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The Age of the Novel
Yet again, we are skipping over nearly 200 years in order
to hit the next literary "Golden Age": that of the novel,
which developed its distinctive generic characteristics over the
course of the 18th century and really hit its stride, along with
industrialism and the middle class, in the 19th century. The next
two works we read will be from this "Golden Age of the Novel":
Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1806) and Dostoevsky's Crime
and Punishment (1866). Other famous progenitors of "the
19th-century novel" include the Brontë sisters, Dickens,
Thackeray, Walter Scott, George Eliot, Hawthorne, Melville, Henry
James, Stendhal, Hugo, Balzac, Flaubert, Turgenev, and Tolstoy.
Woolf's To the Lighthouse (1927) represents the waning
of the certainties that had underpinned the novel, and concomitantly
the blurring of the sharp outlines that delineated the novel as
a genre, much as the Impressionists had blurred the shapr outlines
of naturalist art.
The 200 years we are skipping represent by no means a Dark Age
comparable to the 900-year gap between Augustine and Dante, but
rather one of the most productive epochs in intellectual history,
known (rather fawningly) as The Enlightenment or (perhaps
more accurately) as The Age of Reason. As might be expected
of an Age known for its Reason, the most celebrated products of
the Enlightment are works of philosophy and political theory rather
than works of fiction or drama (even though many of the Enlightenment's
brightest "lights"--the Francophone ones, at least:
Diderot, Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau--wrote in both modes),
which is probably why this era gets a lot more "air time"
in CC than in Lit. Hum. Most famously, perhaps, the era produced
the French Encyclopédie (1751-1772), edited by Diderot
and D'Alembert, described by the Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy
as follows: "the most ambitious and expansive reference
work of its time, the Encyclopedia crystallized the confidence
of the eighteenth-century bourgeoisie in the capacity of reason
to dispel the shadows of ignorance and improve society."
("Dispel the shadows," see, hence "enlightenment.")
The ideas promulgated by the Enlightenment in Europe
are credited with bringing about the French Revolution in 1789, and
certainly underpinned much of the rhetoric both of that Revolution
and of the American one in 1776, although both movements were galvanised
more by economic considerations than by philosophical ones. In each
case, a cynical observer might characterise the "revolution"
as an assertion of the will to power of a burgeoning middle class,
using the bodies of illiterate peasants. In both cases, repercussions
included a general reassertion of the "Greco-Roman" strand
of Western culture over the "Judaeo-Christian" strand: democracy
in preference to aristocracy/theocracy, and a search for non-Divine
sources of order in the world, which paved the way for the lamentable
system of free-market capitalism we have inherited from Adam
Smith (The Wealth of Nations, 1776). These concerns are
by no means irrelevant to Pride and Prejudice, which was begun
in 1796 (under the title First Impressions), in the wake of
the French Revolution, and published (revised and renamed Pride
and Prejudice) in 1812, during the libertarian moment in England.
(Interestingly, you'd never guess from the novel's content that Napoleon
was cutting a swath through Europe at the time of its publication!)
The following summary of the basic ideas behind the
Enlightment mentality comes from encyclopedia.com
(emphasis, though, is mine):
"The scientific and intellectual developments
of the 17th century--the discoveries of Isaac Newton, the rationalism
of Réné Descartes, the skepticism of Pierre Bayle, the
pantheism of Benedict de Spinoza, and the empiricism of Francis Bacon
and John Locke--fostered the belief in natural
law and universal order and the confidence
in human reason that spread to influence all of 18th-century
society. Currents of thought were many and varied, but certain ideas
may be characterized as pervading and dominant. A rational
and scientific approach to religious, social, political, and economic
issues promoted a secular view of the world and a general
sense of progress and perfectibility.The major champions of these
concepts were the philosophes, who popularized and promulgated the
new ideas for the general reading public. These proponents of the
Enlightenment shared certain basic attitudes. With supreme
faith in rationality, they sought to discover and to act
upon universally valid principles
governing humanity, nature, and society. They variously attacked spiritual
and scientific authority, dogmatism, intolerance, censorship, and
economic and social restraints. They considered the state the proper
and rational instrument of progress. The extreme rationalism and skepticism
of the age led naturally to deism; the same qualities played a part
in bringing the later reaction of romanticism."
This is a big deal: it means that Austen is the first
author we've read since Vergil to write from a cultural landscape
not utterly dominated by the Christian (especially, the Catholic)
church. As you read P&P, bear the above synopsis in mind and think
about how Austen is approaching, describing and critiquing the rational
legacy of the Enlightenment, as well as the social order of her day.
How does she inscribe herself in the history of Western thought?
You'll find a brief biography of Jane Austen, along with a chronology
of her life and works (which also appears on p. xxxi of our book) at these
pages by the Jane Austen Society of Australia. For our purposes, it
suffices to note that she was born in 1775 (making her just a year older
than America...) and lived with her parents and elder sister, Cassandra,
until her father's death in 1805 (Jane was 30). After he died, the three
Austen ladies moved in with Jane's naval brother Frank and his wife Mary.
Occasional visits to Jane's favourite brother Henry in London afforded
an opportunity to attend the theatre and art exhbitions. In 1809 Jane's
brother Edward offered his mother and sisters a permanent home on his
estate in their beloved Hampshire, which is where Jane got most of her
mature writing done, including all of the novels except Northanger
Abbey (which was published after her death, probably only because
there was no prospect of a new Jane Austen novel to satisfy her
fans). Jane died in 1817, aged 41.
Was Jane Austen ever in love? The record suggests....maybe:
- in 1796 (when Jane was 20), she had a mutual flirtation with one Thomas
Lefroy, but he couldn't afford to marry her (and she would have brought
little in the way of dowry).
- A year later, Tom's aunt (who had disapproved of their relationship)
tried to fix Jane Austen up with the Rev. Samuel Blackall, a Fellow
of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, but Jane wasn't very interested.
- Sometime in the years 1801-1805, Jane Austen's most mysterious romantic
incident occurred: she met a young man who seemed to Cassandra to have
quite fallen in love with Jane; Cassandra later spoke highly of him,
and thought he would have been a successful suitor--but before the two
could meet again, the young man died.
- Finally, in 1802, a prosperous but "big and awkward" landowner
and family friend, Harris Bigg-Wither, who was six years younger than
Jane, proposed to her; she initially accepted, but changed her mind
the next day, and fled with Cassandra. Neither of the sisters ever married.
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