Adventures in Reading


The Language of Jane Austen by Myra Stokes
September 30, 2007, 12:27 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Part of my recent lack of updating is a result of reading Myra Stokes The Language of Jane Austen: A Study of Some Aspects of her Vocabulary (1991), which began as a page turner I could not put down but slowly turned into an excruciatingly (though interesting) detail oriented look at character in Austen’s novels. The premise of the book, as well as many of the Austen related books I have been reading of late, is how to interpret and understand Austen’s language in her own period. I have mentioned using etymological dictionaries before (i.e. looking up the history and evolution of a word or phrase) but Stokes provides a specific look exclusively at Austen while providing quite the smorgasbord of thought.

Stokes begins her book with some appetizers to relay how much information we may (mis)interpret as a modern reader. Her first example is the exchangeability of London and town, such as any time going to town is mentioned it is not describing a trip to the local village. In fact, London was so central in English life that it was always referred as going “up to London” as a person leaving London was leaving society and going “down” to their location even if it was located further north geographically (15). Stokes second example is when exactly tea time occurred as it does not occur at the brunching hour of modern tea times, “morning” calling hours never occurred before noon except on very specific occasions, and the later one ate dinner the more elegant or fashionable it was. This alteration of hours results in some rather complex atmospheric changes if you have read the novel with modern ideas of mealtime in mind. Stoles final example describes place in the sense of district or neighborhood versus town or London. All in all these three examples can severely alter how one has or will read Austen based on their interpretation.

From here Stokes moves away from these more concrete language attributes and becomes more concerned with the more elusive character. Most people may recall (if only because of the rather ghoulish words employed) that in the Middle Ages a theory of humors or complexions existed, which “allowed for four broad types, resulting from the predominance of one of the four humours over the others in any one person’s make-up: sanguine (blood), choleric (red bile), melancholic (black bile) and phlegmatic (water)” (29). While Austen’s period may have moved away from the Medieval terminology her period certainly had its own scheme, which was used to assess a person’s character consisting of: spirits, manners, head, and heart. “These four categories form the basic reference points by which characters in all her novels are drawn and evaluated and their interactions and contrasts with one another developed” (34).

Here is where the book became very example oriented in the sense that Stokes will describe the driving idea behind the characteristic and spend the remainder of the chapter developing synonyms and antonyms that can be used to better understand Austen’s novels. One thing to keep in mind that the ideal character would have a balance of these characteristics. I will provide some summarization of how Austen’s “humours” were employed in her period.

Spirits: “To be in (good) spirits implies cheerfulness and animation – qualities which make an important contribution both to personal happiness and to social intercourse. … Lack of spirits renders someone both miserable in himself/herself and boring or depressing company for others” (46). Words to keep an eye out for: liveliness, vivacity, living light-hearted, revulsion, resilience, cheerfulness, sense of humour, animation, pride, ardour, inependence, resolution, teasing, knowing, shrewd, discerning, interested, entertaining, spiritless, dispirited, boring, lethargic, dejected, glum, obtuse, imperceptive, unintelligent, stupid, apathetic, unmoved, unresponsive, etc.

Manner: “When Jane Austen comments on manners, she is referring not necessarily to the presence or absence of punctilious civility, but to whether or not someone’s general manner is likely to recommend him or her” (80). Words to keep an eye out for: smart, elegant, refinement, grace, polish, distinction, complaisance, exertion, pretty behaved, pretty, gentleness, in/appropriateness, fitness, civil, ease, openness, simplicity, formal, reserved, affected, confidence, distaste, concealment, shameless, immodest, presumptuous, over-/familiar, interfering, respectability, nature, standing, reputation, etc.

Head: “…the quality today most commonly denoted by the word intelligence. Talent(s) could be used, as today, of special innate aptitude or flair in particular fields. But it was more often used to refer to mental endowments generally” (117). Words to keep an eye out for: abilities, accomplishments, clever, improved, agreeable, completion, refinement, talents, good sense, amusement, business, judgment, discernment, evaluation, taste, values, honesty, integrity, understanding, sensible, well-judging, right-minded, im/prudence, solvent, seriousness, rational, constancy, perseverance, imagination, brilliance, fire, etc.

Heart: I do not have a clear-cut quote on this but ideally it seems to describe one’s “temperament” (153). Some words to keep an eye out for: sensibility, refinement, romantic, honorable, generous, compassion, forbearance, justice, charity, shame, self-accusation, confession, littleness, meanness, conscience, delicacy, noble, low, paltry, engagements, good nature, warmth of heart, amiable, insolent, saucy, disposition, feelings, tempers, pre-/disposition, concern, endearing, prepossessing, engaging, appealing, candor, sensitivity, heartfelt, insipid, boring, picturesque, arrogant, contemptuous, fastidious, etc.

Overall Stokes book has been quite informative and I am sure my reading of Austen’s books will be quite altered in trying to identify the characteristics of her heroines and villains. As Clarissa is moving so slowly I intend on starting Mansfield Park sooner rather than later.

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6 Comments

Fabulous. I would like to link to this post from my blog, if I may.

Comment by Ms. Place

Why of course!

Comment by bookchronicle

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