Noticing and Not Noticing

John Mullan

  • The Hidden Jane Austen by John Wiltshire
    Cambridge, 195 pp, £17.99, April 2014, ISBN 978 1 107 64364 2

There is no sign that Freud read Jane Austen. Yet in her use of the words ‘unconscious’ and ‘unconsciously’, Austen might have had some claim to his attention. The words had been around in English since the late 17th century, and when Austen first uses one of them, in Sense and Sensibility, it is in a conventional and wholly un-Freudian manner. Elinor Dashwood’s ghastly, venal sister-in-law, seeing the growing attachment between Elinor and her brother, Edward, observes to Elinor’s mother that Edward must find a wealthy or noble wife. There will be trouble for ‘any young woman who attempted to draw him in’. The implication (Elinor is an unacceptable nobody and should lay off) is so crude that Mrs Dashwood ‘could neither pretend to be unconscious, nor endeavour to be calm’. ‘Unconscious’ here means ‘unaware’, ‘uncomprehending’, ‘unwitting’; this is the way the word is commonly used by Austen’s contemporaries and the way it is used elsewhere in Sense and Sensibility and in Austen’s next novel, Pride and Prejudice. When Elizabeth Bennet rejects Mr Darcy’s proposal, she nonetheless finds herself gratified ‘to have inspired unconsciously so strong an affection’. To be ‘unconscious’ is simply not to notice something in the world around you.

Then, in Mansfield Park, these words start being used in a new way. The stiff pater familias, Sir Thomas Bertram, returns from Antigua to find that his niece Fanny has progressed from ugly duckling to swan. He can’t help perceiving ‘in a grand and careless way’ that the thoroughly eligible Henry Crawford – rich, elegant, every inch a gentleman – is showing a special interest in her, ‘nor perhaps refrain (though unconsciously) from giving a more willing assent to invitations on that account’. What does ‘unconsciously’ mean here? Sir Thomas has just presided over the mercenary marriage of his eldest daughter, Maria, to a hugely wealthy man whom she despises, though Sir Thomas believes himself ‘infinitely above scheming or contriving’ – that ‘infinitely’ telling us that we are hearing his own proud self-estimation. So ‘unconsciously’ means not noticing something in himself. The evasive double negative (‘nor perhaps refrain’) emphasises his refusal to admit his own calculations to himself. We would now probably say that his motivation was ‘subconscious’. Acting ‘unconsciously’ means being self-pleasingly blind to his own motives.

Under Austen’s touch, the word is opening up to new possibilities. In her last completed novel, Persuasion, Captain Wentworth acknowledges this when, in the happy afterglow of declaring himself to Anne and being accepted, he explains his past behaviour to her. He tells her that, in the eight years since she was persuaded to reject his first proposal of marriage, ‘he had been constant unconsciously, nay unintentionally; that he had meant to forget her, and believed it to be done. He had imagined himself indifferent, when he had only been angry.’ His discovery and then his confession of his unconscious devotion to Anne are all the more convincing because the reader has watched and listened while his certain indifference reported early in the novel (‘Her power with him was gone for ever’) has been contradicted by all the signs of revivifying affection. Persuasion was published in 1818, a year after its author’s death, which happens to be the date of the first recorded use of ‘the unconscious’ (noun), by Coleridge, in some characteristically probing but perplexing lecture notes. ‘As in every work of Art the Conscious – is so impressed on the Unconscious, as to appear in it. So is the Man of Genius the Link that combines the two.’

‘Till this moment I never knew myself,’ Elizabeth Bennet cries, somewhat stagily, as she walks alone down a Kent lane. She has just been persuaded by Mr Darcy’s letter that Wickham is a charming rogue whose lies she has all too readily believed. Generations of sixth-formers have been taught that the heroine’s self-knowledge, quite as much as the Pemberley estate, is the prize she eventually gains. What is less often observed is the technical delicacy – unknown in fiction before her – with which Austen has dramatised Elizabeth’s ability to hide her feelings from herself. Think of the way Mr Darcy, having been repulsed in his two previous efforts to get her to dance with him, finally claims her as his partner. At the Netherfield ball our heroine has had to endure two clumsy turns of the floor with Mr Collins, before enjoying a dance with an unnamed officer who has conversed happily about Mr Wickham’s popularity among his fellow militia members. She is talking to Charlotte Lucas when she finds herself ‘suddenly addressed by Mr Darcy who took her so much by surprise in his application for her hand, that, without knowing what she did, she accepted him’. ‘Without knowing what she did’: the narrative behaves as if reporting a fact, but it is inhabiting her consciousness as her instant response to his ‘application’ is turned into a perplexing reflex. She is left ‘to fret over her own want of presence of mind’, and we sense the denial of feelings hidden from herself.

John Wiltshire’s finely observed study of Jane Austen’s six completed novels is all about the way she conjures characters’ hidden feelings. His title might lead you to expect some revelation of Austen’s private passions but, while knowledgable about her life, he devotes himself entirely to her novels. His title might also stir the expectation that the critic will be making explicit what the novelist herself strove to suppress, adding to those studies that have revealed Austen’s unacknowledged awareness of slavery, radical politics or masturbation. But Wiltshire is concerned, as he nicely puts it, with ‘the silences in the novels, not with the silences of the novels’. He reveals how artfully Austen uses silence, reticence and evasion. The hiddenness that he plumbs is contrived by the novelist. While he aims to show ‘how astonishing is Austen’s penetration of the hidden inner motives and impulses of her imagined characters’, this alone would hardly be news. The real point is to show the narrative techniques used to create, and often to withhold, these ‘inner motives’, giving the attentive reader the experience of inferring or discovering what can’t exactly be stated.

Wiltshire has written four books and many articles about Austen’s fiction, but he often seems to be discovering new things. This is as it should be, by his own argument, for ‘Austen readers tend to identify themselves as rereaders.’ Ever since George Henry Lewes, in his long and laudatory essay in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1859, referred to those ‘like ourselves’ who ‘have read and reread her works’, rereading has been the declared pleasure of all Austen admirers. Lewes had counted his readings – ‘We have reread them all four times’ – and was ready to embark on another round. In their introduction to Emma in the Cambridge edition of the novels, Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan argue that Austen wrote for the rereader. In Emma she deliberately sacrificed ‘readability’ for the sake of a novel that ‘demanded repeated rereadings’. Wiltshire cites their argument that Emma, more than any other of her novels, offers the discerning reader the sharp pleasure of seeing what he or she has failed to discern on an earlier reading. So, for instance, the first-time reader will certainly recognise, through the fog of Emma’s misconceptions, that the smooth, ingratiating Mr Elton has his sights on our heroine (‘handsome, clever and rich’) and has no interest in her stupid, illegitimate stooge, Harriet Smith. Few uninformed readers, however, will grasp from the first what Frank Churchill is up to as he appears to flirt with Emma – how his very appearance in Highbury, after years of good excuses to his father, is tied to the arrival of Jane Fairfax at her aunt’s cramped home in the village. The delight of his scheming is available only to the rereader.

So much is ‘hidden’ by Austen, though invariably in plain sight. It was only on my own nth reading of Emma that I suddenly realised that Mr Perry the apothecary, reliable source of news and advice, and quoted so often by the novel’s main characters, never speaks in the novel. ‘Perry tells me … ’, ‘Mr Perry said … ’: he is always being cited, but Austen gives us not a word of his actual speech. Who knows what he says? Of course we don’t get any of his own words: his business is reflecting back the prejudices of his neurotic clients. No wonder he is doing so well (connoisseurs of Emma will know how much turns on his forthcoming purchase of a carriage – the surest sign of affluence in provincial Regency England). If I had read Mary Lascelles’s 1939 study Jane Austen and Her Art carefully enough I would have known about Perry’s silence already, but it seemed for a blissful moment as if the discovery was all mine, as if Austen had carefully folded the joke into the novel to delight someone who reread it long after her death.

Austen aficionados feel confident that when they go back to one of her novels, many such new discoveries await them. Wiltshire proceeds by close reading of particular passages, plenty of which reveal, even to the frequent rereader, narrative refinements that were hidden before. In my own favourite example, when Emma visits Mrs Bates’s home to find Frank Churchill mending her glasses, Wiltshire displays the clues that allow us to discover that Frank and Jane Fairfax have hastily rearranged themselves after an embrace. We are seeing with Emma’s eyes and so will probably miss these clues. Wiltshire supposes no end to such discoveries. In his chapter on Pride and Prejudice, he suggests that Austen encourages us to reread not only in the sense of going back to her novel, but in the sense of turning back to earlier pages during the course of a reading. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy are both in the habit of remembering, and sometimes quoting, what a person said earlier in the novel. ‘I do remember his boasting one day, at Netherfield, of the implacability of his resentments,’ Elizabeth tells Wickham, in reply to this pleasant deceiver’s account of his erstwhile patron’s ‘ill-temper’. But she remembers wrong. The reader who turns back a few chapters will find that Mr Darcy was attempting self-criticism in the face of her own playful mockery.

Letting your memory trick you is better than having no particular memory at all. Wickham and Lydia, with their shamefully cobbled together marriage, ‘seemed each of them to have the happiest memories in the world’. Wiltshire might have gone on to notice how brilliantly Austen allows many of her characters to forget what they have said before. Naturally there is Mrs Bennet, who manages effortlessly to turn from believing that Mr Darcy is ‘a most disagreeable, horrid man, not at all worth pleasing’ to as near the opposite as she can manage. ‘Such a charming man! – so handsome! so tall!’ Everyone notices this, but for Austen the pleasure must have been just as great in having Mrs Bennet announce with feeling in the second chapter that her neighbour Mrs Long ‘is a selfish, hypocritical woman, and I have no opinion of her’ and then, 52 chapters later, letting her tell her daughters: ‘I do think Mrs Long is as good a creature as ever lived.’ Naturally, she has excellent reasons for her opinion on each occasion. It is difficult not to think that we are all like Mrs Bennet in this respect, and Austen doesn’t restrict self-contradiction to fools and frauds. It is clever, truth-telling Elizabeth who responds to her mother’s advice not to dance with Mr Darcy by saying, with evident sincerity: ‘I believe, ma’am, I may safely promise you never to dance with him.’ And we know where that leads.

Nothing intrigues Austen more than self-deception. She is the most psychologically plausible of novelists largely because her characters’ dialogue is everywhere inflected by their concealed desires and misguided views of themselves. Wiltshire listens intently in order to marvel at the subtle ways in which such concealment reveals itself. He shows how Mrs Norris’s most unbelievable self-descriptions in Mansfield Park, and some of her cruellest cuts at Fanny, draw on the liturgy or the Bible, as if she ‘has only been able to access Christian idioms in a distorted form’. ‘I am sure I should be the last person in the world to withhold my mite upon such an occasion,’ she declares in the opening chapter, as she deftly ensures that she will incur no expense for the young Fanny’s move from her family home. ‘Wherever you are, you must be the lowest and last,’ she savagely tells Fanny years later, twisting a line from the Gospels. ‘Of course,’ the reader thinks, ‘I should have noticed this before.’ This is indeed how she speaks. She has been a vicar’s wife for many years and has a fund of what Wiltshire calls ‘debased and attenuated sanctimony’.

Austen, as we might say, has as much delight in conceiving a Mrs Norris as an Anne Elliot. Wiltshire devotes most of a chapter to Mrs Norris, fascinated by the creation of a character who is wonderfully absurd as well as nasty because ‘she believes what she proclaims, that she is a really good person.’ Austen is not much interested in hypocrites, the Blifils and Pecksniffs who spout of goodness but know in their hearts that it is all nonsense. There are a few self-knowing schemers among the minor characters: we are invited to imagine how Mr Shepherd, Sir Walter Elliot’s agent in Persuasion, might talk to his widowed daughter, Mrs Clay, when they are alone together. ‘Keep angling for him, my girl, and tickling his vanity, and you’ll get him in the end.’ Or something like that. But for the most part those who act badly still like to think well of themselves. Wiltshire gathers all the little suggestions that tell us of Mrs Norris’s wounded, angry psychopathology and let us believe that she believes herself.

Not all Austen’s fiction is so achieved. Wiltshire, like others before him, notices that in Northanger Abbey she can’t entirely trust to her characters. He isn’t completely charmed by the novel’s amused narrator, who is ‘sometimes more like a compère’. In Sense and Sensibility he points out that Austen compensates for her heroine’s frequent silences, her habitual refusal to express resentment or censure, with a narrative prose that is ‘unremittingly scarifying and judgmental’. He seems close to Lewes’s decisive judgment that ‘all her power is dramatic power; she loses her hold on us directly she ceases to speak through the personae.’ The term ‘free indirect style’ wasn’t available to Lewes to describe the fact that much of the third-person narration is also filtered through the consciousness of one or other of her characters. Wiltshire edited Mansfield Park (‘this magnificent novel’) for the Cambridge edition of Austen and is especially revealing on the way the technique, which hardly existed before Austen, is used here.

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His treatment of Mansfield Park is alive to the moments at which the narrative picks up the rhythm of a character’s thoughts. He doesn’t say this, but many critics have failed to detect such rhythms at crucial moments and have thus misread the novel, confidently finding the author’s values where there are only a character’s sentiments. When Fanny is transplanted to the tumult of her family home in Portsmouth after eight years at Mansfield Park, the narrative reflects on the appeal of her adoptive home. ‘At Mansfield, no sounds of contention, no raised voice, no abrupt bursts, no tread of violence was ever heard.’ Yet the ‘desperate’ cadence of this lets us hear how Fanny ‘turns Mansfield into a fantasy world of comfort, even if it is only a comfort made out of negatives’. Sir Thomas hopes that a few months in her cramped and shabby Portsmouth quarters will make her appreciate his household, and therefore do as he wishes and marry Henry Crawford. She is duly appreciative, but the narrative that reports this mimics what Wiltshire calls ‘her nervous hysteria’. For chapter after chapter we have seen her scolded and tormented by Mrs Norris, but now, it seems, ‘the little irritations, sometimes introduced by aunt Norris, they were short, they were trifling, they were as a drop of water to the ocean, compared with the ceaseless tumult of her present abode.’ The stir of cliché and hyperbole is panicky Fanny, not sagacious Jane.

In Mansfield Park, of all Austen’s novels, the use of free indirect style is easiest to miss, partly because the heroine is apparently right-thinking, but more because of the way the narrative moves between characters: this is the Austen novel in which the heroine is most often absent. The Austen novel most dominated by its heroine’s point of view is, of course, Emma. Here free indirect style is used to render the protagonist’s deluded view of her little world, so the reader should always know to be suspicious of what he or she is being told. Despite this we keep being tricked. The narrator follows so closely the progress of the heroine’s attention that all the clues as to characters’ real motives can as easily be missed by the reader as they have been by Emma herself. Wiltshire points at an innocuous few sentences describing the Coles’s ‘rather large’ – for which read, anxiously ostentatious – dinner party, at which Emma thinks Frank Churchill seems to be expressing his amorous interest in her. Distracted by Mrs Weston, she loses sight of him for a while, until she finds Mr Cole entreating her to play his new piano; Frank, who ‘had found a seat by Miss Fairfax’, adds his own ‘very pressing entreaties’. He is in fact using the gathering to find a precious moment or two of closeness to Jane Fairfax. Much of the time he can only exchange looks with her. But, as Wiltshire observes, the clue is ‘slipped into a sentence shaped as if to appear to reaffirm Frank’s courtship of Emma’.

The reader’s attention is minutely rewarded. You can do this sort of thing with any paragraph of Emma. As Wiltshire says, it’s ‘a novel that manages the reader’s own attention in extraordinary ways’. Emma is busily noticing things and not noticing things, and the reader has the chance to share what she notices and to notice what she doesn’t. In life more than one thing is happening at any given moment, and Wiltshire thinks Emma is the English novel that comes closest to representing this. Conventionally enough, he comes to Persuasion last and finds an audaciously different focus on the heroine’s consciousness. After the opening few chapters, we are almost always in Anne Elliot’s head, and because of this we often hear only ‘patches or fragments of conversations’ – not just because she is marginalised by the other characters, but also because, as Wiltshire puts it, ‘her own feelings impede or intercept the incoming communications.’ Anne is always ‘keeping her thoughts to herself’, Wiltshire says – I would say keeping them from herself too. Certainly he is right that the novel’s technical brilliance partly consists of the narrator’s keeping these thoughts from the reader, thus building up ‘a kind of bank, or freight, of painful, unexpressed experience and emotion’.

The last time I read the novel I noticed for the first time a tiny detail that Wiltshire highlights. We are being told that Anne, condemned to play the Musgroves’ grand piano while others dance or talk, is used to giving pleasure only to herself. The fond, tasteless Musgrove parents listen only to their daughters’ playing, even though Anne plays much better. ‘Excepting one short period of her life, she had never, since the age of 14, never since the loss of her dear mother, known the happiness of being listened to, or encouraged by any just appreciation or real taste.’ It is easy to be distracted by that surprising mention of her mother (so rarely explicitly in her thoughts) and not to register the opening phrase. As soon as you notice it you know what it means: it echoes that ‘short period of exquisite felicity’ mentioned several chapters earlier, the period of her courtship by Captain Wentworth, before she was persuaded to turn him away. Of course: she must have played to him. But the inexplicit, almost evasive, reference to this is beautifully unclear because it dramatises Anne’s own thinking. She will hardly allow herself to remember that period. Wiltshire alerts us even to ‘the minuscule pause before the repeated “never” (which a lesser writer might have written “never, never”) giving the reader a momentary glimpse of her past happiness with Wentworth, and suggesting the depressive process by which one re-experienced grief drags another in its train’. Old critical hand that he may be, he almost applauds the sheer technical dexterity, which means that, after a decent pause, he will be able to reread those novels. Like her other admirers he will read again, and read her better.