Edited by Inger Sigrun Brodey

Byatt Reading Austen

Imagining Characters: Conversations About Women Writers
By A. S. Byatt and Ignes Sodre. Vintage Books. 1997.
xiii + 268 pages. Paperback. $14.

Reviewed by Alison K. Baldwin and Steven J. Heyman.

The novelist and critic A. S. Byatt, author of the Booker Prize-winning Possession met Brazilian psychoanalyst Ignes Sodre during a panel on Middlemarch in 1992. The two soon realized that they shared George Eliot's vision of art as "a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot." In this thoughtful and thoroughly engaging book, Byatt and Sodre continue to explore this theme in a series of edited conversations on six important works of fiction, among them Jane Austen's Mansfield Park. The dialogue format, the brilliance of the participants, and their refreshingly accessible approach to literary discussion make this book a unique addition to the literature on Austen and women's writing in general.

 Literary criticism and psychoanalysis are both disciplines that can be intimidatingly technical for the layperson, but in their discussions, Byatt and Sodre have deliberately sought to approach the novels in a more straightforward way. As Byatt says, "We have allowed ourselves to talk about the characters in the novels as though they were real people, which is a . . . mode of discourse which literary criticism has eschewed for a long time .... We have lost the capacity to talk about them as their creators must have wanted us to."

The authors, however, have this capacity in abundance. They demonstrate it compellingly in their exploration of Fanny's character, especially her passivity--both its negative and positive aspects. Byatt remembers what a shock it was for her, as a girl, to imagine the social convention of female silence and passivity, to find out that "[y]ou may see everything, but you must never speak." She reflects on the tremendously concentrating and intensifying effect this external passivity has on Fanny's inner life. Sodre agrees that Fanny's passivity enables her to transform Mansfield Park for the better, but also argues that Austen sees Fanny's passivity as too extreme, and her fear of everyone and everything as a sign of psychological weakness rather than a virtue. These reactions to Fanny, like those of many readers, move from impatience through pity to respect, but they never lose sight of the text itself nor of the realities of family life in the novel.

The authors' differing backgrounds do shape the kinds of observations that each characteristically makes. As a psychoanalyst, Sodre is especially sensitive to the nuances of speech and behavior that reveal the mind of a character or of an author. Anyone who has read Austen's letters will feel a shock of recognition at this comment: "Mary [Crawford] is so critical, she shocks people, she is cynical about marriage and about the Church--and yet she sounds so much more like the Jane Austen of the letters than the morally superior Fanny does.... I think Jane Austen must be examining, via her characters, the relationship between different aspects of herself." Byatt responds: 'One of the deep and intense pleasures of writing novels is this possibility of dividing yourself up and pushing aspects of yourself out to see where they would go if they were the most important aspect." As a novelist, she identifies deeply with the tasks each writer undertakes, and eloquently describes for us how they resolve the problems they faced.

 Yet neither Byatt nor Sodre is imprisoned by her own discipline. In a fascinating, extended discussion of Austen's use of Lovers' Vows, Sodre dissects the play's structure and sets out the correspondences between its characters and events and those of the novel, while Byatt shows how looking at Mansfield Park through the lens offered by the play uncovers "the sexual/emotional center" of the novel: the way the conventional prohibition against a woman speaking, her feelings is both affirmed and rejected by the internal logic of the characters' thoughts and actions. This discussion takes us far beyond the common but simplistic view of Lovers' Vows as nothing more than a source of immorality and scandal.

The book is full of such revelations; indeed, the approach taken by Byatt and Sodre is, if anything, even more successful when they are discussing books with a more explicitly "psychological" or fantastic component, such as Charlotte Bronte's Villette or Toni Morrison's Beloved. Byatt's and Sodre's unwavering focus on the experience of the reader is of tremendous assistance in guiding our understanding of what is strange or difficult in a novel. Even more, they deeply enjoy each of the books they discuss. As Sodre remarks, 'I think we read novels primarily for the pleasure of being told a story, and being able to imagine new worlds." It is their exploration of this approach to literature that makes this book not merely instructive, but itself a great pleasure to read.

Alison K. Baldwin, a graduate student in cognitive psychology at the University of Chicago, and Steven J. Heyman, an associate professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law, illinois Institute of Technology, are members of the Illinois/Indiana Region of JASNA.

JASNA News v. 14, no. 3, Winter 1998

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