Monday, March 23, 2009

D. A. Miller's "Jane Austen or The Secret of Style"

Miller's book-length essay is a delightful and thought-provoking read. Its thesis is that the heart of Austen's style lies in "a failed, or refused, but in any case shameful relation to the conjugal imperative." To obliterate the signs of a shameful spinsterhood, she adopts a style that polishes all human particularities from the narrator's voice, and achieves a kind of impersonal, ironic, universal objectivity. But the escape into style, Miller contends, will still leave traces of the personal.

The first part of the essay, "Secret Love," supports the thesis by reading allegorically an episode from Sense and Sensibility. Miller acknowledges that allegory is rare in Austen, but argues persuasively for the usefulness of such a reading of the Dashwoods' visit to Gray's, the London jewelry shop, where they see Robert Ferrars selecting a toothpick case. Jewelry, pervasive in Austen, is always either given by a relative or lover, in token of union through marriage or common blood. The jeweled case, so fussily selected by the "unheterosexual" Ferrars, does not signify any attachment to marriage or family; it is style for style's sake. The spinster, like the homosexual, does not possess social signification of the sort granted to married men and women. Or as Miller puts it:

Behind the glory of style's willed evacuation of substance lies the ignominy of a subject's hopelessly insufficient social realization, just as behind style's ahistorical impersonality lies the historical impasse of someone whose social representation doubles for social humiliation. 

Miller points out that the realism of Austen's works allows no one like Jane Austen to appear in them. There are happy wives and pathetic old maids, but there are no successfully unmarried woman. The second part of the essay "No One Is Alone" argues that Austen's style presupposes and enforces its author's own "under-representability." It looks at the insufficient Neuter of a narrator in Northanger Abbey, and then the accomplished Neuter in Pride and Prejudice, and Emma. In the mature novels, the heroines employ their wit, or style, to court men's attention, and their fall, accompanied by self-lacerations about their excessive wit, is rewarded by getting the man they want, as well as the marriage state, and estate; they become recognized by society as Persons. The plot is saved from cynicism by the heroines' naivete and good faith. 

"Austen Style not only knew whereof it spoke, but also spoke without any apparent experiential implication in such knowledge," writes Miller. It is a paradox of divine omniscience, but it is also a paradox of divine melancholy, in which "an impersonal deity unceasingly contemplates the Person that is its own absolutely foregone possibility." In the third and final part of the essay, Miller expands on this divine melancholy by examining the free indirect style in Emma. He finds the eponymous character the most fully realized in Austen's oeuvre. The chapter "Broken Art" also judges Persuasion a failure of Style as constituted in the earlier books, since, there, Style becomes personifiable, idiosyncratic, instead of objective. Sanditon, written when Austen was dying, is read as a crumbling of the Style when wit deteriorates into mere wordplay and alliteration.

Emma allows us to envision the utopia of a double perfection, the perfection of Style matched by that of Person; Sanditon reaches towards the perhaps more feasible state of their double, their simultaneous annihilation. 

5 comments:

glbynum said...

I’m not sure about the idea that “there are no successfully unmarried women” in Jane Austen. I think of Miss Bates in Emma as successfully unmarried. My favorite thing about Emma (and possibly my favorite thing in all of Jane Austen) is the contrast between the way Miss Bates’ speech is described (tedious, long-winded, foolish, not worthwhile) and the contrary, implicit judgment that Jane Austen herself makes about the value of Miss Bates’ speech in deciding to give her the longest speeches in the novel – some in paragraphs that go on for over a page – which are speeches that give importance to small details of human interaction, potential or actual small acts of kindness, food, and details of domestic settings. One of my favorites is in Chapter 38 - it's what Miss Bates says upon arriving at a ball:

"So very obliging of you!—No rain at all. Nothing to signify. I do not care for myself. Quite thick shoes. And Jane declares—Well!—(as soon as she was within the door) Well! This is brilliant indeed!—This is admirable!—Excellently contrived, upon my word. Nothing wanting. Could not have imagined it.—So well lighted up!—Jane, Jane, look!—did you ever see any thing? Oh! Mr. Weston, you must really have had Aladdin's lamp. Good Mrs. Stokes would not know her own room again. I saw her as I came in; she was standing in the entrance. 'Oh! Mrs. Stokes,' said I—but I had not time for more."—She was now met by Mrs. Weston.—"Very well, I thank you, ma'am. I hope you are quite well. Very happy to hear it. So afraid you might have a headach!—seeing you pass by so often, and knowing how much trouble you must have. Delighted to hear it indeed. Ah! dear Mrs. Elton, so obliged to you for the carriage!—excellent time.—Jane and I quite ready. Did not keep the horses a moment. Most comfortable carriage.—Oh! and I am sure our thanks are due to you, Mrs. Weston, on that score. Mrs. Elton had most kindly sent Jane a note, or we should have been.—But two such offers in one day!—Never were such neighbours. I said to my mother, 'Upon my word, ma'am——.' Thank you, my mother is remarkably well. Gone to Mr. Woodhouse's. I made her take her shawl—for the evenings are not warm—her large new shawl—Mrs. Dixon's wedding-present.—So kind of her to think of my mother! Bought at Weymouth, you know—Mr. Dixon's choice. There were three others, Jane says, which they hesitated about some time. Colonel Campbell rather preferred an olive. My dear Jane, are you sure you did not wet your feet?—It was but a drop or two, but I am so afraid:—but Mr. Frank Churchill was so extremely—and there was a mat to step upon—I shall never forget his extreme politeness.—Oh! Mr. Frank Churchill, I must tell you my mother's spectacles have never been in fault since; the rivet never came out again. My mother often talks of your goodnature. Does not she, Jane?—Do not we often talk of Mr. Frank Churchill?—Ah! here's Miss Woodhouse.—Dear Miss Woodhouse, how do you do?—Very well I thank you, quite well. This is meeting quite in fairy-land!—Such a transformation!—Must not compliment, I know—(eyeing Emma most complacently)—that would be rude—but upon my word, Miss Woodhouse, you do look—how do you like Jane's hair?—You are a judge.—She did it all herself. Quite wonderful how she does her hair!—No hairdresser from London I think could.—Ah! Dr. Hughes I declare—and Mrs. Hughes. Must go and speak to Dr. and Mrs. Hughes for a moment.—How do you do? How do you do?—Very well, I thank you. This is delightful, is not it?—Where's dear Mr. Richard?—Oh! there he is. Don't disturb him. Much better employed talking to the young ladies. How do you do, Mr. Richard?—I saw you the other day as you rode through the town——Mrs. Otway, I protest!—and good Mr. Otway, and Miss Otway and Miss Caroline.—Such a host of friends!—and Mr. George and Mr. Arthur!—How do you do? How do you all do?—Quite well, I am much obliged to you. Never better.—Don't I hear another carriage?—Who can this be?—very likely the worthy Coles.—Upon my word, this is charming to be standing about among such friends! And such a noble fire!—I am quite roasted. No coffee, I thank you, for me—never take coffee.—A little tea if you please, sir, by and bye,—no hurry—Oh! here it comes. Every thing so good!"

Some might call Miss Bates a desperate and crazy sycophant, but to me it seems that there is a kind of empowerment in her attentiveness to, memory for, articulation of, and responsiveness to so many small details of the ways different people’s lives interconnect.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Greg,
That's an interesting perspective on Miss Bates. I would guess that Miller would disagree. Miss Bates' talk is not only talkative, it is non-discriminating, while discrimination is a hallmark of the Austen Style. The pages devoted to her talk could be seen as a tour-de-force of literary recreation. Certainly there is sympathy for Miss Bates--the key moment, for instance, when Emma is chided by Knightley for rudeness to Miss Bates--but one sympathizes with the weak, and not the strong, and so it's hard to see Miss Bates as a successful unmarried woman in Austen's fiction.

glbynum said...

It seems to me, though, that Miss Bates is unimportant (either as a "strong person" or as a "weak person") in the interaction where Knightley chides Emma for her unkindness. I think Knightley is less concerned with Miss Bates there than he is with bringing Emma closer to himself; he resents her lack of attention to him, and uses the Miss Bates incident as a pretext to chide her. If he'd been more honest he would have said something like "I'm jealous of Frank Churchill and I want you to see that I'm more important than him, show me more consideration, and take more pleasure in my company than in his." However, since the established mode of upper-class male-female intimacy in that time and place is that of admonitory-instructive-male-over-submissive-obedient-female, his way of trying to strengthen the connection between them is by reinforcing those (tiresome and tedious) roles. (And it works.) If Mr. Knightley really cared principally about Miss Bates feeling hurt, he would have devoted more of his energy to talking with her, and less to admonishing Emma.

Also I don't find Miss Bates' talk to be non-discriminating; in quite precise and focused ways it all reinforces and expresses appreciation for interactions that are very important to her life and to the lives of the people among whom she lives. What sets her (and Jane Austen) apart from other peole (including D.A. Miller, if you'll forgive my saying so) is that she doesn't pretend that life's "mundane" details are unimportant; instead she pays them close and untiring attention and gives them their full importance, constantly turning them over in her mind in new ways, & not particularly minding that she is the only one who is doing so.

And in response to your remark about sympathy - for 2 millenia quite a lot of people have been constantly sympathizing with the victimized suffering of Jesus Christ while also viewing him as supremely powerful (the one who decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell for eternity). So I'm not sure that people who receive sympathy are always seen as being weak. (Jane Austen apparently said some very Christian religious things in the last days of her life.)

glbynum said...

Also, there are strong biographical parallels between Miss Bates and Jane Austen. Both were single, older women who lived in fairly cramped quarters in smaller buildings near larger estates in which resided people with whom they were intimate and upon whom they depended (Jane Austen's brother's family owned and lived in a large estate of which her home was an outbuilding); and both loved to have their nieces come to stay with them. (Jane Austen's lord-of-the-manor brother, like Frank Churchill and Fanny Price, was adopted away from his still-living parents into a wealthier family. The reason was that his adoptive parents lacked a son and heir of thier own.)

Further, if you read Jane Austen's letters, which have been described by some as disappointingly full of nothing but the tedious minutia of her everyday life, you may find they resemble Miss Bates's speech (though they're less full of gratitude).

Jee Leong Koh said...

Thanks, Greg, for elaborating on your view.