Reading Jane Austen

G H Lewes (born exactly three months after Jane Austen died and described in the Encyclopaedia Britannica as ‘biographer, literary critic, dramatist, novelist, philosopher, actor, scientist, and editor, remembered chiefly for his decades-long liaison with the novelist Mary Ann Evans’) wrote in his article The Lady Novelists, (published in Westminster Review in 1852):

(Jane Austen is) the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end … To read one of her books is like an actual experience of life.

Or, if you prefer, think along with Henry James that her heroines had

small and second-rate minds and were perfect little she-Philistines

or agree with Charlotte Brontë that Pride and Prejudice offers

An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers – but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy – no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.

and Emma should be read

with interest and with just the degree of admiration which Miss Austen herself would have thought suitable – anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have calmly scorned as outré and extravagant.

It seems that reading Jane Austen is a complex business even for major writers. So how do we as readers negotiate this chasm between extremely different opinions while trying to come to some understanding and recognition of her achievement for ourselves?

Fortunately, over one hundred and fifty years have passed since Lewes, James and Brontë made their comments. Austen today is something of a cult figure, her work translated into over thirty languages – an ironic status given that (despite Walter Scott’s famous support) her books were not that successful with her contemporary audience, who – presumably – did not react favourably to such things as the qualities of independence, humour and acerbic wit of her heroines and herself. It has been estimated that she earned only some £600 from her writing before she died – a little less than £20000 in today’s terms. Emma, which many people feel to be her best novel, only sold a quarter of the original print run; and even Pride and Prejudice was remaindered only a few years after her death. But things have changed somewhat over the following centuries.

Popular interest was rekindled some fifty years after her death by the publication of her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh’s 1869 biography A Memoir of Jane Austen. Because Austen’s sister Cassandra destroyed many of the still extant letters – and the Victorian reticence to discuss intimately personal details – it was, to modern eyes, a flawed work – but its value resides above all in the general effect of stimulating renewed interest in her novels. As B.C. Southam points out in his introduction to the 1987 collection of essays published under the title Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, 1870–1940. Vol.2, Austen’s popularity increased dramatically and led in 1883 to Routledge’s sixpenny series of her work – and began the development of that very favourable reception of Jane Austen that continues today.

She has become increasingly commodified (she now sells so well – after being remaindered those few years after her death at least twenty million copies of Pride and Prejudice alone have been sold) until her image now appears on British currency; and the assiduous family portrayal of her as a kindly spinster aunt who just happened to turn out a few books now and then as she lived a perfect reclusive life of Anglican piety has gone some way to perhaps rendering those books ‘safe’ – as merely delightful comedies about middle-class girls seeking out suitable husbands among the (landed) gentry of Georgian (and briefly) Regency England, an attractive mix of Cinderella wish-fulfilment, dazzling wit and happy-ever-after endings. This is perfectly acceptable, of course, and one way of reading the stories. I would like to suggest at this early stage of our discussion, however, that reading the stories is not the same as reading the novels.

[And here we run up against the problem of defining our terms – which can create some confusion. For the purposes of this discussion I intend ‘story’ to mean the straightforward recital of the series of events and interactions that befall the characters and that lead to a resolution – in Austen’s case, this would be the tale of how the heroine succeeds in finding a husband.

By ‘novel’ I mean those other elements which arise naturally out of the story – such as the social circumstances in which characters are embedded, or the moral complexity of the world in which they try to live their lives – and which the author consciously patterns together into an exploration of wider issues about that society and its engagement with the world (however recognisable and apparently realistic) s/he creates. The ‘novel’, then, creates a fictional world organised by the author to offer a perspective on the actual common world shared by author and reader.

Of course, the actual telling of the story might be anything but straightforward. Although it might set out a specific chronology from A to B, equally it might begin at some mid-point – as in Persuasion, where some seven years have passed since the initial stage of the story came to an abrupt halt.  Equally, it might be presented through different characters’ different perspectives or be focused almost exclusively on how one character understands (or misunderstands) what is happening – as in Emma.  Whatever the technical narrative choices the author makes about how to tell the story its appeal is essentially emotional – the reader is drawn into the timeline of events and characters and is interested in what happens next, almost to the exclusion of any other element.

Any story inevitably offers resonances of the author’s perspectives or ideological convictions, of course; but even though a novel has an emotional story at its core, any more thoughtful and developed examination of the actual world beyond any such resonances is conducted through those conscious authorial patterns that extend beyond the events, interactions and characters of the central story. The characters are not themselves interested in anything more than navigating as best they can through their own (fictional) lives and do not see themselves as representative or emblematic of any wider themes that the author may be concerned with.] )

Other important factors were also at play. Although Austen wrote at a time of increasing literacy (some estimates opine that literacy rates for women in England essentially doubled over the course of the eighteenth century) and at a period when circulating libraries and book clubs were increasingly popular, reading novels for entertainment – especially among the middle classes – was generally frowned upon. The novel as a literary form had been gradually evolving since the early eighteenth century. Some of the best known exponents contemporary with Austen were women: such as Maria Edgeworth (who Austen praised in Northanger Abbey) and born only some seven years before Austen herself; Ann Radcliffe (born in 1764) and her Mysteries of Udolpho; and Fanny Burney, born in 1752, (called by Virginia Woolf ‘the mother of English fiction’ and famous as the author of Evelina among other works).

Indeed, some two thirds of novels at this period were written by women. And because the novel was a new kind of literature, difficult to estimate as to its value and status when set against older forms (especially poetry – for alongside the women novelists the so-called ‘Big Six’ of the so-called ‘Romantic’ era were all poets: Blake, Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth) it was regarded with suspicion. Amanda Gilroy and Wil Verhoeven in their 2001 The Romantic-Era Novel: A Special Issue: Introduction sum up the situation thus:

there was a pervasive sense that the novel was a
debased form, mad, bad, and dangerous, particularly
for impressionable female readers

A little later they add:

again and again, critics see novels as polluting, staining, poisoning, or deforming the individual and the nation

So the Austen family efforts to defuse her novels of controversy can be seen in part as a successful PR campaign. Of course, these negative views of the new literary form reflect the tenor of the times; England saw itself as under threat, battling the real danger of revolution as evidenced by events in America and France, and all too aware of the power of words. For it is the fact that in many ways this political turmoil was intimately bound up with and fuelled by the growth of newspapers and the upsurge in pamphlets – Bernard Bailyn in his 1965 book Pamphlets of the American Revolution estimated that there were some 400 pamphlets produced up through 1776 and some 1500-1600 pamphlets published by 1783. This is in addition to the more famous works by Thomas Paine, John Adams and the other Founding Fathers. Equally, the French Revolution in some part was prepared for by Rousseau’s 1762 On the Social Contract, or Principles of Political Law – and some thirty years later the French Revolution itself stirred political argument in Britain, especially the famous debate between Thomas Paine’s 1792 Rights of Man and Edmund Burke’s 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Austen’s birth in 1775 was bracketed by two significant publications that in their different ways started the engine of the shift in sensibility and social practice and organisation: Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774 and Adam Smith’s seminal economic text The Wealth of Nations in 1776. Although Goethe later distanced himself from his novel (which ends with the suicide of Werther as the only way he sees to end a love triangle in which he has become embroiled) the cultural impact was Europe-wide, leading not only to a rash of copycat suicides but also to “Werther Fever”. This involved not only dressing in similar clothing to that of the hero as described in the novel but also boosted sales of prints, Meissen porcelain and perfume – the first stirrings of modern commercialism and the monetizing of popular taste.

Smith’s magnum opus essentially sought to argue that the hitherto prevailing economic notion of physiocracy (which argued that the wealth of nations was derived from the value of ‘land agriculture’ or ‘land development’) was no longer suitable for the emerging industrialisation of society. It had immediate impact and influence. It is argued that it helped shape government policy as quickly as 1777, when in the first budget after it was published Lord North proposed two new taxes (on manservants and on property sold at auction). And the budget of 1778 also followed Smith’s suggestions by introducing the inhabited house duty and the malt tax. The ideas dominated discussion for decades thereafter continuing through to today. In general terms, Smith’s economic theories meshed with the burgeoning new technical developments in agriculture and manufacturing to accelerate the growth of capitalist thinking about how to organise the production and distribution of goods, sparking not only the notion of ‘the factory’ but also the transformation of the transport infrastructure to move the goods to market. Alongside these developments was the mass demographic shift from the countryside to the new industrial towns and cities – and all the social consequences that entailed.

Jane Austen plied her trade in turbulent times.

Another important factor in promoting her work was the steady increase in academic appreciation of her as a significant writer through the growth of the study of English language and literature in the English universities (Scotland had long had a tradition of lectures on literature – stretching back to the 1760s). Although University College London had appointed Thomas Dale as professor of English language and literature in 1828, just a decade after Austen’s death, the role did not take on observable similarities with modern departments until much later. But the important point here is that courses demand material and careers demand closely-argued theses – and as already outlined, Austen was justly recognised as a significant writer at a seminal moment in the development of the novel form.
Today she is one of those rare artists who span the whole range of what marketing men call ‘the target audience’, from the arcane heights of so-called ‘high culture’ (a term introduced by Matthew Arnold in his 1869 book Culture and Anarchy, where he defined it as ‘the disinterested endeavour after man’s perfection‘ pursued, obtained, and achieved by effort to ‘know the best that has been said and thought in the world‘) to ‘popular’ or ‘mass culture’, generally defined as the entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, images, and other phenomena that are within the mainstream of society. One of its expressions with regard to Austen is the emergence of increasingly popular and populated conventions where her readers can enjoy dressing up as characters from her six – yes, only six – novels and talk with great authority on the minutiae of those texts, such as how many maidservants Isabella Knightley brought with her when she visited her family home at Hartfield.

Appreciation for Jane Austen blurs the distinction between these two essentially class-based perspectives. Does a television adaptation of one of her novels that uses academic research in order to be as authentic to the period about which she wrote (in technical aspects such as costume, manners, diction, spatial relationships between characters, and so on) classify as ‘high’ culture when, because of the audience figures it will undoubtedly attract, some would place it firmly in ‘popular’ culture? Current cultural theories might dispute the validity of the terms themselves or refuse to recognise any distinction between them; and some would explore the political dimension, following Gramsci’s Marxist concept of cultural hegemony whereby societies differentiate and preserve themselves ideologically through such things as access to or the quality of education offered to different social blocs; the political dimension whereby popular culture can be seen as an arena where subordinate social groups essentially fight against or resist the processes (or ‘incorporation’) that support the dominant elites. This might in part help explain Charlotte Brontë’s antipathy to Austen, who, irrespective of her straitened family circumstances for much of her life, was certainly a part of the dominant elite, the landed gentry of Georgian England.

If introducing the notion of politics into Jane Austen’s work seems a stretch too far – surely, many readers would say, her novels are little more than witty but materialistic Cinderella fairy tales – then how do we explain such passages as this from Chapter Five of Persuasion:

The Musgroves, like their houses, were in a state of alteration, perhaps of improvement. The father and mother were in the old English style, and the young people in the new. Mr and Mrs Musgrove were a very good sort of people; friendly and hospitable, not much educated, and not at all elegant. Their children had more modern minds and manners. There was a numerous family; but the only two grown up, excepting Charles, were Henrietta and Louisa, young ladies of nineteen and twenty, who had brought from a school at Exeter all the usual stock of accomplishments, and were now, like thousands of other young ladies, living to be fashionable, happy, and merry. Their dress had every advantage, their faces were rather pretty, their spirits extremely good, their manners unembarrassed and pleasant; they were of consequence at home, and favourites abroad.

Although this apparent authorial voice is mediated through Anne Elliot’s perspective (who, we are told immediately after this description, ‘would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments’) it is difficult to recall any passage in the earlier novels that approaches this measured tone of general approval of a set of characters or a statement that moves in this explicit way from the personal to the social, from the family and the houses they inhabit to the wider society which, it is implied, is also ‘in a state of alteration, perhaps of improvement.’

Perhaps we should recall that Austen chose, after all, to produce her writing in the new literary form of the novel, the very name of which emphasises change. And it is certainly the case that within her lifetime the world was indeed changing. A random sample of some of the innovations across different fields of endeavour might include, in addition to Adam Smith’s 1776 seminal economic text The Wealth of Nations: the Watt steam engine started production that same year; Abraham Darby opened the first bridge made of cast iron in 1781; Andrew Meikle invented the threshing machine in 1786; in 1798 Edward Jenner created the first smallpox vaccine; Humphry Davy invented the first incandescent light by passing a current from a battery through a thin strip of platinum in 1802, followed by the first practical arc light in 1806 and the famous Davy safety lamp in 1815; two years later the world’s first locomotive-hauled railway journey was made; percussion ignition (the foundation of modern firearms) was invented by Alexander Forsyth in 1807; Robert Salmon patented the first haymaking machine in 1814; and so on.

Among another far from exhaustive list of random ‘celebrities’ who were near-contemporaries we find such luminaries as: Constable and Turner; Wordsworth and Coleridge (and several if not all of the other major British poets of the time); Mozart and Beethoven (and one could add Haydn and Schubert); Goethe and Schiller; and many others.

In other words, Austen was writing at a time when what we would recognise as the beginnings of so much of the modern world that we now take for granted was being created. She is often accused (perhaps a little unfairly) of ignoring the major events of the day in her work, but even so we should acknowledge that the core of her writing – as with all writers – reflects elements of her life experience transmuted into literature. All writers cannibalise aspects of their lives when creating their work and choose what and how to include them. It seems a little harsh to complain that they do not provide us with what we would prefer or expect, especially when it is equally true that all readers also bring elements of their life experience and beliefs to the act of reading – and that this does not necessarily invalidate their insights, however much it might complicate them.

For example, the criticisms aimed at Austen’s work by Charlotte Brontë quoted at the beginning of these comments certainly have important insights that nonetheless impact on her overall assessment. They were actually made in correspondence with the very G H Lewes already quoted, concerning his review of Jane Eyre – in which he suggested Brontë might profit by writing less melodramatically (ironic, given his own propensity for melodrama) and that she read Jane Austen. Set against this context, Brontë’s comments present as the impassioned visceral view of a remarkable but affronted personality rather than as a measured critical judgment based on research and analysis of the novels. They remain significant, however, as a marker of the very different worlds the two writers inhabited. In one sense they could even be interpreted as a new approach to literary criticism, based on the fact that each of them was embedded in her own particular social and geographical situation and writing about very different characters behaving in very different ways in very different landscapes.

As social comment rather than literary criticism the judgment is almost certainly something Austen would agree with – beneath the comedy of Pride and Prejudice is a very clear-sighted depiction of the various social and financial constraints on women. One thinks immediately of Charlotte Collins’ use of her garden as a means of surviving the rigours of marriage (itself a survival strategy) to her very silly and immensely self-satisfied husband.

The fact that Brontë couched her comments in topographical terms is fascinating, highlighting fundamental differences in life experience between the two writers in both physical environment and social structure. As the Hampshire County Integrated Character Assessment (Draft March 2010 R4) points out in its comments on the evolution of the Hampshire landscape, one of the major influences was the growth of large privately-owned farming estates – and the fact that increasingly through Austen’s time the land was largely enclosed:

The effect was the emergence of a new landscape of hedged and usually rectilinear fields, creating formal landscapes from common land. It is in this period that landscape types such as regular wavy fields and parliamentary type enclosures were established.

This indeed explains the lack of open country in Austen’s novel – it did not exist. Compare this with the Brontë Society’s description of Haworth as presented on their web page:

The Pennine village where the Brontë sisters grew up was then a crowded industrial town, polluted, smelly and wretchedly unhygienic. Although perched on the edge of open country, high up on the edge of Haworth Moor, the death rate was as high as anything in London or Bradford, with 41 per cent of children failing even to reach their sixth birthday. The average age of death was just 24.

No wonder Charlotte Brontë so valued the idea of the ‘open country, fresh air, blue hill and bonny beck’ for this was what surrounded and relieved the grim reality of Haworth.

In terms of social structure – ‘ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses’ – the emphasis on topography enables us to see how the physical environment inevitably shaped the way people built their houses and lived their lives in Haworth and Hampshire. Once seen from this perspective it is clear that the negativity of Brontë’s remarks adhere more to this physical aspect of Jane Austen’s experience of the world around her than to notions of an inability to engage with it in the ‘Romantic’ mode, with all its ideas of the importance of the relationship with the wild and spiritual forces of ‘Nature’ and the primacy of the individual and his/her emotions and imagination. That Austen could write in that mode is seen in aspects of the character and behaviour of Elizabeth Bennet and her role in the novel. In her own way, as we read in Chapter Seven, she shares some of that instinct that wants to escape the shackles of conformity and the built environment which surrounds her both physically and mentally and to be her own person. She thinks nothing of walking three miles to see her sister:

…and Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise
(my emphasis)

This Elizabeth, one feels, would not be out of place striding across the moors or climbing Penistone Hill.

Austen, then, chooses to endow Elizabeth with exactly the kind of energy and drive that would meet with approval in Brontë’s work – and when later in the novel (in Chapter Thirty-Six) Darcy hands her his letter of necessary background explanation and revelation while Elizabeth undertakes her daily exercise we discover as she reads it that she has been away (both physically and mentally) for some time:

After wandering along the lane for two hours, giving way to every variety of thought–re-considering events, determining probabilities, and reconciling herself, as well as she could, to a change so sudden and so important, fatigue, and a recollection of her long absence, made her at length return home; and she
entered the house with
the wish of appearing cheerful as usual, and the resolution of repressing such reflections as must make her unfit for conversation.
(my emphasis)

In one way or another all of Jane Austen’s novels address this problem of balancing the need for self-reflection with the social exigencies of interacting with others even when not wanting to do so, of finding a way to communicate beyond conversation, of trying to see clearly through the petty obfuscations of etiquette that so cloud perception and behaviour. In one way or another all her heroines are in large part on the fringes of this social accommodation, and even perhaps alienated from it. Charlotte Brontë is not the only one who should hardly like to live among surface elegance masking greed, malice, self-obsession – most of Austen’s heroines would agree with her; but it is as if Brontë is unable to recognise this beneath the comic frame of Austen’s work because in one way or another (another example of Austen’s clear-sightedness – or cowardice) at the end of the novels the heroines essentially conform with the social expectations of the other characters.

Indeed, one might well suspect that Brontë was unable to recognise that there is such a comic frame. Her fiction shows that, for her, life is a passionate, serious and often grim affair. It was certainly the case later in her personal life when, in 1848, within the space of some eight months, all three of her siblings died from tuberculosis: Branwell in September, Emily in December and Anne in May 1849. It is no wonder that, as with all of us, Charlotte Brontë’s reaction to, opinion of and understanding of texts is coloured by other factors than characterisation, plot structure and language.

However, one of the benefits of approaching Austen’s work at this long distance of time is that the topic of how we read has become the focus of much critical endeavour. We now appreciate that the Austen family’s successful attempt to, in effect, sanitise her coupled with the many thousands of books, theses and articles devoted to her novels has inevitably produced what might well be termed a ‘received image’ of her and her works that we all to some extent inevitably carry around with us inside our heads.

The psychologist D W Harding (coincidentally the editor of the 1965 Penguin edition of Persuasion) described how this works in his influential 1940 essay Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen:

The impression of Jane Austen which has filtered
through to the reading public, down from the first-hand
critics, through histories of literature, university
courses, literary journalism and polite allusion …

and goes on to describe its effect on him before he started to read the novels:

Chiefly, so I gathered, she was a delicate satirist,
revealing with inimitable lightness of touch the comic
foibles and amiable weaknesses of the people whom she
lived amongst and liked.

He goes on to say that that when he read the actual texts there were unexpected subtle changes of tone that forced him to rethink how readers – including himself – who held similarly conventional expectations of Jane Austen’s writing could actually misinterpret what they thought they were reading:

In order to enjoy her books without disturbance, those
who retain the conventional notion of her work must always have had slightly to misread what she wrote at a number of scattered points, points where she took good care (not wittingly perhaps) that the misreading should be the easiest thing in the world.

The example he gave referred to the description of Miss Bates in Emma. Quoting what he terms the fairly conventional satire of the opening sentence where Miss Bates

‘enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married’

he develops his argument thus:

But the next sentence must have to be mentally rewritten by the greater number of Jane Austen’s readers. For them it probably runs, ‘Miss Bates stood in the very worst predicament in the world for having much of the public favour; and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or compel an outward respect from those who might despise her.’
(my emphasis)

And then quotes the actual sentence which Austen wrote:

… and she had no intellectual superiority to make atonement to herself, or frighten those who might hate her into outward respect.’
(my emphasis)

Harding was addressing the problem of an author’s received image with specific reference to Jane Austen, but a quarter of a century later the French philosopher, semiotician, literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes wrote in more general terms about its effects in his controversial essay The Death of the Author (I quote from Richard Howard’s translation):

The author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism
and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or, to put it more nobly, of the “human person”. Hence it is logical
that with regard to literature it should be positivism, resume and the result of capitalist ideology, which has accorded the greatest importance to the author’s
The author still rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews, and even in the awareness of
literary men, anxious to unite, by their private journals, their person and their work; the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is
tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions; … the explanation of the work is always sought in the man who has
produced it, as if, through the more or less transparent
allegory of fiction, it was always finally the voice of
one and the same person, the author, which
delivered his “confidence”.

(my emphasis)

Barthes coined the term ‘scriptor’ in place of ‘author’ because of what he considered this misplaced reverence for the person who wrote the text. After all, he argued, the truly important transaction was not between the author/scriptor and the text but between the reader and the text:

In this way is revealed the whole being of writing: a text consists of multiple writings, issuing from several cultures and entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation; but there is one place where this multiplicity is collected, united, and this place is not the author, as we have hitherto said it was, but the reader: the reader is the very space in which are inscribed, without any being lost, all the citations a writing consists of; the unity of a text is not in its origin, it is in its destination; but this destination can no longer be personal: the reader is a man without history, without biography, without psychology; he is only that someone who holds gathered into a single field all the paths of which the text is constituted.
(my emphasis)

Unsurprisingly, these comments did not pass unscathed. Camille Paglia in her 1990 best-seller Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson called the idea of there being no relevant person behind a text the

‘Most pernicious of French imports into American academia’

and attacked his own writing style with vigorous contempt:

Is there anything more affected, aggressive and relentlessly concrete than a Parisian intellectual behind his/her turgid text?

Turgid or not, Barthes’ comments do help focus attention on how a text is interpreted and renewed over time through the interaction with the readers who engage with it – each of whom brings a different cultural experience and range of interests and knowledge to that engagement. Perhaps a more accessible metaphor describing much the same relationship might be to think of the text (to use a musical analogy) as the score and the act of reading as the conductor’s performance. The reader can be guided by the text or alter textual indicators in much the same way that conductors might prefer a different tempo or louder or softer crescendo and so on. Whatever the hesitations one might have about the implications of the general argument of the dominance of the reader – that any reading by any reader must be equally valid, for example – Barthes nonetheless usefully reminds us that the act of reading is itself performative and not passive.

That said, the problem of making the reader the sole arbiter of the quality of a particular text is a serious one, because it cannot discriminate between interpretations that essentially reduce to individual preferences. Should there not be an equal focus on the text itself? It is exactly this problem that Umberto Eco addresses in many essays, books and articles from the 1980s onward where he develops his concept of textual cooperation which, he argues, offers a means of at least avoiding what he calls overinterpretation – which is a gentle way of describing what others might call invalid interpretations based more on these individual preferences than on the actual text.

Eco envisages the act of reading a text as balanced between three elements: the author’s working intention (or intentio auctoris); the ongoing modification of that working intention as the text develops its plot and narrative (or intentio operis); and the reader’s pre-formed perceptions, background experience and personal preferences which shape the understanding of what s/he is reading (or the intentio lectoris).

Eco posits these different ‘intentions’ as forming the approach of textual cooperation whereby the text creates what he calls the ‘Model Reader’, capable of decoding the possible worlds of the narrative. Such a reader, he suggests, fills in the many gaps in the text – which is never totally explicit – using both linguistic inferences and more complex deductive reasoning to engage with the narrative and its meanings. The text, Eco argues, is a machine for producing possible worlds and therefore is ‘open’, with potentially unlimited interpretations; but the Model Reader (through a focus on decoding the possible worlds produced by the text) is able to actualise more fully the ongoing intentio operis and thus arrive at a narrower set of interpretations that are shaped by the text rather than through personal preferences.

But note the comment about ‘open’ texts and their potentially unlimited interpretations. Eco is not saying that the Model Reader necessarily reaches the correct interpretation (which cannot exist) only that those interpretations s/he does reach are more likely to be more valid.

Of course, the reader’s pre-formed perceptions, background experience and personal preferences are not invalid in and of themselves – but they can and do influence how the reader approaches the text.

We can illustrate this by glancing briefly at the title of an interesting 2013 essay by Thomas Rodham in Philosophy Now – Issue 94. Rodham is described as ‘a philosophy graduate student’ and called his essay Reading Jane Austen as a Moral Philosopher. What does this mean? Are we to understand this as an instruction to read Austen not as a novelist but as a moral philosopher who uses her novels to introduce and explore issues of moral philosophy – a Regency precursor to Iris Murdoch, perhaps – who was, of course, a highly regarded academic philosopher? Or is Rodham stating his own enthusiasm and bias as a graduate student of philosophy? – admitting that, because of his individual background, the main focus of his reading of her novels foregrounds those elements of moral philosophy which the novels encompass? As he says,

‘Yet success for Austen’s characters depends on their developing a moral character’


‘… her characters are moral rather than psychological constructs. Austen’s purpose is not to explore their inner lives, but to expose particular moral pathologies’.

Equally, of course, he may well be using the title’s deliberate ambiguity to attract the potential reader’s attention. Whatever the case it is an interesting essay and well worth a read even if other readers might raise an eyebrow at the notion that Austen’s purpose is not to explore Anne Elliot’s inner life.

Finally, then, if we are aware that we all exercise a multitude of purposes when reading texts – such as for information; for enjoyment; to follow instructions; to while away time while waiting in the doctor’s surgery; to relive precious (or upsetting) events; to ‘lose ourselves’ in a story; to read a favourite author; and so on and so on – we should also be aware that we can often read with more than one purpose simultaneously depending upon the context – and upon the text, of course.

As well as answering something of the question why we read, such awareness can also inform not only how we read but also those aspects we feel are important. Do we pay attention to the nuances of language, its cadence and structure? Do we focus on characterisation and how it grows alongside plot development? Do we concentrate on ‘decoding’ plot and narrative structures through events and scenes and the choice of characters within them? Do we analyse and assess both our perceived quality of the text and its wider significance, and synthesise all these aspects into as valid and detailed an interpretation we can manage?

Of course, we do all of these things to a greater or lesser extent and with greater or lesser concentration for a variety of reasons. But our primary interest should be to achieve a reading which satisfies us as fully as possible. That might stand as a workable definition of reasonable success given the impossibility of uncovering the definitive understanding of any text.

Before he died Umberto Eco used to tell a lovely story of how a group of readers who immersed themselves in his novel Foucault’s Pendulum to such an extent that they decided to trace the main character’s path through the streets of Paris were delighted while retracing the exact route to recognize a bar described in the novel. A bar which Eco had invented, and which existed only in his imagined world – yet somehow happened to be in the physical world too. Texts will always contain meanings that the author did not intend but which readers may discover for themselves.

And so, although the reader is required to complete the text by studying it, the serious reader will always recall at every moment what Hamlet almost said:

The text’s the thing …

© Mike Liddell 2019