Jane Austen’s Word Process

Marilyn Butler

  • Computation into Criticism: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels and an Experiment in Method by J.F Burrows
    Oxford, 245 pp, £25.00, February 1987, ISBN 0 19 812856 8

Why put the novels of Jane Austen onto a computer? The first thing that strikes you about Computation into Criticism is what it says about its Australian author’s dedication, or obsessiveness, or just plain nerve. Most literary research is cheap, and indeed looks very cheap as long as the cost of maintaining libraries is not counted in. John Burrows’s project of putting a dozen novels onto a computer was plainly from the first going to prove expensive. When one begins to cost Burrows’s travel, subsistence overseas, and time, together with computer-time, programmer-time and secretarial time, each of his 211 pages of text and 34 pages of statistical appendices comes to represent a sizeable public investment.

He has been supported in his native Australia by his own university of Newcastle, New South Wales, and by the central government, through the Australian Research Grants Scheme. The Fellows of St John’s College, Cambridge, have three times been his hosts, and he has used computing facilities, or received expert advice on computing, at both Cambridge and Oxford. He must have had to explain to each of his benefactors precisely why a book at once on computing and on Jane Austen was worth paying for. It’s interesting to imagine what went through the minds of the members of the committees concerned. There was, of course, something up-to-the-minute, the smell of New Blood, about a project that offered to apply technology to English Literature. Whether it seemed that technologists would be humanised, or aesthetes set to learn about computing, this one certainly looked educational. Some people must have relished the sublimely unobvious choice of Jane Austen as a target for modernisation. But they also had to face the risks. What if the finished book stayed on the shelves: too literate for the number-crunchers and too numerate for the literati?

The diversity of the specialisms Burrows had to reconcile is graphically stated in his title and subtitle – as fine a balancing act as one of Pope’s couplets. First and last, emphatic and aggressive, the pincers of ‘computation’ and ‘experiment in method’; in the middle, defensive or safely entrenched, ‘criticism’ and the reassuringly particular promise to study Jane Austen’s novels. Burrows, an exact writer, means just what he promises – one book that speaks two languages. As far as an amateur can tell, his book succeeds as a model exercise in computing and in statistics. It is certainly a model account of such an exercise. Literary readers are shown, with exemplary lucidity, how statistics can inform issues of style, and transform our understanding of the representation of character. Surprisingly general conclusions are arrived at by marshalling minute particulars. From among the tables and graphs there emerges the most accomplished ‘close reading’ to date of Jane Austen’s dialogue, and the most stylish book written on Austen since Mary Lascelles’s Jane Austen and her Art in 1939.

The fact that Burrows writes like Austen herself is splendid. But other people may write well, and not get the much smaller sums they ask for, so it’s worth considering why those who put our money into this project seem so triumphantly vindicated. English literature is an academic discipline that has grown ever more numerous and ever more dispersed, now that so many of the world’s populations learn English as a second language. To add substantially to its methodologies or to its theoretical understanding is a challenge, but also a problem, especially if you live far from the big academic centres in America and Britain. It is a major headache in Australia (and presumably throughout the southern and eastern hemispheres) to get the latest books, which will arrive selectively, slowly, and at twice the price asked in the country of origin. Had Burrows proposed, say, a sensitive new reading of Wordsworth, or a robust new application of Foucault to the 18th-century novel, or a helpful new commentary on Bakhtin or Deleuze, his scrutineers might reasonably have wondered, not just if the book was worth writing, but if Newcastle, NSW was a good place to write it.

At any one time, a large percentage of the professional books appearing in America or Britain represent small adjustments, or applications, of an immediately current idea, and in such cases speed, currency, the air of sharing a new vocabulary and of belonging to a club, must be an asset. Though it’s impossible for most books of this type to look individually distinguished, they represent the mainstream, and thus collectively are not useless. But Burrows’s project stands apart from all of this, its method ensuring its independence. His discussions only rarely introduce the views of others, and scarcely ever on issues of critical interpretation or evaluation. He generates his own evidence, and single-mindedly addresses it. If his book had failed, it would have looked eccentric or marginal, but since it is in general extremely persuasive, it derives further strength from its autonomy. Among its other ways of being exemplary, it demonstrates how to execute a research project in the humanities so that fellow professionals anywhere will take account of it.

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[*] For avant-garde novelists, though not necessarily for popular ones, and certainly not for the middlebrow reader. Brian Southam’s new volume in the Critical Heritage series, Jane Austen, Vol II: 1870-1940 (Routledge, 308 pp., £18, 28 May, 0 7102 0189 3), shows that she achieved her status as the best-loved classic novelist in 1870, just as the novel of distinctive minor characters was losing its literary prestige. Southam’s 132-page introduction gives invaluable insights into the history of readers’ tastes, and extracts such as Anne Thackeray Ritchie’s influential popularising magazine article in 1871 and Reginald Farrer’s highbrow classic essay in 1917 seem to confirm that her general popularity owed most to the distinctiveness and charm of her comic minor characters.