Sunday, May 1, 2016

May Memories: First Encounters with Austen and why we still read her:

In this series of guest posts, a meta diary of sorts,  Austen readers recount what brought them to Austen in the first place and reflect on why they keep returning. The first is by me. Hat tip to Sarah Emsley for giving me the idea of inviting guest bloggers.

The Mysterious Miss Austen

 Mystery didn't bring me to Austen, but mystery keeps me coming back. I first read Austen as a teenager, so I missed the cosy, wide-eyed, heart-pounding immediacy that a child brings to a text. How, then, might I have identified with young Catherine Morland, who, just like me at age 10

"loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house."

I too disliked piano lessons

 My first Austen novel, unsurprisingly, was Pride and Prejudice. I read it because it was famous. Then I read Emma  because I heard it was Austen's masterpiece. I moved on and very much enjoyed the autumnal Persuasionthen Sense and Sensibility, at which point I was in love. Mansfield Park came later, and though it is now a favorite, I can't say I enjoyed it at first. Most likely, I was too old for the first encounter. I thought Fanny a prig and longed for Mary and Edmund to marry. 

The scene where Fanny cuts roses in the sun ... similar to the strawberry picking in Emma. I no longer wish for Mary and Edmund to make a match. 

 In graduate school, I turned most often to Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. I loved Pride and Prejudice for being so light, bright and sparkling, to me at that time as delightful and sprightly as Mozart.  Sense and Sensibility appealed for exploring situations I often found myself in. I identified deeply Elinor: I had the Mariannes and Lucy Steeles in my own life. 

I loved Austen too for doing what I found so rare in literature: acknowledging and laying out financial realities. This was congruent with my own life, where money mattered, and “shillings” were not laid out lightly, especially in graduate school. And I would have loved Austen for Charlotte Lucas alone. Charlotte married with her head, not her heart, yet remained a decent human being and attained a decent life. (I naturally, however, would marry for love.)

Charlotte marries with her head and it all works out.

So from early on I was an Austen fan. It was only later I developed a fascination.

That happened as I began to recognize what Kenneth Johnston in has called the white spaces in Austen’s work:
the sense that there is something 'missing' in Austen's stories often gives rise to, or provokes, parodies or critiques of her novels in which the 'blank' spaces in her novels are filled up ... (Unusual Suspects)
Long before Johnston, I'd started to intuit a mystery bubbling below the bright surface of these texts, as I did in Henry James. What was it about Fanny Price? What really was going in Mansfield Park? And Emma? Timelines and back stories began to fascinate me as indications of how completely Austen had planned her novels--and of how much was submerged, waiting for an astute reader to uncover. Allusions started to pull me deeper. Seemingly offhand details began to catch my eye.

Some have called Emma the first mystery novel, with its authorial misdirection about Frank and Jane Fairfax and the possible murder of Mrs. Churchill. What constitutes a mystery is a matter of debate, but Austen directs us perhaps to the mysteries lurking beneath her own surface texts, even as she seems to satirize the very quest for mystery.

As Henry Tilney says to Catherine:

Unable to … repress your curiosity, you will instantly arise … and proceed to examine this mystery. After a short search, you will discover a division in the tapestry so artfully constructed as to defy the minutest inspection, and on opening it, a door will immediately appear …  your eyes will be attracted towards an old fashioned cabinet of ebony and gold … you will eagerly advance to it, unlock its folding doors, and search into every drawer—but for some time without discovering anything of importance –perhaps nothing but a considerable hoard of diamonds. At last, however, by touching a secret spring, an inner compartment will open—a roll of papers appears—you seize it—it contains many sheets of manuscript—you hasten with the precious treasure into your own chamber … when you lamp suddenly expires in the socket …

Maybe there really is a mystery lurking in Northanger Abbey?

Wicked Jane stops us there: she knows we love a mystery. Henry's mocking Catherine: but is there a real mystery he doesn't want her to see?

Austen will properly chide us for looking for mysteries, using Mr. Knightley as her proxy:

Mystery; Finesse—how they pervert the understanding! My Emma, does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?

But can we trust Mr. Knightley? For there is a mystery dancing all around Emma, only she simply can't see it.

For me, the pull towards Austen continues to be in the mysteries, the dropped hints, the double entendres, the possible puns, the dual readings that lie just below the surface. What VirginiaWoolf, in a different context, calls Austen’s laughter, draws me in, Austen laughing at us as we topple in the face of her repeated misdirection. As long as I keep finding news clues, I will keep coming back, looking for another a "secret scroll" in her texts and knowing the whole time she may be playing us all for fools. If so, I will laugh yet again: Austen has not disappointed me yet.  


  1. What a great post, and what a great idea! I am really looking forward to what everyone has to say. I totally agree, of course, with the "missing story" aspect of Austen. I could very easily have been in my 30s (!) when I read PandP for the first time -- can you remember? But there is a certain congruence between Austen's "white space" and my own "white space," unexamined or ignored nooks and crannies in my own personality and experience, which Austen somehow was able to Illuminate. I find that Jane always has much to teach me, and that the best lesson her fiction gives is the importance of listening.

  2. Very nicely done, Diane, of course we have both long been aware of our shared love of Austen's shadows, but it was nice to read the particular path you followed.

    I have started working on my post, you've given me the impetus i needed! ;)

  3. Thanks Arnie and Roger. Arnie, I knew we would be heading in similar directions.

  4. I know this goes outside your purview if your emphasis is First Encounters. But if it's why you still read her, I've had the repeatedly (joke alert) impression that these mysteries and gaps that interest you lead to a subversive Austen who might be regarded as a reverse image that is associated with Janeism. There is a disconnect between fans, common readers but in her case come academics, and much of the academic community in general in Austen studies similar to that for Trollope and many an author. So many people keep reading Austen and value her for not just her questioning but her repressed or sublimated anger. This begins with D. W. Harding, carries on in Murdock's Irony and Defense. Subversive covers a lot of things, so which kinds of subversion hit home and speak to you. I know you did your masters in Hardy.

  5. Wonderful piece, Diane - so interesting that the element of mystery has been your "road to Austen."

  6. Ellen,

    Yes, the subversive elements in Austen, from Harding's regulated hatred to slavery subtexts, do speak to me. I was thinking just recently about how much anger The Watson's conveys: Austen was not simply the sweet, contented scribbler despite so many constructions of her that way and that does fascinate me. Reading Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" with a class this semester, I was struck both by Woolf's complete admiration for Austen's cool, her appreciation for the way JA never blows her cover or lets her anger show (as Woolf shows Charlotte Bronte does), her clear recognition of Austen's anger and yet her own inability in that essay to control her own trembling outrage to the extent Austen can. Austen papered it with laughter--and as we have often noted, rewrote, reworked, rewrote until it was all smooth.

    1. Sorry I've taken thus long to reply. Since you brought up the Watsons, I'll add another vein in Austen that is not "the sweet contented scribbler" or upholder of the establishment, or say (basically harmlessly, apolitically) funny. In The Watsons I hear a cri de coeur of intense misery, and deep plangent withdrawal at any cost of the choices offered the fringe genteel woman (teaching), of hurt -- at rejection in the case of Emma, of corrosive despair at the lack of any
      way to get out of poverty for women. These features are writ larger in Persuasion than the other 5 books (except for passages in Fanny Price's mind) perhaps because Persuasion is also unfinished. I read an essay in the recent Cambridge Companion arguing that we should read Jane Fairfax as a tragic heroine whose rescue is ambiguous. Yes. I know you see these other things. Myself I don't find any mystery in the book; to me what we have been saying -- anger, plangent grief -- are there to be seen easily without even talking of subtexts. The back stories are told by the narrator in Emma for example. Yes she uses suspense in 3 of her books: as in NA where Catherine finally learns the person lying about her was Thorpe, so at the close of S&S we learn all that was implied in Edward's melancholy in his first brief visit to the cottage; and towards the middle of Vol 3 of Emma the clandestine relationship of Jane and Frank. I see none of this done as a mystery; rather it's a use of suspense which turns into dramatic irony, the second of which allows us to reread the books a second time (at least) seeing what we didn't see first in the form of dramatic irony. Ellen

  7. Thanks Diana. I love the mystery as perhaps the place where subversion and laughter meet.