I've been relatively silent in this blog the past few weeks, because I've taken an unplanned, but highly fruitful (ha ha), extended side trip deeper into the inner workings of Milton's Paradise Lost than I had ever previously attempted. In addition to gaining a much deeper understanding of what Milton was about in writing his great epic, I also now see more and more clearly just how significant a source he was for Jane Austen.
I'm not writing today about specific allusions by Austen to Milton (beyond noting that they are far more pervasive than has been previously been noticed) but instead to write about what I see as Milton's macro-influence on Austen.
To wit: I now see a clear chain of allusion that stretches from Shakespeare to Milton to Richardson to Austen -- each of these great writers being, at the foundation of their writing, concerned with epistemology -- how we as human beings know what we know, living in a social and psychological world which is riddled with basic and inescapable ambiguities at every turn. Shakespeare in drama, MIlton in epic poetry, Richardson in epistolary novels, and finally Austen in narrative fiction, each was a master of this crucial aspect of writing.
I see those four great writers being particularly intent on producing literature that would serve as grist for the mill of ambitious readers wishing to be challenged, and become more skilled and self-aware in dealing with the ambiguities of daily life-- and they each did this by producing double stories, which could plausibly be read in two different ways. If you could learn to see both stories in their writing, then you would be better equipped to see them in real life, where no one has an omniscient narrator perched on his or her shoulder, to explain what is "really" going on.
So, in Milton's case, Blake was only quarter correct in his famous assertion that Milton was of the devil's party but did not know it. I'd amend that to say that Milton wrote Paradise Lost so that readers could plausibly be of the devil's party or not be of the devil's party --- and that Milton did this deliberately.
And so now, I see this great chain of literary inheritance, in which Milton emulated Shakespeare, Richardson emulated both Shakespeare and Milton, and then Austen emulated her three great predecessors, in this one crucial respect, despite writing in different forms. So I now see a thread that runs from Iago to Satan to Lovelace to the seductive male villains of Austen’s novels –not just Willoughby, Wickham, Henry Crawford, and Cousin Elliot, but also, in the shadow stories, Brandon, Darcy, and Knightley.
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