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

  • 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: 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): 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 …