Austen's Fresh Fiction
Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time
By Mary Waldron
Cambridge University Press, 1999. 194 pages. Hardcover, B0.
Reviewed by Laurie Kaplan.
In Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time, Mary Waldron examines the nature of Austen's lasting achievement, focusing particularly on the way she subverted the accepted modes of fiction. Even in her earliest pieces of juvenilia, Austen challenged contemporary assumptions about form and content, and Waldron explores the techniques she used to "make it new" to a reading public still grappling with the idea of the novel. Samuel Richardson, Hannah More, Mary Brunton, Lord Chesterfield, Mrs. Burney, Jane West, Maria Edgeworth, Henry Mackenzie, Charlotte Lennox-the writer appraised them all, and then she borrowed, reversed, and deepened what she disdained as novelistic formulae and stereotypes. Austen created new complexities out of such stock elements of fiction as the courtship and marriage plot, the orphan dependant, the hero/guardian/man of sense, the female rebel, and the money theme. In this slim volume of criticism, Waldron excavates many of the direct as well as indirect references that the novelist used as counterpoints to her own conception of fiction. Her analysis of the fiction of the time serves to illuminate Austen's genius.
The dramatic situations of contemporary fiction and conduct books held less fascination for Austen than scenes of common life, that is, the scenes, emotions, and decisions her intended readers would have recognized as being quite close to their own experience. Waldron's focus on those readers is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this book. She notes how Austen leaves the reader alone with what she calls the "evidence," the story, and presents no moralizing conclusion about right action. The lack of authorial direction could unsettle the reader used to the pat solutions offered by more conservative writers. Without authorial direction about the way the characters finally match, "it is up to us, the readers," Waldron says, "to make of it what we will."
With grace and wit, Waldron challenges some acknowledged critical assumptions about Austen's works. She asserts, for example, that Pride and Prejudice was probably not drafted as an epistolary novel, and that what is "new" about that novel is, among other things, the creative reversal that turns social discourse into an "interaction between confident heroine and insecure hero." In a lively juxtaposition of details, Waldron shows that Austen's aim in Mansfield Park is to offer a critique of the "ease with which unacceptable human feelings can be camouflaged in simplistic moral systems." In the moral universe of Mansfield Park, Fanny is "not altogether innocent...representing as she does, not open minded Christian charity, but an inflexible moral system which has little room for generosity and which gives her every opportunity for self deception." Mary, in fact, deserves the reader's sympathy, particularly because she does not get any from Fanny. There is no single moralistic lesson that the reader can take away from the novel.
For Waldron, Emma is a literary critique of the powerful fictional figures, female as well as male, who controlled the story in late 18th--and early 19th Century literature. She seems particularly hard on Mr. Knightley, the man of sense, involved as he is in "a male conspiracy to trap Harriet before she has time to protest." Surprisingly, Waldron finds that Mr. Knightley is very much like Fanny Price. If Darcy is insecure and Henry Crawford "is not so very bad," then Mr. Knightley is "a mass of ill-thought out notions which he is quite prepared to reverse in the interests of getting his own way." These are harsh, and provocative, judgments indeed. It is intriguing to contemplate Emma and Mr. Knightley "quarrell[ing] happily ever after, a unique conclusion for a novel of its time." (my italics)
Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time is almost too short, for the questions Waldron develops engage the reader and illuminate the novels. Waldron's discussion of Persuasion, the novel she finds "most resists a late 20th Century reader's attempts to exonerate Austen from charges of prescriptiveness and didacticism," seems abbreviated, but that may be because her analysis is so interesting. In conjunction with her thesis about the modes of fiction at the time, she asks if Persuasion supports or rejects contemporary rules of conduct, and she points out that it was Austen's habit to drive "the allegiances of readers against the grain of their convictions," a delightful paradox to contemplate.
Jane Austen, Waldron asserts on the last page of the text, "stands
at the point of change." As a novelist, Austen refused to settle for reruns.
She made it new, and her contemporaries hardly knew it.
Laurie Kaplan is a Professor of English at Goucher College and
Editor of Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal and Persuasions:
The Jane Austen Journal On-line.
JASNA News v.16, no. 1, Spring 2000, p. 13
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