Romantic Circles stands in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Read our statement.

William H. Galperin, The Historical Austen

Saturday, December 20, 2003 - 05:11
William H. Galperin, The Historical Austen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. viii + 286 pp. Illus.: 4 halftones.  $39.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8122-3687-4).

Reviewed by
Mary A. Favret
Indiana University, Bloomington

In a recent profile in The New Yorker, Slavoj Zízek recalls the failed revolutionary rhetorics of the late '60s, insisting that they offered, at least, a sense of possibility, of alternative futures. Now, with the hegemony of American capitalism, he laments, we imagine no alternatives and have the bleakest sense of possibility. The probable is all too palpable: "[I]t is much easier for us to imagine the end of the world," notes Zízek, "than a small change in the political system." 1 For all the differences between them, Zízek's stance nonetheless approximates that of William Galperin in his important, revisionary study, The Historical Austen. At the turn of the nineteenth century, when Great Britain was consolidating its empire, when the cultural norms of domesticity were pressing more forcibly upon women, when economic and political changes were sculpting a straitened version of the real, Galperin finds Austen simultaneously registering and resisting this reality. Acutely aware of the rise of the realistic novel, "in which she surely knew her own instrumentality," and alert to the "probabilistic" (215) and hegemonic world view it inscribed, Austen chafed, wrestled and devised experiments to distance herself from the probable and make space for the possible. Increasingly in her writing career, Austen broached the possible through a sense of belatedness, or, as Galperin sees it, through nostalgia for "a [lost] interval when other prospects were abroad" (215). In so doing the novelist becomes, in Galperin's hands, more Romantic, more historically-minded and more urgently contemporary than ever before.

In this reading, Austen would belong in Jerome Christensen's Romanticism at the End of History, where anachronism, rather than nostalgia per se, is the strategy for resisting a new world order. She would be at home as well among the writers whose historically-conscious interventions into the form of history occupy James Chandler's England in 1819. She finds kinship with the Blake of Saree Makdisi's recent William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790's. A might-have-been, could-have-been, evermore-about-to-be  historiography is replacing the "narrowness" (18) of new historicism and emerging as the Romanticism of our own turn of the century. Romanticism in this version has reorganized its expectations: it is less about revolution than salvage and survival, more about "getting on" than "getting out," to echo Galperin (30). Like these other works, The Historical Austen disturbs the study of Romanticism--as well as the study of the novel--in exciting, compelling ways. Not solely a study of the novelist, this book is as concerned with the adjective "historical" as with the substantive "Austen."

Galperin himself conducts an experiment in history, calling for a reading practice that is more responsive to the silences, perplexities and inordinate detail in the text which undermine any simple notion of context. His attention to unspoken or lost meanings in the novels and his search for allegories of narrative authority allow him to establish a dialectic between the text and the narrator in such a way that the text becomes "readable" against the claims of its narrator's knowledge, against the imperatives of domestic realism, and, most significantly, against the ideological aims most often ascribed to Austen's work (in, most famously, Raymond Williams's The Country and the City, Marilyn Butler's Jane Austen and the War of Ideas and Alistair Duckworth's Jane Austen and the Improvement of the Estate). For Galperin, the novels all provide material which eludes, contradicts or otherwise exceeds the regulatory work associated with Austen's narrator and the practice of free indirect discourse. Where D. A. Miller finds an unyielding dominatrix, Galperin finds in Austen's narrator another short-sighted, often dim character, oblivious to the significance of the everyday details she describes.2 The everyday has special force here as the register of that which is not subject to the regimes of the realistic or probable; it is the collective designation of the resistant opacities, indeterminacies, and more-than-real minutiae of Austen's world. In the opening and final chapters of The Historical Austen, Galperin makes explicit his debt to Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life (Univ. of California Press, 1984) and The Writing of History (Columbia Univ. Press, 1988) on history and the everyday, which envisions a historical practice inseparable from "the prospect of historical agency" as it reveals itself in the everyday (216). A commitment to such prospects, together with a desire to write "the history of her milieu" makes Austen, in properly anachronistic fashion, de Certeau's type of historian.

The Historical Austen thus offers an example of the possibilities for a deconstructive historical criticism in the wake of and not totally free from the practice of new historicism. It is tempting, in fact, to follow Galperin's avowedly allegorical method and find new historicism filling the place realism filled for Austen, as a dominant system of representation whose demands he can neither deny nor embrace. For Galperin, these include the difficult task of finding historical warrant--material evidence--for a reading practice that stands in opposition to the protocols of realism and its empiricism.  He has two answers to this (unannounced) difficulty and delivers them in the chapters 1 and 2. First, he borrows the new historicist strategy of the anecdote or minor incident. He presents the shop-lifting trial of Jane Austen's Aunt Leigh-Perrot, replete with court records and published pamphlets, in order to adumbrate its silences. Taking his cue from Austen's letters, which refer to her aunt but offer no commentary on the crime, and acknowledging the evidence which proves Leigh-Perrot's guilt even as he cites the reasons she was acquitted, Galperin models an impossible history, whose yield (a favorite word) cannot be fixed or determined. It stands outside the histories we have inherited, which collapse women's destiny, domesticity and propriety into a single story. The impenetrable silences of this particular incident signal for Galperin the same "metairony" that permeates Austen's narratives, "through which story becomes history in its incomprehensibility, ordinariness, and promise" (31; emphasis in original).

A second strategy involves culling the responses of Austen's first readers. Beginning with the aesthetic regimes of the picturesque, which taught Austen's generation to contain or normalize their view of nature and the real, Galperin compares its demands with the reading practices of Austen's earliest audience. Yes, Austen's novels were hailed as a "new" form of the novel and recruited to the purposes of a regulatory realism; her marriage plots sat comfortably within picturesque but limited prospects. But against this reading, so familiar to students of Austen, Galperin finds contemporaries following other paths, interested at once in "charms" (76) unmoored from plot and in the startling way Austen's characters make unfamiliar the familiar. A powerful test for this division of reading practices was Emma's Miss Bates: defying all norms of narrative and epistemological propriety, her "dilations" were painful to realists (Scott and Edgeworth, for instance) but wonderful to others, who understood them to be the source of Austen's distinctive power. Here Galperin uses the evidence of reader response to brush against the accepted history of realism and Austen's assumed role in it. More provocatively, a reading practice which he locates in snippets of letters, diaries and reviews in the early part of the nineteenth century gives warrant for Galperin's own critical practice, trained as it is on the uncanny charms of narrative detail and the possibilities posed by minor characters. Deconstruction and Romantic readers apparently agree in their embrace of a real that exceeds realism, and of possibilities that escape the plot of probabilistic history. In many ways, these are the most impressive and satisfying of Galperin's chapters, as they chart a new course for the history of the novel and the history of reading Austen.

When he turns to readings of the novels themselves, in chapters 4-8, Galperin succeeds emphatically in de-familiarizing Austen, if not Romanticism. And he does so through readings which lean--maybe strain--in the direction of the improbable. A brief list will not do justice to the subtlety and resourcefulness of these readings but ought to register their shock value.  In Sense and Sensibility, we are invited to charge Colonel Brandon as the manipulative "troublemaker" (19) and tattle-tale whose actions direct the narrative toward closure. Who else could have told Willoughby's relative of his dalliances? Who else could have told his fiancée of his attachment to Marianne? (Why shut down possible answers?) For Pride and Prejudice, we are asked to acknowledge Jane Bennett as the underwritten, alternative heroine. Forget Lydia: Jane's admission that "she does not know what she writes" (qtd. in Galperin 74) makes her the crucial figure of opposition in a narrative that otherwise epitomizes knowingness. She is the remainder and reminder of an earlier, less authority-driven narrative practice Galperin associates with the epistolary novel (her quotation above is from a letter she writes to her sister). The surprise in Emma leaps up from the never-noticed possibility of a prior association or "intimacy" between Mr. Knightley and Miss Bates (!). The history in the novel becomes, then, the resonance of that foreclosed option: why didn't Knightley, like Frank Churchill, marry a decent gentlewoman of his own age, but with no dowry? Galperin's intentionally perverse interpretation of Anne Elliott in Persuasion is more difficult. His reading ascribes great agency and "effectiveness" (222) to Anne in her abject position as spinster. Her oppositional force and "autonomy"--found in the way she babysits her nephews? in the way she must listen to others' petty complaints and silence her own? in the way she is bumped from one house to another, with no home of her own?--are sacrificed when she regains her "bloom" and becomes "something like Anne Elliott" (qtd. in Galperin 225), i.e., just another simulacrum of a Romantic heroine destined to be married. Here, more than elsewhere, the pressure of his reading runs athwart the palpable affective force of the novel, which, it seems to me, comprehends the impossibility of the romance it nevertheless allows.  It is a sign of the shifting grounds of the probable in literary criticism that the revelation that Catherine Morland, in Northanger Abbey, only has eyes for Eleanor, not Henry Tilney, hardly raises an eyebrow. Of course, Galperin has anticipated any objection to the implausibility of his readings. The point here is to undermine a probabilistic view of the real, to make room for a more capacious reality.

In each case Galperin elaborates these improbable options in order to put in relief the "incompetence" (6) of narrative authority in the novels. There are possibilities available in the novels, a welter of historical alternatives, which the narrator (and a host of prior critics) cannot or dare not pursue. This proves an enabling strategy for criticism and, in Austen's case, especially feminist criticism. It also offers real excitement to the reader of Austen--a more sophisticated and perhaps more earnest version of the endless sequels and prequels posted on Janeite websites. Galperin's approach also unfolds a sophisticated awareness of temporality in the novels, twining between narrative, history and affect. The Historical Austen is at its most searching and poignant when, in Mansfield Park and Emma, both novelist and critic confront the negativity of their aspirations. Mansfield Park, according to Galperin, is a dystopic revelation of the world about to be, a future Austen elaborates because she cannot avoid it. Less darkly, Emma organizes itself around nostalgia, which can be oppositional in its "anterior wish for a version of the future on which the present (or erstwhile future) has subsequently foreclosed" (206). Elsewhere this anterior wish gets located in the epistolary novel; here, in a lovely, intricate reading by Galperin, it resides in the call for a dance.

This approach has limits. One is the notable lack of limits: at what point do we stop finding alternatives to the story the narrator tells? Galperin tries to address this question in chapter 3, "Why Jane Austen Is Not Frances Burney," where Burney's fiction is made to bear the burden of capitulating to history or "the way things are."  For all their similarities to Austen's work, Burney's novels, it appears, do not yield to a dialectic or allegorical reading as actively as Austen's. Is this limit a function of Burney's writing or Galperin's reading?  Elsewhere, in the case of Mrs. Leigh-Perrot, we glimpse the promise of a history that renders all options, notes all silences--truly an impossible history. Galperin elects (how much choice does he have?) to tether his options within the realm of historical plausibility: in the end he cannot abandon a notion of Austen's historical "context" any more than she could abandon the protocols of the real.

More curiously, the strategy Galperin chooses in this study, especially in prying the novels away from narrative authority, has the effect of producing a truly daunting author-function. "Jane Austen" has an intellect that comprehends and transcends the inadequacy and partiality of a realist narrator.  Dwelling in the ether of metairony, she sees what is and was and could have been. She divines the future as well, not just in the "future shock" of post-Waterloo England, but also in her anticipation of critical reading practices two hundred years in the future. This intelligence is not merely the function of the text; Galperin is committed to the historical agency of one Jane Austen, born in 1775 and expired in 1817.

These limits help to limn Galperin's ambitions here, which are substantial and possibly unrealizable. In the compulsive ingenuity of its readings, its remarkable resources of knowledge, and, less pleasurably, the contortions of its prose, Galerpin's The Historical Austen registers on every page the work required to create a new reality, to write a new history. In this sense, it does depart from its object, Jane Austen, who continues to make it all look so easy. For all that, The Historical Austen stands as a signal work for current Romantic studies and for this historical moment. Consider Romanticism to be Austen's enterprise, a Romanticism which resists the assuagements and resignation of realism by calling, like Frank Churchill, for us to "do something" else. Consider it also to be Galperin's "anterior wish" and a way of reading to help us survive things as they are.

1. Quoted in Rebecca Mead, "The Marx Brother," The New Yorker, May 5, 2003: 40. (Back)
2. D. A. Miller, "Austen's Attitude," Yale Journal of Criticism 8.1 (Spring 1995): 1-5. (Back)