Friday, September 18, 2009

Jane Austen vs. Samuel Richardson

Damn. It is Sept 18.

It has been a busy month so far. Chapter 18 has not written itself, and no one else has appeared to write it, so I suppose I have to. I got several thousand words into it and then was unavoidably detained.

I have been slowly reading Pamela, though, in my spare time, and what a piece of work it is! First published in 1740, more than 30 years before Jane Austen was born, and a literary sensation in its day, it inspired Henry Fielding to write at least two parodies of it, Shamela and Joseph Andrews. (Tom Jones is in some sense also an answer to Pamela, though also much more, so that might be considered a third one.)

At the outset, I have to agree with Samuel Johnson, who said that you would hang yourself if you read Richardson for story. Clarissa keeps the suspense alive through hundreds of pages with its shifting points of view and deepening sense of foreboding and doom, but the reader has no such luck with Pamela. Once she comes back to Mr. B and agrees to marry him, her former would-be rapist, she spends many pages rejoicing in how happy she is and praying that she will be worthy enough for him. Great for her, but tedious reading, except as a reminder of the important lesson that conflict is the engine of plot. Once you have a happy ending, it is time to stop telling the story.

On the other hand, there are many interesting elements scattered like bread crumbs along the way. I am struck by how in both Pamela and Clarissa so much discussion and energy is expended on writing itself:

On paper and ink and quills and wafers hidden in various locations so they will not be found and confiscated, on letters concealed under stones and in walls and sewn in clothing against discovery. On letters stolen and forged. On the notion of writing as an act of self-assertion and even defiance by women, highly intelligent women in a society that seemed to place little value on intelligent women. What can he mean by it, I wonder as I read. What sort of person was he, really, to be so interested in such questions?

Richardson is also clearly obsessed with confinement, power (including the power of beauty) and rape. Here again, I cannot help wondering what sort of person he was. His personal demons seem to be left like smeary fingerprints all over his works.

And that is the big difference between him and Jane Austen, never mind all the other differences, because as many times as I read her, I can't really seem to find her. The challenge of being a clever woman surrounded by dolts; yes, it is reasonable to suppose she must have faced that problem, and it is one experienced by Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse and Anne Elliot in their different ways.

But to suppose that Jane Austen felt she was smarter than many people around her is not really a brilliant piece of literary detective work. What else? You search and come up empty. And you return wistfully, to the words of Virginia Woolf:

Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought, looking at ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA; and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare.

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