Inside Mr Shepherd

James Wood

  • Jane Austen and the Morality of Conversation by Bharat Tandon
    Anthem, 303 pp, £45.00, March 2003, ISBN 1 84331 101 1
  • Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style by D.A. Miller
    Princeton, 108 pp, £12.95, September 2003, ISBN 0 691 09075 0

Comedy is the disguised priest who weds every couple, the German writer Jean Paul Richter said, and in the English novel the greatest of all disguised priests, the comic celebrant of happy unions, is Jane Austen. For the puff of marital harmony that ends every one of her books, among other things, Austen’s comedy began to be called ‘Shakespearean’ soon after her death. But there has been disagreement about the ideological price of that harmony. Do Emma and Mr Knightley, Elizabeth and Darcy, Anne and Captain Wentworth, Fanny and Edmund, represent ideal or merely idealised marriages? Do Austen’s novels foreclose their own vitality by choosing the safety of proper settlements? Are romance and marriage at odds – politically, stylistically, generically?

All readers agree that Austen’s novels enact a series of exchanges, and it could be said that disagreement revolves around the moral value we award this movement. One of the reasons the books appeal to many different kinds of reader is that they are rational, problem-solving structures: characters get each other wrong, then learn to get each other right, and in the process learn a great deal about themselves, generally humbling. Marriage is the reward paid to these now better-adjusted heroines and heroes. The reason that we, as readers, root so happily and swiftly for the heroines is that the novels turn them into readers, too: Elizabeth and Anne and Fanny learn how to read and reflect on the material at hand (often literally – think of the importance of letters in Austen). In Sense and Sensibility, we are told that Elinor ‘was resolved not only upon gaining every new light as to his [Willoughby’s] character which her own observation or the intelligence of others could give her, but likewise upon watching his behaviour to her sister’.

But these rational structures are powered by an enormous, finally irreducible irrationality: love. Hero and heroine spar with each other, play, feint and fight, but in the end must fall in love because they already have. When we first read Pride and Prejudice we have the eerie feeling of already having read it. Of course, the story belongs to the culture, so we know what to expect. But the novel also has a strong feeling of inevitability: we know that Elizabeth must get Darcy, just as we know Emma must get Mr Knightley and Fanny must get Edmund. And part of that inevitability has to do with the irrational fatalism of love. Darcy says at the end of Pride and Prejudice that he does not know when he fell in love; he was in the middle before he knew that he had begun. The same is true of Elizabeth: doesn’t she really fall in love with Darcy the very first time she sees him, despite – or because of – her protestations about how she detests him? In the novel’s first volume, Elizabeth is always noticing that Darcy is looking at her, but in order to notice that one is being noticed, one has to do some noticing of one’s own. And just as Darcy was in the middle before he knew he had begun, so we first read Pride and Prejudice with a feeling of not knowing quite when it all began.

So Austen’s novels make a great case for rationality, for the necessary and moral correction of error – think of Emma’s self-abasements when she realises how poorly she has read her world – while simultaneously undermining the grounds of that rationality by showing that the quest for transparency is in fact driven by cloudy desire. Is this a contradiction or a paradox? Can Austen’s novels somehow combine an ideal rationality and an ideal irrationality in a harmonious resolution? Bharat Tandon, though he does not quite put it in these terms, thinks they can. His subtle, learned book is an examination of the various ways Austen’s favoured characters learn to listen to each other, to speak to each other, and to speak to themselves. So his emphasis is on the ways these novels move towards a convincing and rich harmony, a mutuality of give and take, a true marriage of minds. Conversation is ‘less a technique than a constitutive atmosphere’ of Austen’s work, he writes, and true conversation encodes a morality, an ideal way of being.

One way of finding what the novels value in this area is to identify the malefactors, the violators, and the specific gravity of their sin. Horrors such as Mrs Jennings, Mrs Norris, Mrs Elton and Mr Collins sin against the morality of conversation. They want to talk only about themselves; but their self-love, to adapt Housman, is a great passion squandered on an unworthy object. Austen is one of the greatest mistresses of idiolect, of distinguishing characters by the way they speak, and she reliably catches out her egotists by forcing them to be always quoting themselves. Here is Mrs Jennings in Sense and Sensibility:

Mrs Taylor told me of it half an hour ago, and she was told it by a particular friend of Miss Grey herself, else I am sure I should not have believed it; and I was almost ready to sink as it was. Well, said I, all I can say is, that if it is true, he has used a young lady abominably ill.

Austen’s monologists are windy performers, who always enact the opposite of the laws they so like to propose. Mrs Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, may be the funniest example. ‘I do not like to boast of my child,’ she announces, while doing so; or ‘People who suffer as I do from nervous complaints can have no great inclination for talking.’ In the same book Mr Collins is always prefacing his little homilies with ‘give me leave to observe’, or ‘permit me to say’.

These characters speak the language of the sermon – they are generalisers – while the novels’ heroines learn to speak the language of the novel. For Austen’s heroines are her books’ only possessors of interior consciousness. They are the only characters we see doing any thinking. They are thus heroic, in some sense, precisely because they possess the secret of consciousness, which is their inwardness. Fanny Price, in Mansfield Park, tells Edmund that ‘we have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.’ At the end of Persuasion, Anne Elliot pities everyone else because they are not in love: ‘Her happiness was from within.’ She has not the monologist’s noisy egotism but the inner egotism of love, the secret that Tolstoy shows Levin possessing when, after winning Kitty, he leans out of his bedroom window feeling sorry for the passers-by because they are not in love.

Austen’s heroines think to themselves and for themselves, and her books show that thought is a form of mental speech, a speaking to oneself. Fanny Price reflects that Edmund is not immediately likeable and that Mary Crawford is probably too shallow to appreciate him: ‘There was a charm, perhaps, in his sincerity, his steadiness, his integrity, which Miss Crawford might be equal to feel, though not to discuss with herself.’ But Austen’s egotists don’t want to, or aren’t able to, ‘discuss’ with themselves, only about themselves. They believe they can narrate their own stories, which is why they are always quoting themselves. They seem to belong not to the novel, but to an earlier mode of literary production, the theatre. They declaim, they are on stage; and they are seen by Austen theatrically, as monochromatic bit-players, mere slivers of being, incapable of change. Yet Austen’s heroines, who belong to the emergent form of the novel, learn what only the novel, as a form, can teach them: that they cannot necessarily control their own stories. And they learn this by looking clearly at themselves because they see how others have been looking at them. First we, as readers, get to see this about the heroines; then they, as self-readers, get to learn what we have been aware of for some time. The central dramatic irony of Austen, as Tandon rightly puts it, is that ‘the hero and heroine form their attachment through conversations not immediately connected with their eventual marriage, in which a reader comes to see and hear more of that end than the characters themselves either suspect or admit.’

Some of Tandon’s most penetrating pages have to do with Austen’s most famous literary innovation, free indirect style. Narrative naturally wants to incline itself towards the human subject it is describing, but free indirect style barely existed in the novel before Austen made systematic and brilliant use of it. It is a method of both inhabiting a character and keeping a distance: the author gets close to the subject by using the language the character himself might use, but refuses to contaminate all of her language thus. In Persuasion, Austen introduces Mr Shepherd like this:

Mr Shepherd, a civil, cautious lawyer, who, whatever might be his hold or his views on Sir Walter, would rather have the disagreeable prompted by any body else, excused himself from offering the slightest hint, and only begged leave to recommend an implicit deference to the excellent judgment of Lady Russell, – from whose known good sense he fully expected to have just such resolute measures advised, as he meant to see finally adopted.

Free indirect style is paraphrased speech, in essence. For a sentence or two, Austen’s language makes us live inside Mr Shepherd’s verbal universe but we remain aware that Austen has tartly put us there. The language of the narration, in its timid periphrasis (‘and only begged leave to recommend an implicit deference to the excellent judgment’), itself enacts Mr Shepherd’s fear of the ‘disagreeable’. Free indirect style, which clearly shows here its origins in mock-heroic and satiric poetry, is a mode of irony. It is astonishing how rarely Austen writes in what we would identify as a purely authorial voice; she is always inhabiting other people’s.

Tandon does not discuss free indirect style as expansively as it deserves, but he is very shrewd about its moral possibilities. He notes that it is in some sense an ideal form of moral narration, because it frames its subjects in ‘the dialectic of seeing and being seen, of hearing and being heard (or misheard) . . . one of the sometimes awkward, but unavoidable, conditions of being in a world with other people – polyopticon might describe it better’. The omniscient narrator does not really exist; it is a term, he rightly says, ‘overdue for burial’. Instead, free indirect style shows us that ‘if we exist for ourselves in the first person (and occasionally in the second), it is both chastening and heartening to know that we exist to others in the second and third.’ Austen’s heroines, in other words, learn to be looked at, learn to be narrated, at once clasped tenderly to their author’s bosom and kept at a strenuously corrective distance. Tandon seems to be saying that free indirect style enacts both love and correction, that it prompts both from its subjects and from its readers a kind of conversation, a narratological back and forth. Emma is the best example of this: much of the heroine’s thought is captured with all the delicacy of a free indirect style continually shading into stream of consciousness.

Contemporary criticism, with its dialectical wiles, will find the worm of ideology at work in every apple; it is, as Frank O’Hara wrote in his poem ‘The Critic’, the assassin of orchards. But here are two books, both theoretically acute and both marvels of close reading, that argue the case from apparently different sides of the ideological fence, yet which permanently enrich our sense of Austen. Tandon is, temperamentally, an idealist, keen to trace what Austen herself seems to value, and to read the novels along their grain (yet with very delicate fingerings). D.A. Miller is amorously sceptical, suspicious of the novels’ apparently contradictory gestures, and keen to read them against their grain (but precisely because the grain delights him). Both love Austen, and both want to make space in their criticism for professions of ardency. Tandon is the more traditional appreciator, and his book abounds with Ricksian noticings, in which he follows a pattern or shows how the smallest phrase can modify and be modified by a whole book; Miller pays Austen the homage of his densely dialectical labour, relentlessly allegorising selected scenes as he dances towards his theory of Austenian mimesis. Both books are notably well written, Miller a prose dandy, brilliant at multiple short strokes, Tandon a sober athlete of the long stride.

Miller’s long, complex sentences are scorpion-tailed, quivering with vitality. They seem unwilling to end for fear of surrendering to the banality of decidability. A screw, for Miller, can always be given an extra turn. He is a peacock stylist, a slightly camp devotee of Barthes, and has a possessive interest in Austen’s style. He posits the existence of something he calls Austen Style (and sometimes, confusingly, Absolute Style), which is Austen in her ‘omniscient’ mode, a genderless authorial authority, a pose of ‘nonchalant detachment’. This is the style, he says, that we think of when we think of Austen – ‘anonymous, impersonal, universal narration’. Austen or Absolute Style is, of course, fabulous (Miller says, in gooey italics, that when we first read Austen it is the style we had been waiting for all our lives), but it is a pose, a fake. Absolute Style knows this, is ashamed of its exclusivity and sparkling, jewelled self-containment, and has uneasy, complicit relations with another sort of style that also appears in the novels: the style possessed by their stylish heroines, especially Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse.

Miller claims, in effect, that Austen’s novels are Stylish – capitalised to identify it as Austen Style – attacks on style, and support this tension because Austen Style is both opposed to and attracted by this rival form of style. ‘The first secret of Austen Style: its author hates style, or at any rate, must always say she does.’ This collision is most easily figured in ‘the tension, everywhere visible in Austen, between her typical subject (the marriage plot that excludes the author, a world in which the author’s condition, as an author, can’t be represented) and her characteristic voice (the exclusiveness of Absolute Style).’ Crudely put, Miller is claiming that Austen, the most famous spinster in literature, is in love with a condition – marriage – that, in order to remain a writer, she must always be excluded from. (There is ‘no successfully unmarried woman’ in Austen’s novels.) She is drawn to the marriage settlement, but must also reject it, and Austen Style must do the same to its favoured and stylish heroines: embrace and reject their kind of style.

Consider, Miller says, the characteristic form of her novels. The heroine, aloft on her own stylish brilliance, is humbled into exchanging much or most of that brilliance for the milder comforts of marriage to a man who almost certainly does not deserve her. If Pride and Prejudice, Miller says, at first seems to allow for ‘the naive belief in a happy match between style and the social’,

its subsequent development of both terms requires, if not their divorce on grounds of mutual incompatibility, then an emphatic subordination of style to the social, analogous to the strange, but perfectly ordinary, kind of ‘equal’ marriage that Mr Bennet recommends for Elizabeth – and that she gets – in which she will look up to her husband as her superior.

But the men just aren’t worth it: the exchange that thrills Tandon’s idealistic heart is, for Miller, a dry biscuit of consolation, the new ashes of domesticity for the old spark of self-reliance:

Style, it would seem, can get a girl married, provided only that she persuade herself into believing she is not using it to that end, or to any end but its own . . . Though the heroine’s adoption of style may induce the courtship plot, what brings this plot to fruition . . . is a moment of mortification when, the better to acquire the selfhood she had never before wanted, the heroine forsakes style . . . she flattens it into a merely decorative reminiscence of itself . . . so she falls out of the universality of Austen Style – the days of wit and retorts simply pass away.

Miller is both witty and persuasive. There is indeed a sharp will-to-mortification in Austen’s heroines, a religious wounding (to use Larkin’s phrase) that is not quite explicable by the novels themselves. The heroines, now ashamed of their former behaviour, pass into a new selfhood. The heroine’s shame, Miller says, is actually ‘the chagrin of being a woman who has just discovered that she does need to marry’. Time is running out, the biological clock is ticking, and marriage must be seized. If the Austen heroine were left to become an old maid, ‘style would look pathetic; no longer the exhilarating refusal of what she didn’t need, it would begin to appear a pathetic substitute for what, in any case, she could no longer get.’ The Austen heroine ‘never looks back at the departing shade of style; in ceding this ultimately futile weapon, she has simultaneously disburdened herself of a heavy chore: that of always having to be light, "to laugh, when she would rather have cried".’ The most sparkling of the novels, Miller claims, at once duplicate style and negate it, and this ambivalence finds its most characteristic form in free indirect style, in which ‘the narration’s way of saying is constantly both mimicking, and distancing itself from, the character’s way of seeing.’ In this style, ‘narration comes as near to a character’s psychic and linguistic reality as it can get without collapsing into it, and the character does as much of the work of narration as she may without acquiring its authority.’ So free indirect style, Miller seems to say – and his book isn’t always entirely lucid – is where Austen Style and a character’s own style finally meet, in a clasp of both amity and hostility.

Miller is such an exciting reader, his breath so close to the flank of the text, that one is swept up as he rides nimbly by, and it is only after escaping the coil and press of his sentences that one wants to register the occasional scepticism. First of all, Miller’s sure sense that Absolute Style is ashamed of itself because style is always and everywhere aware of not being substantial enough seems at times to reflect a Flaubertian or even Wildean anxiety about aestheticism that has been retro-fitted to Austen’s notion of style (which is more Johnsonian than Flaubertian). And besides, much of his argument about the mingled love and hatred that Austen Style harbours for its lower-case cousin, mere style, rests on a very elaborate, somewhat overwrought reading of a single scene in Sense and Sensibility. Burdened with this conception of style’s necessarily luxurious anxiety, Miller is keen to exaggerate the novels’ burden of shame and secret mortification, and thus to exaggerate the violence of the change, or exchange, that the heroines undergo. He presents as radical transformations what Austen carefully draws as gradual colorations – as the confirmation of an essence. (One of the paradoxes of Austen’s books is surely the way they insist that the heroine has at once changed and not changed at all.)

In the last few pages of Pride and Prejudice, for example, Mr Bennet laughs at Elizabeth, having told her that, amazingly enough, Darcy is in love with her, which of course both Elizabeth and the reader know well. To Mr Bennet, it’s all an absurd lark, and he goes on to ask: ‘For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?’ Elizabeth, Austen writes, ‘had never been more at a loss to make her feelings appear what they were not. It was necessary to laugh, when she would rather have cried.’

Miller, in lopping off the start of the sentence when he quotes it, inverts the meaning of the passage. He attempts to make the phrase an emblem of the dreary exchange the Austen heroine must undergo, as she renounces the chore of always having to be stylish and light. But the lightness Austen is referring to is Mr Bennet’s; the laughter that Elizabeth feels compelled to is not the delicious laughter of the free stylist, not her own former stylish laughter, now a chore, but the weak and often cruel laughter of her father, who thinks that people exist for sport. Elizabeth tells her aunt only moments later that in catching Darcy she ‘laughs’ while her sister, in catching Bingley, merely ‘smiles’ (again, the licensed egotism of love): this is true laughter, quite different from Mr Bennet’s. And far from suddenly having to become someone who cries, Elizabeth has been crying fairly steadily throughout the book – she has been laughing and crying. Her decision to marry Darcy is not really a change at all; it is the revelation of her fundamental soundness.

Is a more gradualist description available, one that is alert to the moral radicalism of the heroine’s transformation, yet happier than Miller to thread it along a beneficent continuum, to make of it a process of slow and finally worthy development that begins as soon as the novel begins – which is to say, that begins as soon as the heroine falls in love? Is there, in short, a Whig interpretation to run alongside, if not against, Miller’s passionate scepticism? Tandon provides just such a reading, in his magnificent chapter on Emma, the best in the book. He is well aware that Emma’s union with Mr Knightley has struck many readers as fantastical or worse. Yet Emma accepts Mr Knightley ‘with a feeling of self-worth that is neither humble nor submissive’, her will no less strong at close than at start. Besides, Tandon continues, marriage is not closure but what Chesterton jokingly called a ‘perpetual crisis’. Perhaps not a perpetual crisis, Tandon says, but at the least a perpetual conversation, and he has beautifully subtle things to say about the form of the Common Prayer Book service, with its back and forth of prompt and echo (‘I, N, take thee’; ‘I, N, take thee’). Emma, after all, is a novel in which the heroine, who has been busily making people echo her voice, is explicitly taught to become a better listener. In order to win Emma, Knightley ‘must brave the trial of her will and words, becoming in the process both prompter and echo’.

Tandon remarks of the novel’s famous opening lines – Emma ‘seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence’ – that they point to an illusory union (‘seemed to unite’), in which ‘Emma’s accomplishments are listed like isolated members of a community, coexisting but only seemingly united.’ The novel ends, by contrast, with a real union, what Barbara Everett, quoted by Tandon, calls ‘Hard Romance’ – a relationship ‘hard to destroy and hard to achieve’. The beauty of this marriage solution is that it exists beyond the circle of the book: ‘Its crowning double irony is its silence, reminding the reader that any conjecture he or she might frame is just that: speculation.’ The settlement runs off the page, and away from the book, and ‘if endings in fiction are little apocalypses, reading furnishes the eschatology of writing.’

The fineness of Tandon’s writing, its willingness to talk both of text and life, is unusual in contemporary criticism, and throws his own voice beyond the academy:

As Chesterton’s joke suggests, one of the risks a person takes in marrying another is that the quotidian talk in which they discover and cherish that which they love in their partner may decline, almost imperceptibly, into a routine of bickering; but the pain of having one’s most sensitive nerve hammered upon is so painful precisely because it is, like a fallen angel, the wreck of a beautiful shape. Knowing what hurts one’s lover is as much the fruit of intimacy as knowing what makes them happy. Only a certain kind of couple could truly be said to thrive in a marriage that was ‘a perpetual crisis’: Austen ends Emma, a work which unsparingly faces up to solipsism and loss, with a marriage that is a perpetual conversation.

And yet, and yet: Miller’s apple, once eaten, must surely expel one from the Eden in which Tandon is happily settling down for his ‘perpetual conversation’. There is indeed something problematic about the solving grace that Austen pours over her marriage settlements. So who is right? Dialectic or synthesis? Tandon has the effect of making Miller look cynical, and Miller the effect of making Tandon look pious. As it happens, Tandon mentions an earlier book by Miller, Narrative and Its Discontents, which argued that Austen’s narrative form ‘disowns at an ideological level what it embraces at a constructional one’. Yes, perhaps, Tandon says, but Miller’s ‘casting of the paradox in polarised or dialectical terms does not entirely fit Emma: this is a novel that has it both ways at once.’ Perhaps in that spirit, in Austen’s own, we can have both Tandon and Miller at once, moving back and forth – not to say dialectically – from one to the other, happy to let the dazzling either/or of the latter switch to the shimmering both/and of the former, content to let neither ever close a properly perpetual conversation.