The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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September 2, 2012

'...until the aunt figure...arrives, and then everything can happen.'

When Jane Austen's niece herself became an aunt she wrote to her:  'Now that you have become an Aunt, you are a person of some consequence & must excite great interest whatever you do. I have always maintained the importance of aunts as much as possible, & and I am sure of your doing the same now.'

from 'Jane Austen, Henry James and the Death of the Mother,' in
New Ways to Kill Your Mother:  Writers and Their Families, by Colm Toibin

I'm a little relieved that I won't have a chance to read this book {horrible title} before it's due back at the library (I can't wrap my mind around it right now), but I did enjoy the introductory essay.  The (superficial) gist of it is that it was necessary for Jane Austen, Henry James and other 19th-century writers to take mothers out of the picture so that their heroines (and Mr. Darcy) could be alone, and come to think and act independently. There's also a lot in it about the importance of aunts, which is always the sign of a perceptive writer. :)

'In nineteenth and early-twentieth century fiction, the family is often broken or disturbed or exposed, and the heroine is often alone, or strangely controlled and managed. If the heroine and the narrative itself are seeking completion in her marriage, then the journey there involves either the searching for figures outside the immediate family for support, or the breaking free from members of the members of the family who seek to confine or dictate. ... In attempting to dramatize this, the novelist will use tricks or systems almost naturally available to Jane Austen and the novelists who came after her; they could use shadowy or absent mothers and shining or manipulative aunts. The novel in English over the nineteenth century is filled with parents whose influence must be evaded or erased to be replaced by figures who operate either literally or figuratively as aunts, both kind and mean, both well-intentioned and duplicitous, both rescuing and destroying.'
He goes on to compare the principal aunts in Pride and Prejudice (Lady Catherine and Mrs. Gardiner) and in Mansfield Park (Lady Bertram and Mrs Norris)

The novel is unsure whether it is a story told by a single teller, or a play enacted by a number of actors. It is both static and theatrical... a sphere in which a single controlling voice operates, or many competing voices. The value of aunts in the dramatic structure of a novel is that they arrive and then they depart. They break up space and they add spice to things.
And then there's Henry:

In James' six greatest works there is an absent mother who is replaced by a real aunt or set of surrogate aunts. In Washington Square, for example, Dr. Sloper's wife has died, leaving Catherine, his daughter, motherless. Her helper and confidante becomes her aunt, who is conspiratorial, mischievous, oddly kind and somewhat foolish, and always on the verge of being banished by Dr. Sloper. In The Portrait of a Lady Isabel Archer is also motherless, indeed her father is dead too, and she is found as an unprotected orphan in Albany by her aunt Mrs. Touchett, who is eccentric wilful, bossy, interesting, both kind and brittle. Mrs. Touchett takes over Isabel's life, takes her to England and Italy,, introduces her to a new world of possibility; the aunt is effectively the agent that allows the action of the novel to take place.
How could I not have noticed?  When I read or re-read more of him, as I hope to soon, I'll be more conscious now of scheming, meddling Mrs. Penniman (Washington Square), Mrs. Touchett, 'without graces and without any great elegance, but with an enormous respect for her own motives'; Madame de Vionnet in The Ambassadors ('the surrogate uncle will fall for the surrogate aunt.' ... ooh};  the governess in The Turn of the Screw and Charlotte Stant in The Golden Bowl {'...a surrogate aunt emerges, who is deeply neurotic in the former book, and oddly nosy and wise in the latter'). 

1 comment:

Lilac In May said...

Looks intriguing, I think I will have to satisfy my curiosity.

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