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William H. Galperin. The Historical Austen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003. ISBN 0-8122-3687-4. Price US$39.95.

  • Eric C. Walker

…plus d’informations

  • Eric C. Walker
    Florida State University

Near the close of this consistently rewarding book, William Galperin supplies a useful summary sentence:

From her abiding allegiance to epistolary instability, and the particular reading habits that epistolary “silence” cultivated and served, to her awareness of the naturalizing, indeed regulatory, bent of any art that spoke in the name of either probability or nature, to her recognition that the subordinate status of women, especially women of privilege, attested to the equally conscribed status of men, to her uncanny alignment with her romantic contemporaries in locating horizons of possibility in quotidian life, Austen—or the “historical” Austen—is far from seamlessly aligned with the major developments with which her achievement is usually deemed synonymous.


Attending throughout with convincing effects to the roster of topics collected in this sentence—epistolarity, silence, regulatory probability, the uncanny, horizons of possibility, the quotidian—The Historical Austen offers a new way of thinking about what Galperin terms an “oppositional” Austen. Building on work by de Certeau and other students of narrative such as Ross Chambers, and finely attuned to the mutually shaping fields of social action and formal invention, the book is an ambitious and important contribution not only to Austen studies but to the study of the emergence of the novel and related topics such as realism, the domestic novel, and the cultural work of free indirect discourse.

Although Galperin in Part II of the book provides discrete chapters on all of Austen’s published novels (with Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice lumped in together with Lady Susan, on the topic of Austen and epistolarity), the book’s organization is more satisfyingly complex than the shopworn six-novel/six-chapter Austen monograph template. Before the Part II close readings of the six novels, Part I presents three chapters that run at the subject from several other angles. Chapter One, “History, Silence, and ‘The Trial of Jane Leigh Perrot,’” demonstrates how silence in Austen oppositionally eludes the binding cultural dilemma of “narratives of praise or blame” (40), creating instead the possibility of what Galperin elsewhere terms a “tertium quid,” a “different configuration among humans” (227). Chapter Two, “The Picturesque, the Real, and the Consumption of Jane Austen,” examines “how an exposure to picturesque theory might have enlightened Austen to the uses and abuses of representation, particularly regarding any function that might be deemed realistic” (48). Chapter Three, “Why Jane Austen Is Not Frances Burney: Probability, Possibility, and Romantic Counterhegemony,” argues, by means of the quotidian and other horizons of possibility, “Austen’s filiations with her romantic contemporaries against her more apparent filiation with practitioners of domestic fiction such as Burney” (95).

Through all these chapters, The Historical Austen weaves multiple arguments about temporality. The revisionary sense of “historical” in the title signifies several maneuvers, including a recuperative focus on the way Austen was read by her contemporaries and a methodological difference from historicism. Again from late in the book (readers who know their Austen would not be ill-served to take a quick look at the last chapter first):

Although I do not address this specifically in the introduction, a mode of reading that is fundamentally deconstructive, whether in identifying the various allegories of representation in the novels, or in stressing the metairony that supersedes narrative authority in these works, is the germ from which this book derives. Far from a point of origin, then, my recourse to historical method, no matter how discrete or of a piece with Austen’s somewhat exceptional self-awareness, is the fortuitous result of an inquiry that ultimately found its bearing in the theories of de Certeau and others, where historical method and the prospect of historical agency are perforce linked.


This method yields a sustained analysis, in finely-nuanced, subtle, and complex readings, of the temporal dimension of Austen’s oppositionality, which is brought to a point regularly in the latter chapters around the topic of nostalgia—but a sense of nostalgia very different from what casual readers of a book on Austen might expect. The nostalgia presented here is an actively deployed, oppositional nostalgia—back to the future—rather than a mystified, hermetically sealed nostalgia.

The prose that conveys these arguments has many happy moments: Miss Bates’s habit to “load every rift with more” (192); Frank Churchill’s “extreme unction” toward his father’s new wife (204); the topic of “longing for balls” in Northanger Abbey (138). The terms “possibilistic” and “probabilistic,” on the other hand, although conceptually telling, are, stylistically, page after page after page, to these ears, clunkers. My flagging attention unflagged whenever the increasingly tedious “possibilistic” yielded to synonyms: antinormative, queer, uncanny, recalcitrant, discountenancing—the latter two of which especially construe a complex new argument in fresh language. Just as, in D. A. Miller’s account, every alert reader of Austen must be anxious that the narrator’s gaze might turn on you, dear reader, and your own large fat sighings, every writer about Austen is haunted (or should be) by an anxiety not to appear as exhibit B in the Emma narrator’s brisk disdain for the progressive school prospectus of the time: “long sentences of refined nonsense.” This book offers lots of long sentences, a very high percentage of which are extremely refined, but none of which is, thankfully, nonsense—I think. In a review of Jerome Christensen’s book on Byron, Galperin himself once disarmingly confessed that there were stretches of Christensen’s prose he was not entirely sure he had entirely followed. There are moments in this book, I must confess, when Galperin seemed to this reader to return the favor. But I hasten to report that, so far, the more one puzzles out a particularly thick patch, the better it generally gets. This is a book, then, to read and return to, in spite of the pressing claims of abundant other unread books.

To discharge a reviewer’s burden, I will report that I logged a very few other very minor off-key moments, such as the academic nail-biting of the hedged absolute: “fairly unique” (217), “perhaps the most representative” (203), “somewhat exceptional” (216), etc. Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter is from Yale UP in 1998 on p. 263, note 8 (that is right), but it issues from Routledge in 1994 on p. 267, note 18 (nope; I double-checked). Like most books in the field, regardless of whether they issue from North America or the UK, this book is regularly indifferent to the difference between “England” and “Britain,” so we are not sure what name to use to think about the nation. This uncertainty becomes a problem, for example, when “England” names the nation to launch a chapter in which Scott is a central figure (11). One other quibble about content: in registering the “destabilizing” effects of an Austenian “absolute,” the argument might also point to Schelling, in addition to (or even better than) its gesture to Schlegel (77 and 255, note 37). Last and most minor, the proofreaders at Penn need to register at least a couple of brushfires: e.g., p. 72 (13 down), p. 227 (8 down). Where there is smoke, there is probably more smoke.

None of these bumps in the road interferes in the least with the splendid close readings the book offers, page after page. Austen sentences such as “Emma could not resist” and Austen phrases such as Anne Elliot “falling into a quotation” yield in Galperin’s skilled care abundant resonance. His attention to the details of Austen’s language duplicates in method the book’s argument about how Austen’s novels attend to the details of the present-real, not in defense of “things as they are” (and the concomitantly probabilistic and regulatory “should be” and “must be”) but in oppositional alertness to alternatives, to the possibilities of things as they might be. Here is Galperin’s entirely praiseworthy brief for close attention to Austen’s words:

To read Emma, or for that matter any text of Austen’s, oppositionally requires that the narrator’s words—and the reality they disclose—be reduced to words, or to particulars, rather than expanded to a more unified vision undergirded by plot. It is this reduction to particularity, and the uncanniness achieved through a largely antipicturesque highlighting of detail, that is reflected in much contemporary response to Austen’s writing.


Galperin’s attention to the details of Austen repays in generous kind what he himself helps us understand is Austen’s generous, oppositional, recalcitrant, discountenancing attention to the details of her world.

As Marilyn Butler’s Jane Austen and the War of Ideas became the Austen book to wrestle with of the 1970s, and as Claudia Johnson’s Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel was the watershed book of the 80s and early 90s, so The Historical Austen bids fair to be the landmark Austen study of the first decade of a new century of Austen scholarship. Any serious student of Austen will need to attend closely to its rich details.