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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Extraordinary Debate over The Depth, Breadth, and Height of Jane Austen’s Literary Soul

Four months ago, we had a thread in the Janeites group about Devoney Looser’s exciting discovery of an April Fools Day, 1823 mock letter about Jane Austen and her writing. Devoney claimed that such letter, written under the pseudonym “Jane Fisher”, had actually been written by Mary Russell Mitford.

I supported her claim with some further analysis of that letter in the following two blog posts:

My conclusions included the following: 
“In a nutshell, Mitford sees “ghosts” of Persuasion’s heroine, Anne, and her eventual sister in law, Mrs. Croft, when Mitford walks the streets of Bath! And I, in turn, now find myself strangely haunted by the realization that Mary Russell Mitford was a much sharper elf than I ever dreamt of.”

That’s relevant background to my topic today, which is my reading the very interesting section in Katie Halsey’s Jane Austen and her Readers, 1786 to 1945 (2013), which begins as follows:

“Between July 1841 and June 1845, Mary Russell Mitford and Elizabeth Barrett Browning engaged in a long-running affectionate epistolary argument about Jane Austen…In the correspondence, both women demonstrate clearly their own allegiances through their manoeuvrings with Austen’s name. They are both, more generally, oppositional readers who choose to define themselves against cultural stereotypes of the ‘bad’ female reader; in this series of letters, they also come to define their literary selves through their opposition to each other.
In the course of their discussion we can trace two different visions of what a novel should be: Mitford’s, whose model is Jane Austen, and whose belief is that accurate pictures of conventional life may contain within them the truths of the human heart, and Barrett Browning’s, for whom ‘Conventional Life is not the Inward Life’. The clash is, in broad terms, between the novel of manners and the novel of psychological life, and between a pre-Romantic and post-Romantic literary sensibility.
While Mitford passionately admires Austen, and considers her novels models of great literature, Barrett Browning objects to Austen on the grounds of lack of ‘poetry’, ‘inner life’ or ‘ideal aspiration’. When discussing Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë poses the question ‘[can] there be a great artist without poetry?’, and finds Austen ‘without “sentiment,” without poetry’, concluding that she therefore ‘cannot be great’. Both Brontë’s and Barrett Browning’s rhetoric is strongly reminiscent of P. B. Shelley’s Defence of Poetry, in which ‘to be a poet is to apprehend the true and the beautiful, in a word the good which exists in the relation, subsisting, first between existence and perception, and secondly between perception and expression’.” END QUOTE FROM HALSEY

That was all news to me, and of great interest, particularly because of the afore-described recent uptick in my respect for Mary Russell Mitford as perhaps the most perceptive of early Janeites. I came upon Halsey’s discussion of that 180-years-past literary debate over Austen, as I was reading Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese for the first time. I wondered: do we have any idea what Barrett Browning thought of Austen’s fiction? Halsey’s book was my first Google result, and I found myself with a full answer to that question, as I’ll outline below.

For those with access via their library system to the Ebooks portal, you can read that entire section in Halsey’s book there. For purposes of this post, I will just provide one representative quote from that 5 year correspondence between Mitford and Barrett Browning that stood out most for me:

Barrett Browning: ‘There is more poetry, more of the inner life, more of the ideal aspiration more of a Godward tendency in [an 1842 novel by a now forgotten author] than we need seek for or than even you my beloved friend, can, I think, imagine in any book or books of Miss Austen considered in a moment of your most enthusiastic estimation.‘

Ouch! At least with Charlotte Bronte, who wrote similar sentiments to Henry Lewes several years after that, I have long had the comfort of believing, along with Jocelyn Harris and others, that Bronte was just pulling Lewes’s leg, because Jane Eyre in particular is saturated with all of Austen’s fiction from one end to the other. But I don’t get the sense from Halsey’s chapter that Barrett Browning was kidding, she was deadly serious, and really meant it when she bemoaned Austen’s (to her at least) soul-deficiency.

Part of what makes me believe this Barrett Browning wasn’t kidding when she expressed those negative judgments on Austen to Mitford, is what BB wrote when she revisited the subject of Jane Austen’s literary soulfulness more than a decade later. Note the subtle difference ten+ years made, as quoted and then explained by Halsey:

“Barrett Browning stuck tenaciously to her opinion of Austen, writing in 1855 to John Ruskin that her argument with Mitford had not caused her to admire Austen’s works:

‘She [Mitford] never taught me anything but a very limited admiration of Miss Austen, whose people struck me as wanting souls, even more than is necessary for men and women of the world. The novels are perfect as far as they go – that’s certain. Only they don’t go far, I think. It may be my fault.’

Although this extract reiterates some of the points she made to Mitford (lack of soul, focus on the conventional life, the novels’ perfection in their sphere and Austen’s limitation of aspiration), there is a note of hesitancy (‘I think’), even apology (‘it may be my fault’). She here dismisses the effects of her correspondence with Mitford, but it seems that Barrett Browning’s confidence in her opinion has been paradoxically both shaken and strengthened by Mitford’s opposition. “  END QUOTE FROM HALSEY

While I agree with Halsey that Barrett Browning’s hesitancies are good evidence that Mitford’s arguments had to some extent undermined BB’s certainty about Austen’s deficiencies, I’d also speculate that it was also the quiet subversion wrought on BB by Austen’s fiction itself, perhaps upon later rereadings. Austen, like Milton’s Satan, knew how to worm her way into her reader’s subconscious, relying on repeated rereadings to work their magic over time.

In other words, in spite of herself, Barrrett Browning seemed to have learned, perhaps by 1850 when she published her famous Sonnet 43, that she loved Austen’s fiction in more ways than she could count, or even consciously grasp --- and maybe, just maybe, Barrett Browning came to question whether she did not love Austen better, because the depth and breadth and height of her own soul was not sufficient to love Austen’s deeper, broader, and higher soul, and not the reverse!

Wouldn’t it be something, in other words, if, at least in part, Sonnet 43 was inspired by Barrett Browning’s growing doubts about her own love of Jane Austen’s fiction?  ;)

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Tara Clarkson said...

Oh, well now that is a fertile comparison. "Austen, like Milton's Satan." I think BB had accuracy on her side, when she said Austen's writing has nothing "Godward" about it, but she missed the point when she saw that as a deficiency. Austen has such mastery over narrative structure that this approach must have been 100% intentional on her part. Her novels address a very specific aspect of "the world as it is"... they address and interrogate literary and political narratives, don't you think? And those narratives are practical devices which, themselves, have nothing Godward about them. She interrogates the narratives for what they are, on their own terms, and completely overthrows them. It's a philosophical exercise rather than a poetic one... more Socrates and less Percy Shelley. The fact that her novels are such perfect stories, and her characters so vibrant, and her humor so robust, tends to throw people off.