In any one of Jane Austen’s sentences, we can probably find the distilled essence of her genius, and yet they don’t often get a lot of attention when we’re celebrating the wit, social commentary, and Regency balls which make her work so popular.
At a recent talk at the lovely Portico Library, Dr Bill Hutchings proposed a new way of reading Austen, unashamedly hoping by the end of the talk that he’d ‘contaminated’ us with this way of thinking. Taking his cue from Persuasion, where Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth, in the famous gravel-walk scene, ‘slowly paced the gradual ascent’, his key premise was that we pause and savour reading of Austen’s novels, allowing crucial events to unfold slowly.
Centring his speech around just seven sentences from three of Austen’s works, as well as some nineteenth-century theory on grammar and rhetoric, Bill showed us how we might appreciate the poetry of Austen’s work, as well as the qualities which we more traditionally admire.
He began by looking at the superb integration of Austen’s novels which is flagged up by her syntax, with a focus on the repeated patterns of vocabulary in Persuasion. At the climax of this novel, her sentences bear the weight of all that has come before, and show us the orderliness, the coherence, of the story which has been building. The sentences themselves, with their periodic and often circular structure, enact the reconciliation which now takes place.
Bill moved on to considering how Austen’s sentences can so completely evoke the mind of one of her characters, typically the heroine. Her writing has ‘a capacity so to immerse a sentence in a character’ that it seems to shine out of their consciousness. We can feel Emma’s contented boredom in the rhythm, the balance of the habitual and the dynamic, the actual and the possible, in a sentence as she stands gazing at Highbury from the door of Ford’s shop. Likewise, in Fanny Price’s reflective prose (with its focus on memory), we observe a marked contrast to the short, sharp shift of focus from surroundings to inner life which marks Lizzie Bennet as living intensely in the present. As such, the more we immerse ourselves in Austen’s syntax, the closer we can get to her characters.
But, Bill himself paused to ask at one point, do we really read novels like this? Isn’t this kind of slow-motion unnatural? It raises interesting questions about the way we read. Does not the force of novels lie in their narrative? Ought we to stop and ponder? Austen’s style is not one which (like Hardy’s, Woolf’s, or Nabokov’s) forces us to appreciate its lyricism and dwell on the construction and depths of each individual clause, or the beauty of the description. Nor does she herself pause the narrative to philosophise in the same way that Eliot and Charlotte Brontë might. But, as Bill points out and as many readers have instinctively noted, there is something in Austen which lends itself superbly to re-reading. This integration, this coherence, these fine gossamer webs of language which connect crucial points of the novel, which give us crucial clues to her characters, must surely be what draws us back – they invite (re)discovery. And if, Bill suggests, we linger over those most intense, satisfying, and important moments, we will be spectacularly rewarded when we return to the text and such connections strike us.
The questions which followed focussed on the world of rhetoric which Austen would have inhabited in the early nineteenth century, with its focus on shaping language creatively and using methods of artistry taken from poetry in the developing form of the novel. In the age where Samuel Johnson’s hugely influential dictionary of English had emphasised the importance of individual words, we wondered how conscious Austen’s artistry was. The techniques, certainly, are there to be found, but to what extent this was intentional use of devices, or instead the product of ideas which were simply resounding in her imagination, we can only conjecture. In contrast to the myth of Austen’s almost accidental genius (which often seems to crop up when she’s compared with male greats), I like to fancy that this sharp-witted genius knew exactly what she was up to.
Her metaphor of ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory’ which she works upon was cited not only as a very important image for her sense of conscious crafting, but also a classic example of her ability to combine the power of language with humour (here, metaphor with mock modesty).
On the question of whether this artistry is a more prominent feature of the later novels, Bill suggested that there is a gradual build up from the juvenilia – it is definitely there in Northanger Abbey, but probably at its apogee in Emma. Emma, indeed, represents a high point for masterful integration for the entire cannon, let alone Austen’s oeuvre, which naturally raised the familiar sigh of what she might have achieved had she lived longer.
We ended, as always it seems, on the note of Austen’s legacy, with the lovely suggestion that it is perhaps this very lyricism, this crafting of language, which in her own time lent itself so well to reading aloud in family circles, and which now can be so fruitfully explored by a range of different media, which has secured her continued popularity.
The lovely featured image for this post is the front page of a copy of Emma, from the library’s collection, a few of which were on display after the event. The Portico has a 19th century special collection, which can be searched here.