Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Austen and transformation

Watercolor of Austen
Rohan Maitzen asks the question of whether Jane Austen is a romance novelist. I, not being in want of an opinion, answer....

Austen's landscape has always seemed to be far more treacherous and dangerous for a young woman than seems apt for a "romance novel" label. A young woman may fall very far, may plunge entirely out of her world. The stakes are far higher in Austen's books than any of our contemporary romances can attain, given the mainstream beliefs of our society.

Likewise, the meaning of the marriage plot in Austen is much grander than "romance novel" can convey. The pressing human question of how to live is, I find, often answered in Austen, and it is presented in the framework of the desire of men and women to become "one flesh." How strange that wish must often appear today, so unfashionable, so spiritual in nature! Yet clearly many, many people are still drawn by Austen.

With a sometimes-satiric pen, Austen offers a range of unions, from shattered or quietly failed to perfect, but a young woman (and her somewhat-less-young man) only makes it to perfect union by making mistakes and learning from them. On the way to her perfect marriage, Elizabeth Bennett turns down both an offer of pedantry and silliness and an offer of wealth and increased reputation; she learns about her own errors of discernment, and she changes, as does her future husband, Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, each one schooled by the other and by the painful results of mistaken ideas.

In the course of events, both Lizzie and Darcy are forced to contemplate what it means for a life to hold truth and virtue, and by the time they do marry, the reader is quite sure that both have increased in understanding. They have each become more generous and more clear-eyed about what is true beauty and goodness. They come together without anger, without scorn for the one of less wealth and standing or the one who is less socially adept, without conceit, without impediments of conventional thought. Each sees the other clearly. They are at last ready for a marriage.

Austen's books possess heroines who are coming to wholeness and seizing the great transcendentals of truth and goodness within a certain societal framework--one that is relentless in its demands and sometimes cruel--the need of genteel (though lively) Christian gentlewomen to marry and so find a safe place in the world. The novels are alchemical vessels of transformation and coming to knowledge. Their heroines are learning how to live and contemplating the promise of becoming one with another human being, their struggles set in a world where most unions don't work, and most people don't know how to live.

23 comments:

  1. Yes indeed! But I would say that all romance novels are attempting the same: it's just that most of their answers are prefab and facile. How do you live? If you find the right person, will he help you through the gates into a new world? I think those are the perennial questions of the romance novel. Austen just gives better answers than most.

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    1. I don't know. The mainstream has changed so much. We have so many thinkers who don't believe in goodness or in right or wrong. How to live well and do right no longer seems a focus for young men and women.

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    2. Oh, maybe they call it that less often, but I think it's still what they're trying to work out.

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    3. I suppose--guess I'm just tired of some of the fashionable modes of being. Fogeydom is with me!

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  2. Very interesting response! I agree with you especially about the different scope of Austen's questions and answers about marriage. (You will have seen from my post that my own answer to that question is also "no.") I am trying to think about how (else) to differentiate her novels from today's popular romance novels without simply dismissing the latter as poor or "facile" imitations, though. I really don't think (based on my own reading in the genre to this point, as well as on the studies of it that I've been reading) that most romance novelists today are trying to do the same thing Austen is doing and failing -- that's one of the reasons I think it's misleading to simply lump them all in together. They are working with different aims and conventions, within a formula (like all "genre fiction") to be sure, but using that formula to explore and experiment, as mystery novelists do with their formula.

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    1. Yes, I liked your post.

      I can't see how they could possibly be trying to do the same thing as Austen--we barely live in the same world as genteel Englishwomen of that era! What other choice did they have? And what is it that romance novelists are trying to achieve now? I suppose you will tell us, along the way!

      I hate to think that people read Austen solely for the romance. But if they read her, they are reading some wonderful books--wonderful for all sorts of reasons.

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    2. So what is your explanation of historical romance, much of which is set in Regency England?

      I agree that Austen is doing something different, although I'm not sure if the love story/marriage plot is equal to and running in tandem with her wider objectives or is simply the vehicle for exploring them.

      I think for me the main differences are the genre romance's intense focus on the arc of the relationship to the point where it can seem claustrophobic compared to non-genre novels like Austen's and the extent to which genre romance eschews realism in favor of a wish fulfillment fantasy that consoles rather than taxes the reader. Of course, novels within the romance genre span a spectrum in both regards; they're not all one or the other, but they lack the detachment and irony all of Austen's novels are imbued with, instead opting for a sometimes painful sincerity.

      Which leaves me with the following question: Why is reading about relationships that are tested and often broken but eventually succeed so important to so many women, yet unimportant to the vast majority of men? (I am totally ignoring gay and lesbian romance here for the sake of simplicity, but I believe they do slightly different work and are still outnumbered in terms of numbers published, sales/readership, and general influence.)

      -lawless

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    3. So what is your explanation of historical romance, much of which is set in Regency England?

      I agree that Austen is doing something different, although I'm not sure if the love story/marriage plot is equal to and running in tandem with her wider objectives or is simply the vehicle for exploring them.

      I think for me the main differences are the genre romance's intense focus on the arc of the relationship to the point where it can seem claustrophobic compared to non-genre novels like Austen's and the extent to which genre romance eschews realism in favor of a wish fulfillment fantasy that consoles rather than taxes the reader. Of course, novels within the romance genre span a spectrum in both regards; they're not all one or the other, but they lack the detachment and irony all of Austen's novels are imbued with, instead opting for a sometimes painful sincerity.

      Which leaves me with the following question: Why is reading about relationships that are tested and often broken but eventually succeed so important to so many women, yet unimportant to the vast majority of men? (I am totally ignoring gay and lesbian romance here for the sake of simplicity, but I believe they do slightly different work and are still outnumbered in terms of numbers published, sales/readership, and general influence.)

      -lawless

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    4. I can't say that I've read Regency romances, although last year I did read (because Ellen Kushner kept talking about it and won me over) Heyer's "The Convenient Marriage" (Georgian, I think, but evidently similar in mode to her Regency books.) And that one, to me, felt kindred to Wodehouse's Edwardian tales--full of the right period stuff and sharp slang but more a kind of clever, lively fantasy than an historical novel.

      Perhaps this is terrible for me to say (having written some books set in the past), but I find a great number of books that are labeled "historical" are actually books about our contemporaries in fancy dress. The swords and gowns may be right, and the lingo, but the thoughts and worldview and liberal stances feel contemporary. I have even found this to be so in award-winning novels.

      I can't say whether those tendencies are true of historical romances in general, not having ventured there But they are true of many books.

      Your second question is also interesting, though I think you may have answered it yourself in the prior paragraph. That is, "intense focus on the arc of the relationship to the point where it can seem claustrophobic" may not be so pleasing to men. Perhaps such a story would find more male readers if more mixed with topics they have found compelling in the past? I'm just guessing. But just as women are said to often complain that men don't like to listen to talk about relationships (particularly their own), so men may not care to hear about the nitty-gritty detail of a relationship in a story.

      Of course, there's also the business of marketing and jackets. An Orange Prize survey some years back found that men tend to be allergic to jackets perceived as feminine. And book marketing can be tilted in different directions if a novel has a mix of subject matter (rather as the Harry Potter novels were given adult covers for adult buyers.)

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    5. ummm; socialization and cultural brain-washing and money. which jesuit priest was it that said, "give me a child under six years of age and he's mine forever". cynical, but true in large measure, i think...

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    6. Evidently there's a big argument about who said it, and it's a bit like something from Proverbs (and something from Lenin, for that matter!)

      I expect boy socialization does insist on not liking pink jackets and too much relationship chat, but is there more?

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    7. yes: the whole gamut of relating to peers, establishing territory, defense, domination, leadership (also known as intimidation), competition, killer instincts (aka corporate values); rarely, more positive traits, cooperation, kindness, understanding, helpfulness (the latter are quite rare). all ingrained before the age of six. or even younger... creating your average, "balanced" human...

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    8. So how does all that related to what books are read?

      Mudpuddle, you must have been raised in a sweeter way because you always seem a kindly sort!

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    9. see mr. mud blushing with index finger in cheek...

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  3. JA wrote about romance because there was little else on the immediate horizon and science-fiction hadn't yet been invented. She was also a comedy-of-manners novelist who needed characters to animate that abstraction. The "facts" of her plots are remarkably similar and I suspect that didn't worry her in the slightest; all she needed was a plausible skeleton (sorry about the mixed metaphor) on which to hang those facts. Thence she went on to manipulate this tiny range of events with great skill and to generate - against all the odds - genuine narrative tension.

    Although I as a reader require those facts as proof of movement within her novels, I don't re-read them for their plots. I suspect she had contemporaries who were just as adept in that matter. I read her for her detachment and her ability to recognise irony. She is both within and without her stories, present at the balls but not dancing, sitting round the dinner tables not talking but listening, conceivably loving Mr Bennet as a fictional surrogate for her own parents yet noticing Mr B's casual cruelty. Recognising irony is a two-stage process and not everyone is so gifted. It also exists over time: a whole book-length in the case of P&P when the mighty, untouchable Superman that is Darcy is felled like a common sapling by qualities he imagined he himself possessed. There's irony.

    The phrase "romance novelist" is - I hesitate here - more American than British. Shooting from the hip I guess we'd say "romantic novelist" which is, of course, something of a misnomer but who cares? The term is at least half-pejorative, a work of limited aims. Something for the eng.lit. freshmen: Is Gone With The Wind a Romance Novel? On that basis JA is much more than a romance novelist.

    A more pressing question: was JA equipped to write, say, The Naked And The Dead? From an attitudinal point of view I'd say yes. All she'd lack was more facts and more experience. However, sensible author that she was she was, she'd have preferred to stay home and refine her skills.

    A comment still in the Roderick mode.

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    1. I'd probably like to hear her characters talk inside any sort of skeleton, as that's one of my favorite things about her, along with the colliding of various complex levels of knowing and knowingness on the part of characters. Yes, I like that sort of artful twist and moebius band shape where, as you say, Darcy is felled "by qualities he imagine he himself possessed." That's a clever way to put it.

      Interesting that "romance novelist" belongs on this side of the water. The genres do seem to band together and acquire their own labels and lingo and conventions. Is it self-protection? An attempt to nurture in the face of a country feels too big and too careless of its writers? I know a lot of people who are assiduous con-goers (mostly sf/f/h writers encountered after writing a couple of Southern fantasies for my then-fantasy-obsessed daughter) and find it a supportive way to navigate life as a writer. I've never been to one, but there's a huge amount of interest in and enthusiasm for them.

      In the background of Austen novels, there is often a place of ruination and slaughter: the case of Col. Brandon's ward, Miss Williams, say, or the ruined Maria of Mansfield Park being stowed away in cottage hell with Mrs. Norris. Then there are the unsuccessful marriages--that is, most marriages, which can be cruel and soul-killing (General and Mrs. Tilney) or mismatches (Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Mr. Palmer and Charlotte Palmer seem kin to them but perhaps a happier couple with alone--haven't read "Sense and Sensibility" in quite a while.) So I don't know; maybe there's already enough behind-scenes destruction and misery to compose a domestic "The Naked and the Dead."

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    2. what's the difference between irony and paradox?

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    3. Hmm, that's a Mudpuddle-muddle question. Not sure I'll be good at answering.

      If you mean in a literary sense, as a rhetorical device, then surely irony runs back to the Greeks and drama, where the audience experiences dramatic irony when realizing a great deal more about a character's words than a character can know (at least at that point in a tale.) I think that Oedipus's search for answers is probably the best-known example of Greek dramatic irony. The audience knows who has killed Oedipus's father (and who has married his own mother), but Oedipus does not--and neither do a lot of other people.

      And when a writer uses paradox as a rhetorical device, he/she brings together contradictory ideas or images in order to reveal a truth or truths. A very well-known example: The first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

      So they are related... And if you talk about situational paradox (rather than verbal paradox), maybe that's getting pretty close.

      Of course, there are lots of other ways to talk about irony and paradox, less literary ways.

      Okay, that's a stab at it.

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  4. tx for your trouble; appreciate it, but i can see that both terms are probably used in not very precise ways; understandable, because that sort of situation is not very precise. i wonder what writerly rules govern which of them in which situation one is depicted wherever it's not the one one would want. yes, have to give that some thought...

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    1. Well, perhaps you should write your own definitions!

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  5. i see i need to pay a bit more attention to my typing; the above comment is not saying exactly what i meant. maybe the trouble is i don't know enough to express an opinion. i've tried a number of times to read Jane, but never been successful; don't know why, really; maybe not knowing enough about the literary skeleton of such works is the problem. that, or not paying attention...

    full desert moon -
    a black moth flits lightly
    over shadowed rocks

    or

    after surfacing,
    the motion - free salamander
    sinks out of sight

    that's how i feel, sort of...

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    1. I am always so satisfied when someone leaves a poem (or two) as explanation. Good cheer!

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.