What matters in Jane Austen?
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Picture: Jane Austen - intimate garden scene with chintz.
In English Letters, only William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and Charles Dickens (1812-1870) can rival Jane Austen's continuing international appeal as a major author worthy of educated attention.
Writing between 1787 and 1817, Jane Austen did things with characterisation, with dialogue and with English sentences which had never been done before. She was, perhaps, the most surprising genius in all English Literature.
Her novels manifested a narrative sophistication and brilliance of dialogue which were unprecedented in English fiction. She introduced the free indirect style, filtering her plots through the consciousness of her characters, and she perfected fictional idiolect, fashioning habits of speaking for even minor characters which rendered them utterly singular.
Austen's brilliance was in the style rather than in the content of her writing. The potent success of her characterisation was a matter of formal daring as much as psychological insight. We hear her characters' ways of thinking because of Austen's tricks of dialogue; their peculiar views of the world are brought to life by her narrative skills.
Picture: Anne Hathaway as Jane Austen reading by a window
Pub quiz questions tend to quaintness when they address Jane Austen novels. Are there any scenes in Austen where only men are present? Who is the only married woman in her novels who calls her husband by his Christian name? How old is the ridiculous Mr Collins?
In Jane Austen, the smallest of details - a word, a blush, a little conversational stumble - reveal people's schemes and desires. Austen developed writing techniques which rendered her characters' hidden motives audible, including motives which were hidden from the characters themselves, and furnished her readers with new opportunities to discern these motives from the slightest clues within dialogue and narrative.
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) talked about Jane Austen's "exquisite touch". This was an appreciation of her precision. Accuracy was Austen's particular genius. In noticing minutiae the reader was led to the wonderful connectedness of her novels, where a small detail of wording or motivation in one place would flare bright with the recollection of something, now significant, which had happened much earlier. Every quirk noticed led the reader to a subtle design.
Jane Austen taught later novelists to filter narration through the minds of their own characters. It was Austen who first made dialogue the evidence of motives which were never stated explicitly. It was Austen who first made the morality with which her characters acted depend upon the judgement of her readers.
In 1901, a confused Joseph Conrad wrote a letter to H.G.Wells. "What is all this about Jane Austen?" he asked. "What is there in her? What is it all about?"
What matters in Jane Austen? is written by Professor John Mullan of the English Department at University College London (UK). It is published by Bloomsbury. ISBN 9781408820117.
Picture: Row of pink Jane Austen volumes
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