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
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
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
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
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
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).
v.20, no. 3, Winter 2004, p. 23
See more book reviews
Return to Home Page