Austen in Her Time and Ours
The Historical Austen
By William H. Galperin.
University of Pennsylvania Press,
viii + 286 pages.
6 b/w illustrations. Hardcover. $39.95.
Reviewed by Daniel Traister.
for “perhaps too boldly” writing about “the meaning of Frank
[Churchill] and Jane [Fairfax],” William H. Galperin proceeds
nonetheless to do just that. He is “bold” because who nowadays dares
speak of anything quite so elusive as “meaning”? He is also convincing.
Indeed, were it only for its chapter on Emma, The Historical Austen would
excite anyone interested in Austen or the history of the English novel.
“A book that will revolutionize Jane Austen studies”; “the most
important book on Jane Austen’s works to appear in the last fifteen
years”: thus two blurbs on the dustwrapper. Does anyone take blurbs
seriously? Yet, mirabile dictu,
both may actually understate how good Galperin’s book is, and how
“formidably smart,” as the second blurb-writer asserts.
“a trajectory of development where, under imperatives ranging from the
aesthetic to the political, Austen’s career is demonstrably one of
steady transformation.” That transformation is “a consequence” of her
“steady engagement with a host of problems, formal and cultural.” She
shows “abiding allegiance to epistolary instability, and the particular
reading habits that epistolary ‘silence’ cultivated and served.” Aware
“of the naturalizing, indeed regulatory, bent of any art that spoke in
the name of either probability or nature,” the politically astute
Austen also knows “that the subordinate status of women, especially
women of privilege, attested to the equally conscribed status of men.” (Conscribed—an obsolete form,
according to OED, 3, of circumscribed—is
a usage I discuss below.) She reveals an “uncanny alignment with her
romantic contemporaries in locating horizons of possibility,” which
Galperin opposes throughout to “probability,” “in quotidian life.”
On such bases,
Galperin interprets Austen’s six complete and several of her incomplete
works. He considers her turn from epistolary fiction to narrative based
on free indirect discourse, showing how she simultaneously resists both
the heightened controls this new form grants and the regulatory
impulses those heightened controls reflect. He relates Austen to her
romantic contemporaries and to theorists of the picturesque,
emphasizing ways in which she maintains her distinctiveness from each.
His book is filled with excitements, from reiterated discussions of
such terms as “nostalgia,” “possibility,” and “probability,” to
specific comments on, for instance, Elizabeth Bennet’s encounter with
Darcy’s portrait at Pemberley.
central point is Austen’s “success in mediating and resisting what was
not only an imperative to fictions of probability at the time but also
a charge that, for all its proclaimed neutrality or fidelity to nature,
was directed toward the constitution of a society in which opposition,
possibility, and novelty were to be contained.” He expands and refines
approaches that go back at least as far as Marilyn Butler’s 1975 Jane Austen and the War of Ideas.
“Re-historicizing” Austen in full awareness of the scholarly tradition
that has grown up in Butler’s wake, Galperin presents an Austen far
less consistently conservative or progressive, far more self-reflexive,
and infinitely more complicated than the Austen of much recent
scholarship. His book is far richer than any brief review can suggest.
however, are not all that require comment. A writer capable of a word
like “conscribed” (above) or who speaks about Frank Churchill’s
“extreme unction regarding his father’s new wife” must fight against
his reader’s lack of confidence in his critical ability. One expects
literary scholars and critics concerned with the
medium of language to attend to their own language, exemplifying the
acuity with which they attend to that of their subjects. Galperin does
no such thing. I have already noted the obsolescence of conscribe. Extreme unction presents another
problem. A sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church, it is, unhappily,
not synonymous with unctuousness,
which is what Galperin appears to mean. Yet another word, contestional (240), seems a variant
on a word about which OED remarks: “bad form for CONTESTATION.”
204-216, where these solecisms appear, Galperin’s persistent reader
will already have swallowed much more. His writing repels rather than
invites. Sentence structure, for example: I defy any reader properly to
construe the paragraph on pages 21-22. Galperin himself, apparently
baffled by his own syntax, does not proofread it correctly, missing the
transposition in “even as is she incapable” (22; sic). Most typos I caught involve
missing articles, almost unnoticeable in the general welter of confused
syntax. Galperin consistently ignores the ordinary graces of writing. A
sentence on page 84 contains 102 words, another, on page 186, 100
words. Do these seem extreme examples? The number of 70-, 80-, and
90-word sentences I paused to count, constantly astonished, is legion.
technical language is not something to which I object. Writing for
professionals, he uses professional language appropriately. But he
deploys it in prose remorselessly uninterested in its own reception.
His failure to consider audience is infuriating precisely because this
book is so extraordinary. Galperin offers a compellingly revisionist
view of Austen’s works. But by putting off more readers than it
attracts, his prose will, unnecessarily and unjustly, inhibit the
widespread reception his illuminating readings deserve. Neither the
author nor his press (that of my very own university) has done
Galperin’s book any favors in editing this text for publication. Its
readers have been short-changed, too.
is a librarian and teacher of English literature at the University of
v.20, no. 1, Spring 2004, p. 19
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