Saturday, April 03, 2010

Howard S. Babb, Jane Austen's Novels; The Fabric of Dialogue

Howard S. Babb, Jane Austen’s Novels; The Fabric of Dialogue, (Chapter 1, Jane Austen’s Style; The Climate of the Dialogues.), Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 1962.

One mark of that world is its minimum of physical action. In place of physical event, the style records a series of intellectual, emotional, and moral states, implying that these—whether motives or consequences—make up the real importance of an action. The human mind and heart, in fact, are the major fields of activity in these novels. So verbs, traditionally active words, carry little weight. The passive voice, which insists on the static, is frequent, as is its equivalent, the impersonal construction. One example will be enough here, but I should preface it with two general remarks about the illustrations throughout this chapter. First, I have tried to choose—for obvious reasons—representative passages from as wide a range of Jane Austen's writing as possible. Second, the italics in these selections are mine unless otherwise noted, a way of setting off the stylistic trait in question, like the verbs in the present example: Elinor had given her real opinion to her sister. She could not consider her partiality for Edward in so prosperous a state as Marianne had believed, it. There was, at times, a want of spirits about him which, if it did not denote indifference, spoke a something almost as unpromising. A doubt of her regard, supposing him to feel it, need not give him more than inquietude. It would not be likely to produce that dejection of mind which frequently attended him. A more reasonable cause might be found in the dependent situation which forbad the indulgence of his affection. She knew that his mother neither behaved to him so as to make his home comfortable at present, nor to give him any assurance that he might form a home for himself, without strictly attending to her views for his aggrandizement. With such a knowledge as this, it was impossible for Elinor to feel easy on the subject. (Sense and Sensibility, p. 22) (8)

These verbs do not portray vigorous physical action. Rather, they distinguish between basic categories of response: considering, believing, supposing, feeling, knowing. They further indicate presence or absence: giving, producing, attending, finding, forming—and being or not being. Yet what is, here, is "a want of spirits" or some other condition, and what is not is a capacity "to feel easy." The two strongest verbs, "spoke" and "forbad," activate concepts, not people: it is the "want of spirits'' that 'spoke1' and "the dependent situation' that "forbad." Indeed in Jane Austen's style such concepts are the real actors. She often handles these groups of nouns as if they need only step on the stage in order to convince the audience, but we must never doubt their power on that account.12 For conceptual terms of this sort gain a kind of life of their own in that they seem to universalize whatever aspects of experience they name, treating them less as parts of a single configuration—the way the individual would encounter them in reality—than as absolutes. Since the words thus appear markedly abstract, they have a special air of being fixed by reason alone and therefore of being eminently shareable with others. Further, because these terms seem freed from the fluctuations of a merely personal opinion, they automatically command assent from an audience. One cue to their status for Jane Austen is that, in accordance with an eighteenth-century practice, she frequently capitalized such words in her manuscripts. But any page of the novels will witness the supreme role that these terms play: enunciating the general principles that underlie the individual variety, they embody enduring values. (9)

It is not only these major conditions that stabilize Fanny's character for us by absorbing it into a realm of established values. By the typical genitive construction—as in 'graces of manner"— Jane Austen separates the attributes of concepts from the con­ (10)cepts themselves, and these very attributes beget a new set of conditions.13 Evidently manners" can be graceful or not, a heart good or bad, 'character' gentle, modest, and sweet or their opposites, "conduct" regular or irregular, "decorum'' observed or neglected. The construction creates a world of immovable areas, each one capable of being subdivided into two—but rarely more—static regions. In warmth of heart,'' the formulation detaches the emotional attribute from "heart" not merely in grammar but
in idea, so that the heart's "warmth" can be equated with, measured against, its ''gentleness." Likewise, 'sweetness'' is a unit of settled value in the sum of "woman's worth." It is hardly surprising that "love' should be "in view' in this world, not because "love' is simply an intellectual possibility—tfuit is not true—but because it is another area to be analytically explored according to the postulates of character. (11)

Sometimes she creates parody by the wild disproportion between these naturally weighty terms and the commonplace situation they describe, in this case the departure of an indifferent man from the room: " it is absolutely impossible that he should ever have left you but with Confusion, Despair, and Precipitation' (Volume the Second, p. 94). More often she writes ironically, using the conceptual words to render a smooth surface and a corrupt sense at the same time: "Flexibility of Mind, a Disposition easily biassed by others, is an attribute which I am not very desirous of obtaining; nor has Frederica any claim to the indulgence of her whims, at the expense of her Mother's inclination'' (Lady Susan, p. 294). All seems well until Lady Susan mentions her "inclination"; but this word, apparently so in tune with the rest, implies that her motives are no more dignified than the 'whims" she objects to in her daughter—and so undermines the whole passage. This is no laughing matter, we might note in passing, for Lady Susan succeeds by manipulating society's terms. Yet Jane Austen also aims at effects nearer the comic, as in revising the pompous Mr. Parker's original statement, "My Plantations astonish everybody by their Growth," into "The Growth of my Plantations is a general astonishment" (Sanditon, p. 46).14 Transforming the particular verb into the generic noun emphasizes his pretentiousness. (11-12)

Indeed anyone studying the few revisions she has left us—for instance in R. W. Chapman's separate editions of The Watsons, a rather early fragment, and of Sanditon, her unfinished final work—will discover how frequently Jane Austen leans toward conceptual language. There is little or no satire in the following samples, simply the effects we saw before in the passage from Mansfield Park. She refixes action as an idea when she changes "'am rather afraid of" to "have my fears in that quarter" (The Watsons, p. 16), 'we have been doing" to "has been our Occupation" (Sanditon, p. 105), and "were beginning to astonish" to 'were a moment's astonishment" (Sanditon, p. 114). Her revision of "particularly urged for'' to "warmly offered his assistance" (Sanditon, p. 125) detaches the emotion from the action. Finally, she substitutes more pointedly conceptual terms, their vitality implicit in the capital letters, for rather flat assertions in replacing 'was . of rather formal aspect" with "had a reserved air, & a great deal of formal Civility" (The Watsons, p. 21), or "truly gratified look" with "a look, most expressive of unexpected pleasure, & lively Gratitude'7 (The Watsons, p. 42), or "for want of something better to do' with "for want of Employment'' (Sanditon, p. 70). No doubt many of these are colorless enough, but the recurrence of similar revisions betrays how fully Jane Austen relies on a conceptual vocabulary, one in which the abstractions become agents. (13)

Another stylistic device with the same sort of reverberations is her use of general statements. No novelist can make these, un­ less in dialogue or perhaps in transcribing a character's private thoughts, without intruding—subtly or explicitly—into the fiction. In Jane Austen's novels the main purpose of such intrusions is clear: to remind the reader of common knowledge that he already shares or may share. For a generalization is a formula, presumably dependable because it applies to more than one case. More than that, its reliability is confirmed by the impersonal phrasing, which seems to promise us that the statement does not issue from any purely private judgment. (13) …But generalizations also serve—and this is crucial—for the most serious assessment of character. Representing the standards of society, either by irony or directly, they establish the terms in which we are to evaluate the behavior of the individual. (14) …The rhetoric in all these passages is hardly chance: it suggests a firm conviction that society's judgments, the substance of the generalizations, are reliable. Finally, and this is no less a matter of conviction, Jane Aus­ ten generalizes in the interests of propriety: to disengage us from particulars that are too highly emotional. (15) … For decorum is the realm of lasting values, where the too highly particular must be somewhat generalized so that it may reveal its relation with the universal. This assumption explains, I suspect, Jane Austen's notorious care to keep us at a distance from her hero and heroine when they finally declare their love.

This same cluster of preferences leads Jane Austen to avoid highly particular words on the whole. In a world stabilized by public agreement on certain concepts, we would hardly expect a vocabulary of evocative particulars to flourish. For the colors of sense and feeling, though of course providing local shading, can be by definition only briefly effective. Moreover, a diction too richly suggestive may pose a threat to the author's control of his audience by exciting various reactions, some of them un­ predictable. / When particular words do occur in Jane Austen's writing, they usually point out deviations from the norms of good breeding. The tendency appears in the Letters: " she was highly rouged, & looked rather quietly and contentedly silly than anything else. Mrs. Badcock thought herself obliged to run round the room after her drunken Husband" (I, 128). In the Juvenilia this diction sounds the tone of parody rather than of personal distaste, as in the following blatant reversal of the features conventionally attributed to young ladies in sentimental fiction: "Lovely & too charming Fair one, notwithstanding your forbidding Squint, your greazy tresses & your swelling Back I cannot refrain from expressing my raptures, at the engaging Qualities of your Mind, which so amply atone for the Horror, with which your first appearance must ever inspire the unwary visitor'' (Volume the First, p. 6). (16)

But more often she substitutes a par­ ticular phrasing to sharpen irony by delicate exaggeration. To insist on Margaret Watson's affected drawl, she changes "the words seemed likely never to end" to "she could hardly speak a word in a minute" (The Watsons, p. 87); in the same way, she points up Tom Musgrave's pretensions to fashion by writing "Dishabille" for ''a state'' (The Watsons, p. 107). This mode of intentional heightening is one staple of ridicule in the novels. So gossipy Mrs. Jenkins comes "hallooing to the window" (Sense and Sensibility, p. 106), and Elizabeth's curiosity is "dreadfully racked" about Darcy (Pride and Prejudice, p. 321). Or Jane Austen plays off particular terms against the generic to dramatize irregular behavior ironically: "Catherine . listened to the tempest with sensations of awe; and, when she heard it rage round a corner and close with sudden fury a distant door, felt for the first time that she was really in an Abbey.—Yes, these were characteristic sounds" (Northanger Abbey, p. 166). The fun arises here from Catherine's sense that the singular is 'characteristic'. (17)

But such diction need not be used ironically. It may simply intensify the departure from a rational standard. Jane Austen underlines the stupidity of Diana Parker and her friends by revising "mistakes' to "blunders" (Sanditon, p. 150). And she allows the insipid Lady Middleton to be pleased only by "four noisy children" who "pulled her about" and "tore her clothes'' (Sense and Sensibility, p. 34). More strikingly, particular words make up a kind of backdrop to set off more permanent values. when she celebrates the final understanding of Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth: as they slowly paced the gradual ascent, heedless of every group around them, seeing neither sauntering politicians, bustling house-keepers, flirting girls, nor nursery-maids and children, they could indulge in those retrospections and acknowledgments, and especially in those explanations of what had directly preceded the present moment, which were so poignant and so ceaseless in interest. (Persuasion, p. 241) In this passage Jane Austen seems deliberately to contrast the transiently suggestive particulars with the fixed entities—"retrospections," 'acknowledgments," and 'explanations"—that confirm the endurance of the lovers' relationship and appeal reliably to an audience. (18-19)

This movement from particular to generic is characteristic of the prose. Indeed most of the particular words are in effect absorbed into the generic terms that dominate the style. To take a single instance, a typical phrase describes Marianne Dashwood as "in violent affliction' (Sense and Sensibility, p. 75). The evocativeness of "violent" is blurred because the adjective merges with a state, 'affliction"; further, Marianne is already "in," as the phrasing insists, the condition. At an exceptional moment, such as Anne Elliot's departure from Uppercross, Jane Austen may intensify the atmosphere with particulars: An hour's complete leisure for such reflections as these, on a dark November day, a small thick rain almost blotting out the very few objects ever to be discerned from the windows, was enough to make the sound of Lady Russell's carriage exceedingly welcome; and yet she could not quit the mansion-house, or look an adieu at the cottage, with its black, drip-ping, and com­ fortless veranda, or even notice through the misty glasses the last humble tenements of the village, without a saddened heart.— Scenes had passed in Uppercross, which made it precious. It stood the record of many sensations of pain, once severe, but now softened; and of some instances of relenting feeling, some breathings of friendship and reconciliation, which could never be looked for again, and which could never cease to be dear. (Persuasion, p. 123) But even in this example the concrete landscape is replaced by a 'record,1' something settled in the human mind, and Jane Austen translates the specific emotion, as we have come to expect, into a conceptual vocabulary, here only mildly animated by the subdued metaphor "breathings."' It is not that she denies feeling; rather, she creates the terms in which it can be most meaningful for her characters and for her audience. In this world, evidently, feeling achieves significance when it escapes its natural domain of self-interest and attaches itself to a publicly recognized hierarchy of values like forgiveness, "friendship," and 'reconciliation." The analogy to the danger of highly particular words is plain; because they propose only individual excitement, they may subvert decorum by preventing the reader from committing himself soberly to the publicly formulated values—or, worse, they may utterly divert the reader from those values by betrayinghim to a private emotion. (18-19)

The same judgment of her audience determines the ways in which Jane Austen employs figurative language. The distrust of metaphor that arose around the middle of the seventeenth century—when the groundwork was laid for the dominant stylistic habits of the eighteenth century—has become a critical commonplace. Perhaps Dryden put the case most succinctly in the Preface to his "Religio Laici": "A man is to be cheated into passion, but to be reasoned into truth." 18 His remark implies the two standard complaints against figurative language. First, literally it lies because it likens or equates two things which are really not alike. Second, since its main purpose is to intensify, it invites an emotional response that may short-circuit our sensible alignment with reality. This distrust limited the possibilities of figurative expression rather sharply, as Jane Austen's prose makes clear. / It seems that the best insurance in using metaphor seriously is to choose figures so familiar that their meanings have been circumscribed and their emotions carefully subdued. Indeed, Jane Austen's usual metaphors are such old friends that we hardly notice them. Hearts are "at war" (Northanger Abbey, p. 99), "wounded" (Mansfield Park, p. 175), and ''sinking" (Persuasion, p. 137). One's emotions often make one "blind" (Pride and Prejudice, p. 208). (19) … Expressions of this sort, appearing over and over again, are legitimate coin, worn smooth by long usage. Sometimes in her revisions we can see Jane Austen removing what might be thought counterfeit because of its glitter. Thus she changes "the disease of activity' to ''a spirit of restless activity'' {Sanditon, p. 130), and she dulls "we must not rip up the faults of the Dead" to "we must not find fault with the Dead" {Sanditon, p. 97). (20)

In Jane Austen's novels, one recurrent pattern is an essentially two-part structure: it may juxtapose its terms—sometimes for intellectual and moral distinctions, sometimes in the interest of irony—or it may double them for emphasis. The other pattern that she frequently calls on sets its terms in a straighter line, accumulating them for expressive power. In the case of either structure, the formality is indeed a gesture to move the audience, for to shape verbal patterns is both to ask for and to define a response. At the same time, though, the structures impersonalize emotion, temper it, by formulating it in such a way that it can be shared. Perhaps I can make my sense of this emotive quality clearer (22) if we look at comparable sections from two of Jane Austen's letters to her brother Frank, each announcing her father's death (Letters, I, 144-46). The first excerpt runs: At nine this morning he [the family doctor] came again—& by his desire a Physician was called in;—Dr. Gibbs—But it was then absolutely a lost case—. Dr. Gibbs said that nothing but a Miracle could save him, and about twenty minutes after Ten he drew his last gasp.—Heavy as is the blow, we can already feel that a thousand comforts remain to us to soften it. Next to that of the consciousness of his worth & constant preparation for another World, is the remembrance of his having suffered, comparatively speaking, nothing. Being quite insensible of his own state, he was spared all the pain of separation, & he went off almost in his Sleep. /The letter recreates a flow of fact and sensation. The doctors arrive and judge; the death occurs; its effect on others is mentioned; but then the reader is returned to the authentic death. Everything happens in almost unmodulated sentences which contain a series of rather colloquial expressions—"a lost case,1' 'nothing but a Miracle "—that culminates in the sharp "he went off almost in his Sleep.'' This is the intensity of actuality. But Jane Austen sent the first letter to the wrong place, so the next day she wrote another. The difference between the two is not just a matter of distance from the event, though that has something to do with it. Rather, where the first presented a situation in all its immediacy, the second represents it rhetorically. This excerpt from the later version aims at creating a scene that will stimulate a perfectly conventional—though deeply felt —response: A Physician was called in yesterday morning, but he was at that time past all possibility of cure—& Dr. Gibbs and Mr. Bowen had scarcely left his room before he sunk into a Sleep from which he never woke.—Everything I trust & beleive was done for him that was possible!- -It has been very sudden!—within twenty four hours of his death he was walking with onlv the help of a stick, was even reading!—We had however some hours of preparation, & when we understood his recovery to be hopeless, most fervently did we pray for the speedy release which ensued. To have seen him languishing long, struggling for Hours, would have been dreadful! & thank God! we were all spared from it. Except the restlessness & confusion of high Fever, he did not suffer—i& he was mercifully spared from knowing that he was about to quit the Objects so beloved, so fondly cherished as his wife & Children everywere.-—His tenderness as a Father, who can do justice to?—My Mother is tolerably well; she bears up with great fortitude, but I fear her health must suffer under such a shock. Here most of the sentences are carefully fashioned to arouse tension by their highly dramatic contrasts: trie arrival of the new doctor vs. the impossibility of "cure"; the departure of help vs. the coming of death; the activities of life, such as ''walking" and "reading," vs. the "sudden"' onset of death (new material in this second letter, additionally exciting because it insists on the father's liveliness just before death); the hopelessness of ''recovery' vs. the fervency of prayer; the suffering endured vs. the knowledge "'mercifully spared." Even the exclamation marks formulate a plea for feeling, as does the narration of what "would have been dreadful" though it did not occur. But in all this shaping of the event, its actuality is idealized. The particular phrasings of the first letter become formulas in the second: ''a Sleep from which he never woke,'' "the speedy release which ensued," and "the Objects so beloved, so fondly cherished as his wife & Children ever were." Indeed this later version gives us not so much the particular event in the Austen household as the proper death of a pious man in a pious family. Symbolic of this propriety are the exclamation "Everything I trust & beleive was done for him that was possible!" and the final rhetorical question, "His tenderness as a Father, who can do justice to?" We can summarize in this way: the first excerpt is instinctively dramatic because it seems to record the event as personally perceived, while the second formulates both the event and the feeling appropriate to it. Thus the more formally heightened account strikes one as less intense than the first. But to regard this modulation of intensity as an abandonment of feeling on Jane Austen's part would be to misconceive one of her basic verbal methods. For it is only the formalizing of an emotion—the detaching it to some extent from the interested parties and the con­ taining of it within a structure—that can give it an independent existence. (23-25)

This containing of emotion, as I earlier suggested, is the recurrent effect of Jane Austen's rhetoric. Whatever the pattern she chooses and whatever its inherent power, she employs it to define, and thus evoke, a decorous public response. (28)

Perhaps the usual diction of a character gives him away. Does he simply recite concrete facts? or does he intensify what he refers to with particular terms that dramatize his own excitement? or does he use conceptual terms—and reliably or unreliably? Maybe the key to a character lies in his figurative language. Does he tend to avoid it, conceivably distrusting its fictitiousness and intensity? Or (29) does his too violent commitment to figures prove that he is emotionally obsessed? or does his control of metaphor suggest that he is emotionally disengaged? Often a character's speech rhythms are indicative. Does he chatter breathlessly? or is he easily agitated? When does he use rhetoric, and what kind of rhetoric is it? Even more significant are the character's habits in generalizing. Does he generalize inductively or deductively, and in either case properly or improperly? What kind of norms do his generalizations betray, the wisdom of common experience or the merely personal disguised as the universal? These are some of the major means by which dialogue may represent behavior it­ self. Then there is a further technique that appears periodically in Jane Austen's novels: she will set up a trivial enough social situation, yet allow her characters to talk of it in such a way that it becomes a kind of metaphor dramatizing much vaster areas of human experience, though the literalness of the situation preserves decorum. (30)

Yet the conversations will show us that language dramatizes the terms on which the individual participates in society—and that those terms may be anything but decorous. (30)


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