From the desk of Br. Paul Byrd, OP:
What is it about Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park or any other of Jane Austen’s novels that draw readers in and then keep them coming back again and again, even though they already know what is going to happen? In The Hidden Jane Austen, Australian Austen scholar John Wiltshire argues that the answer to this question lies in two related features of the novels. Firstly, Austen displays a keen comprehension of human behavior in all its complicated, messy manifestations—in particular, the way that humans misinterpret or misremember events in their efforts to build identities, establish and maintain relationships, and find a place in the community. Secondly, Austen crafts her narratives with these human behaviors in mind, making them central elements not only to characterization, but also to plot structure. But she does this in such a way that requires her readers to “keep up”—meaning they have to be attentive not only to what is on the page at hand but to what was on all the other pages before, and even to what wasn’t on any page at all, the silences that are provoking in their ambiguity. For it is in the unspoken that readers find the “hidden” Elizabeth or Fanny or, indeed, the “hidden Jane Austen” herself, the master writer relying on readers to pay attention.
To illustrate his thesis, Wiltshire conducts a psychoanalytic study for each of the six major novels, which basically means he tries to uncover the underlying motivations for character behavior. His angle for Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice is memory and attentiveness. Why, for example, does Catherine Morland forget John Thorpe’s clumsy marriage proposal hint, but internalize all too thoroughly Henry Tilney’s playful ghost stories? Simple, she was in love with Henry, not John (18). This same principle of memory is explored more deeply in Pride and Prejudice, a novel whose intelligent heroine somehow misinterprets and misremembers all too frequently. But Darcy is guilty of this too, although he is kinder to Elizabeth than she is to him (64). Wiltshire argues that it’s Austen’s memory games that make these two playful novels so pleasing to readers and re-readers—especially to those interested in finding out how they too were so easily misled.
The chapter on Sense and Sensibility is a fascinating character study of Elinor Dashwood and the way in which silence is both imposed on Elinor and used by her to wage war against her romantic rival, Lucy Steele. Wiltshire highlights the harshness of this novel’s setting and the ways in which Elinor’s manipulation of others mirrors that of Lucy. Even more fascinating is Wiltshire’s claim that while the narrative approves of Elinor’s use of concealment, it nonetheless reveals Austen’s anger at society for requiring levels of duplicity which, in turn, compromise one’s moral integrity (50).
Equally fascinating are the two chapters dedicated to Mansfield Park. The first focuses on Mrs. Norris—Austen’s most glorious villain. While Wiltshire isn’t interested in exculpating Mrs. Norris, he is happy to piece together her back-story in an effort to explain her behavior. What he offers is a delicious psychological theory of sibling rivalry and coping mechanisms. He writes, “[Mrs. Norris] needs continuous self-soothing and self-appeasing, and that is because in her deepest sense of herself she is a victim” (89). If this is true of Mrs. Norris, what can be said of Fanny Price? His second chapter on Mansfield Park answers that question, tackling superbly the age-old critiques of Austen’s most underappreciated heroine by pin-pointing the tell-tale signs of her coping behavior: over-compensation, self-abasement, psychosomatic ailments, and, of course, passivity (98-100). But rather than these making Fanny into the obsequious niece both Mrs. Norris and Sir Thomas expect her to be, Fanny manages to resist their bullying, because she isn’t half as blind to the sins of others as they are to her virtues. But—and this is Wiltshire’s point—she has to resist without showing all of her cards, without, that is, exposing the forbidden love she has for her cousin Edmund. Because of this delicate balancing act, Fanny is misread, both by other characters and by readers (115).
In his last two chapters, Wiltshire explores the role that overhearing plays in Emma and Persuasion. Overhearing implies attentiveness to others, particularly to what they say. But what one thinks one hears (and sees, for that matter) may not match what is actually being said (or seen) due to the interference of one’s own preconceived notions or personal desires. In Emma, this discrepancy is used to comedic effect, as a way to educate the heroine on her own flawed reading of the world. What is brilliant about Wiltshire’s exploration of this is how he highlights Austen’s construction of the miscommunications. He does this with Persuasion, as well; but in that novel, the attentiveness to the speech of others is accented, Wiltshire says, by Anne Eliot’s “chronic depression” (147). At first, this may seem a startling diagnosis, but to support it he carefully analyzes Austen’s structuring of her last completed novel. In the first half of the story, Anne has a recessed presence, and her silence and exhaustion contrast sharply with Wentworth’s confidence and activity (153-154). This contrast must soften in the second half of the story in order for Anne to have a successful end, which is why, Wiltshire argues, that Austen realized she had to revise the original conclusion. In order for the psychology to be right, Anne had to finally emerge from her depression by gaining her voice (162).
As Wiltshire points out most overtly in the Mansfield Park chapters, Austen’s eighteenth-century Enlightenment-influenced Anglican spirituality plays an important role in shaping the psychology of her novels. She accents self-reflection in such a way that it becomes key to understanding the internal moral lives of her heroines and heroes (91). Wiltshire deftly balances his academic expertise with his clear, often poetic, writing style. Best of all, in rooting his psychoanalysis of the novels in discussions about Austen’s crafting of narrative structure, he models for Austen fans of all backgrounds the way to conduct credible dialogues on their favorite characters. His views are modern and original, and not one chapter failed to inspire in me a greater appreciation for Austen’s masterful portrayal of human nature. That is why I give this excellent book, whose best points I have barely highlighted here, five out of five Regency Stars and recommend it as the best book on Austen I have read all year.
5 out of 5 Stars
The Hidden Jane Austen, by John Wiltshire
Cambridge University Press (2014)
Hardcover (204) pages
Cover image courtesy of Cambridge University Press © 2014, text Br. Paul Byrd, OP © 2014, Austenprose.com
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