Persuasions #15, 1993 Pages 164-169
Jane Austen and Anne Tyler,
Sister Novelists Under the Skin:
Comparison of Persuasion and Saint Maybe
Department of English, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
Several women writers through the years have been called a “Second Jane Austen” (Barbara Pym and Alison Lurie are two who come to mind). While in each case I have seen stylistic and thematic resemblances to Jane Austen’s fiction in their work, I have always – with one exception – felt that the differences in art and outlook between the second Jane Austens and the original one were too great to make the comparisons really meaningful. However, last year when I came across a newspaper review of Saint Maybe that called Anne Tyler “America’s Jane Austen,” I registered no silent disagreement. The more time I spend with Tyler’s novels, the stronger is my feeling that the similarities between the two authors are strong enough to make a comparison between them worthwhile. To demonstrate this, I will compare and contrast Persuasion with Tyler’s most recent novel, Saint Maybe (1991).
There are three general areas where I see significant resemblances in Austen and Tyler’s fiction. The first is their attitude towards romance. Neither writer values it highly. Since Jane Austen is writing romantic comedy, her undercutting is done subtly, but it is there. In Persuasion Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth are the perfect couple, and in the end they are united, as we all expect and desire them to be. Along the way, however, we are told that after her engagement to Wentworth ended, the main reason Anne never formed a “second attachment, the only thoroughly natural, happy, and sufficient cure, at her time of life” (28), is that in her country neighborhood, with its restricted supply of eligible males, Anne never met anyone who could equal Wentworth “as he stood in her memory.” This last, qualifying phrase is important; the real Frederick Wentworth, when we meet him, is certainly charming, intelligent, and basically honorable – but he is also quite self-centered and obviously intoxicated by his success. His renditions of his adventures, however, make it clear that he has not only been an extremely courageous and skillful naval officer, but also an extremely lucky one (64-67). If he and his captured French frigate had reached port six hours later, a storm would have struck which, Wentworth cheerfully admits, would have sent him and his “dear old Asp” to the bottom of the sea. Such luck has accompanied him throughout his entire career as a combat officer – unlike his presumably equally worthy friend, “Poor Harville,” who is lame from a wound and living in straitened circumstances in Lyme Regis (not to mention all those others who “go to the bottom” and are remembered only “in a small paragraph at one corner of the newspapers”).
Wentworth, then, takes for granted that he is entitled to special treatment from a universe otherwise usually quite indifferent to human merit; near the end of the novel he tells Anne that “I have been used to the gratification of believing myself to earn every blessing [including, presumably, his good fortune] that I enjoyed” (247). As Joan Klingel Ray makes clear in another essay in this volume, Lady Russell is not far wrong in her judgment of the young Wentworth: he is headstrong and reckless; he is also inconsiderate of the fragile Anne, heedless of the psychological punishment, with its accompanying physical strain, she would have to endure from a long, uncertain engagement. (He silently acknowledges this in the inn at Bath when both he and Anne overhear Mrs. Croft and Mrs. Musgrove strenuously condemn long engagements [230-31].)
Wentworth becomes aware of his shortcomings after his luck runs out on the Cobb when he fails to catch Louisa Musgrove “by half a second” (109). This event shocks him out of his habitual arrogance and permits him to reassess the virtue and the wisdom of his previous attitudes and course of action. The chastened and wiser Wentworth at the end of Persuasion is worthy of Anne, closer to the ideal she had of him in her memory after he had abandoned her for failing to appreciate his godlike nature seven years before. But Anne did have to endure those unnecessary years of loneliness and suffering, and the narrator implies that (again, let’s give credit to Lady Russell) an Anne Elliot-Charles Musgrove marriage would have been no tragedy. With all of his faults of a life too much devoted to trivial pursuits and his obvious inferiority to her idealized memory of Wentworth, Anne still likes Charles and realizes that a marriage to a woman superior to Mary would have made him a better human being (43). The Crofts’ marriage clearly demonstrates that a strong, complex woman can be happy with a strong, less complex man. And episodes such as Anne’s coincidental meeting with William Elliot at Lyme (a meeting which reawakens Wentworth’s interest in Anne), and Louisa Musgrove’s fall, emphasize the importance of pure chance in the working out of human relationships. Ideal marriages are possible in Jane Austen’s fictional world (indeed her genre requires them), but Austen leaves no doubt that our universe is not particularly concerned with arranging them. Romance is exciting – almost irresistibly so – but friendship and esteem, the two factors which eighteenth-century rational feminists stressed were the foundations of a good marriage (Smallwood 49, 56), are far more important, and in all six of her novels Jane Austen is careful to show the reader that these two are present in the relationships of her heroines and heroes.
Anne Tyler’s view of romance? A graduate student in an Austen-Tyler seminar I taught four years ago told me that she thought Tyler was “immunized against it.” That is overstating the case a bit; like Jane Austen, Anne Tyler has nothing against the presence of mystery and excitement in the love between a woman and a man. Tyler, however, is not writing romantic comedy (though that genre makes its presence felt from the horizon of her fictional world), and she is more emphatic than Austen that romance unsupported by friendship and respect and by an adequate knowledge of the true character of one’s future mate, provides no reliable foundation for a good marriage, Danny Bedloe, the older brother of the hero of Saint Maybe, lacks this wisdom and pays for it with his life. He falls instantly and passionately in love with his future wife, Lucy Dean, when she comes to mail a package at the post office Danny manages. A divorcee with two children, Lucy is sending a heavy package (it includes a bowling ball) of her former husband’s belongings back to him. Lucy’s good looks and her stubborn decision to pay air mail postage for the package win Danny’s heart. He asks her out and immediately decides he wants to marry her. As he explains to his younger brother:
I tell you, Ian, I’ve been looking for a woman like Lucy all my life, but I’d started to think I’d never find her. I almost thought there was something wrong with me …. Then along comes Lucy. Two weeks ago she was a total stranger, can you believe it? And yet I’m certain she’s the one. (12)
Two weeks later Danny and Lucy are married. On the surface, for awhile, all is well. But the woman whom Danny loves does not exist. Behind her resourceful, confident mask is a frightened, lonely, poorly educated young woman who feels that only her ability to manipulate men enables her and her two children to survive. She habitually engages in shoplifting to gain the clothes and cosmetics she feels she needs to maintain her attractiveness. When, in a fit of adolescent self-righteousness and annoyance with Lucy (he has been babysitting for her and she fails to return on time, thus threatening to ruin a very big date for him), Ian tells Danny that Lucy is cheating on him and that his and Lucy’s premature baby daughter, Daphne, really was not premature and was not Danny’s, the insecure, half-intoxicated Danny cannot endure the shock of disillusionment and a few minutes later kills himself by driving his car into a wall. The sudden loss of Danny proves too much for Lucy. Weary and battered from her lifelong struggle for survival, Lucy kills herself with an overdose of sleeping pills (deliberately or accidentally is uncertain).
Thus a short, whirlwind romance has led not to a happy marriage, but to tragedy for all concerned. Danny and Lucy are dead, their children orphaned, and Ian is wracked by a guilt so severe that he can deal with it only by following the advice of Reverend Emmett (a former Episcopalian priest who heads the storefront Church of the Second Chance which Ian stumbles on after the mainstream religion he was raised in fails to comfort him) to give up his college education and devote himself to supporting and raising Danny and Lucy’s three children. On the other hand, years later, a happy marriage between a middle-aged Ian and a “Clutter Counselor,” Rita diCarlo (first she organizes the chaotic belongings in the Bedloe household, and then she gives Ian’s life a new order and discipline by marrying him), ends Saint Maybe. But here, as she does in the central relationships in all her novels, Anne Tyler makes clear that the match was brought about by timing, circumstances, and congenial personalities and principles, not by a Romantic Destiny.
The second resemblance between Jane Austen and Anne Tyler is that the narratives of both are characterized by irony and humor. First – since it is less complex – I will discuss the humor. Like Elizabeth Bennet, Austen’s and Tyler’s readers dearly love a laugh – and a smile. And both authors are often genuinely funny (the grim events I described in the early sections of Saint Maybe are by no means characteristic of the entire novel). Who, for example, can fail to cherish the sight of Sir Walter Elliot approaching the Peerage with the reverence of an ardent Calvinist taking up the Bible? Who does not relish Mrs. Clay explaining how any kind of worthwhile human activity always ages one and thus had best be avoided? And who does not treasure Mary Musgrove’s whiny narratives about her physical ordeals – her sore throats are worse than anybody’s – and intellectual joys – all those books she carries away from and back to the Lyme Regis lending library?
While Anne Tyler does not attempt to duplicate the polished, eighteenth-century quality of Austen’s wit, her reader also smiles often in the course of Saint Maybe. For example, Ian Bedloe’s father, a retired high school teacher and coach, decides not to fill his empty days by working with teen-agers because a lifetime of experience with them has convinced him that adolescents are shallow and he has no desire to be around them anymore (159-60). And then there is the cruelly funny scene at the dinner table where Daphne, Ian’s little niece, caring neither for the young woman her uncle has brought home from his Church of the Second Chance, nor for the pious conversation in which the two are engaging, gains the attention of all those around the table by announcing that God has given her a warning in a dream: “ ‘Daphne,’ he said – he had this big, deep, rumbling voice. ‘Daphne Bedloe beware of strangers! … Somebody fat not from Baltimore, chasing after your uncle Ian’ ” (240-41).
Related to humor, but more subtle, is irony; the narratives of both Austen and Tyler contain an all-pervading irony which does not spare the main characters (and, ironically enough, each author has a “problem novel” – Austen’s Mansfield Park and Tyler’s Morgan’s Passing – in which many readers feel that the irony goes too far, and renders the main characters unsympathetic). Admirable though they may be at times, Austen’s and Tyler’s protagonists are fallible human beings who are sometimes foolish and sometimes unaware of their limitations. Earlier I discussed Wentworth’s arrogance and his accompanying failure to recognize that blind luck was as responsible for his dazzling success as his courage and skill. But neither is Anne Elliot flawless (in spite of her creator’s remark that Anne was almost too good for her). Though Anne certainly suffers, usually with patience and humility, from her superiority to those around her, and from the isolation which that superiority brings on, occasionally she cannot help basking in her own nobility; few readers forget how the narrator describes her walking along a Bath street, trailing clouds of self-glorification. And in Anne Tyler’s Baltimore, a self-righteous Ian helps to cause the death of his brother and his wife when he mistakes his own impatience and adolescent sexual jealousy for a desire for truth and justice.
But in both authors this cool irony, this refusal to sentimentalize the main characters or their actions, never results in cynicism. We might smile at Anne Elliot’s self-delusions, and wince at Frederick Wentworth’s and Ian Bedloe’s harmful self-deceptions, but we never doubt their basic worth and never stop caring for them. Further, we never doubt the basic values of love and duty which are the moral and spiritual foundations in both works, and which sustain Anne Elliot during the long years of serving the largely unappreciative people around her, as they do Ian Bedloe after he drops out of college, takes a job as a carpenter and devotes the next twenty years to raising Danny and Lucy’s children.
Third, the fiction of Austen and Tyler has a spiritual dimension. This claim, or course, will be vigorously denied by all those who wish to claim that these authors are modern in the full sense of the word; to these critics this means that there can be no religious or spiritual meaning in a world that is essentially independent and contingent, under no higher or external direction or influence. While most contemporary critics will tolerate, even praise, the ironic intrusion of a self-conscious narrator into the text, they can be depended upon to sneer at the implication that a fictional world or its characters are influenced by a Supreme Reality. This is not, of course, the place to begin a lengthy argument about these complex topics (which I do deal with at length in The Religious Dimension of Jane Austen’s Novels). To put the issue briefly: Every significant religious work, fiction or nonfiction, from the Bible to Pilgrim’s Progress to the Apologia Pro Vita Sua to I and Thou, has contained the realization that the world is not God’s little puppet theatre, but a quite real place, functioning through its own, independent laws. If there is a God – Pascal put the odds at 50-50 – then His sustaining influence or inspiration (in other words, His Grace) makes itself present in a way that respects this independence. This means that each individual views a world in which destruction and cruelty are intermingled with creativity and love, and it is up to each person to make the decision whether or not he believes this world has its origin in blind process or a Supreme Reality. Emotional subjectivity is not enough; neither is scientific objectivity, since “science is the attempt to conceive the world under the category of quantity” (Oakeshott 244), the mathematical description of processes; the God of an infinite, mysterious universe is certainly not available for such categorizing. Each individual must use his total response – a response which fuses his firsthand experience, his reading and observation, his logic and his intuition – to reach his decision on the degree of possibility or impossibility of there being a spiritual dimension to human existence.
Like the real world, the fictional worlds of Jane Austen and Anne Tyler offer the reader the opportunity of making this total-response decision, of concluding that life should or should not be given a religious interpretation. This gives these two authors a greater range and makes them more truly, inclusively “modern” than the “wasteland” writers who have been so popular in our century. Hemingway and Camus and Vonnegut are gifted writers, but their textual worlds offer no choice: the universe is meaningless and that is that. In offering us the possibility of this kind of universe, but not confining us to it, Austen and Tyler, I believe, go beyond these other masters of modern fiction.
Finally, both of these authors have been accused by critics of being too limited in their choice of subject matter – the ordinary lives of middle-class people. Both demonstrate that this narrowness is illusory. Scott’s “Big Bow-wow strain” can never be spurned, but it does not provide the only meaningful way to reveal the human mind and spirit. “Here is God’s plenty,” wrote John Dryden about Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the late seventeenth century. In the late twentieth century we can add to his praise our appreciation for two other pilgrimages, beginning not in Canterbury but in Chawton and in Baltimore.
For these reasons I believe that Jane Austen has a novelist “sister” in Anne Tyler. I use the sibling relationship rather than a mother-daughter one because, while Anne Tyler has certainly read Jane Austen and learned from her, she just as certainly is her own woman, following her own paths and creating her own worlds – which are as completely twentieth-century American and universal as Jane Austen’s are nineteenth-century British and universal. We can never know, but my guess is that Jane Austen would approve of and delight in her younger sister.
Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, Vol. V of The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd ed. London: Oxford UP, 1933 (rpt 1954).
Oakeshott, Michael. Experience and Its Modes. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1933 (rpt 1978).
Smallwood, Angela J. Fielding and the Woman Question: The Novels of Henry Fielding and Feminist Debate 1700-1750. New York: Martin’s Press, 1989.
Tyler, Anne. Saint Maybe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.