Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism, edited by Devoney Looser, is a collection of original essays designed to take the measure of current feminist thinking about Austen and to establish, as it were, a kind of feminist context for that thinking. In “Privacy, Privilege, and ‘Poaching’ in Mansfield Park,” the penultimate essay, Ellen Gardiner observes that “One of the reasons that Jane Austen has remained part of the twentieth-century canon is ..
. [that], as omniscient narrator in various novels, she continues to convince scholars that she is not merely a writer but also a critic” (151).Indeed, a central element in each of the articles in this volume, as well as in the book as a whole, is to find the reason for Austen’s perseverance in the canon in the face of a conceivable recalcitrance to twentieth-century concerns on the part of a late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century opus, to say nothing of the mission among those very scholars to justify as unique and necessary their own contributions to the profusion of Austen commentary.They and it must answer the question, What more remains to be said? And yet the fact remains that there are large and significant divergences and diversities of opinion about the author; despite all the ink that has been spilled, in large measure there is still a knotty stubbornness in her works that seems ultimately, and like the works themselves, courteously and quietly, to resist all attempts to penetrate and lay bare forever what she was about.
On the one hand, the feminist context seems as if it would be exactly hospitable to studies of Austen; on the other hand, there is something inescapable and in definable, which leads to conflict and controversy among the critics. For instance, in “Consolidated Communities: Masculine and Feminine Values in Jane Austen’s Fiction,” Glenda Hudson takes an unexpectedly resolute exception to the claims made by Claudia Johnson and others about the ending of Mansfield Park.Johnson is one of the two presiding, albeit absent, formative geniuses of the critical approaches in this collection; the other is Alison Sulloway, whose presence is more directly invoked by the book’s dedication. Their influence, nonetheless, indicates the continued development of feminist critiques of Austen.
It does seem a shame, though, that Johnson and Sulloway are not represented in this assembly since so much of the argument seems to stem from territory they initially staked.In any case, Hudson argues against Johnson’s claim that the ending is not happy despite the fact that the form — a marriage — is appropriate to the typos — a comedy (“But Austen’s works reveal nothing of the sort” ). Hudson offers a compelling and interesting argument built on a carefully crafted edifice of congenial rather than the presumably more likely disquieting nature of incest, but in some ways the larger and more vexing question is, How can it be that supposedly attentive and scrupulous readers cannot even agree on whether or not the ending of a book is positive and restful?What hope is there for common ground and a level playing field if even the tone of the close of a book is in question? The feminist context, at the least, then, seems to be fraying here. What Devoney Looser has undertaken, as she indicates in the introduction to this volume, is to display examples from “the thriving industry of Jane Austen criticism,” where “the driving force is arguably feminist” (1).
The two men and eight women whose essays she includes address varying aspects of “the workings of gender politics in her novels” (9).But that may well be the only common denominator as the critics range independently across issues of sociopolitics as an endowment of Anglican Enlightenment (Gary Kelly’s “Jane Austen, Romantic Feminism, and Civil Society”); feminist rewriting of historiography in the juvenilia (Antoinette Burton’s “`Invention Is What Delights Me’: Jane Austen’s Remaking of English, History”); Austen as developer of Literature with a capital L (Clifford Siskin’s “Jane Austen and the Engendering of Disciplinarity”); aspects of the Gothic, probably the least innovative of the topics of this book (Diane Hoeveler’s “Vindicating Northanger Abbey: Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, and Gothic Feminism” and Maria Jerinic’s “In Defense of the Gothic: Rereading Northanger Abbey”); and, perhaps inevitably, homoeroticism in the work of an unmarried woman (in Misty Anderson’s “`The Different Sorts of Friendship’: Desire in Mansfield Park”). What is apparent is that the dialogues or discourses in which these authors participate are not with one another since their subjects are, for the most part, so disparate. Even in the two essays on Northanger Abbey and the three in effect dedicated to Mansfield Park, including Hudson’s which is located separately from the two in the identified MP section, the terms and contents of the arguments differ radically, finally.
It is not so much that the critics talk at cross purposes as that they engage diverging agendas and operate on differently tilted planes. This certainly makes this assembly rich and provocative, and readers who consult most of these essays will be rewarded for their efforts, but it also simultaneously opens a gap at the center. Whom is the discourse of these learned experts with, then? Or, better, whom is the feminist discourse about Jane Austen with? Before I continue, I urge readers particularly to savor the insights of Laura Mooneyham White’s “Jane Austen and the Marriage Plot: Questions of Persistence,” which, with Hudson’s piece, is one of the two finest essays here.White endeavors to understand the marriage plot through three of the novels and the final fragment Sanditon in terms that concede contemporary realities and position the premise in relation to this context rather than in defiance of it.
For instance, the critic writes, “Austen’s earlier work all emphasize that through marriage one becomes part of a social and economic entity. Marriage allows the heroine to join the wholeness of society even as she joins the unity of male and female. But the social and psychological integration marriage has represented may never have been a narrative goal in this last Austen narrative. In the flux of Sanditon, marriage’s utility as a symbol of this all-encompassing integration is seriously marred.
There is no stable society left …Here Austen bravely faces a new world in which the endings are open, in which marriage and its attendant securities are no longer guaranteed.
Sanditon may represent the undoing of Austen’s earlier sexual determinism. As a text in which the erotic seems to be unmoored from its earlier position as sexual anchor, Sanditon allows the reader of Austen to experience that surprise, emptiness, and excitement appropriate to a new form of fictional understanding” (83). Forgive me for the long quote, but I seek to convey the richness and full flavor of White’s critique, the ways that it embraces structural, psychological, and historical approaches in an enlightening analysis of the form and genre of the text.Repeatedly as I have read and thought about this book I have wanted to insert the article “the” between the third and fourth words of the title: Jane Austen and [the] Discourses of Feminism.
That that little word is truant is, I think, important to the project of this collection. Its absence speaks to the “gap” I mentioned above. Were the article supplied, there would be an implicit definition of the topic, a restriction of the breadth of the contents of this volume and likely thereby a parallel focusing of the contents of the book upon a particular understanding or delineation or demarcation of the subject. In that case, with the discourse defined, the assembled writers would address the same issues or different issues from similar perspectives.
Instead, without the article, the subject becomes or is revealed to be diffuse, unlimited, perhaps inexhaustible. And that is the promise, the paradox, and the problem herein, it seems to me. Of course, to some extent the dialogue is with the reader if the reader is uninformed or disinclined to agree or to be persuaded. However, assuming that we are all willing to entertain the unfolding arguments at least through the course of their deployment, it seems to me that, openly or not, there is another actor in the dialogue, and that is Jane Austen herself.
And, at the least, she is not cooperating, not complicit. I’ll use two of the essays to illustrate.Siskin declares that Austen’s failure even to attempt to contribute, much less to participate, in the prodigious periodical publication of fiction in her era argues for a conscious decision on her part to opt for Literature: “What this comparative judgment [her much quoted defense of the novel in Northanger Abbey] and her publication decisions-whatever the other factors that influenced them — point to is Austen’s apparent participation in the historical transformation of the two-tier market into a hierarchical system of what we now know as high versus low culture — a hierarchization that in narrowing the range of proper writing ushered in the disciplinary advent of the new category of Literature” (56). Several implications emerge here.
First, the comment, “whatever the other factors that influenced them,” seems a qualification that might potentially derail the entire argument but that is barely acknowledged. However, probably of more moment in terms of the thesis is the imputation that Austen is reborn as a critic in the same fashion that the opening quote by Gardiner accomplishes. Moreover, she is even become, following this same of reasoning, virtually a prototypical Modernist before her time — opting for the elite standards of a restricted readership — if not as a partisan in the self-conscious studies overseen by English Departments which the term “discipline” in the argument suggests.Moreover, but also, perhaps more to the point, the commentary endeavors to tell us her motivation.
That is to say, we have an example, it appears, of the intentional fallacy. This is what Austen meant to do or to say. We understand what she does because we declare why she did it. The context supplies meaning and motivation at once.
Similarly, Anderson’s essay interprets in a new way the uneasiness that Fanny Price in Mansfield Price feels in the presence of Mary Crawford, which generations of readers surely assumed derived from Fanny’s knowledge that not only did both of them love the same man, Edmund, but that also, most probably, Mary was his beloved rather than Fanny.For those same generations Fanny’s discomfort and unhappiness were satisfactorily accounted for as both envy and jealousy, I presume. However, under the new dispensation they are identified as sexual attraction. In fact, they turn out to constitute the love that cannot be named, in fact, the love that Austen could not name.
Anderson writes, “These unwritten plots include the suppressed or interrupted narratives of Mansfield Park that were incompatible with its plot and with social convention. Austen breaks her silence to attempt to tell the story of the ‘I’ [the interpolated narrative voice], which is the ‘desire for another logic of plot’ that cannot fit in the story or its ideology.Perhaps it is the story of a woman’s desires and their multifaceted forms that were edited post humously by her sister Cassandra down to what Janet Todd called the ‘harmless residue, of Jane Austen’s life” (182). Thus, we are informed that both Jane and Cassandra deliberately chose to conceal a lesbian story, and that that indeed was the truth all along.
In other words, to be blunt, a text can be willfully misread via a twentieth-century feminist construct and then attributed to the author herself and to her nineteenth-century family. If this is so, then truly the possibilities of criticism are inexhaustible, if not infinite. There are truly no limits when we discount contemporaneous culture.Discourses of feminism, in short, then, are with Austen herself.
If they are correct, they attempt to tell her what she must surely already know, that is, the meanings and motives behind her art. If they are wrong, then of what value are they However, the point is that they function on the level of intention and purpose rather than result and product, style and art. Hence, it is ultimately not any surprise if there is some residual resistance on the part of the text to even the most determined of critics to wrench a particular meaning out of it. Too bad we don’t just let the books speak to us.
Too bad we are often so busy speaking that we cannot always hear what they have to say.