Edited by George Justice


Was Austen Subversive?

General Consent in Jane Austen: A Study in Dialogism

By Barbara K. Seeber.
McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000. x + 160 pages.
Hardcover. $42.95.

Reviewed by Misty Anderson.

In General Consent in Jane Austen: A Study in Dialogism, Barbara Seeber reconsiders the tendency of Jane Austen's critics to read her work as either subversive or apolitical. She argues that critics who read the novels simply as either veiled political critiques of early nineteenth-century Britain or the ludic, apolitical wells of calm that led some World War I hospitals to recommend her novels to severely shell-shocked soldiers as "Austen therapy" are all missing the mark. She shifts the explanation for this split from the politics of critics to the novels themselves, drawing on the theories of M. M. Bakhtin and Louis Althusser to illuminate Austen's competing messages. Seeber advocates reading "the interplay between main text and subtext" rather than attempting to settle the question of Austen's politics by proving her a radical or a conservative through textual interpretation.

Seeber couples her Bakhtinian interpretation of the multiple voices of Austen's novels with an Althusserian approach to subjectivity, in which characters such as Marianne Dashwood undergo "interpellation" into the social order "in a rather violent process of manufacturing closure." She wisely begins her own analysis with Sense and Sensibility, which plays Elinor's voice against Marianne's while drawing attention to the limits and successes of each. Her attention to Harriet as a character in her own right rather than as a pupil of Emma uses this same paradigm of subject formation to illuminate the class boundaries of Emma and Austen's ambivalence about those boundaries. Her dialogic reading of the performance of the suspiciously Jacobin Lover's Vows in Mansfield Park uses Bakhtin to similar ends: the competing voices of the characters in the novel, the characters of the play, and even the cultural language of Inchbald's translated German tragedy are part of Austen's multi-voiced inquiry into power and character. Seeber's argument avoids the critical pitfall of judging Austen's judgement of the play and instead weaves the play into the narrative fabric as a site of conflict and not merely a cautionary tale.

These reading strategies put Seeber on the side of critics emphasizing Austen's subversive qualities. Seeber is right to identify such a division, but she weakens her argument by flattening out some of the complexities within the critical tradition. Certainly, Claudia Johnson, Mary Poovey, and Margaret Kirkham argue for the subversive qualities of Austen, while Marilyn Butler, Alistair Duckworth, A. Walton Litz, and Tony Tanner identify her as a social conservative. But even within those camps, there is more variation than Seeber reveals. Johnson's discussion of Emma in Equivocal Beings (1995), Gary Kelly's and Glenda A. Hudson's essays in Devoney Looser's Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism(1995), and, most recently, Eileen Gillooly's revision of the notion of Austenian irony in Smile of Discontent (1999) nuance their discussions of Austen's subversive and ideologically complicit moments by turning to history, genre theory, and comic theory.

Seeber is at once too bound to Austen criticism to completely launch her own argument and curiously uninterested in some of the criticism that would support her central claims. She cites Margaret Drabble's point that Lady Susan is "an isolated, and alarming creation, from another fictional universe" to establish the critical tendency to bracket off the juvenilia, but she neglects Margaret Doody's description of the early work as raucous and experimental, but thoroughly Austen. Similarly, Johnson's insights about the multiple voices in Northanger Abbey and the caution it teaches about paternal authority get only brief mention when they could lend more support. Moves like these clear a path for Seeber's claims, but they also impede the development of her insights. Such is the case in her discussion of Mansfield Park and the ambiguous status of Mary Crawford. She cites Alice Chandler's fine essay on sexuality in Austen in relation to Mary's famous pun on "Rears and Vices," but her determination to make Mary's freedoms no worse than Emma's or Elizabeth Bennett's keeps her from developing the challenge that Mary introduces. In her final paragraph, she associates Austen's ironic, irreverent tone at the novel's close with Mary's voice, but she stops with that point, just as things get interesting.

Some of the difficulties I have identified here spring from the organization of the book into three sections of eleven brief chapters. The arrangement strengthens Seeber's topical arguments about "other" heroines, cameo roles, and crime, and it allows readers to use the book as a reference to the novels themselves, but it does not leave much space to develop the implications of her larger thesis about Austen's dialogic style. Some chapters, like the three-page discussion of Louisa Musgrove in Persuasion, cry out for the company of a more sustained argument. In spite of these problems, Seeber's book is a worthwhile comment on the critical debates about Austen's novels and the reading strategies that they have produced. Her best insights deserve further investigation.

Misty Anderson is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tennessee and author of Female Playwrights and Eighteenth-Century Comedy: Negotiating Marriage on the London Stage, forthcoming from Palgrave/St. Martin's.

JASNA News v.17, no. 3, Winter 2001, p. 20

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