1/ The other day I found this short article comparing Flaubert to Tolstoy:
"The spectrum of novelistic empathy: at one end, Tolstoy, who envelops his characters with an unconditional love, suffering himself as they go wrong and act foolishly; at the other end, Flaubert, whose razor-sharp wit ceaselessly probes the pretensions and false hopes of his creations, mercilessly exposing the shabbiness of their fantasies and the pettiness of their ambitions. Flaubert writes as a vivisectionist and coroner, for whom all souls are dead matter to be cut open and put on display, Tolstoy as a loving parent, who experiences acutely the anguish of a creator who extends without hesitation to his offspring the freedom to live outside his blessings. For Flaubert there is no hope — bourgeois society is irredeemably corrupt and noxiously superficial, while for Tolstoy, hope always abounds, and only our lapses in attention prevent us from grasping it and rising up into true fellowship with our fellow human beings."
And here 1 person discusses the difference between Flaubert and Jane Austen:
"Flaubert’s personality, for instance, is very evident in his novels. At times, he even speaks to the reader directly – such as in that famous passage in Madame Bovary where he speaks of language being a cracked kettle on which he beats out tunes for bears to dance to, when, instead, he wants to move the stars with pity. I say Flaubert “speaks” of this, for, when I read it, I feel as if this line were spoken. And it is spoken to me in a tone of resigned heartbreak.
That is the tone of voice I get in much of Flaubert – resigned heartbreak: and the cause of the heartbreak is that there is no option but to be resigned. Austen, who is as deeply ironic as Flaubert and as aware of human stupidity, has, however, a very different tone of voice: although she could be deeply serious, and even at times, as in Mansfield Park, sombre, her tone of voice is amused, happy to batter the cracked kettle with a virtuosic verve and gaiety without any thought of moving the stars with pity; or, indeed, without any thought of pity at all. On a personal level, I like the sound of Flaubert’s voice, even through the services of an interpreter (since I do not know French well enough to read the originals); Austen I am a bit frightened to sit too close to, in case she chooses me as the next object of her pitiless wit: and if she does, she would veil it in such subtle shades of irony, that I might not even notice. In any case, there are far too many people as it is sitting around Austen, enjoying her wicked wit, so there’s no point my adding to the throng."
"Somerset Maugham once wondered why Flaubert made Charles Bovary die of grief after Emma’s death. Surely, Maugham argued, if he’d got over it and married again, that would have added another note of futility. I think this is why, despite his talents, Maugham could never be anything other than a second-rater compared to someone like Flaubert. Because in Flaubert’s vision, one cannot dismiss humanity with a casual shrug of the shoulders, and a cheerful “What does it matter anyway?” That is far too easy. It does matter – it matters because these characters, absurd and stupid though they may be, are nonetheless sentient beings capable of depth of feeling. And that can’t be shrugged away. Even a figure as absurd and as stupid as Charles Bovary cannot be dismissed, because, despite everything, he is capable of feeling deeply. The scene where he and Homais stay up together after Emma’s death is almost unbearably moving – all the more so because Charles’ understanding of the situation is so inadequate.
Emma Bovary is not the brightest of people: her Romanticism is merely sentimental. To have presented her as a pure representative of Romantic ideals who is crushed by a philistine world would have been far too formulaic and crude for an author as subtle as Flaubert. Emma’s Romanticism is just as stupid and as insipid as Homais’ philistinism: the rebellion is just as flawed as that which it is rebelling against – and therein lies the profound sadness of it all.
We may or may not sympathise with Emma, but that, I think, is perhaps beside the point. The emotions we sympathise with – or at least, the emotions that I find myself sympathising with – are the author’s. And these are emotions of deep sadness – sadness that life should be like this, when those ideals that he still can’t bring himself to discard tell him it should be so much more. Romanticism urged us all to aspire towards something great and noble, and the sorrowful awareness that humanity is not capable of this is at the heart of just about everything Flaubert wrote.
Austen knew this too: of course humanity could not strive towards the transcendent as the Romantics urged them to do! The very idea! But where Flaubert found this tragic, Austen found this merely amusing. And there, I think, lies the difference. Where Austen refused to take human beings too seriously, Flaubert took them very seriously indeed. While Austen regarded human inadequacy with an amused smile, Flaubert shook his head in sadness.
It is this that accounts for Flaubert giving Charles Bovary depth of feeling, and Austen keeping from any strong emotion a decorous distance. In an Austen novel, a character such as Charles would have been no more than a laughing stock: unlike Flaubert, Austen seems temperamentally incapable of taking seriously a figure as absurd as Charles. Take for instance Austen’s representation of Miss Bates in Emma: Austen knows that despite her absurdity, she is a harmless lady, and that it is ungentle and unkind to poke fun at her. Mr Knightley says all this quite openly. And yet, Austen herself just couldn’t resist poking fun at this harmless creature; and she didn’t (or couldn’t) depict any aspect of Miss Bates that gives her any sort of depth. She couldn’t, in short, make of her what Flaubert had made of Charles Bovary: at no point is Miss Bates depicted as anything other than a tiresome old bat.
Ultimately, what one does or does not respond to is a matter of individual temperament, and I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy Austen’s amused detachment. It is Flaubert’s deep sorrow that continues to attract me, and, indeed, to move me."
Having noticed these things, I don't think I feel the same way and arrive at the same conclusion.
Whilst I can't speak of the other novels by Flaubert, "Madame Bovary" gives me the impression that between these 2 authors, it's Flaubert that is colder and more ruthless. Jane Austen makes fun of the gossipy and garrulous Miss Bates, but on a more subtle level this "tiresome old bat" is also depicted as kind, generous, patient, generous, forgiving and rarely complaining. Jane Austen sees both sides and, at the beginning, portrays Miss Bates in such a way that makes the readers side with Emma Woodhouse's view only to later makes us ashamed of ourselves as we realise it the same moment Emma regrets her own thoughtlessness.
In contrast, the fact that Charles Bovary dies of grief doesn't make him less as a laughing stock but actually pushes to the extreme the stupidity, delusion and blind devotion of the character, who, lacking intelligence and observation, has never succeeded in his job as a doctor and who, as a husband, has never understood his wife nor suspected anything that would have been noticed by most people. On the other hand, Charles's kindness doesn't have much effect on the readers' perception of him as a pathetic, naive, weak character- it only makes Emma shrink more before our eyes as she becomes more and more sentimental, delusional and foolish in deceiving and taking advantage of a tedious but nice husband to fall for more charming but less reliable men. As written many times before, Emma Bovary isn't like Anna Karenina. While such things aren't relevant for the aesthetic value of the novel and "Madame Bovary" is a perfect work, the truth is that Emma is fatalistic and has nothing to condemn but herself and I doubt that many people may understand and sympathise with her, who initially may arouse sympathy for marrying a dull man and yearning for some excitement yet who later causes her own downfall for nothing worthwhile (Anna Karenina's fate is due to herself and more due to the society in which she lives). Gustave Flaubert, albeit having said "Madame Bovary, c'est moi", seems cold, merciless and pitiless towards both Charles and Emma Bovary.
2/ John Fowles on Jane Austen and James Joyce:
Her novels are about ordinary people of the gentry class in ordinary life, the subject matter may be perceived by many people (including my "younger" self) as dull, unexciting. To write and finish such books like the works by Tolstoy, Victor Hugo... requires more knowledge, understanding, hard work, patience, determination and perseverance, but to write small-scaled books like Jane Austen, and succeed, is more difficult. Not many people can turn mundane matters into art as Jane Austen has done.
(I don't know much about James Joyce- having read nothing by him but the love letters to Nora, 1 short story, and some poems. But it seems to be true according to what I know about his writing- to imitate him would be risky and likely to become disastrous. But William Faulkner? He's great and has his place. Not as huge as James Joyce, but certainly acclaimed and important, and perhaps read by more people).
3/ "... it’s begun to seem like she’s now assumed the role of the designated highbrow writer for light readers. It’s not that she’s overrated. It’s that she’s in dire jeopardy of being overhyped—and dumbed down in the process.
[...] Something quiet and true about Austen is being lost in the trumpet blasts and the spin-offs.
[...] Most dispiriting of all, though was the recent attempt by a distinguished literary critic to repurpose Jane Austen for a faux-naive self-help book.
[...] And seriously, haven’t you had enough of intellectuals “discovering” that Jane Austen meets their high standards for complexity and moral seriousness? (It’s like landing at JFK’s international arrivals terminal and claiming to have “discovered” America. Discovering Jane Austen condescendingly was old when Lionel Trilling wrote his famous essay on Mansfield Park back in the ’50s.
Anyway, until I read Deresiewicz’s book, I always had respected and admired his intelligent literary criticism and I still can’t quite believe he committed this gimmicky dumbing down of serious literature into insipid self-help. In the book, he portrays himself as basically someone raised by wolves, an oafish fellow with no social skills or interpersonal sensitivity until—sacre bleu!—he “discovers” Jane Austen and learns by reading her that he has been a jerk all his life, and that she has Important Things to teach him about life and love that transform him into a civilized sensitive human being.
[...] This is the basic theme throughout the book: Jane Austen schools him out of his bad behavior.
Which I probably need not point out is not the point, and certainly not the measure, of great literature: to teach us to behave like good little boys and girls. The idea that literature should be mined for morality lessons does it a disservice. The hallmark of great literature is that it makes one question—without offering simplistic answers—the foundations of one's beliefs about the nature of human nature, the structure of moral strictures, and the meaning and purpose of human existence. The idea that literature as a whole and Austen in particular should chiefly be read for rules of behavior rather than, say, for the unique intensity of aesthetic pleasure that a beautifully crafted sentence can offer, the idea that literature is somehow simplistically about how to behave—that literature has a single unified view of morality, of the self (and thus self-help)—is ludicrously retrograde, antiquarian, and frankly anti-literary. What if he "discovered" Genet? Less chance of getting on Oprah's Book Club, I imagine.
But Deresiewicz’s book comes across as so childishly simpleminded, I just have to believe he’s putting us on. Is "Lolita" not literature? Is "Anna Karenina" not literature? Is "Coriolanus" not literature? I rest my case. Literature is not Miss Manners, an affirmation of bourgeois values. In fact Jane Austen’s works are not bourgeois; she wrote about—dissected—the bourgeoisie."
(Ron Rosenbaum- http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/the_spectator/2013/02/jane_austen_s_literary_reputation_is_she_overhyped_or_underappreciated_on.html)
That reminds me of a discussion I read the other day, in which the author was talking about the descriptive language of Nora Roberts and Vladimir Nabokov and the aesthetic value of something by Nora Roberts and "Lolita", and some of the offended, enraged Nora Roberts fans defended her by attacking Nabokov, especially by dismissing "Lolita" altogether because of what they called moral value.
One may say, it's OK, Jane Austen means different things to different people. But William Deresiewicz is an author, essayist, literary critic, and like Ron Rosenbaum I see something quite wrong about his book "A Jane Austen education: How 6 novels taught me about love, friendship, and the things that really matter". That does her a huge disservice. Back then reading "Emma" and, the 1st time, "Sense and sensibility", I did see the foibles and faults satirised, and did see myself in some characters (Emma Woodhouse, Marianne Dashwood...), but that wasn't the point and didn't stop me from dismissing the author, and only recently is my view reversed and it's because in "Mansfield park" she's somehow comparable to Tolstoy in insight, sensitivity and observation, in close attention to details and nuances and subtleties, in the way she describes, portrays and handles her characters (even though considering all aspects, Jane Austen's not on the same level as Tolstoy, but then how many writers are on the same level as Tolstoy?). Self-help? This guy dismisses her entirely (unintentionally). What about her style? Sentences? Characterisation? Wit? Irony? Game with appearance and reality? Subtlety? Epigrams?...
This sentence caught my attention "she’s now assumed the role of the designated highbrow writer for light readers". This is true. I've once talked about the 2 groups of fans, which is why I, new as I am, am not very comfortable with saying I like Jane Austen or carrying her book around because of the idea that people may think I belong to the 2nd group (though of course, it's not the same as saying "I like Stephenie Meyer/ E. J. James..."). Guess I simply have to get used to it.
(Some days ago a guy told me he used to like her but no longer did, because she's (over)sentimental. Yeah, that's what he said).
4/ "... That elusive quality is, indeed, often made up of very different parts, which it needs a peculiar genius to bring together. The wit of Jane Austen has for partner the perfection of her taste. Her fool is a fool, her snob is a snob, because he departs from the model of sanity and sense which she has in mind, and conveys to us unmistakably even while she makes us laugh. Never did any novelist make more use of an impeccable sense of human values. It is against the disc of an unerring heart, an unfailing good taste, an almost stern morality, that she shows up those deviations from kindness, truth, and sincerity which are among the most delightful things in English literature. She depicts a Mary Crawford in her mixture of good and bad entirely by this means. She lets her rattle on against the clergy, or in favour of a baronetage and ten thousand a year, with all the ease and spirit possible; but now and again she strikes one note of her own, very quietly, but in perfect tune, and at once all Mary Crawford’s chatter, though it continues to amuse, rings flat. Hence the depth, the beauty, the complexity of her scenes. From such contrasts there comes a beauty, a solemnity even, which are not only as remarkable as her wit, but an inseparable part of it. In The Watsons she gives us a foretaste of this power; she makes us wonder why an ordinary act of kindness, as she describes it, becomes so full of meaning. In her masterpieces, the same gift is brought to perfection. Here is nothing out of the way; it is midday in Northamptonshire; a dull young man is talking to rather a weakly young woman on the stairs as they go up to dress for dinner, with housemaids passing. But, from triviality, from commonplace, their words become suddenly full of meaning, and the moment for both one of the most memorable in their lives. It fills itself; it shines; it glows; it hangs before us, deep, trembling, serene for a second; next, the housemaid passes, and this drop, in which all the happiness of life has collected, gently subsides again to become part of the ebb and flow of ordinary existence.
What more natural, then, with this insight into their profundity, than that Jane Austen should have chosen to write of the trivialities of day-to-day existence, of parties, picnics, and country dances? No “suggestions to alter her style of writing” from the Prince Regent or Mr. Clarke could tempt her; no romance, no adventure, no politics or intrigue could hold a candle to life on a country-house staircase as she saw it. Indeed, the Prince Regent and his librarian had run their heads against a very formidable obstacle; they were trying to tamper with an incorruptible conscience, to disturb an infallible discretion. The child who formed her sentences so finely when she was fifteen never ceased to form them, and never wrote for the Prince Regent or his Librarian, but for the world at large. She knew exactly what her powers were, and what material they were fitted to deal with as material should be dealt with by a writer whose standard of finality was high. There were impressions that lay outside her province; emotions that by no stretch or artifice could be properly coated and covered by her own resources. For example, she could not make a girl talk enthusiastically of banners and chapels. She could not throw herself whole-heartedly into a romantic moment. She had all sorts of devices for evading scenes of passion. Nature and its beauties she approached in a sidelong way of her own. She describes a beautiful night without once mentioning the moon. Nevertheless, as we read the few formal phrases about “the brilliancy of an unclouded night and the contrast of the deep shade of the woods”, the night is at once as “solemn, and soothing, and lovely” as she tells us, quite simply, that it was.
The balance of her gifts was singularly perfect. Among her finished novels there are no failures, and among her many chapters few that sink markedly below the level of the others. But, after all, she died at the age of forty-two. She died at the height of her powers. She was still subject to those changes which often make the final period of a writer’s career the most interesting of all. Vivacious, irrepressible, gifted with an invention of great vitality, there can be no doubt that she would have written more, had she lived, and it is tempting to consider whether she would not have written differently. The boundaries were marked; moons, mountains, and castles lay on the other side. But was she not sometimes tempted to trespass for a minute? Was she not beginning, in her own gay and brilliant manner, to contemplate a little voyage of discovery?"
This passage answers the question above on her literary merit.
Virginia Woolf seems to be a huge Janeite. Back then in my British literature course, the professor didn't mention it. Some of the most noticeable influences of Jane Austen on Virginia Woolf are free indirect style and the everyday life subject.
"And what effect would all this have had upon the six novels that Jane Austen did not write? She would not have written of crime, of passion, or of adventure. She would not have been rushed by the importunity of publishers or the flattery of friends into slovenliness or insincerity. But she would have known more. Her sense of security would have been shaken. Her comedy would have suffered. She would have trusted less (this is already perceptible in Persuasion) to dialogue and more to reflection to give us a knowledge of her characters. Those marvellous little speeches which sum up, in a few minutes’ chatter, all that we need in order to know an Admiral Croft or a Mrs. Musgrove for ever, that shorthand, hit-or-miss method which contains chapters of analysis and psychology, would have become too crude to hold all that she now perceived of the complexity of human nature. She would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but what life is. She would have stood farther away from her characters, and seen them more as a group, less as individuals. Her satire, while it played less incessantly, would have been more stringent and severe. She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust — but enough. Vain are these speculations: the most perfect artist among women, the writer whose books are immortal, died “just as she was beginning to feel confidence in her own success”."
For the time being I can say nothing till I've read all of her novels, at least the 2 books in which I'm currently interested, "Northanger Abbey" and "Persuasion".
1 thing: "the most perfect artist among women". Is this the case? Recognising her talent doesn't mean I'm no longer aware of her limitations and the smallness of her world, doesn't clear away my ambivalence towards certain things about Jane Austen's writing. She has limitations and creates other limitations for herself through avoidance of misery and suffering and avoidance of anything with which she's not familiar and apparent oblivion to the outside world. Jane Austen's realistic in an extreme way- keeping strictly to what she knows and what is natural and possible in real life. It's not easy to call her great, to "catch her in the act of greatness" (Virginia Woolf's words), sometimes I can't help feeling that she's merely a hill beside the mountain Tolstoy. But maybe that's it, greatness and perfection are 2 different things.
(I, by the way, must read more works by Virginia Woolf. "Mrs Dalloway" isn't enough).
5/ Conrad Aiken on the 2 female writers above:
Doesn't this make both of them sound quite snobbish and conservative?
(Looking again at "Mrs Dalloway" makes me feel that perhaps Jane Austen's influence on Virginia Woolf runs more deeply than those things I've mentioned).
I've just finished reading "Mansfield park". Superior to "Sense and sensibility" and more enjoyable than "Emma" and more complex than both.
I find words insufficient to express and explain what I mean, but the exploration of Fanny's feelings, that she hardly misses her family except the brother closest to her, that she feels alienated when coming back home, that she wants to get back to Mansfield park, that she has some selfish happiness in being called back while her relatives are suffering from sickness and scandal and grief, is remarkably excellent- Jane Austen knows human nature very well, making her superior to many writers who describe what should be rather than what usually is.