Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: The Hidden Jane Austen


In December 1813, nearly a year after Pride and Prejudice was published, Sarah Harriet Burney, half-sister of the more famous Frances, wrote to a friend:

“Yes, I have read the book you speak of, ‘Pride & Prejudice’, and I could quite rave about it! How well you define one of its characteristics when you say of it, that it breathes a spirit of ‘careless originality.’ – It is charming. – Nothing was ever better conducted than the fable; nothing can be more piquant than its dialogues; more distinct than its characters.”

Burney then adds, ‘I have the three vols now in the house, and know not how to part with them. I have only just finished, and could begin them all over again with pleasure.’ Sarah Harriet may have been one of the first readers to feel that the freshness of Jane Austen’s novel would not fade with re-reading and that the second time round it might be even more rewarding. A like-minded contemporary of hers was William Gifford, the editor of the Quarterly Review and right-hand man of the most prestigious publisher of the time, John Murray. He first tells Murray in November 1814 that having ‘for the first time, looked into Pride & Prejudice’ he finds it ‘really a very pretty thing’, and then in September or October 1815 he writes that ‘I have lately read it again – tis very good’. He is saying that this novel is certainly something other than a genteel romance aimed at the circulating library market, and encouraging Murray to add Jane Austen to his list – which he did.

Since then, Austen readers tend to identify themselves as re-readers. Much later, in 1838, when Sarah Harriet found that Sir Walter Scott ‘thought so highly of my prime favorite Miss Austen – he read her “Pride & Prejudice” three times’, she trumped him, saying ‘I have read it as bumper toasts are given – three times three.’ Even Mark Twain, despite being ‘maddened’ by Austen’s work, seems to admit to reading it more than once. In the middle of the century, George Henry Lewes, the partner of George Eliot, who had been writing about Jane Austen’s artistry in the journals for over a decade, published a long and eloquent tribute to her work in which he included a personal, even domestic, note:

“We have re-read them all four times; or rather, to speak more accurately, they have been read aloud to us, one after the other; and when it is considered what a severe test that is, how the reading aloud permits no skipping, no evasion of weariness, but brings both merits and defects into stronger relief by forcing the mind to dwell on them, there is surely something significant of genuine excellence when both reader and listener finish their fourth reading with increase of admiration.”

Austen readers tend to identify themselves as re-readers.

Later in the century the note of fandom is sounded. Agnes Repplier gushingly confesses that Austen’s novels are her ‘midnight friends’: ‘We have known them well for years. There is no fresh nook to be explored, no forgotten page to be revisited. But we will take them down, and re-read for the fiftieth time’; and a sterner critic, Reginald Farrer, in a famous centenary article in the 1917 issue of the Quarterly Review, could declare even more hyperbolically that her work ‘is so packed with such minute and far-reaching felicities that the thousandth reading of “Emma” or “Persuasion” will be certain to reveal to you a handful of such brilliant jewels unnoticed before’. A. C. Bradley, famous for his work on Shakespeare, referred to himself, in an important lecture, as one of ‘the faithful’, as if he re-read Jane Austen as regularly as he went to church.

David Lodge re-echoed such comments in the late twentieth century. Austen’s novels, he wrote, were so ‘permeated with irony’ that they ‘can sustain an infinite number of readings’. It is established, then, that to best enjoy Jane Austen one should re-read the novels. Each reading makes one even more convinced of Austen’s greatness, as Lewes insisted, or of what so many critics following in his wake celebrate as Austen’s ‘art’. The corollary of re-reading is not only, as Gifford understood, that Austen’s comic and romantic novels were serious publications, but that they are so constructed as to invite, perhaps to require, re-reading. This is certainly the case with Emma, as Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan argue. ‘It was in her writing of Emma, and in particular her bold decision to write a novel that demanded repeated re-readings, that Austen made the most striking claim for her profession’, they write. Re-readability, they suggest, was becoming the key distinction between literary work that one might want to purchase and the circulating library trash that one borrowed by the volume and returned quickly in order to pick up the next. Cronin and McMillan go on to suggest further that in writing Emma Jane Austen was prepared ‘to sacrifice readability’ to re-readability, in order to make good her claim to serious professional status.

But what re-reading consists of is a trickier question. John Mullan’s What Matters in Jane Austen? (2012) offers a start towards answering it. Citing their ‘minute interconnectedness’, he suggests that this ‘is the reason why, when you re-read her novels, you have the experience of suddenly noticing some crucial detail that you have never noticed before, and realising how demanding she is of your attention’. (Perhaps this is what Repplier had in mind when she wrote of ‘nooks’.) Mullan often suggests that first-time readers absorb such effects of detail unconsciously. It is only when the novels are returned to with alert (and possibly more informed) attention that one understands how these effects are gained. One of the objects of this book is to focus on the way the writer shapes and manages her readers’ – and her re-readers’ – attention as they peruse her novels. It also investigates Austen’s interest in attention as a psychological facility, and how it relates to memory, to remembering and to misremembering. After all, one difference between reading and re-reading is that the subsequent reading is informed by at least some memory of the first.

It is the role of criticism and scholarship to equip the modern, the twenty-first century, re-reader with the information and understanding that enables him or her to give Austen’s novels the attention they ask for. ‘Readers today need to recognize that Mansfield Park is consciously set in the post-abolition period’, Peter Knox-Shaw states correctly, for example, though, as he also notes, enduring commentary on the novel has been written in ignorance of this. For many years now there has been a concerted critical project to recover the historical and literary circumstances in which Jane Austen’s novels were composed and published. This has involved consideration of publication and printing practices in Jane Austen’s London, as well as study of the novels and plays that form thecontext for her writing. Increasingly it has been understood that Austen’s writing engages in a form of conversation, if not debate, not only with some of the canonical novelists she knew, but with the fictions pumped out by the circulating libraries (on which, to be sure, she partially depended for the sale of her own novels). At the same time, much attention has been given to the political, legal and social setting in which she wrote, with the result that the earlier assumption that the novels are isolated or sequestered from the historical circumstances of Austen’s time has been thoroughly displaced. Thus a critic could write in 2000 that Mansfield Park, for instance, which is mostly set in an isolated country house in the English provinces, is ‘now often read as a novel engaged with the events of its day – the abolition

of the slave trade, the French revolution, political upheaval in the Caribbean’, and the Napoleonic ‘war at a distance’ has been shown to echo throughout at least her later works. Austen is thus re-created as a novelist who is intellectually abreast of her literary and philosophical inheritance and well aware of the contemporary context, but who, having chosen merely to allude to this material, to imply her knowledge rather than to display it, requires modern scholarship to recover what might have been taken for granted by her first readers.

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