Contents Index

The Poets, the Novelists, and the English Romantic Situation

L. J. Swingle

The Wordsworth Circle, 10 (1979), 218-28

{218} Some students of the Romantic period think a concept of English Romanticism that cannot take the novelists of the period into significant account must be a superficial conception. If our notion of Romanticism does not mean Scott, and even Jane Austen, as well as Wordsworth and Shelley, then we are in critical difficulty. But more traditional Romanticists think we are in difficulty if our notion starts meaning Scott, and especially Jane Austen. For them, Romanticism is predominantly an affair of Romantic poets; and they view a quest after Romanticism in novel territory as almost nonsensical, and maybe corrupt. It looks suspiciously like another twitch of the recent fad for making Romanticism mean so much that (Lovejoy resartus) it means nothing much at all.

This opposition may account partially for frequently muddled and unsound discussions. When each side knows it is right and its opposition consists of either fogeys or fools, then serious discussion may appear almost useless or unnecessary. Thus one encounters, for example, arguments that Scott is not Romantic because he likes to dramatize the dispelling of "romantic" dreams; similarly, Jane Austen is supposed to be un-Romantic because she too explodes illusions, or because she exhibits Anne Elliot in Persuasion warning Benwick about the danger of enjoying Romantic poems too much. But no serious student of Romanticism, aware of Coleridge's person on business from Porlock and of Keats's struggles with his demon Poesy, could manage to take such arguments seriously. On the other side, one finds arguments that Scott is Romantic because of his considerable interest in description of place and natural phenomena, and, similarly, that the later Jane Austen is becoming Romantic at least because of her increasing interest in nature. Here again, however, no serious Romanticist -- aware of Pope and Thomson, and knowing that a thesis propounding "Romantic love of Nature" would never find a home in print today -- could manage to take such arguments seriously.

Those particular attributional arguments are feeble. The more fundamental problem, however, may be that all attributional arguments on the issue ultimately become feeble. Setting the novelists of the period next to a checklist of presumed Romantic attributes (Romanticism is spontaneity; love of nature; belief in Imagination; "X"; "Y" . . .) creates trouble, whatever those attributes may be. How many attributes must a given novelist exhibit to qualify for being Romantic? If a novelist exhibits one attribute on the list, but also exhibits attributes that seem contrary to other attributes on the list, what then? Ultimately, of course, one faces the hard question: whose checklist can command enough common assent to make the procedure viable in the first place? Such attributional inquiry, in other words, dissolves rapidly into the muddle. One recent line of thought in Romantic studies suggests that we should understand Romanticism, not as some given system of belief and value expressing itself in a fixed series of attributes, but rather as an intellectual situation that provokes a variety of related but different literary responses.1 To be Romantic is to share, not a common body of conclusions, but a common starting point. This starting point yields common issues, problems, {219} types of questioning; and these find literary expression in common patterns of response, the particular contents of which are not necessarily related. Thus the fact that one artist opts for the city and another for the country, that one celebrates propriety and another spontaneity -- these things alone tell us very little about who is Romantic and who is not. What matters are the literary patterns that underlie the options, and the intellectual situation that underlies those patterns.

Pursuing this view of Romanticism, I think we find that the principal novelists of the Romantic period belong within the Romantic company. As prejudices, however, tend to inhibit inquiry, and as the term "Romantic" stirs many prejudices, I will rephrase my proposition. In the following pages, I explore an intellectual situation and some of the more conspicuous literary patterns that arise from it -- which situation and patterns are shared by principal poets and novelists of the Romantic period. In the final pages of the essay, I discuss Jane Austen at some length, since she is generally considered least inclined to exhibit significant relations with her contemporaries.2

As the old commonplace about a "Romantic quest for unity" reminds us, issues concerning union play a large role in poetry of the Romantic period. Issues concerning union also recur significantly in the novels of the period. Jane Austen's Emma concludes with the phrase, "the perfect happiness of the union." The narrative action of Scott's Old Mortality also concludes with union: "Lord Evandale, taking their hands in his, pressed them both affectionately, united them together, raised his face, as if to pray for a blessing on them, and sunk back and expired in the next moment" (chap. 44). This recurrence is not attributable simply to the conventional notions about how a novel should end. Jane Austen and Scott have been playing variations on the theme of union throughout their novels. Emma, for example, opens with the heroine seeming "to unite some of the best blessings of existence" (p. 5); and in Old Mortality we find Henry Morton yearning for "the union of the good, wise, and moderate of all parties" (chap. 25). This reference to "parties" reminds one of how the Act of Union between England and Scotland underlies the surface, and sometimes dominates the surface, of so much of Scott's fiction. The later union between England and Ireland has equal importance for Maria Edgeworth's fiction: "It is a problem of difficult solution," we find her musing in Castle Rackrent, her first novel, "to determine whether a union will hasten or retard the amelioration of this country" (Norton ed., p. 70). References to union in the period carry large burdens of association. One of these burdens is metaphysical. In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, for example, the creature laments to his creator: "the human senses are insurmountable barriers to our union" (chap. 17).

As this passage from Frankenstein suggests, the notion that the Romantics themselves were aiming at unity looks like a confused hypothesis. Mary Shelley presents a dramatic character who quests after unity; but she herself is submitting that quest to analysis, and exploring the barriers that this quest brings to light.3 This distinction has general application. Romantic literary art reflects not a quest for unity on the part of the literary artist, but rather an artistic preoccupation with analysis of such quests. Hence much of the literature of the period deals, finally, with the persistence of barriers. In the concluding sentence of Frankenstein, the creature is "borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance." In Wordsworth's The Excursion, the Solitary remains solitary at the conclusion of the poem: he takes "the slender {220} path that leads / To the one cottage in the lonely vale" (IX, 773-74). In Keats's Ode to a Nightingale, it is the speaker who remains solitary, tolled back from the bird "to my sole self"; and here the bird is lost in distance. One could argue, presumably, that the Romantics were failed questers; but that is like arguing that The Taming of the Shrew proves Shakespeare to be a failed advocate of Women's Rights.

Among works of the Romantic period that do bring their principals together, what is interesting and significant is the dramatic context in which the artists recurrently present those unions. As distinct from the culminating union in such eighteenth-century works as Tom Jones -- wherein "there is not a neighbor, a tenant, or a servant who doth not most gratefully bless the day when Mr. Jones was married to his Sophia" -- achieved unions of the Romantic period tend to take place in contexts of division that expose barriers. Emma and Mr. Knightley find the perfect happiness of their union within a "small band of true friends" (Emma, p. 484); and just outside that little circle stands Mrs. Elton, sniffing disparagingly at the simplicity of the wedding. Anne Elliot's union with Captain Wentworth in Persuasion is associated with an even smaller circle: "their marriage, instead of depriving her of one friend, secured her two" (p. 251). In Old Mortality, Henry Morton and Edith are brought together, not within a celebratory union of all parties, but rather within the context of a death of other parties. Burley is dead; Lord Evandale is dying; and Scott employs the circle-of-friends motif to mark a stark contrast. Henry and Edith are united inside a circle of lament: "he was soon surrounded by his lamenting friends" (chap. 44). In the Romantic period, literary representations of unions tend to direct attention toward the divisions with which a given union is associated or of which the union itself is productive. The union of one party involves separation from other parties.

Small dramatic patterns in Wordsworth and Jane Austen are nicely illustrative. In The Excursion: "--Forth we went, / And down the vale along the streamlet's edge / Pursued our way, a broken company, / Mute or conversing, single or in pairs" (IX, 433-36; emphasis mine). It is not simply isolation but also the formation of "pairs" that produces "a broken company." During the Box Hill excursion in Emma: "They separated too much into parties. The Eltons walked together; Mr. Knightley took charge of Miss Bates and Jane; and Emma and Harriet belonged to Frank Churchill. And Mr. Weston tried, in vain, to make them harmonize better" (p. 367). A similar episode of party division occurs in Persuasion: "Every thing now marked out Louisa for Captain Wentworth. . . . In a long strip of meadow-land, where there was ample space for all, they were thus divided -- forming three distinct parties" (p. 90). Such "parties," of course, represent embryonic unions; but Jane Austen's language directs us to think about the divisions they create.

This interest in barriers and in the divisionary nature of union itself is one function of the almost obsessive preoccupation with contrarieties in the Romantic period. Blake claims that Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it" -- which is principally interesting, not because Milton would have claimed to belong to the Angels, but because Milton would have been disturbed by the underlying assumptions of Blake's language. Behind Blake's reference to the Devil's "party" lies an orientation of mind fundamentally different from Milton's: it implies that the distinction between Heaven and Hell is not really a distinction between the real and the unreal or the true and the false, but simply one between two contrary "parties," two basically different {221} systems of thought or shared assumptions concerning the true and the false. When Milton invoked the "Heavenly Muse" at the commencement of Paradise Lost, he did not think of himself as simply subscribing to one party platform, as opposed to a contrary party platform. But that is Blake's reading of the issue; and which party Milton really was in sympathy with is a corollary issue. For Blake, the mind operates within a context of multiple and contrary systems of thought; and the mind's attraction to some given system, therefore, involves not simply union but also division, the mind's withdrawal from some other possible system of thought. What looks like illumination and height to one party will look like darkness and depth to some contrary party; and each view will appear valid within each system: "It indeed appeared to Reason as if Desire was cast out; but the Devil's account is, that the Messiah fell, & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss" (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plates 5-6).

This orientation of mind exhibits itself most dramatically in Blake, perhaps, but it is a common property of the age. We hold these truths to be self-evident -- but this suggests that someone else out there is busy holding other truths equally self-evident. Basic questions of truth and value in the Romantic period, accordingly, tend to find expression as "party" issues, involving dramatic confrontation between representatives of different stages of life, different stations in life, different cultural affiliations, or even different ontological classifications. In The Idiot Boy, for example, Wordsworth sets Johnny off against Betty Foy; and he then lets Johnny's answer to Betty -- "The cocks did crow to-whoo, to-whoo, / And the sun did shine so cold" -- reveal to us that the distinction here may not be between Johnny's non-sense and Betty's sense, but rather between two fundamentally different systems of sense. Romantic literature plays many variations upon this pattern: the human mind and a Grecian Urn in Keats; the customs of an Englishman and those of an Irishman in Maria Edgeworth; Tyrell and Falkland in Godwin's Caleb Williams. Since each "party" differs from the other at the axiomatic level, as it were, each can make good sense to itself, but not to the other. One encounters repeated allusion to this intellectual situation in novels of the Romantic period. In Caleb Williams, Godwin has Tyrell say to Falkland: "'One man thinks one way, and another man thinks another'" (I, chap. 4). In The Fortunes of Nigel, Scott gives a similar speech to Nigel: "'Old men and young men, men of the sword and men of peaceful occupation, always have thought, always will think differently on such subjects'" (chap. 29). Admiral Croft verges on this perception in Persuasion: "'Ay, so it always is, I believe. One man's ways may be as good as another's, but we all like our own best'" (p. 127). And Emma crosses the border into it: "'One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other'" (Emma, p. 81).

The evolution of this intellectual situation can be traced back along several lines in the eighteenth century. Later eighteenth-century mathematical theory, for example, appears to have been flirting with development of a non-Euclidean geometry (see Richard Olson, "Scottish Philosophy and Mathematics, 1750-1830," JHI, 32 [1971], 29-44). Closer to the familiar territory of the literary imagination, however, were popular developments in critical theory during the century. Henry Brooke's The Fool of Quality drew the following response from the Critical Review: "To criticize in the terms of art upon this novel would be as absurd as to condemn a Chinese landscape for not being drawn according to the principles of architecture and perspective" (22 [1766], 204). One notes here that "principles" have begun to multiply and divide; and {222} a quantity that is perceived to accord ill with a familiar set of principles thus becomes a candidate for appreciation in accordance with some alternative set of principles. One thinks of how fertile a ground the later eighteenth century was for the cultivation of principles: essays on "Principles of . . .," and especially "First Principles of . . .," become a significant intellectual pastime. Burke's famous definition of "party" in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770) also comes to mind: "Party is a body of men united for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed" (The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke [1866], I, 530). Principles are becoming a pool of alternative possibilities, a place to shop, wherein an indefinite number of "men united" can find "some" particular principle around which to form divisionary unions.

Discussion of the "gothic" phenomenon was a popular critical ground for positing and exploring alternative principles. In Bishop Hurd's Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762): "When an architect examines a Gothic structure by Grecian rules, he finds nothing but deformity. But the Gothic architecture has its own rules, by which when it comes to be examined, it is seen to have its own merit, as well as the Grecian" (Letter VIII). Given some forty years, this notion develops into the elaborate systematic thinking of Schlegel's 1808 Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature: "A very slight attention will convince us, that the Gothic architecture displays not only an extraordinary degree of mechanical skill, but also a marvellous power of invention; and, on a closer examination, we recognize its profound significance, and perceive that as well as the Grecian it constitutes in itself a complete and finished system" (trans. J. Black, rev. Rev. A. J. W. Morrison [1846], p. 23. The passage appears in Lecture I). In the Romantic period, as I have tried to show, it begins to appear that such thinking might be applied universally. If the Grecian and the Gothic are not to be bound by the same laws, then why bind any two apparently different types of quantities? "One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression," concludes Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If the Greeks and the Goths each have their independent systems, then why not also the little cottage girls as well as the masters? The Irish as well as the English? Perhaps even the seemingly degenerate Italians? -- Thus Byron on Italy: "Their system has it's rules -- and it's fitnesses -- and decorums -- so as to be reduced to a kind of discipline -- or game at hearts" (Byron's Letters and Journals, ed. L. A. Marchand [1973-], VII, 43). If one pursues such thinking, then the True, Good, and Beautiful begin to look as if they may be meaningful only within the limits of some particular party, and questions on those issues may resolve themselves, therefore, into questions of relative party strength.

This intellectual situation has threatening implications, starkly captured in the bleak humor of Coleridge's anecdote in chapter 12 of the Biographia: "'I asserted that the world was mad,' exclaimed poor Lee, 'and the world said, that I was mad, and confound them, they outvoted me.'" One literary response is to become preoccupied with Solitaries -- Byron's Manfred, Godwin's Caleb, Wordsworth's Solitary, Scott's Black Dwarf -- through whom one can probe situations in which the individual is surrounded by a world that outvotes him, testing the power of the mind to be a party unto itself. Some few works of the period toy optimistically with the possibility of one mind outvoting the multitude; but most seem doubtful. Accordingly, emphasis tends to fall on the search of the mind for a "friend," its dream of enclosing itself in a circle of like selves, its struggle to gather a party of its own. Thus {223} Scott's Black Dwarf: "He comforted himself, that, at the expiry of his imprisonment, he could form with his wife a society, encircled by which he might dispense with more extensive communication with the world. He was deceived . . ." (The Black Dwarf, chap. 15). Mary Shelley dramatizes similar pursuits in Frankenstein. In a world of intellectual indeterminacy, we find human beings forming parties of shared "opinion," as when Elizabeth unites with Frankenstein on the issue of Justine's innocence: "I know, I feel, she was innocent; you are of the same opinion, and that confirms me" (chap. 9); but we see Frankenstein's creature, like Scott's Black Dwarf, dreaming in vain of enrolling members in his own party: "I resolved to return to the cottage, seek the old man, and by my representations win him to my party" (chap. 16).

Behind these pursuits of "party" lies the speculation, peculiarly attractive to the Romantic period, that union of as few as two individuals may be sufficient to constitute a "kind," or "race," or "species" of its own. For such speculation, union of a male and female holds obvious attractions. If Frankenstein's creature can find a mate, Prometheus an Asia -- Adam an Eve -- then their union might itself constitute (or, if not that, then produce) a complete and finished system. Two entities of the same peculiar construction make a "Gothic," perhaps? Therefore, the period exhibits preoccupation with divisionary, but still shared divisionary experience. For example, when Wordsworth dramatizes the mind turning toward "chearful faith" in the climactic section of Tintern Abbey, two things are significant. It is important that the "I" becomes "we," as the mind gathers to itself a "dearest Friend" and renders this faith a shared proposition: "Our chearful faith, that all which we behold / Is full of blessings" (ll. 133-34). But the attempt here is not, as some critics think, thereby to render this faith suggestive of a universal proposition. Quite the reverse: equally important is the reference in the same passage to "evil tongues, / Rash judgments" and the "sneers of selfish men" (ll. 128-29). A tension is posited between "our" faith and the contrary thinking of an opposition party. And the aim here is not to assert that our faith is universal or objectively valid; it is rather to propose that in a situation of intellectual indeterminacy this faith can become and remain true for us, impervious to assault by parties outside our small circle. James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner teases the mind with epistemological variations on this pattern, as when we find Mrs. Logan asserting to her companion that "if you and I believe that we see a person, why, we do see him. Whose word, or whose reasoning can convince us against our own senses?" (Norton ed., p. 78). This proposition is not that seeing a person means that he objectively exists; rather it is that in seeing him we do see him. He is there for us; and this truth-for-us cannot be shaken by any contrary word or reasoning that exists beyond ourselves.

Underlying the preoccupation of the period with divisionary unions, then, are issues concerning the behavior of parties forming, or seeking to maintain, divisionary systems of truth. One question that can follow from such issues, of course, concerns whether or how one might discover which truths are somehow "really" true, or, more subtly, which truths finally "ought" to be maintained. But such issues can also foster -- and in the Romantic period they tend to foster -- a quite different inclination of thought: ambition to inquire, not into the possible Truth beyond truths or into the moral imperative, but rather into the distinctive natures of different things. Thus Wordsworth in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads proposes inquiry into "the primary laws," not of the universal Nature of Things, but rather "of our nature" (emphasis mine). If {224} we study how our minds work, how our processes of mental association bind together truths-for-us, we can learn something not about the Truth of our truths but about ourselves, what we are. More generally, behavior of an individual or a party in some situation of divisionary truth -- attraction toward one truth and rejection of (or inability to comprehend) an alternative truth -- offers a means of investigating the particular nature of that individual or party. This inquiry as to the distinctive natures of different things explains why particular mental orientations or crucial turns of thought in the literature of the period are frequently marked by some kind of "species" identification. Probably the most dramatic example occurs in Frankenstein, when the title character -- after wavering between opposed truth-possibilities in a manner that recalls Scott's Edward Waverley -- finally finds himself (literally) in identification with his own species: "'My duties towards the beings of my own species,'" he tells Walton, "'had greater claims to my attention because they included a greater proportion of happiness or misery'" (chap. 24). Frankenstein's conclusion has been building up through the course of the novel, signalled not merely by the creature's earlier reference to the barrier of the human senses, but by a whole texture of key allusions to "race," "species," the "human" -- for example, "and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation" (chap. 4). The issue of Frankenstein is not Truth (who is "right," the creature or creator?), nor is it moral judgment (as in the popular misconception that Frankenstein should have "taken responsibility" for his creation). Mary Shelley's novel is a study in human definition, a probing of what we are and what we are not. As my allusion to Waverley suggests, Scott exhibits similar preoccupations. For example, when Scott drops Henry Morton into the conflict between Covenant and Crown in Old Mortality, he marks Morton as the representative of "natural humanity": "'I own I should strongly doubt the origin of any inspiration which seemed to dictate a line of conduct contrary to those feelings of natural humanity, which Heaven has assigned to us as the general law of our conduct'" (chap. 6). Like a Wordsworth pursuing primary laws of our nature, Scott aims at probing this "law" of natural humanity, as it exhibits itself in distinctions between Morton's behavior and the behavior of parties owning other laws: "'Thou are yet,'" says Burley to Morton, "'in the court of the Gentiles, and I compassionate thy human blindness and frailty'" (chap. 17; emphasis mine). One is reminded of Frankenstein's creature lamenting the limits of the human senses. Scott's aim, like Mary Shelley's, is analytic: by bringing different natures into confrontation, one can plot the barriers that both separate and give those natures definition. Scott's remark to Southey about what is interesting in the history of colonies is suggestive: "the extremes of civilized and savage life are suddenly and strongly brought into contact with each other and the results are as interesting to the moral observer as those which take place on the mixture of chemical substances are to the physical investigator" (Letters, ed. H. J. C. Grierson [1932-37], V, 115).

The "investigator," one notes, is a "moral observer," not a moralizer. When he mixes his substances, it is not in order to prescribe a good medicine, but in order to study with almost scientific detachment the natures of substances. The poets of the period are similarly analytic. When Wordsworth in the "Elegiac Stanzas" dramatizes his turn from the imagined picture of Peele Castle toward Beaumont's picture, he characterizes the accompanying "nature" of his mental shift: he is now a "humanized . . . Soul," no longer living "at distance from the Kind" (ll. 36, 54). And the point, accordingly, is not that Beaumont's picture is more true to the nature of Nature; it is, rather, more {225} true-for-us. It accords with our human nature, and helps define us to ourselves. Keats's "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is also marked with a species identification. Before Keats lets us hear that famous assertion, he carefully marks its source as "a friend to man." The Urn is friendly but it is not human. The circles it speaks in lie outside and help to define the nature of our human circle of woe and generation.

Jane Austen's novels exhibit some characteristic signs of the intellectual situation I have been describing. In Emma, Mr. Woodhouse is described as a man "never able to suppose that other people could feel differently from himself" (p. 8). This captures succinctly one of the fundamental tensions from which Jane Austen's art derives its dramatic force. Her characters occupy a world in which people do in fact "feel differently," our supposedly common human nature exhibiting a propensity to breed uncommonly different natures within itself. In such a world "a truth universally acknowledged" hardly can get stated before it is lost in a welter of contrary mental orientations, as the famous opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice makes clear. It is also a world, however, in which the characters (sometimes despite themselves) are unable to suppose others could feel differently from them. Thus Edmund in Mansfield Park speaks to Fanny about Mary Crawford: "'I do not consider her as meaning to wound my feelings. The evil lies yet deeper; in her total ignorance, unsuspiciousness of there being such feelings, in a perversion of mind which made it natural to her to treat the subject as she did. She was speaking only, as she had been used to hear others speak, as she imagined every body else would speak'" (p. 456). Thus Mr. Knightley speaks to Emma about Frank Churchill: "Natural enough -- his own mind full of intrigue, that he should suspect it in others" (Emma, p. 446). Although one is tempted to consider that such inability to perceive differences in other people is characteristic only of the apparent perverts in Jane Austen, one finds Mr. Knightley himself, "a sensible man" (p. 9), arguing with Emma about Frank Churchill: "'Depend upon it, Emma, a sensible man would find no difficulty in it. He would feel himself in the right . . . Respect for right conduct is felt by every body. If he would act in this sort of manner, on principle, consistently, regularly, their little minds would bend to his'" (p. 147; emphasis mine). Emma's beautifully moderate response, "I rather doubt that," invites us both to smile and catch the serious point: the sensible Mr. Knightley cannot perceive that "every body" might not feel sensibly, like himself. Mr. Woodhouse, in other words, is only an extreme manifestation of a normal human condition in Jane Austen: he differs from other characters only in the absolute impenetrability of his nature.

One of Jane Austen's primary literary preoccupations is with confrontation and interaction among characters who feel differently, but who do not immediately (and sometimes never) recognize that they are operating within contrary systems of thought. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Elizabeth is suddenly confronted with the fact, incomprehensible to her, that Charlotte Lucas intends to marry Mr. Collins: "'It is unaccountable! in every view it is unaccountable'" (p. 135). Elizabeth's "in every view" is a warning signal, recalling that human passion for truths universally acknowledged which the novel's opening pages has already exhibited to be inapplicable to experience itself. Jane gently suggests: "'You do not make allowance enough for difference of situation and temper'" (p. 135). This exchange recalls other, similar exchanges in Jane Austen -- for example, Emma and Mr. Knightley's argument over Frank Churchill's behavior: after Mr. Knightley has propounded his own version {226} of universals, Emma counters, "'But you have not an idea of what is requisite in situations directly opposite to your own'" (Emma, p. 147). Here in Pride and Prejudice, as in Emma, the universalist continues arguing by reaching out to an assertion of common "feeling": "'You must feel, as well as I do,'" Elizabeth insists to Jane, "'that the woman who marries him cannot have a proper way of thinking'" (p. 135). It is interesting here that Elizabeth does not reach out to "every body," as Mr. Knightley does, but only to Jane. Like Mary Shelley's Elizabeth seeking shared opinion with Frankenstein, Jane Austen's Elizabeth is taking her first step along the road to those small circles -- in Emma, for example, the "small band of true friends" -- wherein a "proper" way of thinking means a shared way of thinking and Truth means true friends.

The situation in Jane Austen that generates this dramatic pattern is, as in other literary figures of the period, a multiplication of systems. Charlotte Lucas simply does not share the basic axioms upon which Elizabeth's "proper way of thinking" is grounded. With fine economy, Jane Austen has Charlotte explain (or rather try to explain) this to Elizabeth: "'I am not romantic you know. I never was'" (p. 125). This "you know" is a nice touch, because of course Elizabeth does not know, and never did know. Nor does she ever quite manage to know. When Elizabeth visits the married Charlotte, she keeps trying to read Charlotte's behavior in ways that accord with her own axioms: "Charlotte took her sister and friend over the house, extremely well pleased, probably, to have the opportunity of shewing it without her husband's help. . . . When Mr. Collins could be forgotten, there was really a great air of comfort throughout, and by Charlotte's evident enjoyment of it, Elizabeth supposed he must be often forgotten" (pp. 156-57; emphasis mine). Elizabeth cannot believe that Charlotte's system might really work. One could not really think that way; or, so thinking, one could not really live successfully.

But Elizabeth is wrong. In Jane Austen, what looks to the angel like a proverb of hell seems to support, and sometimes even serves, the devil who holds it. Charlotte apparently succeeds, according to her own definition of success. So does Frank Churchill. Mrs. Elton may not share Mr. Knightley's axioms -- "The nature and the simplicity of gentlemen and ladies, with their servants and furniture," he tells her, "I think is best observed by meals within doors" (Emma, p. 355; emphasis mine) -- but Mrs. Elton reaches the finish of the novel alongside Emma and Mr. Knightley, her views still active and her limbs intact. Elizabeth may feel deeply the humiliation and disgrace of her sister Lydia's behavior with Wickham; but Lydia herself remains utterly untouched. "'Are not you curious to hear how it was managed?'" Lydia asks Elizabeth; and Elizabeth replies, in a potent salvo of her proper thinking, "'I think there cannot be too little said on the subject.'" Lydia thinks differently: "'La! You are so strange,'" she retorts (Pride and Prejudice, p. 318). Each party thinks the other strange, but both parties remain intact.

As with Keats's human mind, teased out of thought by a Grecian Urn, the strangeness of one person to another in Jane Austen is one boundary between different parties and their contrary systems. By the end of the novel, Emma begins to glimpse the fact that below the surface of Harriet's behavior there are convolutions of mind that "must ever be unintelligible" to her (p. 481). In Pride and Prejudice, Kitty and Lydia "could not comprehend" their elder sisters' reaction to the departure of the regiment (p. 229). In Persuasion, Captain Wentworth cannot grasp how Benwick can turn to Louisa so quickly after Fanny Harville's death: "'A man does not recover from such a devotion of the {227} heart to such a woman -- He ought not -- he does not'" (p. 183). Mutually held incomprehension, or mutual agreement upon a given definition of species (a "man" does not recover) forms the basis or party attachments on either side of the barrier -- Benwick and Louisa over there, Captain Wentworth and Anne over here. In the passage from Mansfield Park mentioned previously, Edmund traces Mary Crawford's behavior to "perversion of mind"; she is, to his view of the species, not quite human. Accordingly, as he goes on to describe to Fanny his leave-taking of Mary, he turns Mary into the Belle Dame of a temptation scene: "I had gone a few steps, Fanny, when I heard the door open behind me. 'Mr. Bertram,' said she. I looked back. 'Mr. Bertram,' said she, with a smile . . . a saucy playful smile, seeming to invite, in order to subdue me; at least it appeared so to me. I resisted; . . . I have since -- sometimes -- for a moment -- regretted that I did not go back; but I know I was right" (p. 459; emphasis mine). The underscored phrases warn us that to a different mind the truth about Mary Crawford might look different from the way it "appeared" to Edmund; and the dashes dramatize that possibility, as Edmund wavers on the brink of re-examining his own conviction. But then his "I know" exhibits him falling back into his own particular nature, reasserting a "perversity" and a temptation resisted which accords with his clerical axioms. Significantly, the chapter closes with the following sentence: "Fanny's friendship was all that he had to cling to" (p. 461). Fanny too has clerical axioms (as many critics have noted with distaste); and the pair form their small circle wherein to nurture a truth-for-them, if not for us.

Readers who see Jane Austen as belonging essentially to an eighteenth-century moralistic tradition -- delightedly gathering her three or four families in a country village in order to pronounce judgment upon their assembled heads -- cling to the assertion that she is championing some truths (presumably eighteenth-century ones) and that she is attacking others. While reading a Jane Austen novel leaves us preferring to curl up within some circles rather than others, no one (unless I am falling here into one of those dubious truths universally acknowledged) wants to be Charlotte Lucas. We all want to be Elizabeth, exude those elegant decorums, and live in the big house. But the context in which such truths are presented is crucial. For her, as for other writers of her period, one could hold other truths, operate within other systems. What makes one incline to the particular truths one does hold is the fact that those truths accord with one's nature. In Persuasion, Anne asks Captain Harville, concerning the issue of male versus female inconstancy, "'But how shall we prove any thing?'" He answers, "'We never shall. We can never expect to prove any thing upon such a point. . . . We each begin probably with a little bias towards our own sex, and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle'" (p. 234). What we learn in Jane Austen is that there are other circles out there; but they simply are not for us. We learn, with Anne Elliot, "the art of knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle" (p. 42). But this art also teaches us the properties of our own circle, and tells us something of what we are. Within a Jane Austen novel, the movement toward revelation is one toward self-revelation: "'Till this moment, I never knew myself'" (Pride and Prejudice, p. 208; emphasis mine). For the reader of a Jane Austen novel, the movement is the same. When she persuades us through her art to enter Elizabeth's circle rather than Charlotte's, this asserts a claim about our nature and about her own. Charlotte is "not romantic you know."


{228} 1. Earl R. Wasserman moves toward this line of thought in "The English Romantics: The Grounds of Knowledge," SiR, 4 (1964), 17-34. It has been developed forcefully, however, by Morse Peckham in The Triumph of Romanticism (1970); see also Peckham's "On Romanticism: Introduction," SiR, 9 (1970), 217-18. See also my essay, "The Romantic Emergence . . .," MLQ, 39 (1978), 264-83, which develops more fully the premises on which the present essay is based.

2. Page references to Jane Austen's novels are to R. W. Chapman's editions, 5 vols. (1932-34). For other novelists, I've fallen back on chapter references; when that is not possible, I've given page references and short reference to the text used.

3. I am aware that many readers see a moral issue in Frankenstein, and believe the creature is "more human" than its creator. That is a fine idea for a novel; but it is not Mary Shelley's idea.