Friday, June 24, 2011

Rachel Brownstein's "Why Jane Austen?"

Rachel Brownstein is Professor of English at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center, CUNY.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Why Jane Austen?, and reported the following:
On page 99 of Why Jane Austen? the reader will find a wonderful little-known quotation from Walter Scott which neatly explodes the myth that Jane Austen published anonymously because she was a perfect lady who shrank from publicity that would embarrass her and her genteel family. Scott, whose novels appeared anonymously around the same time Austen’s did—they read one another—explains in the passage I quote that “the mental organization of the Novelist” is “characterized, to speak craniologically, by an extraordinary development of the passion for delitiscency,” using an appropriately obscure word for staying hidden and obscure. In other words, the desire to conceal the self is characteristic of the fiction writer. Throwing the voice, masquerading, and taking other actions that muddle the question of who the author is was part of the game of fiction in Austen’s and Scott’s day—as it was before they wrote, and still is in our own time.

Why Austen signed her first novel “By A Lady” (“Lady A” in one 1811 advertisement for Sense and Sensibility) is a question frequently raised and answered by critics obsessed with the novelist’s gender. Was she reticent, as ladies were taught to be? Was she deliberately pulling rank, or falsely suggesting she had it? Was she revealing for venal or other cynical motives only the fact that she was female? Is the implication—the implicit lesson for readers—that a proper lady is too guarded and oblique to sign her own name?

Looking back at his career as a novelist known only as The Great Unknown, Walter Scott begins to suggest that such solemn sociological matters are beside the point. His arch phrenological formulation is amusing, but his point is serious: it’s a matter of narrative strategy. The novelist, he claims, has a peculiar brain structure; another way to put it is to say a storyteller is a player. “But mine’s a bubble not blown up for praise/ But just to play with, as an infant plays,” Scott’s contemporary and fellow poet Lord Byron wrote apropos of his own epic story, Don Juan. Assuming a character, hiding behind it, is part of the art or craft or game of fiction.

At the top of page 99 I compare Jane Austen’s “A Lady” to “George Eliot,” the male pseudonym of the later novelist Mary Ann or Marian Evans, who privately called herself Mrs. Lewes. A pseudonym is a different kind of hiding place, more susceptible to literary-critical parsing, but also, and still, part of the great game of fiction.
Learn more about the book and author at Rachel M. Brownstein's website.

--Marshal Zeringue