Adventures in Reading

More on the War of Ideas
September 17, 2007, 8:18 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

“All writers are marked, scarred, limited, and confined by gender, but in women the wounds go deeper than in men. Being a woman is the most important precondition for a writing woman, much more important for example than class, religion, or politics… Because women are strangers in a strange land, where language and literary forms have been pre-empted by men, there must be a special doubleness or indirectness in women’s writing. Indeed, superficial meekness and domesticity, an outward acquiescence to patriarchal rule–Austen’s very demeanour–often covers smouldering resentment.”

In Marilyn Butler’s book Jane Austen & the War of Ideas, she discusses how the epistolary style (that is, letters) allows for an external view and independent opinion. This style allows for imaginative experience but still manages to pay “sufficient tribute” to the established order. An example of this established order can be seen in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1748). With Austen, we see a blending of this style along with new narrative techniques. With Jacobin novels there is a new awareness of the subjective life of the individual and harnessing the readers uncritical sympathies. Part of Austen’s new technique usage includes her tremendous use of dialog. Butler comments that, “Austen comes to represent women’s abilities an aspirations as they manifest themselves in speech, and the verbal characteristics of her heroines include some striking negations: restraint, deference, inarticulacy, an absence of reference to events, books, and ideas. The women she allows to speak out form the largest single group of her minor characters–her female fools.” (I will address more on Austen’s female fools in comparison to feminist freaks or female philosophers in a future post.)

One comment I did find interesting and which sheds some light on Austen’s treatment of servants in her novels is a technique in this period to use a the servant (in particular) as a casual character with little importance besides specifically being placed to provide details and information that would help develop the central theme. This servant, however, would never embody a self but merely exist as a barely animate persona to relay specific information. The housekeeper at Pemberley in Pride & Prejudice seems to be a perfect example of this.

The remainder of Butler’s book is broken into chapters that analyze Austen book by book. Before I continue, Pride & Prejudice is a very interesting novel as it seems to be everyone’s favorite in Austen’s oeuvre though it was certainly a novel Austen critiqued (if not disliked) as not being entirely finished – that is, she felt it was missing something. Thus I am trying to see how one goes from critically reading and discussing Pride & Prejudice to Austen’s other novels.

So for a brief overview of Butler looking back at historical criticism of P&P, Butler addresses that Elizabeth Bennet is consistently viewed as Austen’s revolutionary heroine (comparable to Frances Burney’s Cecilia). Butler focuses on how Elizabeth never “surveys society” and that like her contemporaries Elizabeth is an “archetypally romantic” character. Pride & Prejudice has been read as having a radical theme when Elizabeth’s pride in her own fallible perceptions is her self-governing characteristic. Hate and love at first sight are the same thing and one must wonder how critical Austen is of her own creation Elizabeth. That is, while some of Elizabeth’s actions may be read as liberal or rebellious what exactly is Austen saying about these actions? How much skepticism should be tied to Elizabeth for so blindly following her own prejudices. Elizabeth because a faulty heroine and ultimately the reader is extended no clear message of what is right or wrong. Butler comments that this confusion does not occur in Austen’s other novels.

And now for a brief look at Butler on Sense & Sensibility: The earliest written copy of S&S may have been around 1795 and Austen uses two protagonists juxtaposing each other continuously throughout the story (apparently a popular device to use in literature of the period). This didactic argument allows the reader to query and answer: which is better? Whatever happens to one character must happen to the other – the story runs with our two heroines, Marianne and Elinor, dealing with entirely parallel conflicts. This narrative style allows for a “rival value-system” to be developed. Marianne’s “wholehearted impulsiveness” is paired with Elinor’s seemingly infallible nature as they both fall in love, are bruised by love, go to London in search of love, leave London entirely jilted, and conclude the novel together in marriage. Apparently Austen is unlike some contemporary writers of this period as the Marianne character was most often killed off where Austen only has her fall gravely ill.

The use of free indirect speech and an emphasis on internal truth creates a very introspective novel. Self-interest is a popular theme of the novel. For example, do Fanny and Lucy represent individualism in the novel for Austen? Individualism is tied in with self-indulgence and selfishness under anti-Jacobin criticism. A nature versus nurture dichotomy has a strong influence in the book but in reviewing the book one must seriously ponder what exactly does Marianne feel for Brandon?

After reading Butler I cannot say I agree with everything she says though I do find myself musing at just about everything she wrote. She certainly has helped shine a light on Austen.

Image is from the Jane Austen Society UK and is described as “Parisian head-dresses from La Belle Assemblee. 1812. I am an enormous proponent of hats coming back into style.

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[…] blog, Adventure in Reading, discusses The War of Ideas by Marilyn Butler.  The post mentions, “Elizabeth Bennet is consistently viewed as Austen’s revolutionary […]

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