December 5, 2012

Only connect: Jane Austen and Henry James

The lack of evidence about her habits of composition has allowed a long tradition of condescension to her. Henry James seemed to thnk that Austen had not known what she was doing, technically speaking. While conceding that her stature was assured -- she was 'one of those of the shelved and safe' -- he thought that she 'leaves us hardly more curious of he process, or of the experience that fed it, than the brown thrush who tells his story from the garden bough'. She had all the 'grace' of 'her unconsciousness', he thought, finding for her process of composition the metaphor of a woman with her work basket, making her tapestry flowers and occasionally dropping stitches as she 'fell a-musing'. There has hardly been a novelist more conscious of his methods than James... He knew just what he was doing, but then what he was doing was built on Jane Austen's fearless innovations. It was Austen who taught later novelists to filter narration through the minds of their own characters. It was Austen who made dialogue the evidence of motives that were never stated. It was Austem, a Jamesian avant la lettre, who made the morality with which her characters act depend on the nice judgements of her readers. Why should she not know what she was doing?

{Silly Henry. I just couldn't resist this little Jane and Henry throwdown.}


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