D. A. Miller’s spellbinding Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style revisits what has long been a productive line of inquiry in Austen scholarship – the relationship between character and narration. This quietly polemical short book, which Miller calls an essay (much of it was written for the 2000 Beckman Lectures), attempts to shift the focus of Austen criticism away from historicist readings back toward what he sees as the site of her “literary achievement” (108) - the Austen plot, the conjugal imperative. What emerges is a virtuosic Barthesian close reading of several Austen novels as well as one of the most compelling texts of queer theory to emerge in recent years.
The book opens in high Miller Style, describing an autobiographical subject as a universal one; Miller describes his boyhood feelings of shame at having chosen the wrong object - Jane Austen - to invest with the “Secret Love” of the first chapter’s title. Where a large section of the earlier Narrative and its Discontents (1981) focused on Austen’s plotting, this book, like his more recent work, focuses on matters of style, secrecy, shame, surveillance, and performance. Along these lines, the “Secret Love” refers to another wrong object, an object which Miller sees as the embodiment of Austen Style: Robert Ferrars’ toothpick case in Sense and Sensibility. Miller argues that Austen’s Style creates the appearance of virtual stylelessness. But the Style seeks to be visible enough to be recognized as such, to be noticed as an outline:
[T]his paltry content [the miniscule toothpick]… is precisely what intensifies our sense that the container contains nothing…. [It] only brings out the insistence of a self-containment where what is contained amounts to a little more… than the container.13
While Austen’s work abounds in jewelry, the toothpick case is unique in Austen because it exists outside the bonds of “donation, alliance, social function, and signification” (12-13) in which all other Austen jewelry participates. The scene and the case are almost wholly insignificant to the plot, emphasizing their paltry content and their self-containment. This stylish insignificance is increased by Ferrars’ manner as he purchases the case; rather than focusing on the marriage market (the Miss Dashwoods are in the store as well), he buys the case with an exorbitant attention to its detail. Since Austen’s name, according to Miller, is synonymous with sexlessness (4), and since the case is outside social bonds, both the case and the scene are emblematic of Austen Style and of celibacy (in the sense of being unmarried). Mary Crawford, in Mansfield Park, strengthens this equation between Style and celibacy as the only Austen character to choose Style over marriage, to martyr herself to Style, by remaining celibate.
With the caveat that all readings of Miller’s writerly work are tendentious, this reading of Style as celibate marks an amazing departure in the history of queer theory. If this aesthetic moment (celibacy as Style) were to be read with the logics of Eve Sedgwick’s “Beast in the Closet” or even Miller’s earlier essay “Secret Subjects, Open Secrets,” then “this paltry content” would not be a figure for celibacy, but for queerness (though we might think of celibacy as a subset of queerness). In queer theory, “absence” (silence, preterition, the closet) is usually read as “proof” of homosexuality because there was virtually no period vocabulary for homosexuality. Homosexuality could (almost) only be represented as absence - the love that dare not speak its name, or the "impossibility" lesbian sex - making it difficult to read “absence” as an absence of sex. This small moment which imagines contentlessness as celibacy rather than queerness, following Foucault’s injunction to read “not one but many silences” (27), suggests the guiding antithesis of Miller’s book - the incompatibility of Austen’s Style and Austen herself. Since Miller sees the conjugal plot and its attendant style as the only Austen plot (contra most recent Austen criticism) and Austen as a “successfully unmarried woman” (28) without a place in her novels, he posits an opposition between a “decidedly neuter” (33) and impersonal Austen Style on the one hand, and character and personhood on the other: Jane Austen or Style.
Reconfiguring this seeming opposition, Miller’s second essay, “No One is Alone,” establishes the simultaneity of Style and Person: “Though style has never exactly been an art that conceals art, it has certainly been an art that tries hard to conceal labor - in particular… the labor of shame management.” (48). Here, the shamed subject (Elizabeth, Emma, or Miller himself) uses style, the witty remark, to draw attention away from shame. This diversion is made possible because “we know that the founding gesture of Austen Style is the cut (in testimony to which, every reader sooner or later resorts to calling it ‘precise,’ ‘concise,’ ‘incisive’)” (34). But even as it eviscerates others, “its first object has been itself” (34). Positioning Style as a techné for the “abject subject” (47-48) covering over a wound, Miller sees Austen employing her style as a defense against her status as an old maid in a world not merely of compulsory heterosexuality, but of compulsory conjugality. Style provides a temporary refuge from shame by enabling the disappearance of Person. Here, Miller, without explicitly doing so, connects work on queer shame to queer aesthetics. Queer aesthetics usually takes the form of “camp” or of “the secret” which makes “the banal” sexy. Miller instead imagines “the beauty of Style” as "exclusive self-sufficiency" (67), as shutting out a world that would not accept its authoring stylothete.
For Miller, the mechanics of this Style are evident in Austen’s narration which paradoxically: “is… utterly exempt from the social necessities that govern the narrated world, and intimately acquainted with them down to their most subtle psychic effects on character” (32). Thus, Style disavows its knowledge, effecting the disappearance of the Person behind its own apparent (but unattainable) divinity. Thus, Style is a “process of denial” by which the heroine (Miller uses the example of Elizabeth Bennet) can deny “everything in her vulgar, dysfunctional family and its imperiled economic position, that makes her situation needful, awkward, embarrassing, humiliating, even outright abusive” (43). Rather than being aware of itself as masking a series of shames, Style believes that it is unnecessary. Thus, in a moment of summary, Miller describes the operation of Style: “Style, then, gets you the things it fools you into thinking you don’t want, but only, finally, by being abandoned for the Person, which makes you know you want them” (53). When Elizabeth sees marriage in sight, she relinquishes style (and celibacy) in favor of matrimony.
“Broken Art,” the book’s least compelling chapter, argues that Persuasion is “the great false step of Austen Style” (68) and that Sanditon is the moment of its collapse. Miller suggests that Persuasion’s difference is that Anne is “irrevocably single,” (70) and chastises herself rather than allowing the narration to do so. Neither of these criteria convincingly separates Persuasion from the rest of Austen's canon. Emma seems just as single as Anne at the outset of Emma (though both heroines marry) and Fanny certainly upbraids herself as much. For example, when Fanny discovers she is to live with her aunt Norris, and Edmund tries to soothe her anger by telling her that she will become important to her aunt, Fanny says, “‘I can never be important to anyone.’” When Edmund asks why, she says, “‘Everything - my situation - my foolishness and awkwardness’” (Austen 56). Miller similarly thinks the play of signifiers in the unfinished Sanditon - despite his location of a similar phenomenon in relation to Emma’s name - writes it out of Austen Style. While the separation of these two works from the Austen canon does not seem persuasive, this chapter still glows with the force of Miller’s prodigious close reading skills turned to castigation rather than praise.
Austen criticism, too, receives Miller’s assault: he refers to writings on Emma as “by no means inhibited by a fear of the trivial or obvious” (64). However, his critical aversion leads him to overlook or ignore important work. For example, while Miller suggests a connection between Austen and the feminine, Claudia Johnson’s much acclaimed essay “The Divine Miss Jane: Jane Austen, Janeites and the Discipline of Novel Studies” problematizes such a transhistorical association by suggesting Austen’s early twentieth-century ties to masculinity. The best moment in this final chapter comes at the beginning, when Miller argues that free indirect discourse (the stylistic innovation which Austen is most famous for) does not just provide a third term which mediates between narration and character, but rather flaunts their proximity. Free indirect discourse enables the reader to see “a character’s inner life as she herself lives it” while experiencing “the same inner life as she never could” (60). It is precisely this kind of fascinating meditation on narrative that makes this book a transformative read, not just for those interested in Austen or queer theory, but for all literary scholars.
- Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
- Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Ed. June Sturrock. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2003.