The Voices of Men in Praise of Jane Austen
Messages on the Bulletin Board - c. Aug. 9, 2000

Dear Ashton,

I was intending to write something long and formal about Northanger Abbey, but I'll have to put that off till mañana.  So I'm going to hit some high points.

Jane Austen's authorial voice throughout the novel is intended to misdirect the audience. She's like a magician cheerfully revealing the secret of how to pull a rabbit out of a hat while just as cheerfully apporting rabbits from here, there, and everywhere.  Jane keeps us busy watching her lampoon the conventions of Gothic fiction, while Catherine is pursued by rogues and villains and even kidnapped! (see the scene where Catherine rides out with John Thorpe) spirited away from family and friends for nefarious purposes, exposes a family secret the hero wishes to forget (that his father is a big jerk) and is finally rescued from despair.

Look at this passage:

"It is now expedient to give some description of Mrs. Allen that the reader may be able to judge in what manner her actions will hereafter tend to promote the general distress of the work, and how she will probably contribute to reduce poor Catherine to all the desperate wretchedness of which a last volume is capable---whether by her imprudence, vulgarity, or jealousy--whether by intercepting her letters, ruining her character, or turning her out of doors."

Or maybe Mrs. Allen will accomplish this "general distress" and "desperate wretchedness" simply by introducing Catherine to her old school mate's daughter then encouraging their friendship.

And how about:

"Having heard the day before in Milsom Street that their elder brother, Captain Tilney was expected almost every hour, she was at no loss for the name of a very fashionable-looking, handsome young man, whom she had never seen before, and who now evidently belonged to their party ... He cannot be the instigator of the three villains in horsemen's great-coats, by whom she will hereafter be forced into a travelling chaise and four, which will drive off with incredible speed."

Well, actually, yes he can be.  John Thorpe's second lie to General Tilney is a result of Captain Tilney's rejecting Isabella and as a result, Catherine is turned out of Northanger Abbey.

It's all so lightly and delightfully done, the reader never notices that while Jane Austen winks conspiratorially and invites us to laugh at Catherine and her fellow heroines, the author herself is laughing at the reader and the ease with which she manipulates us.

Dear Cheryl et. al.,

Cheryl is a genius.  (That doesn't go for et. al.)

Dear Male Voices,

In Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, what are Elizabeth's first impressions of Darcy and Mr. Wickham?

Dear allan,

You will find answers to your question throughout the novel; however, there are two passages that come immediately to mind. The first is a conversation between Elizabeth and her sister in which they first discuss Wickham's story about his treatment at Pemberley. At the end of that conversation, Elizabeth states, very explicitly, her favorable impression of Wickham. The other passage deals with Darcy's first proposal at Hunsford. In the final angry moments of that ordeal, Elizabeth gives him a very clear description of what she thinks of him.

The only other passage that comes immediately to mind is that in which Elizabeth is reading Darcy's letter after the proposal. She eventually realizes that her first impressions had been wrong, and that realization entails a review of what she had originally thought about the two men.

Dear Voices,

Some time ago I decided to find out who was right: was C.S. Lewis correct when he stated that Samuel Johnson was Jane Austen's main influence, or did brother James Austen have it right when he seemed to suggest Laurence Sterne? I already have indicated why I think that Samuel Johnson was not an influence and I will now post my thoughts on Laurence Sterne (1713-1768).

First of all, I must absolve our Lady's brother James; he did not say that Sterne was an influence for his sister. He said something simpler and straightforward; James merely indicated that Jane Austen wrote with the same sensitivity as Sterne. He was right about that and I will have more to say along those lines.

Sterne's background is a bit similar to Jane Austen's father, George Austen (1731-1805); from humble beginnings, he rose to the position of a country clergyman. (Unlike papa, Sterne was a bit of a womanizer, and, of course, Sterne was Irish.) Sterne died seven years before Jane Austen was born. He is known primarily for two works, Tristram Shandy and Sentimental Journey. The later work is the more relevant, I think, when discussing Jane Austen, but I first want to say something about Shandy.

Tristram Shandy is a mock autobiography of the person named in the title. You will find the web site of Masaru Uchida to be very useful in the study of Shandy; unhappily, many of Uchida's links for Sentimental Journey have grown obsolete.

Apparently, Sterne felt that the usual form of the novel was too confining and he meant to create a new form—a kind of eighteenth-century version of "stream of consciousness". The writing is innovative in many other ways. For example, Tristram—I mean Sterne—breaks the fourth wall in order to scold and otherwise instruct us readers. He must have had a bad temper, because he really got after some poor woman for not paying attention, and so he sent her back to re-read an earlier chapter. Whew, I was so very glad that the poor woman drew attention away from me. I noticed that she must have caught up later in the book, because Tristram/Sterne interrupted the proceedings to give her a quiz—she failed it—that was so embarrassing! - ? - ? - What are you smirking at?

The main feature of Sterne's innovative approach is the frequent use of digressions into seemingly irrelevant matters. Well, this sort of thing will often be explained in an author's preface, and Tristram supplies just such a device—but, why are you looking there? The preface is placed, naturally enough, in Chapter 44—pay attention! Actually, that won't suit your purpose, because that is, in fact, a philosophical argument with Locke over some other matter not related to the book. (Tristram wins the debate because Locke had been long dead by that time.) But you can find what is in the master's head by reading the unofficial preface. What? Are you paying attention? Chapter 22—obviously. Oh, never mind!—I'll reproduce it for you—here it is.


The learned Bishop Hall ... tells us in one of his Decads ... 'That it is an abominable thing for a man to commend himself;'—and I really think it is so.

And yet, on the other hand, when a thing is executed in a masterly kind of a fashion, which thing is not likely to be found out;—I think it is full as abominable, that a man should lose the honour of it, and go out of the world with the conceit of it rotting in his head.

This is precisely my situation.

For in this long digression which I was accidentally led into, as in all my digressions (one only excepted) there is a master-stroke of digressive skill, the merit of which has all along, I fear, been overlooked by my reader,—not for want of penetration in him,—but because 'tis an excellence seldom looked for, or expected indeed, in a digression;—and it is this : That tho' my digressions are all fair, as you observe,—and that I fly off from what I am about, as far and as often too as any writer in Great-Britain ; yet I constantly take care to order affairs so, that my main business does not stand still in my absence.

I was just going, for example, to have given you the great out-lines of my uncle Toby's most whimsical character;—when my aunt Dinah and the coachman came a-cross us, and led us a vagary some millions of miles into the very heart of the planetary system: Notwithstanding all this, you perceive that the drawing of my uncle Toby's character went on gently all the time;—not the great contours of it,—that was impossible,—but some familiar strokes and faint designations of it, were here and there touch'd in, as we went along, so that you are much better acquainted with my uncle Toby now than you was before.

By this contrivance the machinery of my work is of a species by itself ; two contrary motions are introduced into it, and reconciled, which were thought to be at variance with each other. In a word, my work is digressive, and it is progressive too,—and at the same time.


Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine;—they are the life, the soul of reading;—take them out of this book for instance,—you might as well take the book along with them;—one cold eternal winter would reign in every page of it ; restore them to the writer;—he steps forth like a bridegroom,—bids All hail ; brings in variety, and forbids the appetite to fail.

All the dexterity is in the good cookery and management of them, so as to be not only for the advantage of the reader, but also of the author, whose distress, in this matter, is truely pitiable : For, if he begins a digression,—from that moment, I observe, his whole work stands stock-still;—and if he goes on with his main work,—then there is an end of his digression.

... This is vile work.—For which reason, from the beginning of this, you see, I have constructed the main work and the adventitious parts of it with such intersections, and have so complicated and involved the digressive and progressive movements, one wheel within another, that the whole machine, in general, has been kept a-going;—and, what's more, it shall be kept a-going these forty years, if it pleases the fountain of health to bless me so long with life and good spirits."



That excerpt illustrates something else, that is the tongue-in-cheek nature of Shandy - it is very funny—and very bawdy. I can just imagine Jane Austen giggling her way through the work. The opening paragraphs are so out there that they stupefying to the reader (they deal with the moments of Tristram's conception). The first reaction is to laugh; but, after a few days to reflect, you may come to think of the affair as rather sad. At the time, the book was widely criticized on moral and artistic grounds—it was also widely read.

More to our point is the text of Sentimental Journey, a fictionalized account of a journey of a clergyman on the continent. Here, Sterne continued the innovative forms of Shandy, but the emphasis on humor is relaced by an account of the various affecting, if undramatic, experiences of life. In that broad sense, Sterne is very much like Jane Austen. Those that see only the logic and humor in our Lady's novels, will challenge me on that view.

I will provide a single example, albeit the most famous example. The protagonist is congratulating himself on the composition of a soliloquy that made the Bastile seem not so bad—the reputation was exaggerated—when he next encounters this scene that makes him repent his earlier thought:

"... In my return back the passage, I heard the same words repeated twice over; and looking up, I saw it was a starling hung in a little cage.—'I can't get out—I can't get out', said the starling.

I stood looking at the bird: and to every person who came through the passage it ran fluttering to the side towards which they approached it, with the same lamentation of its captivity.—'I can't get out,' said the starling--God help thee! said I, but I'll let thee out, cost what it will; ...

... Mechanical as the notes were, yet so true in tune to nature were they chanted, that in one moment they overthrew all my systematic reasonings upon the Bastile; and I heavily walked upstairs, unsaying every word I has said in going down them.


The bird in his cage pursued me into my room; I sat down close to my table, and leaning my head upon my hand, I begun to figure to myself the miseries of confinement. I was in a right frame for it, and so I gave full scope to my imagination.

I was going to begin with the millions of my fellow creatures born to no inheritance but slavery; but finding, however affecting the picture was, that I could not bring it near me, and that the multitude of sad groups in it did but distract me.—

I took a single captive, and having first shut him up in his dungeon, I then look'd through the twilight of his grated door to take his picture.

I beheld his body half wasted away with long expectation and confinement, and felt what kind of sickness of the heart it was which arises from hope deferr'd. Upon looking nearer I saw him pale and feverish: in thirty years the western breeze had not fan n'd his blood--he had seen no sun, no moon in all that time—nor had the voice of a friend or kinsman breathed through the lattice—his children—

—But here my heart began to bleed—and I was forced to go on with another part of the portrait.

He was sitting upon the ground upon a little straw, in the furthest corner of his dungeon, which was alternately his chair and bed: a little calendar of small sticks were laid at the lead notch'd all over with the dismal days and nights he had pass'd there—he had one of these little sticks in his hand, and with a rusty nail he was etching another day of misery to add to the heap. As I darkened the little light he had, he lifted up a hopeless eye to the door, then cast it down--shook his head, and went on with his work of affliction. I heard his chains upon his legs, as he turn'd his body to lay his little stick upon the bundle—He gave a deep sigh—I saw the iron enter into his soul—I burst into tears—I could not sustain the picture of confinement which my fancy had drawn—I started up from my chair, and calling La Fleur, I bid him bespeak me a remise, and have it ready at the door of the hotel by nine in the morning."

We know that Jane Austen was familiar with this passage, because she quotes from it in Mansfield Park. Also, see the reference to prisoners in a prayer composed by our Lady.

But what is to be said of the main point? Was Sterne an inspiration or an influence for Jane Austen? Well, my personal opinion is that Sterne was far more of an influence than Samuel Johnson. I have reference here to his focus on mild events and, as brother James pointed out, the understated yet crucial sentiment and sensibility are there in Sterne's as well as Jane Austen's writings. Clearly, Jane Austen was never bawdy and our Lady was never tempted by Sterne's artistic innovations—not in the least. Instead, Jane Austen improved the art of the novel by absolutely perfecting the form used by so many others. But, was Sterne a "main influence"? I don't know—I think he is someone we should keep in mind; however, I think we must look about for possibly better examples.

Dear Ash,

Since you are still on the trail of influences, allow me to recommend two books by Irene Collins - Jane Austen: The Parson's Daughter and Jane Austen and the Clergy.

I read them in a hurry before I started packing, so I don't remember much, but I did make a few notes and copied some pages before returning them to the library.

In The Parson's Daughter on pp. 92 -105 you will find some interesting references to Rousseau and others.  Also, on pp. 190 - 195 Sterne and others are mentioned.

I can't find my notes for Jane Austen and the Clergy - if I made any.  This book might address your inquiry into the Church of England, etc.

I haven't had time to sort it all out, but I wanted to mention it to you for your study.

Dear Cheryl,

I have read Northanger Abbey a number of times, but never studied it. That is my next project. I hope that we will generate a general, community-wide discussion of this novel. That will be good for me because I have always rated it at the bottom of my list. The index for this site links to only a very small number of postings on that novel, but they are interesting and useful. See, especially, the short posts of 3/29/00 and 3/29/00R.

I want to understand what Jane Austen's influences might have been and to that end I sampled Samuel Johnson's writing and decided that C.S. Lewis was wrong when he suggested that Johnson was an Austen influence. In a week or two, I will post on Sterne and Jane Austen and, as you will see, that search ended in a failure as well. I once made a short survey of the British women writers that our Lady read, and decided that that was a blind alley; but, now, I am not so sure - I may have to revisit that effort. For sure, I am going to suck it up and read Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison so that I can check out that possibility.

I am currently reading John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, because we know that Jane Austen must have read that and John's posting on Fanny Price and the Beatitudes made me realize that I should try to better understand Jane Austen's religious training. (Maybe it is a blunder to think I will understand the daughter of a CoE clergyman by reading a Puritan classic—can you suggest anything more appropriate?) I am also going to read The Confessions of Saint Augustine, and that shows you how desperate I am.

Don't bother questioning me about why I am so determined to find influences because I neither know nor do I feel any need whatsoever to justify myself. However, I would like very much to discuss what is meant by "an influence"; sometimes I think I know, and other times I feel confused.

Dear Ashton,

I read Northanger Abbey for many years simply for the innocent pleasure of it (and still do).  It's Jane Austen's funniest novel, its hero and heroine delightful through and through.  A few years ago though, I came across an essay by Katrin Ristkok Burlin titled 'The pen of the contriver': the four fictions of Northanger Abbey. (Jane Austen Bicentenary Essays edited by John Halperin.)  It doesn't really contain any startling revelations, but it does an excellent job of showing just how intricate Northanger Abbey is. It's rather like reading an essay into the science of soufflé making, it can only increase one's pleasure. Sorry, but Northanger Abbey conjures up light, airy and delicious.

"The complicated plot is based totally on fiction, each of its major crises being precipitated by a fiction.  The first crisis is obviously Catherine's discovery of the delusive nature of Gothic romances, the second crisis, her discovery of the delusive fictions of Bath. The third, and most important crisis, Catherine's sudden and violent expulsion from the Abbey, is curiously precipitated by a mysterious, self-contradictory double-fiction, told at Bath but revealed only retrospectively.  The secret working out of this double-fiction is the real plot of Northanger Abbey, responsible for its principal action, but kept deliberately a secret from heroine, hero, and reader alike."

I think that looking at the action of the novel in this light can lead to all sorts of useful things.  Some other thoughts from the essay that stand out:

"The relationship between Henry and Catherine is believable for many reasons:  he is an eager teacher, she an ardent pupil  she is fond of him, he is fond of admiration.  But what makes the relationship most persuasive is that Catherine is unaffectedly good, and Henry, like Jane Austen herself, admires goodness more than cleverness."

But before I go on, I suppose it would be best to find out if you already have this at your disposal.

From the Meister: Please continue.

P.S. I'm sorry if I've been overly-critical in the past of your efforts to find Jane Austen's influences.  I will make all efforts to contain myself in a correct manner.

Dear Voices,

I've miraculously survived a shopping trip "down town" (that portion of the highway where the grocery store and cop shop sit side-by-side) despite the biggest influx of tourists I've seen in the three years I've lived in this tourist town.  The draw this weekend is an out of control forest/brush fire that's been burning now since Sunday afternoon.  As an added bonus, lightening strikes Wednesday and Thursday means that we have THREE fires visible simultaneously.  Even better, the wind kicked up last night so there's little chance of any of the fires being contained soon. (No rain since July 3)The good news is that no one's been hurt so far, and local heroes rescued 32 head of cattle and a dozen horses. Nothing like a little disaster to improve the local economy!

Dear Bruce,

That is a bit like suggesting that Mr. Collins is a minor character. Jane Austen's version of Mansfield Park is about the family tie. Fanny's devotion to William is crucial to that development. And his devotion to Fanny is crucial to our Lady's development of Fanny's love for the men in her family and of their support for her. You and Rozema wish to suppress these themes with your own interpretations of the novel. Rozema, because of her hatred of men, and you, perhaps, because you refuse to recognize all that Sir Thomas - this best of men - does for his family.

William is also crucial to some plot points. For example, Crawford uses a kindness to William in order to pressure Fanny into a marriage. Sir Thomas reminds Fanny of this when he criticizes her for not thinking of her family when she refused Crawford's advantageous proposal. In fact, it is this argument of Sir Thomas that might have eventually led to Fanny's acceptance of Crawford. None of that would have made as much sense if not for William Price's commission.

Rozema eliminates William Price but retains Mr. Yates!

There is absolutely no support in the novel for your contention that Mrs. Price or Mrs. Norris was unhappy in her marriage. We may wonder at Mrs. Price in this matter, but there it is. Rozema eliminates the character of Mrs. Grant because that was another woman quite pleased with her husband.

You say, "If Rozema is a sexist, who approves of women over men, where are her paragons of feminine virtue? I don’t see ‘em." Hate mongering doesn't work that way: as in the German movies of thirties the virtuous race is portrayed as the victims of the other. All the women in Rozema's world are seen and then portrayed as victims of men and never the other way about. Jane Austen never depicted things that way, but that is Rozema's formula for this film.

Dear Ash,

If even half of your assertions about Rozema's adaptation of MP are correct, I will NOT even bother to see it.  I don't have that much time left in my life to waste.  At my age one gets really stingy with one's time.  'Nuff said.

Dear Linda,

I very much hope you will rent the film. That cannot take that much of your time. I have taken an extreme view, so you might do other Janeites a favor if you will then post to soften or even to challenge my statements.


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