George Justice, Editor

Talking about Austen

The Talk in Jane Austen

Edited by Bruce Stovel and Lynn Weinlos Gregg.
The University of Alberta Press, 2002.
xxiii + 269 pages. Paper. $29.95 (Canada)

Reviewed by Patricia Michaelson.

This is a book one should not judge by its cover. There we see a woman with her mouth hanging open; she appears to be talking, but her face is utterly without expression. Yet the 15 essays in this excellent volume demonstrate how full of purpose Austen’s dialogues are. The Talk in Jane Austen is revealing, powerful, witty, even sly, but never expressionless.

The essays were first delivered as conference papers at the 1999 JASNA Annual General Meeting in Jasper, Alberta and, while some have been revised for publication, they are all accessible, even conversational. There is (inevitably) some repetition: when talking about talk, who could ignore Miss Bates, Mrs. Elton, or John Thorpe? Yet each essay adds insight and nuance in persuading us “how much the everyday activity of conversation can accomplish.”

Most of the essays emphasize the power of talk in revealing character, both within the novels and to the reader. There is a general consensus on what Austen wants us to admire in a speaker. We learn to disdain those characters who talk without listening, or who merely follow the formal rules of conversation. On the other hand, we are to admire characters who are genuinely open, who listen and learn, who say what needs to be said, but without rancor.

The key to true conversation, as Bruce Stovel argues, is exchange, and yet asking makes one vulnerable. Stovel contrasts various kinds of rhetorical questions (posed by the likes of Lucy Steele and Sir Thomas Bertram) with the more rare consultative questions, ones without predetermined answers. As he says, “only a person who can ask real questions can think and develop”; only when Mr. Darcy really asks is he accepted. Jeffrey Herrle points to the selfishness revealed by characters who do not listen. Ronald Hall also emphasizes the growth that only takes places when one listens, even if one isn’t part of the conversation: Anne Eliott’s “underspeaking and overhearing” are crucial, but not unique. The proposal scenes epitomize the “exchange” required in conversation. Sarah S.G. Frantz shows us how they reveal “the hero’s understanding of his own moral education,” while Kay Young identifies “crux conversations” that move the plot and mark stages of learning.

Some of the other essays contrast the conversational rules and stereotypes Austen inherited with the speech of Austen’s characters. Jocelyn Harris argues that Austen used, but resisted, three stereotypes of speaking women: “the silent woman, the shrew, and the bluestocking.” Because we have access to Fanny Price’s thoughts, she can be silent yet “sentient and passionate”; Elizabeth Bennet is outspoken, but readers are also aware of her humility. Isobel Grundy takes up another stereotype, that of the talkative servant, and shows how it is transformed, and made by turns infuriating and sympathetic, in the case of Miss Bates. Linda Bree focuses on Persuasion and “the way in which Austen explores the interplay between the proprieties of conversation and the attempts of honest and open people to achieve communication in a revealing, exciting, and intensely moving way.”

Other essays consider how abusive speakers can be when they take advantage of another’s hesitance to be rude. Juliet McMaster explores the habits of “verbal aggressors” like Mrs. Elton, Lady Catherine, and Mrs. Norris, showing us the range of tactics Austen gives them. Lesley Willis Smith looks at the indirect underhandedness of Lucy Steele and Mrs. Elton while arguing these characters’ importance to their novels. Jan Fergus turns to the power of heroines like Elizabeth and Emma, whose irony deflects male power and sets the very terms of the conversation.

All of these essays link conversation to character. One essay, by Gary Kelly, sets a different agenda: he is interested not so much in the nuances of meaning within the novels, but in how Austen’s novels affected her readers. His argument that Austen’s narration “helps found the modern state in the (idealized) image and interests of people like herself” seems overstated only, perhaps, because his argument requires a much longer elaboration and much more evidence than he could provide in a conference paper. Still, it’s a fascinating and suggestive thesis.

The final essays are equally, and delightfully, suggestive. Steven D. Scott’s claim that Mary Bennet stands in for Austen herself at first sounds absurd, but it occasions a closer and more sympathetic look at Mary than we normally take. I myself don’t believe in treating characters as if they were people, independent of the author’s intention in creating them. But it is fun to speculate. Nora Foster Stovel imagines Elizabeth as trying to attract Mr. Darcy all along. Elizabeth Newark, bowing to temptation, creates conversations that Austen chose not to give us: Mr. Elton’s successful proposal to Miss Hawkins, Mr. Elliot’s seduction of Mrs. Clay, and so on. With disbelief suspended, she gives us more Jane Austen. And isn’t that what we all wish for?

Patricia Howell Michaelson is Associate Professor of Literary Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas, and is the author of Speaking Volumes: Women, Reading, and Speech in the Age of Austen (2002).

JASNA News v.20, no. 3, Winter 2004, p. 23

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