Jane Austen

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2078

Tony Tanner, Fellow of King’s College and Reader in the Faculty of English at Cambridge University, is an authority on the English and American novel. He has edited Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and has published books about such writers as various as Thomas Pynchon and Henry James; his other works include ...

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Tony Tanner, Fellow of King’s College and Reader in the Faculty of English at Cambridge University, is an authority on the English and American novel. He has edited Charlotte Brontë’s Villette and has published books about such writers as various as Thomas Pynchon and Henry James; his other works include City of Words: American Fiction, 1950-1970 (1971) and Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression (1979). Tanner’s experience and expertise pervade his most recent book, Jane Austen. According to his acknowledgments, Tanner sees his book not as an addition to the already extensive scholarship on Austen but rather as a reading of her work, addressed to a general audience, and demonstrating Austen’s concern with society, education, and language. Tanner has written introductions to Penguin editions of three of Austen’s novels—Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Mansfield Park (1814)—and he has spoken to the Jane Austen society about Persuasion (1818). Versions of the talk and introductions have been incorporated into this book, and Tanner has added an introductory section as well as chapters on Emma (1815), Northanger Abbey (1818), and Sanditon (1975), the fragment written in the months before Austen’s death in 1817. Jane Austen thus represents twenty years of Tanner’s thinking and writing about this important and enduringly popular English novelist. Although familiar with Austen scholarship and with recent developments in literary theory, Tanner presents his reading of her work in a manner so informal as to be described as casual. As a whole, the book is best approached as a series of insightful lecture-commentaries, replete with parentheses and digressions, presented by a delightfully erudite don. The reader who comes to Jane Austen in this way will be impressed by the book’s many strengths and may manage to avoid being disturbed by its weaknesses.

Tanner’s chapters take up seven of Austen’s novels—Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion, and Sanditon—in order to delineate changes in her appraisal of English society. Preceding these seven chapters is an introductory essay divided into four sections which lay groundwork for matters to which Tanner returns in his discussions of specific works. Beginning with a section called “Jane Austen and the Novel,” Tanner presents and then dismisses the conventional view of Austen as a remarkable but restricted novelist. He quotes her famous comments about “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush” and her interest in “three or four families in a country village,” and he cites the opinions of James and Ralph Waldo Emerson concerning Austen’s “narrowness,” only to assert what other readers have also discovered: that the “two-inch” view of Austen that she herself helped to perpetuate does not adequately account for her obvious awareness of the political, economic, and social conflicts from which her works arise. Even her heroines’ absorption in making good marriages, Tanner points out, reflects Austen’s broader concern with marriage and the family as basic social units.

In the second section of the introduction, “Jane Austen and Society,” Tanner offers an analysis of money and property as forces in Austen’s world. Austen, like many of her contemporaries, believed that the concept of the rule of property rested on the propriety—that is, the proper behavior—of the landed class. According to Tanner, Austen saw her society as threatened from within by the failure, on the part of landowners responsible for supporting and reinvigorating the social order, to provide a strong moral example. “Thus the ideal marriage at the end of a Jane Austen novel,” according to Tanner, “offers itself as an emblem of the ideal union of property and propriety—a model to be emulated, a paradigm for a more general combination of the two on which the future of her society depends.” In the introduction’s third section, “Jane Austen and Education,” Tanner briefly considers works by Lord Chesterfield, Edmund Burke, Thomas Gisborne, John Locke, and Thomas More to illuminate Austen’s emphasis on education, not as knowledge of facts and skills, but as the cultivation of wise conduct and prudent manners. The fourth section, on language, describes Austen’s diction and syntax, her use of dialogue and scene, and her sense of her audience to show that, taken as a whole, her novels move from acceptance, to skepticism, to rejection of the values implicit in the changing social milieu of early nineteenth century England. Although this material on language formally concludes the introduction, the next chapter, ostensibly on Northanger Abbey, also has an introductory quality, since it offers numerous useful generalizations about Austen’s work. There is no concluding chapter.

By far, the most impressive part of Tanner’s book is his commentary on Sense and Sensibility, a novel often faulted for its too-geometric assignment of sense to Elinor Dashwood and sensibility to her sister Marianne. Rejecting this rigidly dualistic view and drawing on Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization (1967), Tanner sees Sense and Sensibility as an examination of “the tensions between the potential instability of the individual and the required stabilities of society.” He asserts that the illness which overtakes Marianne when Willoughby jilts her is madness, a bona fide neurosis brought on by the necessary repression of powerful feelings. Maintenance of the society to which the Dashwood sisters belong requires adhering to forms, putting up screens, and even telling polite lies—all activities at which Elinor excels and which Marianne believes to be hypocritical. Through the contrasts between the two sisters, says Tanner, Austen bringsinto focus a problem right at the heart of that, or indeed any other, society: namely, how much of the individual’s inner world should be allowed to break out in the interests of personal vitality and psychic health; and how much should the external world be allowed to coerce and control that inner reality in the interests of maintaining a social structure which does provide meaningful spaces and definitions for the lives of its members?

Tanner suggests that the novel’s numerous references to eyes and vision show Austen’s exploration of the boundary between the inner and outer worlds, between consciousness and externality, while Marianne’s marriage to Colonel Brandon represents a sacrifice of her emotional energy to the “overriding geometry” of the novel and of the social forces that it depicts. Observing that the nonconforming Marianne is the ancestor of Cathy in Wuthering Heights (1847) and Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss (1860), Tanner persuasively argues that the conclusion of Sense and Sensibility is far more complex than it seems. His own conclusion, drawing on ideas he has subtly laid down in the course of the chapter, is a breathtaking example of his skill as a prose stylist.

Other particularly strong chapters are those on Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Sanditon. In all three cases, Tanner illuminates works that have not been as widely read or as enthusiastically appreciated as Pride and Prejudice and Emma have been. What is often a problem for readers of Mansfield Park—the extreme passivity and goodness of its Cinderella heroine, Fanny Price—becomes, in Tanner’s hands, a virtue absolutely essential to the larger purposes of a book which he considers “one of the most profound novels of the nineteenth century.” He demonstrates that modest, steady, humble Fanny is actually the moral center of Mansfield; the Bertrams, who should be assuming responsibility for moral leadership, abdicate in various ways, leaving their house vulnerable to the temptations represented by those attractive Londoners, Henry and Mary Crawford. With sensitive close readings of two key passages, the trip to Sotherton and the theatricals, Tanner explains that the book Austen said was about “ordination” is not only about a young clergymen’s entry into his profession but also depicts the reinstatement of order and authority in a family nearly destroyed by corruption from within as well as from without. Mansfield Park, says Tanner near the end of this beautifully constructed chapter, “is a book about the difficulty of preserving true moral consciousness amid the selfish manoeuvring and jostling of society.”

As for Persuasion and Sanditon, Tanner uses these novels to show that by the last years of her life, Austen had begun to question and even to reject values implicit in her earlier novels. The “rare autumnal magic” of Anne Elliot’s story is—Tanner’s wordplay here is characteristically witty and effective—“deeply shadowed by the passing of things, and the remembrance of things past.” Anne must learn romance, just as earlier heroines have had to learn prudence; she is emotionally constant, as Fanny Price is, while everything around her is changing or threatening to change. In Persuasion the locus of hospitality and familial affection has shifted from the landed gentry to the navy, from land to sea. As Tanner explains, “Society in the form of Sir Walter Elliot has become all empty self-regarding form and display; he has no sense of responsibility to his position, to the land, and it is significant that he rents his house to go and participate in the meaningless frivolities in Bath.” In his remarks on communication as a theme of Persuasion, Tanner again makes good use of close reading as he examines chapters 22 and 23, the expanded conclusion which replaced Austen’s original ending. The subject of this expansion—constancy in love—is particularly relevant to Tanner’s thesis. Anne’s constancy represents what is best in the old order, while the resort town of Sanditon, or “sandy-town,” which gives its name to Austen’s final fragmentary work, shows “the infiltration, if not invasion and colonisation, of the signs of a new consumer culture and fashion and leisure industry, into an older rural economy.” In Sanditon, activity and conversation are almost meaningless; health, sickness, and the sea itself have become commodities to be exploited for profit. In this final work, Tanner claims, Austen herself abdicates, and there is no authority, not even authorial authority. While it seems risky to base the conclusion of a book’s entire argument on an unrevised fragment, Tanner’s treatment of Sanditon is plausible in the context of his discussion as a whole.

The rewards of Tanner’s chapters on Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Sanditon must be balanced against relatively weak treatments of Pride and Prejudice and Emma and against distracting mannerisms in Tanner’s often admirable style. The chapter on Emma is especially disappointing, opening as it does with lengthy quotations from Otto Weininger’s misogynistic Sex and Character (1906), quotations which Tanner uses only to establish what even the most naïve reader can surely discern for himself: that Emma is a matchmaker. The stylistic weaknesses are in some ways more irritating than the substantive ones because they could so easily have been eliminated by careful editing. Tanner is fond of parentheses and of parentheses within parentheses; a single paragraph in the chapter on Emma boasts six pairs. The otherwise splendid chapter on Persuasion features five postponements of the “But-I-shall-return-to-that-subject-later” variety, three of them occurring in two pages. There are occasional lapses from syntactic clarity and even a who/whom mistake. Further, one sentence actually begins this way: “As far as my memory and my notes go, I think I am right in saying that. . . .” Although this sort of thing may be perfectly acceptable in a lecture, many readers will consider it unacceptable in print. These stylistic irritations are related to the more distressing matter of documentation. Readers who may wish to explore some of the many sources Tanner mentions will be hard pressed to locate specific passages, since Tanner provides no page numbers and in some cases no specific editions. While it is true that British and American conventions differ in certain respects and that Tanner has said that he is writing for the general reader, still, the absence of precise documentation is likely to frustrate the more scholarly members of his audience—and scholars there undoubtedly will be among his readers; no academician who refers with such ease to thinkers as diverse as David Hume, John Locke, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Roland Barthes, and Gaston Bachelard can expect to keep scholars away. These problems with style and documentation should have been solved before publication. Tanner’s and his editors’ failure to establish and maintain a clear, consistent relationship with the audience of Jane Austen seriously undermines a book which offers fascinating and occasionally brilliant readings of some of the finest novels in English.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13

Library Journal. CXI, October 15, 1986, p. 97.

The Library Review of Books. IX, February 5, 1987, p. 15.

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