Monday, August 13, 2018

The Perfection of Jane Austen

From The Imaginative Conservative:
Jane Austen wrote a perfect number of perfect novels. In the probable order of her last attention to them these six are: Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion. Their perfection, which I shall treat as given, presents at once an invitation and a difficulty. Devoted novel readers know that their attention is ever divided between the tale and their delight in its telling. And so, while reading, I find myself continually forming the question: Just what is so wonderful here? What is the essence of this perfection? But here arises the difficulty: It appears to be the nature of perfect works that they have no crevices by which to force an entry. Ordinarily, in dealing with an ostensibly truth-telling text, we bustle into it, we expound, expose, penetrate to something carefully secreted, decently hidden, unintended, or false. I wonder whether such burrowing is ever quite in harmony with the author’s hopes, except perhaps in the case of the Platonic dialogues. At any rate, confronted with these novels and ashamed to force unseemly entries, I am driven to the thought that their kind of perfection is impenetrable and has no obscure depth; that it presents a smooth, continuous plane, which is not a surface because it has no bidden center. These works repel the interpretative assault, whether it is attempted through a long siege of cyclical reading or in a straight dash through the six. And yet there is no escaping the insistent desire to lay hold of the essence of those novels, a desire which is really the wish to capture and fix their pleasure by an adequate reflection on its cause. But since a penetration of the novels seems to be a doomed undertaking—their essence apparently being that they have none—I thought I might satisfy myself by attempting merely to articulate and itemize the various perfections and felicities which make the novels what they are. (Read more.)

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