When Jane Austen described her work as “the little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour,” her words – however tongue-in-cheek their self-deprecation -- launched an unfortunate tradition: what the New Zealand literary critic Jocelyn Harris calls “the myth of her limitation.”
Harris’ 2007 book A Revolution Almost Beyond Expression: Jane Austen’s Persuasion – this month’s entry in my Austen Catch-Up Project, wherein I spend 2016 closing some of the gaps in my Janeite education -- seeks to challenge this myth by showing that Austen’s novels are more than the circumscribed, domestic tales they are sometimes taken to be. A close look at Persuasion demonstrates that Austen is a careful, conscious artist wholly engaged with the political, historical, and literary currents of her day, Harris asserts.
I’m no scholar, but I do wonder if this case still needs making. Yes, Henry James condescendingly compared Austen to “the brown thrush who tells his story from the garden bough,” as if Austen’s work were the product of nothing but nature and instinct – but that was in 1905. Surely by now everyone who has spent any time thinking about Austen knows that she is, as Harris puts it, “an outward-looking, aware, and fully professional author.”
Be that as it may, Harris’ book is an often fascinating look at the elements of Austen’s life, Austen’s world and Austen’s reading to which she was responding in her final completed novel. Harris finds Austen echoing Byron, critiquing Scott, and formulating important tenets of the Romantic movement. Her Austen reflects national angst over the power and charisma of Napoleon Bonaparte; reimagines the heroic, flawed Lord Nelson in Captain Wentworth; and interrogates gender norms by creating a powerfully self-aware heroine and a hero at the mercy of his emotions.
Too often, Harris suggests, critics have defaulted to biographical explanations for elements of Austen’s work – finding in Persuasion’s autumnal mood a reflection of Austen’s encroaching fatal illness, for example – without looking more carefully at alternatives that would show her to be more politically engaged. “The nation’s jubilee after the prolonged carnage of the Napoleonic Wars offers a more likely inspiration for the novel’s mixed mood of loss and celebration, its intensity of pain and pleasure,” Harris writes. And she argues convincingly that this tendency to privilege the biographical reflects a sexist assumption that women can write only out of personal experience.
Along the way, Harris offers interesting and useful context – for instance, sketching in the history and social profile of Bath and Lyme in ways that highlight the contrast Austen intended to draw between the oppression of the city and the freedom of the seaside resort.
As a writer myself, I was especially taken by Harris’ close analysis of Austen’s work on the famous “canceled chapters” of Persuasion, her original (and far inferior) draft of the book’s ending. (Eventually, of course, Austen entirely omitted important parts of even the revised version, replacing it with the sublime published ending, where Anne’s conversation with Captain Harville about the relative constancy of men and women, and Captain Wentworth’s swoon-worthy letter, appear for the first time.) Nothing about Austen’s careful revisions, the alteration of a word here and a phrase there, is particularly remarkable: it’s what writers do. But it’s fascinating to see the genius at work, sketching in her characters’ reactions and then going back to question, and improve upon, her first thought.
As in some of her other chapters, Harris is somewhat limited here by the paucity of her source material. The canceled chapters of Persuasion are the only evidence we have of Austen’s revisions to published work; it’s impossible to know if her process here was typical or if she found the drafting of Persuasion’s ending a particularly thorny task.
Similarly, when arguing for resonance or influence, Harris cannot draw on much evidence in Austen’s own voice; Austen’s surviving letters have more to say about visits to neighbors than about responses to reading. Faced with this lacuna, Harris’ arguments often resort to locutions of the “might represent,” “may have recalled” and “if so” variety. “My argument about Austen’s relationship to Scott is circumstantial, to be sure,” she admits at one point.
Still, Harris’ speculations, if inevitably non-definitive, often seem plausible, or at least worth debating. And it’s hard to argue with her desire to situate Austen in her own turbulent, quarrelsome, immensely creative times. Often, Harris suggests, it’s ignorance of Austen’s context – or a desire to restrict her, and perhaps all female writers, to that two inches of ivory -- that leads readers to conclude that she cared little for politics, wrote without reference to the extraordinary artistic upheavals of Romanticism, or decorously accepted the social status quo.
“Biography alone cannot account for what and how Jane Austen wrote. Her intellectual landscapes are surely as significant as her actual ones,” Harris concludes. “Austen lived not just in Hampshire but in a wider world.”