Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey
Austen and Henry Fielding
The Author's Inheritance: Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, and
the Establishment of the Novel
By Jo Alyson Parker.
Northern Illinois University Press, 1998. xii + 240 pages.
1 b/w illustration. Hardcover, $36.
Reviewed by Jane Nardin.
Jo Alyson Parker's study The Author 's Inheritance: Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, and the Establishment ofthe Novel suggests that critics have underestimated the similarities between Fielding and Austen. In relating Austen to her great male predecessors, Parker argues, Richardson "generally gets the emphasis," despite the fact that "Austen's literary provincelies closer to the expansive, comic one of Fielding." Writing at a time when the novel was not yet established as a legitimate genre, Fielding offers critical commentary justifying his own narrative practices. Fifty years later, understanding that the novel's connection with feminine concerns was destroying its recently established generic respectability, Austen feels the need to defend her authority as a woman novelist.
For both Fielding and Austen, Parker argues, anxiety about
their own authority as writers is associated with anxiety about
the state of social authority in England. Through plots that turn
upon the disputed inheritance of an estate, the two novelists
examine the central social question of their era: who possesses
the right to wield authority? Virtuous men and women win the
prizes in Fielding's and Austen's inheritance plots despite the
fact that they come from dubious or mixed social backgrounds--and
so their triumph represents a compromise between the traditional
belief that authority is conferred by birth
and the modern emphasis on merit. But Austen's compromises are less comfortable than Fielding's because she harbors serious doubts about the position of women. To demonstrate that "Austen reworks Fielding's themes from a female perspective, inscribing women in a tradition of the novel as she explores their societal influence and options," Parker compares Fielding's three novels, Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, and Amelia, to Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park, respectively.
The readings through which Parker attempts to support her ambitious and complicated thesis have many virtues. Parker's style is excellent: clear, crisp, often witty, and delightfully jargon free. Her use of evidence is responsible and perceptive. Many of her arguments are subtle and admirably nuanced. Still, I am not sure that Parker proves her case.
Parker centers her study upon the "inheritance plot," but admits that neither Northanger Abbey nor Mansfield Park uses such a plot. Parker does claim, however, that Pride and Prejudice turns on the issue of whether Elizabeth will become the owner of Pemberley in the same way that Tom Jones turns on the issue of whether Tom will inherit Paradise Hall. But, in fact, Elizabeth does not literally become the owner of the Darcy estate. Parker's claim that, by improving Darcy's character, Elizabeth becomes Pemberley's "regenerator" seems more firmly grounded. But then, what we have in Pride and Prejudice is a not a true "inheritance plot," but rather a plot in which the gentry's moral improvement is at issue--as is also the case in Mansfield Park. In other words, Parker's argument about the inheritance plot collapses into a recognizable version of the argument Alistair Duckworth made more than 25 years ago in The Improvement of the Estate.
Since it is Parker's intention to show that Austen's novels respond to Fielding's, it is not surprising that she should rediscover Duckworth's Tory Austen, an Austen who ultimately concludes that the gentry do deserve to retain their social power. But Parker's belief that Austen rejected Fielding's essentially conservative vision of the position of women divides her argument against itself. It is difficult for Parker to make a convincing case that Austen could affirm the justice of traditional modes of authority in a patriarchal society, while harboring serious reservations about patriarchy itself.
She attempts to do this by giving great weight to the comforting conclusions of the novels she discusses, while down- playing the importance of their central sections, which arguably imply that society's problems are too serious for tidy resolution. Parker herself is uncomfortable with this method of operation, acknowledging that, although she has claimed that Mansfield Park is an essentially conservative novel because its conclusion "installs Edmund and Fanny as guardians of the Old World order," the body of the novel "presents evidence that makes another case entirely." But she does not seriously consider the possibility that disjunction between a story and its ending may welljustify us in reading that ending ironically.
In her concluding chapter, Parker briefly discusses Emma and Persuasion as works that have no parallels in the Fielding canon. Freed from the obligation to read Austen through the lens of her more conservative predecessor, Parker speedily resolves the tension between a Duckworthian approach and one resembling that of feminist critics like Claudia Johnson-- a tension which has plagued her entire study--in favor of the feminists. Emma and Persuasion, she argues, reveal "a gradual erosion of the optimistic assertion that things are intrinsically sound as they are," the assertion that characterizes all of Austen's earlier works. I wonder how many readers would agree that Emma paints a darker picture of the squirearchy than Mansfield Park.
Jane Nardin is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. She is author of the 1973 study Those Elegant Decorums: The Concept of Propriety in Jane Austen's Novels.
JASNA News v.15, no. 3, Winter 1999, p. 23
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