Archive for March 1st, 2013

Emma Woodhouse as drawn in Isabelle Ballester’s Les nombreux mondes de Jane Austen

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been wanting to bring together my notes in English on this useful study of Austen’s psychological and ethical ideas in her fiction. Pierre Goubert has also translated Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (La Coeur et la raison), Lady Susan and Austen’s early History of England. He is the general editor of Volume 1 of the Austen Pleiade. In his etude psychologique he studies her texts with the greatest care, beginning with the novels as coming out of her reaction to the romance heroines of her era.

The book is a successful attempt to describe the fundamental mentality of Austen. In this he succeeds even if you might disagree with that or that particular point. for myself I find the usual flaws which result from hagiography; it’s also a very conservative take on Austen (so there is the usual tendency to excuse, defend, explain away & ignore things that make him uncomfortable).

There are many good insights as he goes along: for example, in her books he finds a strong “feeling she is not completely accepted by those she’s surrounded by, and that the heroines nourish a sorrow coming out of a secret love with which the reader alone is complicit.” He also senses “La solitude et sa detresse qui donne l’atmosphere de cette reflexion. C’est encore une impression de solitude and abandon qui provoke l’elan de” her characters (p. 200).

Prologue: He sees the Juvenilia, her contributions to The Loiterer and an engagement with Grandison as the first stages in her growth as an artist as a girl. He claims, contrary to what is thought, that the Juvenilia have sources in two novels, and thus in this early work she is imitating others as well as parodying romance in general too.

This is the first blog of 2 blogs on this book. The first part of Goubert’s book is about Austen’s response to the heroines of romance which he thinks is the core of her first impulse. As a woman she was intensely bothered by this stereotype; it was what was put before her as a model, and she worked to produce a heroine she preferred and reasons why this heroine’s traits and behavior will produce happiness. The second blog will be on how she presents that heroine coping with the world and her perception of her era’s understanding of the underlying psychology of ethics: how does she see imagination, judgement, sensibility, reason.


Chapters 1 & 2: He begins with her fierce literalist verisimilitude theory and moral doctrinal core. These , he thinks, are her way of justifying an art she was devoting her life to. They are a cover. She knew novels were despised and she had no other articulated justification. He is aware how minutely and intensely she keeps time and arranges space, but he thinks the present P&P does not show it was originally epistolary (p 38). Goubert’s idea is brilliance of her psychology stems from scrutinized use of verisimilitude; rather the two (her content) with this emerge together. She employs gradualism in time as one of her main resources.

Her style is simple, clear, natural; her vigor depends on concision. No cant, no cliches, nor pretension to culture she doesn’t have and a refusal to yield to what’s popular. She is hostile to the language of emotion and we feel in her an embarrassment when she is called upon to be emotional.

He ignores the content of the Juvenilia — and generalizes to see a parody of romance. He does not see where she does use the language of picturesque however restrainedly in NA, and gothic too, though he recognizes a change in Persuasion: pathetic lyricism becomes less singular.

Fanny Price as drawn in Isabelle Ballester’s Les nombreux mondes

Chapter 3, Her reactions to heroine of romance:

Austen from the beginning prefers to place women at the center than men, but she mocks the typical heroine of the lending library book as does Mary Brunton. He sees her books, her writing as coming out of reactions against heroines of the lending library. This was what 1818 an early reviewer reacting to when he singles Austen out for no “deep interest, uncommon characters, vehement passions.”

Center of Austen’s novels is a reaction against the heroine type: someone in distress, of strong sensibility, fragile (delicate); people whose nerves are shot (Anne Elliot’s are though). He remarks on how many hypochrondriacs we have; all abuse the patience of the other characters. This repeated protest against their egoism (Mr Woodhouse, Mary Musgrove) makes him wonder if there is a source for this in Austen’s private life. He thinks the source Mrs Austen in the letters, uses word romantic disdainfully. Also an absence of tact is intensely important to Austen (Collins has none); Darcy’s 1st proposal lacks tact. Brandon has exemplary discretion, marvelous tact.

Austen uses the word romance and romantic disdainfully. Word passion is used ironically; she does not call what Marianne feels “passion;” the word is used acidly in Sanditon. She sees people’s assertions of strong passion as hypocritical. She is not against strong emotion, but how these assertions are used to justify actions and behavior, as for example Edward Denham’s “Man’s determined pursuit of Woman in defiance of every opposition of feeling and convenience.”

Kate Winslet as Marianne Dashwood looking at Brandon reading poetry (1995 S&S)

She uses phrases for sincere feeling like “strong feeling,” “strength of feelingg,” “strong attachment”; a stability of sentiments accompanies an acuity of perception. Characters who manifest this include Brandon, Darcy, Mr Knightley; Jane Bennet; Elinor Dashwood, Fanny (who feels these things too deeply), Marianne Dashwood too; Emma does not think Harriet nature of “that superior sort” in which “feelings most acute and retentive.”

Lending library heroine an enemy of reserve, has a seductive vivacity, willed enthusiasm. Austen treats with irony these pretensions of no reserve, to act this way is to offer yourself up as a victim (Marianne). She concurs with era’s ideals of openness (ease in society), but “popular manners” like Crawford and Mr Elliot’s should put us on our guard. Goubert thinks Austen admires “good manners”; Darcy not timid but not willing to make himself appear to care so quickly. She feels for timid and reserved people and rejoices when feelings liberated. She is weary of the sympathy that attaches itself to the gay and animated person.

It’s not the ardour or warmth Austen objects to but the lack of constraint, moderation, a blindness to the “prosaic realities of existence. He quotes passages showing Austen’s delight in ardour and warmth, she “prizes” them. Marianne recognizes that she brought her griefs and near death upon herself; it’s the pose that bothers Austen. She does allow as credible Anne Elliot’s desire to stay in country and enjoy the melancholy of the season, does create in her work an atmosphere of melancholy. Across her career she moves from being against abandoning oneself to this, to finding liberation in ardour.

Catherine Morland in Isabelle Ballester’s Les Nombreux Mondes

Heroines of lending libraries make professions of friendship and these Austen repeatedly distrusts. Real friendship discriminates based on inner sincerity. Friends must be intellectually alike (p 202):, there must be reciprocation (Bingley, Darcy), but one should not use a power of age or authority over the other (Lady Russell over Anne (p 203). There is a hardly a friendship in all the works which is not weighed, balanced, judged. He does feel her interest in real friendship among women needs explanation: Mrs Weston talks of the need for solid companionship with another woman (the comfort of it).

Goubert thinks the celebration of female love/friendship the result of her solitude; he thinks critics have denied her desire for erotic love with man because she wants to found love on reason. Nothing stops us from believing JA perfectly sincere when she says Marianne learned to love Brandon.

Supposed Elizabeth Bennet, from Les nombreux mondes

Her favored characters do not fall in love because someone is sick or another falls; they appreciate qualities that make good husbands and wives. Emma very impressed with Knightley’s humanity; Darcy with Elizabeth’s concern for her sister; Henry Crawford notes Fanny’s unselfishness. They recognize the riches of another’s heart — Willoughby revealed “un homme au coeur dur” Characters evolve and change in their feelings.

While love a central preoccupation of the novels, Austen doesn’t produce romantic lovers. Love grows from gratitude; from being liked by the other, from their position in the world too. She want to provide a stable reasonable constructed love.

A French distinction at the heart of Austen’s understanding of love: there are men who respect women and men who use them as toys and objects of use (p 223); she wants to separate the egoistic passion from the generous one. But the lover who watches over and teaches the heroine (Knightly, Bertram, Tilney) belongs to Female Quixote school of novels.

Seducers in Jane Austen hurt themselves. Genlis says it’s a cruelty to try to inspire feelings in someone that you do not reciprocate. Really male coquettes. This type does bother her: Stanley, Tom Musgrave. That Frank Churchill attempted to make Emma like him on false pretenses is condemned … She seems to think such men charming.

She stays away from world of seduced women, fallen women seen onl from afar.


Anne Elliot, again image from Les Nombreux Mondes

Goubert says Austen felt one must make quick rebound after death. (He does not say this but I’d add perhaps she did not approve of Henry’s grief after Eliza’s death and made him uncomfortable). She endorses the social duty not to stay alone and to confide in another. Se does look to find distraction in the outer world, to mix, openings to world exterior, but no more. People must struggle to overcome grief — lacks dignity for a start, you lose respect of others to show such need and vulnerability (Emma to Harriet). Cassanda’s attitudes reinforced this. Compassion a religious duty, yet Austen hardly believes it’s really possible. Her better heroines simply act to help others.

He suggests there is something abusive of individual in the accent of determination and repression that Austen insists on in all but her last two books. He excuses her on the grounds that families really had to live with one another, on one another, and her experience of not being able to break off from them at all. And we see her sympathy for Anne Elliot.

She is sympathetic to a need for interior peace. Austen herself does not like noise, especially that of children nor commotion; does not want to seek attention on the self. He feels she was a stranger to melancholy; she looked upon it as strange. I don’t know. I feel he’s wrong here. I feel he’s ignoring the depressive Fanny, Anne, Jane Fairfax, Eleanor Tilney: they control themselves. Elinor is not exactly gay and lighthearted.

She will not show full depression lest we reject the heroine; she protests against hypocrisy of showing depths of feelings, not that these do not sometimes exist. He says she is without pity for Charlotte Lucas’s lack of delicacy in marrying Collins. Later she’s more willing to grant portrayals of melancholy, sensibility, cordiality, spontaneity as valuable. How to appear before the world seems to be a question in the last two novels begun & reaching some degree of finish: Emma and Persuasion

Hattie Morahan as Elinor Dashwood (2008 S&S)

Necessary to be patient and to endure. The point is to establish the precious interior peace. Austen does not seek refuge or a rampart; she does not believe this exists in the modern sense, but reason: acceptance of the world as it is. She is aware of the importance of the qualities of the heart; a sensibility generous really concerned for the well being of another insofar as we are able, but she is drawn to characters who contain their depth of feeling; to characters ardent and spontaneous.


Read Full Post »