Reading Jane Austen 2

I finished the last section by emphasising the need to focus on the text because it seems to me that this is the route by which readers (or Model Readers) are most likely to carry out their responsibilities to the author also (pace Roland Barthes). But sometimes this is not as simple or straightforward as it sounds, given the gap of some two hundred years that separates us from Jane Austen and all the potential differences that implies. It is more or less inevitable that the modern reader will give extra weight to his or her own enthusiasms or knowledge and by so doing consciously or unconsciously modify the original balances and emphases of the text – especially as the original language might have more nuanced or different meanings from the ones current today in addition to the natural (sometimes deliberate, sometimes unconscious) ambiguities of expression. This was, in part, what D W Harding addressed in his comments outlined in the previous section on how the received image of Jane Austen brought in its train what he called conventional expectations of what readers thought she wrote. He went on – almost certainly unintentionally – to introduce a different complication which this gap of two hundred years and thousands of hours of research can produce by adding to his quotations from the text in support of his comments this observation:

Jane Austen was herself at this time ‘neither young, handsome, rich, nor married’, and the passage perhaps hints at the functions which her unquestioned intellectual superiority may have had for her

The problem is that this is an observation based on his background knowledge of Austen’s life rather than on the text, which in the description of Miss Bates directly and deliberately recalls the opening sentence of the novel:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich …

and thereby sets up a linkage between the two characters which culminates in Emma’s awful behaviour at Box Hill where she humiliates Miss Bates in front of her neighbours and becomes, thanks to Knightley’s genuinely angry reproof, a major factor in Emma’s emotional growth. This is the textual significance that matters, even though Harding’s professional psychological focus on the parallels between the description of Miss Bates and Jane Austen’s own situation is credible and persuasive.

Despite this, it remains the case that speculating on authorial intentions in this way generally pays the wrong kind of attention to the text. Working within the boundaries of the text, the most we can say with some degree of certainty about Austen’s intention is what it was not: Miss Bates is clearly not intended to appeal to prospective suitors and therefore has no possibility of being one of Emma’s projects – which in terms of the novel is probably a lucky escape, given Emma’s track record. More importantly, this establishes the basic dynamic of their relationship and thus helps illuminate the flaws in Emma’s personality.

Readers inevitably carry what we might term extra-textual insights or outside knowledge into their reading of a text, which perhaps bears out to some degree Barthes’ argument about the ‘tyranny’ of the idea of the author. But as we have just seen, such extrapolations obviously may in themselves offer valuable insights that can tangentially deepen our appreciation of a text (because, as Umberto Eco’s story about Foucault’s Pendulum shows, texts can have meanings the author did not intend) but do not necessarily add to the quality of our interpretation of it.

Perhaps this point can be usefully demonstrated if we follow another character’s journey across Paris – say, Jake Barnes in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises – and see how extra-textual knowledge of Hemingway, interesting and accurate in itself, can actually (to use Eco’s word) overinterpret the text.

The novel offers a scrupulous depiction of the topography of Paris nearly a century ago that establishes a basic physical reality for the novel, and creates a vivid sense of atmosphere as expressed in this passage from the eighth chapter:

We walked on and circled the island. The river was dark and a bâteau mouche went by, all bright with lights, going fast and quiet up and out of sight under the bridge. Down the river was Notre Dame squatting against the night sky. We crossed to the left bank of the Seine by the wooden foot-bridge from the Quai de Bethune, and stopped on the bridge and looked down the river at Notre Dame. Standing on the bridge the island looked dark, the houses were high against the sky, and the trees were shadows.

This is beautifully constructed: there is an air of quiet relaxation (even the tourist boat is quiet), contentment and almost contemplation as the two characters – Jake Barnes and Bill Gorton – stand together looking down the river in the gathering night at the bulk of the cathedral looming more solid and black in the darkness. There is no sense of any meaningful thought-process or emotion here, no reaction to the huge mass of the cathedral darker against the night sky – just an acceptance of its presence among the houses and the trees and the river. It recalls the final sentence of the fourth chapter:

It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing.

This scene on the bridge is definitely a soft-boiled moment for Jake, then, a release from the cares of his wound and his inability to deal with his relationship with Brett, as also expressed at the end of the fourth chapter:

This was Brett, that I had felt like crying about.

Hemingway has already more than established by this point that the fact that his wound prevents Jake from physically consummating his feeling for Brett impacts on his relationship with everything and everyone. So the clear sense of acceptance and absorption make this scene a significant moment in the novel. In 2012 Daniel C Strack of the Faculty of Foreign Studies at the University of Kitakyushu wrote about The Sun Also Rises and highlighted the metaphorical importance of bridges in Hemingway’s fiction:

Bridges, when used metaphorically, are not univocal but rather can be individually adapted and strategically incorporated into a story’s context to add specific kinds of resonance. For example, the bridge on the Tagliamento River in A Farewell to Arms is located at the turning point in that story. The summary executions being carried out at the bridge not only create the incentive for Frederic Henry to desert, but the image of the bridge expresses and accentuates the sudden separation from his past that Henry will experience as a fugitive after his desertion. For Whom the Bell Tolls includes a number of diverse metaphors centered on the bridge that parallel ideological, relational, and philosophical aspects of the narrative. In general, bridges in Hemingway’s fiction are seen to have semantic relevance that belies their matter-of-fact depiction.
(Reading the Terrain: Cultural Setting and Characterization in The Sun Also Rises)

He comments on the passage where the two men stop on the foot-bridge as follows:

In one of the opening scenes, Bill and Jake are leaning against the railing of a wooden foot-bridge in Paris, enjoying the view of Notre Dame and some other larger bridges along the river. Unlike the Brooklyn Bridge, this foot-bridge is ideally suited to express a desire for intimacy in a relationship, and this scene offers no details of description that would contradict such a general interpretation. If anything, the inclusion of Notre Dame, a famous cathedral that is bound to have associations with weddings for the Catholic Jake, is another element that strengthens such a view. The combination of images, the wooden foot-bridge and the cathedral, gives the reader a fleeting glimpse beyond Jake’s tough exterior to a more sentimental side of his character.

Although these comments seem to be textually based the ‘general interpretation’ he offers is, in fact, based on his extra-textual knowledge – and this knowledge of how Hemingway loads the bridges in other of his fictions with this kind of significance usefully reinforces the immediate interpretation we have already deduced from the text itself. But it also complicates his approach to the text by, as it were, imposing his wider knowledge over the actual words and their meaning. While we can agree that the scene offers no details of description that would contradict what he calls his ‘general interpretation’ of the fact that the use of the foot-bridge expresses ‘a desire for intimacy in a relationship’ neither does it by itself support it for the reader who has no experience of Hemingway’s other fiction. What Hemingway creates in this scene, as already said, is a moment of relaxed intimacy between the two men, a shared quiet contemplation without the need to comment on it. That is, it expresses not so much a desire for intimacy but a momentary actual experience of it. And, of course, the claim that Notre Dame holds associations of weddings for Jake is not at all supported by the text but shows Strack straying into overinterpretation because of his insight about how Hemingway uses bridges in his other writing.

Now this is a relatively minor case – Strack’s overall argument is persuasive and a useful addition to appreciation rather than interpretation. But this slight misstep in allowing his enthusiasm for the importance of the bridge in this scene and in Hemingway’s fiction generally to outweigh the actual text illustrates the slipperiness of the task of reading the text co-operatively and with an equal relevance between wider resonances and the textual limits. It is too easy to emphasise – even overemphasise – arguments outside the text that can distort that co-operative relationship.

Some ten years earlier, in 2001, William Adair offered another focus on The Sun Also Rises in his paper The Sun Also Rises: A Memory of War, which concentrates on how much of Jake’s life and time is taken up by the consequences of the wound he suffered. Adair traces – in an interesting example of fusion between the text and extra-textual knowledge – how when Jake and Cohn discuss in the opening scene where to go on a walking trip, Jake’s suggestions are war-centred:

First he suggests that they “fly to Strasbourg” and from there climb to St. Odile’s, or somewhere else in Alsace. (Alsace was the only mountainous zone on the Western Front.) In “A Paris-to-Strasbourg Flight” (1922) we get an idea of what they would see from the air: near St Mihiel “the old 1918 front” (the first all-American offensive took place there) and “the old trenches zig-zagging through fields pocked with shell holes,” before crossing the “forest-covered” Vosges Mountains to Strasbourg. If Jake is haunted, and in a sense fascinated, by unspoken war memories – if he suffers, to use a cliché of the times, from a kind of Flanders (and mountainous Italy) of the mind – other places he names may have for him war associations. In fact, he may be sketching an outline of the Western Front at the war’s beginning, a large sweep of geography running from the North Sea down the Vosges on France’s eastern perimeter …

Again, this is very persuasive and certainly gives an extra detailed dimension to the novel’s theme of the wounds that wars leave in their trail; how what became known as the Lost Generation had to find new ways of living.

Also interesting is the way Adair makes the identical misstep as Strack when discussing the original night-scene by the Seine: his focus on the need to establish his premise that

In this complex, poetic novel, war and wounding constitute a major pattern of allusion

leads him to step beyond the limits of the actual text by fixing on the phrase ‘Notre Dame squatting against the night sky’. Adair traces how this word squatting forms part of a pattern of language both in newspapers and in a 1923 article by Hemingway and then various of his writings (A Way You’ll Never Be, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Across the River) and finally ends up stating that for Jake staring down the river at Notre Dame

…the huge cathedral’s silhouette could seem to him like an army with heavy artillery, or perhaps a fort or citadel near a river.

And once again a slight distortion arises, for the actual text of the passage, as has been pointed out, offers no support whatsoever for this speculation as to what meanings Jake derives from looking down the river.

So according to these two fascinating and well-researched commentaries on the novel (both of which add valid dimensions to Hemingway’s writing) Notre Dame both symbolises matrimony and the more sentimental side of Jake while simultaneously reminding him – despite the carefully constructed atmosphere of relaxed contentment – of the horrors of war. Despite this mild criticism it is important to acknowledge that both Strack and Adair, although offering different speculations as to what Jake might be feeling as he stands on the bridge, reach those speculations
on the shoulders of wider analysis from different perspectives of Hemingway’s other works. Further, both speculations can be accommodated within established themes in the novel: the effect of his particular war wound on his emotional life and social attitudes and behaviour. Neither seeks to claim that his reading of the scene on the foot-bridge offers or argues for a radical reassessment of Hemingway’s intentions in choosing the events, characters, scenes and ideas in the novel as a means of exploring the ideas or artistic vision that prompted the writing. I have introduced their comments as examples of how wider knowledge that is valuable in itself can nonetheless occasionally distort how a text or part of a text is read.

The distortion grows out of their wider reading rather than out of attempts to promote a particular theory about how to approach a given text or trying to develop radical ‘new’ ways of seeing or engaging with a text. The border between enlarging perspectives and exaggerating them can be very thin. It is all too easy to read beyond the text, which is not the same as the extra-textual analysis offered by Strack and Adair but more the stretching of the parameters of the original text in an effort to make it fit into a pre-determined meaning which is (usually) only partially apparent in the original. It is all too easy in this stretching process to overbalance and topple into a perspective that fundamentally alters the dynamics of the original.

Mary Waldron, observing this effect with regard to Jane Austen in her 1998 introduction to Women’s Writing 5:1, refers to

the identification of supposed oblique references within Austen’s texts which provide links with issues of present-day concern, often involving strained and unlikely interpretations of language and allusion.

and adds for good measure that this stretching of the texts ends up

identifying a novel which Austen might perhaps have written, but didn’t

To illustrate this phenomenon let us look at the following passage from Chapter Six of Persuasion where Anne plays the piano at a family gathering of the Musgroves:

She played a great deal better than either of the Miss Musgroves; but having no voice, no knowledge of the harp, and no fond parents to sit by and fancy themselves delighted, her performance was little thought of, only out of civility, or to refresh the others, as she was well aware. She knew that when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself; but this was no new sensation: excepting one short period of her life, she had never, since the age of fourteen, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged by any just appreciation or real taste. In music she had been always used to feel alone in the world; and Mr and Mrs Musgrove’s fond partiality for their own daughters’ performance, and total indifference to any other person’s, gave her much more pleasure for their sakes, than mortification for her own.

I would argue that it is quite clear here that any pleasure Anne feels when playing the piano at Uppercross derives from the fact that “Mr and Mrs Musgrove’s fond partiality for their own daughters’ performance” is so undisguised and enjoyed. It is another fine example of Austen’s narrative command, where it is difficult if not impossible to separate out the author’s voice from the character. It carefully and precisely delineates Anne’s mature understanding of how things work in social settings. She appreciates that any lack of attention to her playing is not at all personal, nor meant to belittle or demean her; she is not at all narcissistic or self-conscious but an emotionally balanced adult.

How, then, should we respond to Edward Kozaczka’s 2009 paper Queer Temporality, Spatiality, and Memory in Jane Austen’s ‘Persuasion? When discussing this very passage he selects the words ‘She knew that when she played she was giving pleasure only to herself’ and chooses to alter the conventional meaning of the words so as to suggest a disguised message to the effect that ‘Anne pleasured herself by playing the piano’ and thereby presents her piano-playing as an auto-erotic activity. This is surely an exact illustration of Mary Waldron’s admonition about ‘strained and unlikely interpretations of language and allusion’.

He then goes on to call Austen’s language ‘sexually-charged’:

While playing the piano — while giving herself pleasure — Anne has involuntary body memories that allow her to reflect on but also embody past and present simultaneously. To use Heather Love’s phrase, Anne begins to “feel backward” — a non-normative way of remembering that differs from traditional memory in its preoccupation with loss and failure and in its concern with mobilizing that loss and failure for strategic purposes. In short, feeling backward allows a subject like Anne — a character who is barely noticed when she enters a room and who is manipulated into abandoning her relationship with her first love — to transform her abject marginalization into opportunity.

And again:

Anne “feels backward” during her moments of playing the piano, a practice that, in her case, I label as a masturbatory self-indulgence that troubles heteronormative expectations of an individual’s relationship to conventions of time and space.

This is most definitely a different way of describing Anne’s constant struggle throughout the novel to accommodate to her social and personal situation. In general terms it builds on the careful structure of the relationship between feelings and reason that is such a feature of Anne’s subterranean emotional life and which reflects the contemporary theories of the time concerning how the body and the mind interact. Interestingly, Charlotte Brontë , in the same 1850 letter to William Smith Williams quoted at the beginning of the first section when she comments on Emma, recognises this, pinning down Austen’s method very precisely:

Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eyes, mouth, hands, and feet; what sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study

Austen is at pains to describe how mental states are reflected in bodily terms; for example, the initially marginalised Anne is presented in the opening chapter (albeit through her father’s jaundiced and narcissistic eye) purely physically:

A few years before, Anne Elliot had been a very pretty girl, but her bloom had vanished early … now … she was faded and thin

a circumstance explained a chapter or so later as being a direct consequence of the collapse of her relationship with the young and untried Wentworth. Austen makes this explicit in Chapter Four:

A few months had seen the beginning and the end of their acquaintance; but, not with a few months ended Anne’s share of suffering from it. Her attachment and regrets had, for a long time, clouded every enjoyment of youth; and an early loss of bloom and spirits had been their lasting effect.
(my emphasis)

In one important sense the chronicle of their rekindled interest and love is portrayed throughout the novel in terms of Anne’s reflorescence, so that in the penultimate Chapter Twenty-Three, when the lovers finally express their love, she is described as

Glowing and lovely in sensibility and happiness, and more generally admired than she thought about or cared for, she had cheerful or forbearing feelings for every creature around her
(my emphasis)

Put another way, Anne’s initial situation of marginalisation within her family steadily changes as the novel progresses and she finds herself in an ever-widening social circle that moves from location to location: from Kellynch Hall to Uppercross Cottage and the Great House; from there to Lyme (where Anne catches the attention of a gentleman who ‘looked at her with a degree of earnest admiration, which she could not be insensible of. She was looking remarkably well; her very regular, very pretty features, having the bloom and freshness of youth restored by the fine wind which had been blowing on her complexion, and by the animation of eye which it had also produced’) and after the accident on the Cobb overhears Wentworth say that there is ‘no one so proper, so capable as Anne!’; then back to Uppercross and from there to stay with Lady Russell at her house at Kellynch and then back to Uppercross on the way to Bath and everything which happens there. This is quite remarkable in Austenian terms – Emma Woodhouse had never before been to Box Hill, which we are told was only some seven miles from Highbury! It is, of course, no accident that this sense of physical movement reflects the revivification of Anne and brings her ever more from the margins into the centre of the narrative.

Kozaczka’s title of ‘Queer …’ and the focus of his comments on Anne as a sexual being (which is unarguably true) reveal the nature of how his reading moves beyond the text by ascribing that perceived sexuality to Jane Austen’s intention rather than to the critical movement of which his essay forms a part. It is a fine example of a modern issue – to establish acceptance of minority perspectives based on sexuality – essentially imposing itself on the text ideologically. Different perspectives sometimes require or feel the need to construct a different discourse to emphasise the new approach. But there is also a danger of another kind of linguistic distortion or gymnastics involved, as we see in his reference to Anne’s piano playing as:

a masturbatory self-indulgence that troubles heteronormative expectations of an individual’s relationship to conventions of time and space.

Sometimes such condensation of language – a shorthand for the initiated – can obstruct or obfuscate the ideas it is trying to express and thus run the risk of alienating the audience. Here it takes hold of the idea just expressed – that Anne disguises her suffering and regret regarding the lost marriage to Wentworth through her apparent involvement in her social role – and suggests that she copes with her regret by physically inhabiting one time and space (the Musgroves’ living room) while mentally reliving a different, earlier time and space (her memories and feelings bound up with Wentworth).

But Kozaczka’s (mis)understanding of how artistic performance works, the immersive experience of being absorbed in the musical relationship required to play the piano at all, rather undercuts his argument here. Far from being preoccupied with notions of remembering loss and failure, Anne of the ‘elegant and cultivated mind’ is fully absorbed and concentrating in the current moment and her social role.

Further, is it not the case that most of us – when we are not performing in public – are capable of living in different physical and mental worlds simultaneously? If so, why should this be a ‘heteronormative’ faculty? Surely, it is a normal human faculty and independent of individual sexuality? Again, does Kozaczka’s description of events offer a valuable insight into Anne which Austen has failed to make clear? Especially when, just two chapters later, Austen precisely reveals her rational complexity:

Whether former feelings were to be renewed, must be brought to the proof; former times must undoubtedly be brought to the recollection of each; they could not but be reverted to; the year of their engagement could not but be named by him, in the little narratives or descriptions which conversation called forth.

And:

They had no conversation together, no intercourse but what the commonest civility required. Once so much to each other! Now nothing! …Now they were as strangers; nay, worse than strangers, for they could never become acquainted. It was a perpetual estrangement.

Whatever the expectations (heteronormative or otherwise) of an individual’s relationship to ‘conventions of time and space’ (whatever that might mean) it is an undeniable commonplace that the present, to a greater or lesser degree, is always mediated by and through the past. Part of the comedic appeal of the novel is the way that Anne’s attempts to be rational are always undermined by her body’s insistence that rationality is no defence against emotional attraction, as Austen clearly points out in Chapter Seven:

Alas! With all her reasonings, she found, that to retentive feelings eight years may be little more than nothing.

This is underlined when Wentworth rescues her from the unwanted attentions of young Walter in Chapter Nine and she cannot behave normally:

Her sensations on the discovery made her perfectly speechless. She could not even thank him. She could only hang over little Charles, with most disordered feelings … such a confusion of varying, but very painful agitation, as she could not recover from … She could not stay … But neither Charles Hayter’s feelings, nor any body’s feelings, could interest her, till she had a little better arranged her own. She was ashamed of herself, quite ashamed of being so nervous, so overcome by such a trifle; but so it was; and it required a long application of solitude and reflection to recover her.
(my emphasis)

It is impossible to believe that, when Anne’s self-awareness is so acute, she could examine her thoughts and feelings while playing the piano, which

… always recommended her musical powers to the notice of Mr and Mrs Musgrove more than any thing else, and often drew this compliment; – ‘Well done, Miss Anne! Very well done indeed! Lord bless me! How those little fingers of yours fly about!’

I am not suggesting by this criticism of Kozaczka’s evidence (which, despite using elements in the text, has obvious weaknesses) that the so-called Queer Theory approach to literary criticism is inevitably invalid but that by seizing on partial elements in Austen’s text (and possibly any text) and arguing for their importance from a very particular perspective it risks narrowing the author’s subtly complex vision and richness of characterisation and plot. It forever runs the risk of becoming a myopic and reductive technique.

This is, perhaps, worth exploring a little more.

© Mike Liddell 2019