BOOK REVIEWS     Sue Parrill, Editor


Eavesdropping from the Drawing Room to the Embassy

Eavesdropping in the Novel from Austen to Proust

By Ann Gaylin.
Cambridge Studies in Nineteenth-Century
Literature and Culture.
Cambridge University Press, 2002. xi + 241 pages.
1 B/W illustration. Hardcover. $70.00.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Chang.

The unusual frame of Gaylin’s study, Eavesdropping in the Novel from Austen to Proust, gives us a new way of thinking about narrative in the works of five nineteenth-century European novelists. Arguing that eavesdropping has never been adequately studied as an integral part of narrative, Gaylin suggests that scenes of eavesdropping in these novels draw attention to the basic drives of their narrative structure. Eavesdropping, Gaylin proposes, reflects the “primal human curiosity to know, and to know those aspects of others’ lives that we are not supposed to know.” As a transgressive act, eavesdropping not only draws attention to the ever-more fragile boundaries between public and private space in the nineteenth century, but also to larger divisions: between self and other, for example, or between text and reader. While studies of vision in the nineteenth century novel are legion, Gaylin’s attention to aurality is uncommon. The innovative topic makes this study a useful addition to the field of criticism of the nineteenth-century novel.

Eavesdropping in the Novel’s first two chapters focus on the novels of Jane Austen. As Gaylin points out, Austen’s interests as a novelist of manners make her well-suited to employ eavesdropping as a fictive device. In the first chapter, examining Pride and Prejudice, Gaylin identifies the early scene at the ball in which Elizabeth overhears the judgmental conversation between Darcy and Bingley as the crucial moment of confusion which the rest of the narrative must work to unravel. Here eavesdropping drives the plot by obscuring intentions and hindering clear communication; what is overheard is also always misheard. The satisfying conclusion of Darcy and Elizabeth’s marriage, also described as a direct and open “conversation,” means the end of eavesdropping but also the end of narrative, for both the couple and the novel.

The second chapter’s study of Persuasion insists that the novel’s climactic scene, in which Wentworth writes a letter to Anne confessing his love while listening in on her impassioned speech, must be read as an act of eavesdropping. Thus Persuasion, which Gaylin reads as picking up where Pride and Prejudice leaves off, uses eavesdropping to resolve, rather than initiate, narrative conflict. Yet Anne and Wentworth’s marriage, Gaylin argues, reads less optimistically than Elizabeth and Darcy’s, if only because these more mature lovers are better aware of the difficulty of direct “conversation.” Listening and speaking, even when not done transgressively, inevitably reveal the speaker to be divided by gender and even by subjectivity itself, making perfectly open communication  an impossible ideal.

Gaylin takes up several urban novels by Honoré de Balzac and Charles Dickens in her third chapter, and the analysis shifts accordingly from narrative structure to the designs of city living, where space is both “social product and social agent.” The four novels considered—Le Père Goriot, La Cousine Bette, Le Cousin Pons, and Dombey and Sons— challenge the sacrosanct screen protecting private space from the intrusions of outsiders. As the domestic interior became an ever more sacred ideal, weaknesses in the literal and figurative boundaries of this sphere multiply. Eavesdroppers, whether the innocent Florence Dombey or the malicious Parisian portière, both highlight and exploit these weaknesses.

In the fourth chapter, which shifts from the city to the country house in its consideration of Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, Gaylin draws attention to Collins’s complicated relationship to female narrative, both intra- and extratextually. Marian Holcombe’s eavesdropping on the conspiracies of Count Fosco and Sir Percival helps free her cousin Laurie Fairlie but also leads to Marian’s illness, the “narrative rape” of her diary, and her eventual silencing as primary narrator. The reader’s eavesdropping on Marian’s private speech, Gaylin argues, “exposes a collusion of male narrative forces to limit female narrators and characters.”

The final chapter, on Marcel Proust’s Á la récherche du temps perdu, finds eavesdropping taken to its most intimate and erotic extreme. Though studies of the work’s focus on vision abound, Gaylin reorients our understanding of the text to offer an “aural corrective” by attending to scenes of surreptitious listening. The difficulty of defending intimate space or sexual proclivities from intruding ears forces Proust to negotiate new and alternative strategies of self-delineation, which depend upon eavesdropping for their very operation.

Concluding with a brief study of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Gaylin suggests that the centrality of eavesdropping to that novel’s plot of personal and national betrayal parallels Conrad’s work of experimental narrative. The relocation of eavesdropping from the drawing room to the Embassy foreshadows the twentieth-century’s great crises of espionage and its corresponding erosions of personal and institutional privacies. Awareness of the concentrated and localized presence of eavesdropping in the nineteenth-century novel is critical, Gaylin argues, not only for its own sake but for the sake of twenty-first century narrators and those whose lives they narrate.




Elizabeth Chang is an Assistant Professor of Victorian Literature at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

JASNA News v.22, no. 1, Spring 2006, p. 17

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