By Claude Rawson.
Yale University Press, 2000. 309 pp.
By Mark Axelrod.
St. Martin's Press, 1999. 228 pp.
Reviewed by Elsa A. Solender.
If the principal purpose of scholarly writing is to illuminate the texts of master works and place them in meaningful literary/historical context, then each of the chapters on Austen in these books by recognized academicians may be credited with a contribution to Jane Austen studies.
But, of course, there are other forces in play when professors are at work--and perhaps "at play," as well. Some of these high jinks may erect obstacles for the unwary, nonacademic reader, who ought to be forewarned. As they "walk the walk" and "talk the talk" of contemporary English Department politics, some writer/critics may leave behind--far behind--not only academic un-initiates, but also, sadly, the spirit and style of the author under scrutiny. One of the chapters reviewed here demonstrates what scholarly writing can be; the other shows what, in all-too-many cases, it has become.
Claude Rawson, Maynard Mack Professor of English at Yale, offers an excellent close reading of three key scenes in Persuasion in a chapter from his book, which was first published in 1994: Sir Walter Elliot's refusal to leave Kellynch Hall; the actual renting in the next chapter, including the meeting between Sir Walter and the Admiral; and the encounter of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth when seated on a sofa with Mrs. Musgrove. Rawson masterfully demonstrates three narrative voices at work in the novel. He indicates precisely how the satire is achieved in the narrative by the interplay of these voices. He makes abundant references to Austen's earlier works to demonstrate how she returned and broadened certain ideas and techniques with which she had experimented earlier in her writing. Finally, he tries to evaluate Austen's place as heir to the 18th Century Augustan satirists and moralists--especially her refinements of that heritage--and as a precursor to the postmodern stream of consciousness narrative.
In reaching his conclusions about Austen's position in the canon, Rawson refers respectfully to the work of predecessors and colleagues such as Norman Page and Brian Southam, even as he takes issue with some of their conclusions. Despite his temperate treatment of the question of finding the "correct" tradition in which to place Austen's achievement and/or heritage, one cannot help wondering why he does not more explicitly entertain the idea that she may very well be said to figure prominently in both traditions, that there are forces at work in her satire and style which indicate both affinity to several of her predecessors--Johnson, Richardson, Pope and Fielding--as well as to some later writers, including Joyce and Woolf. Is it not one of the capacities of genius to be able to assimilate and transform the works of others in an original, non-derivative manner, as well as to invent wholly new approaches? Can she not be shown to have drawn upon aspects of Fielding Johnson and Richardson even though they are so different from one another?
In reading Professor Rawson's analysis, I took issue with only one of his masterful interpretations, his praise of Louisa's view of the Crofts' marriage when that young lady tells Captain Wentworth: "If I loved a man, as she loves the Admiral, I would be always with him, nothing should ever separate us, and I would rather be overturned by him, than driven safely by anyone else." I believe Rawson overlooks here the rashness, the exaggeration, of Louisa's metaphor, a position that the sensible Mrs. Croft herself would probably eschew if not ridicule. This irrationally romantic carelessness in Louisa's thinking may even foreshadow the dreadful accident at Lyme in which she dramatically throws herself off The Cob despite Wentworth's warnings.
Professor Rawson ably draws connections between the mature Anne Elliot and Marianne Dashwood to demonstrate how Austen characteristically returned to, or presented variations on earlier themes and characters to new effect. He writes: "As Marianne had been unwisely led by 'romance' in her youth and eventually became prudent, so Anne, who 'had been forced into prudence in her youth learned romance as she grew older.'" He argues that in Persuasion, "Lady Russell partly upholds Elinor's values at a point in Austen's evolution when her sympathies have moved closer to Marianna. The middle-aged Austen has not exploded into passion, but mellowed towards it."
Rawson's treatment also makes some telling references to the impact of theatrical techniques and conventions used by Austen, whose family had a strong tradition of private theatricals, including "a keen sense of plot; characters or episodes framed as set pieces, analogous in shape and length to a scene in a play; comic reversals and resolutions; semi-autonomous tableaux; a sharp ear for dialogue [and] a whole repertoire of stage-routines, including well-timed coincidences, contrived meetings, comic misunderstandings, conversations overheard at cross-purposes."
This recognition of Austen's returning to previous characters to new effect and her utilization of abundant theatrical techniques--seem to me to argue for a more serious consideration of the Austen novels, especially the characters in the novels, as a kind of theatrical repertory company, a commedia delle arte troupe. Austen reshuffles various players--the prettiest girl, the handsomest man, the sensible middle-aged gentleman, the rake, the middle-aged mentor, parent, or autocrat--to varying effect in a succession of comedies by a controlling authorial wit and intelligence.
It should be noted that Professor Rawson's admirable prose style is both erudite and sophisticated, yet can be appreciated by the common reader without recourse to the OED or a dictionary of (current) literary terms.
This may not be said of Professor Axelrod's work in this instance. Let it be noted that he is Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Chapman University in Orange California, and the author of four published novels (Bombay, California; Cardboard Castles; Cloud Castles; and Capital Castles). One can only hope that his fictions are presented in a style markedly different from his literary criticism.
Professor Axelrod argues that Northanger Abbey (NA) is not the imperfect, unfinished work of an experimenting young author, as some critics have argued. Instead, because of her handling of the poetics of fiction, that is, her style, and her apparent comprehension of the elements of mythology, a la Joseph Campbell, as well as her subversive attack on popular fictional trends, "Austen has mastered the technique and with that mastery puts to rest any notion of NA as being something less than a poetic achievement, something less than a mature work of art."
In fact, Axelrod believes Jane Austen ought to be ranked as a bonafide postmodern writer, or at least as an important ancestress of the movement; furthermore, he thinks that much more of her juvenilia, because of its technical facility and subversive qualities, ought to be taken more seriously.
In reaching his conclusion, he attempts to refute earlier commentators who questioned whether Austen had fully completed (and controlled) her NA material, notably F. R. Leavis. Axelrod writes the following sentence after analyzing Catherine Morland's uneventful journey to Bath in the company of Mrs. Allen in the second chapter:
So what Austen is clearly composing here relative to the novel she's writing, and to the novels to which she is alluding is that she sets up situations "intentionally" (no fallacy intended) to undermine them which makes the novel a thoroughly pre-postmodern text in that it "does seem to deny the reader any sure ground for interpretation and discrimination and to make explicit the impossibility of getting the world into a book."
Along the way in this chapter, Axelrod employs some vocabulary which may be unfamiliar to the non-academic reader, including "diachronically," "diastalsis," "coterminous," "diegetic," "extradiegetic," "syntagmatic" and "mantissa." My computer recognized three of these as English words (no, I won't tell you which). I found two more in the OED (although it presents the adjectival form of one as "diagetical"). And I think I have a handle on the two remaining words from other sources. Or perhaps more spellings--as well as some punctuation--may be disputed; the publisher Crosbie, who bought but did not publish NA, is called "crosbie" on Page 31, and some other typos may also be found. Some people may very well enjoy looking up these words and will not be disappointed to learn that the concepts they represent might be more simply and directly expressed in many instances.
With all this, Professor Axelrod's work is not without its rewards. His close readings are often very insightful, especially in recognizing stylistic innovations. He clearly identifies, as well, the tripartite nature of NA: a stylistic novel that parodies the gothic novel; a Bildungsroman about Catherine Morland, "a heroine who is about as anti-heroic and pedestrian as any heroine in literary letters can be;" and, thirdly, "a novel that is clearly intent on undermining both the reader's expectations of what a novel is supposed to look and read like and a novel that undermines Catherine's own expectations as a reader of her own story."
There are other merits in Axelrod's reading of the novel. Let the unwary be forewarned, however, that in "walking the walk" and "talking the talk" of the post-modern academician, he may have raised as many clouds of dust as illuminations on the path to understanding Jane Austen's achievement.
Elsa A. Solender, an independent scholar, was President of JASNA from 1996-2000. She has taught at the University of Chicago and Goucher College, and has won three journalism prizes. Her current project is a survey of screen adaptations of Jane Austen's novels.
JASNA News v.17, no. 3, Winter 2001, p. 21
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