into other secondary characters’s minds.
Otherwise, the only thoughts and feelings we ever have clear, unambiguous access to, unmediated by some other character’s perceptions or words, are those of JA’s heroines.
So, what Pollock never realized, and no Janeite who adheres to Pollock’s Rule (even if they had no idea who originated it) has ever realized, either, is the crucial fact is the absence of men-only scenes is only one special subclass within a larger class, which is the (near total) absence of scenes in JA’s novels in which the heroine is not present!
Put another way, let me now restate Pollock’s Rule, using his phraseology and showing my changes in ALL CAPS:
“ALMOST NO conversations of ladies with ladies, or of ladies and gentlemen together, are given, UNLESS THE HEROINE IS PRESENT AS WELL.”
I added that “almost” because I am pretty sure that there are only four scenes in the entire canon of six Austen novels which violate this otherwise universal rule, and they are ALL mixed-gender. Which means that there are also NO scenes in Austen’s novels in which it is women (other than the heroine)-only!
So it’s understandable that Pollock was seduced by the complete absence of men-only scenes into believing it was The Answer. It made him fail to realize that four scenes out of, say, over a hundred scenes (has anyone ever counted exactly how many enacted scenes there are altogether in the six novels?) is a very small percentage—i.e., 4% has a lot more in common with 0% than it does with, say, 25%!
But I cannot repeat too often the crucial, overarching fact which Pollock has failed to see as connected to his discovery, and that is the near universality of heroine’s point of view. It’s what turns that 4% into 0%, for all practical purposes.
And as I began writing this post, I also recalled that I had actually posted three years ago about three of those four scenes where the heroine is not present:
Chapter 2 of S&S, when Fanny & John Dashwood have a tete-a-tete in their carriage, and discuss the welfare of John’s sisters and stepmother.
Chapter 5 of Emma, when Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley have a tete-a-tete at Randalls, and discuss Emma.
Chapter 1 of MP, when Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas (with Lady Bertram present but not speaking much) have a tete a tete at Mansfield Park.
Read my linked post for my inferences at that time about the striking parallelism between these three passages, parallelism that no other Austen scholar has still ever taken note of. But I now see how that pattern fits within the larger pattern of Pollock’s Law, as revised by me. I.e., it reflects that JA has very consciously chosen one very early scene in each of those three novels, in which to break her otherwise uniform rule of heroine-must-be-present. And each of those scenes is a revelation of Machiavellian planning by powerful family members of the heroine, planning to which the heroine is not privy at all.
Which leaves the one other scene I can recall from JA’s novels, where the heroine is not present, and that is at the end of Chapter 45 of P&P, when Darcy, Georgiana, Caroline and Mrs. Hurst are left after Elizabeth and the Gardiners leave Pemberley, and Darcy and Caroline speak about Elizabeth. Again, we can see its value for JA, in allowing the reader to hear Darcy say to others what we’ve previously learnt from his reported thoughts, in terms of how attractive he finds Elizabeth. Even though others are present, it is essentially a semi-private tete-a-tete, as only Darcy and Caroline actually speak.
Have I left any other such scenes out, in particular from NA and Persuasion? Even if so, it doesn’t materially change the pattern.
CONCLUSION: Aside from those four tete-a-tetes, my revision of Pollock’s Law stands. What matters most is not that there are no men-only scenes in JA’s novels, but that there are (almost) no non-heroine scenes in JA’s novels. Pollock’s Law has been accepted as gospel among Austen scholars for more than 150 years because it actually seems to provide a complete explanation. But I hope you’re now convinced that this superficial appearance , paradoxically, was a mask, which obscured the more refined, accurate, complete, and powerful formulation I’ve provided.
My revision of Pollock’s Law makes it clear that it is the overwhelming predominance of scenes enacted in the presence of the heroine that is the main point of JA’s scrupulous structures. By pretty much never allowing the reader access to the thoughts and feelings of characters other than the heroine, JA has given herself the freedom to construct elaborate, coherent shadow stories. How, e.g., could readers be kept unaware (consciously, at least) of Jane Fairfax’s concealed pregnancy, if they were given access to her thoughts and feelings?
But just as Newton, monumental genius that he was, never imagined physics at the speed of light, so too Pollock, close reader but also a 19th century man thinking like one, never imagined fiction so mind-bendingly original as JA’s, and how she pulled off the greatest stunt in the history of literature, creating two parallel fictional universes in the same novel---a trick not even Einstein could have managed!
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