George Justice, Editor

The Unromantic Austen  

Romantic Austen

By Clara Tuite.
Cambridge University Press, 2002. xiii +
242 pages.
5 b/w illustrations. Hardcover. $55.

Reviewed by William Galperin.

Despite its title and the promotional description touting it as the “first full-length scholarly monograph to examine Austen’s writings within the traditions of Romanticism,” Romantic Austen does little by way of coordinating Jane Austen’s achievement to that of her male contemporaries—in particular the “Big Six”—whose connection to Austen has proved something of a dilemma to literary historians. Clara Tuite is determined to demonstrate these connections. But she does so in a somewhat rudimentary way. She denatures the romantic achievement—or what that achievement would have represented to someone such as Austen—to a degree that romanticism is not only not just romanticism as Austen would have recognized it, but a discursive formation so relentlessly historicized (and thereby contained) that romanticism and conservatism are virtually synonymous in this study’s reckoning. Indeed, the book’s index contains no references to Byron, Keats, Shelley, or Blake (though Byron is mentioned at least once in the study), a mere seven references to Wordsworth (only one extending more than a page), and two references to Coleridge, both to his later, arguably unromantic, On the Constitution of Church and State.

Such neglect is characteristic of Tuite’s method throughout. She is concerned less with the Romantics on their own terms (which are the terms, again, that Austen would have had to adopt in understanding them) than with the Romantics as they are understood
in hindsight and by critics generally suspicious of the romantic aspiration to a progressive and, dare I say it, “revolutionary” function. There is nothing of course fatally wrong with the scholarly tendency to reevaluate a writer, or a movement in this case, to an effect that must complicate a too-easy equation of polemic and deed. But when this initiative is mounted on the back of a dismissive rejection of both the Romantics and their admirers as being hobbled or otherwise constrained by limitations of form (a rather odd conclusion given the decidedly “anti” or “beyond” formalist bent of romantic studies in the later 20th Century), the problem becomes twofold. In the first, we are asked to accept conclusions on romanticism—and on romanticism as it connects to Austen—that sidestep the palpable complexity of romantic artifacts in deference to flat-footed generalizations regarding the Romantics’ subscriptions to narratives of development and upward mobility. In the second, the suddenly-seamless equation of romantic discourse with the aims and ends of bourgeois hegemony, is made to bear on Austen in ways that do little to revise the received (or at least one version of received) wisdom on her achievement overall. Readers looking to discover a romantic or radical Austen or an Austen, for that matter, not already available in the work of Marilyn Butler, Alistair Duckworth, Mary Poovey, and Nancy Armstrong (to name just a few) will not find that writer in these pages.

Tuite does offer a number of friendly amendments, or recapitulations, to the interpretive tradition that argues for a conservative, regulatory function not just to Austen’s fictions, but also to the realistic tradition that her novels apparently helped codify. Beginning with a discussion of the Juvenilia, specifically Catharine, or The Bower and History of England, Tuite notes how these works variously foreground, thereby contesting, the regulatory or normative aims that Austen’s mature works are obliged ultimately to serve. Thus Sense and Sensibility rather strategically replaces the cult of sentimentalism, and the masturbatory reading practices with which it was linked (and endorsed willy-nilly in Catharine), with a “chastened, regulated” ideal of feeling, “which Austen cultivates in readers through Elinor as the model of a new kind of female propriety and sensitivity.” So, too, Persuasion, often regarded as the most romantic or lyrical of Austen’s fictions, deploys the “discretion” of free indirect discourse in representing (and as such advocating) “a new kind of intelligent female subjectivity to replace a…sentimental or quixotic female subjectivity.” Finally, Mansfield Park participates aggressively in “the conservative Romantic project” of creating a national heritage that is alternately answerable to a residual aristocratic past and an emergent culture of individualism with its lineaments in domesticity. Tuite has some provocative things to say about Sanditon as a repudiation (or at the very least an exposure) of the cultural work in which the six novels were previously implicated, particularly regarding the uneasy relationship between women’s mobility on the one hand and the traditional order, on the other. But in her attempt to excavate a “queer” Austen who had been quietly dormant since the Juvenilia, Tuite both overstates and skews her case.

This is not to argue against a subversive or antinormative current in Austen’s fiction. If anything, the problem is that it does not take the intuition of its own title seriously enough—or seriously apart from the highly politicized historiography to which the notion, for example, of a conservative romanticism clearly belongs. The six completed novels (not to mention Romantic Austen Lady Susan, which Tuite also and unaccountably ignores, given her interests) are and were readable to an effect that complicates the disciplinary, or hegemonic work, that the novels are alleged here to have performed. The critical mistake that Tuite makes—and she is far from alone here—is in continually seeing both Walter Scott and Richard Whatley as attesting to what Austen ultimately achieved in her fictions rather than as having narrowed that accomplishment to a function that Austen’s earliest readers, her romantic-period contemporaries, seemed frequently to disregard. The minute detail that, according to Scott, actively mitigates the probabilistic and ultimately disciplinary dimension of Austen’s narratives, in this case Emma, turns out to have been the very thing that Austen’s immediate readership was often most struck by. To appreciate this, and what it means for our understanding of Austen, involves following the example of the early readers. It involves reading for the kind of detail, the detail that stands in problematic relation to the consolations of plot (or of what Scott characteristically termed “the narrative of all [Austen’s] novels”), that a less categorical and schematic way of reading Austen makes possible.

William Galperin is Professor of English at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is the author of Revision and Authority in Wordsworth (1989), The Return of the Visible in British Romanticism (1993), and most recently The Historical Austen (2003).

JASNA News v.19, no. 1, Spring 2003, p. 13-14

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