Yawning and Screaming

John Bayley

  • Jane Austen by Tony Tanner
    Macmillan, 291 pp, £20.00, November 1986, ISBN 0 333 32317 3

The past is there to be made use of, and everyone makes use of it in his own way. Christopher Hill and E.P. Thompson invent alternative Englands where radical social experiments were nipped in the bud by the entrenched forces of reaction, while T.S. Eliot’s successors imagine devout cavaliers preserving a unified sensibility in economic and spiritual matters. Apart from the therapy it offers against the perpetual unsatisfactoriness of the present, this construction of the past has the great merit of making sense and interest of the way things are at any given time. If it is a game of the intellectuals, a game which involves obvious falsification on a large scale, it is also one which limbers up self-consciousness, in players and spectators alike, and enlarges the scope of sympathy and inquiry.

It is the same with writers in the past. Since the study of English literature has intellectualised itself, not altogether unlaboriously, great writers whose achievements once seemed as comfortingly self-evident as the furniture have been transformed into a kind of speculum mentis in which the age can see its own fears and anxieties, adjust its preferred persona, air its preoccupations. With Shakespeare this is old hat: the only surprise is how comparatively reluctant recent theorists have been to move their own special machinery into place on him. But it has happened with Swift, with Richardson, with Dickens and the Romantic poets, and it is now happening with Jane Austen.

Not that Tony Tanner’s study is wilfully abstract or – except for his use of the unnecessary term ‘discourse’ – filled with modern jargon. It is, on the contrary, one of the most readable books yet to appear on Jane Austen, as well as the most interesting in itself. As one might expect from the author of Adultery in the Novel, it is continuously sensitive to the feel of fictive domesticity, and the potential of a situation in terms of what goes in modern life, and has gone on in other novels. For Tony Tanner, indeed, all fiction, like intellectual experience generally, appears one and indivisible, so that Freud, Heidegger, Adorno and Althusser are as much at home in Jane Austen’s dressing-room as are Dostoevsky and Scott Fitzgerald. This may be all to the good, though it leads him to such remarks as that Elizabeth Bennet’s ‘gay resilience in a society tending always towards dull conformity would make her a worthy heroine in a Stendhal novel, which cannot be said for many English heroines’. Perhaps it cannot at the moment, but no doubt it will be soon: to see the novel in this way is to see all its heroes and heroines as largely interchangeable in terms of their critical potential and the author’s hidden perceptions – perceptions hidden, that is, until the critic has revealed them.

Revealing the author’s hidden perceptions is a process that comes very close to – indeed, can be almost indistinguishable from – giving the critic’s perceptions under cover of the royal opacity of a work of art. This happens all the time, and is all to the good, provided that critic and author are in real sympathy, and can thus complement one another. In a celebrated inaugural lecture, John Carey suggested nonetheless that the process had gone too far, and that even giants like Empson and C.S. Lewis could be guilty in this way of serious distortions of a text: he instanced a bravura passage in The Allegory of Love on Spenser’s ‘Bower of Bliss’, in which Lewis, with his characteristic puritanical cockiness, remarks that Spenser’s two enchanting nymphs were obviously called ‘Cissie and Flossie’. Deconstructionist theory, with its doctrine that a text only exists in the minds of its readers, has of course rationalised, in one sense, the whole business, but at the cost of losing that untidy but fruitful encounter between two distinct entities: the separate and unique personalities of writer and reader.

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[*] Closer to Home: Writers and Places in England 1780-1830. Harvard, 153 pp., £14.25, January 1986, 0 674 13625.