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  • Jane Austen seems to be saying in her novels, that reading carves out a private space for

  • the reader - a space in which they can indulge fantasies and also work over their own moral

  • dilemmas and problems through the activities of others and I think this is what she saw

  • as the purposes of her own novels - that she combined a close social realism with a certain

  • moral seriousness - a belief that the actions of the novels - the kinds of activities her

  • characters are indulging in, which after all are the activities of everyday life - the

  • activities like falling in love, the relationships between parents and their children, getting

  • on with one's neighbours, trying to work out who means us well and who might not - the

  • ordinary morality of life. She is feeding that into the novel and suggesting that the

  • new novel that she is carving out, should be concerned with those issues. And this is

  • new, because the novel as she finds it, in the early 19th century, is full of extravagant

  • plots, adventures, improbable incidents and what she strips away is that improbability

  • - concentrating instead on the lives of people rather like the rest of us - if we accept

  • that the rest of us are, as it were, the middling classes and the gentry.

  • If we try to reduce her novels to their plot elements we find that there is very little

  • there - you know, these are not the stories of abandoned babies who find themselves kidnapped

  • and sent off to sea and eventually discover that they are the long lost children of dukes.

  • These are novels in which, you know, the most important the things that may happen are whether

  • or not we can afford to have a ball in the village, when exactly we will put it on and

  • whether we will follow it with a picnic. You know, that can be the whole of Jane Austen's

  • plot. In her own day, readers quickly realised that she was doing something new in the novel

  • and she gained a very respectable reputation as an ambitious novelist.

  • Two further new ingredients that she brings to the novel, are the interior space that

  • she carves out for the heroine. Instead of her novels being a string of adventures that

  • are enacted in the world outside, the psychic space of the heroine becomes increasingly

  • important. We see this developing in the novel as she works with it and so it's at its most

  • intense in her later novels - in Emma and Persuasion, for example, where we find that

  • we spend as much time inside the heroine, as we do engaging with the events outside

  • and I think the other really important ingredient, is her introduction of conversation into the

  • novel and by that I mean something like the real exchanges that real people have. So you

  • find that they are conversations that stumble, where characters speak across each other,

  • where characters sometimes begin to mimic one another, as we do in conversation. The

  • novel before Jane Austen tended to have monologues. The characters expound dramatically across

  • a room, one to the other and indeed after Jane Austen, that's often the way with conversation.

  • She is quite remarkable, I think, in bringing something natural into the novel and that's

  • her contribution to the development of social realism at this time.

  • I think a sign of how well she was developing many of these natural features in the novel,

  • is that several of her readers did write to her and say, 'Oh, Mr. Collins - he's obviously

  • our vicar', or - another character, Mrs. Elton, 'She's just like somebody I know

  • - you must know her too.' The assumption was that Jane Austen was not just describing,

  • as it were, a fictional distillation of her own society, but people recognised people

  • they knew within her characters and this, of course, caused her great amusement and

  • as she said, she was making it up - but she's making it up from the observable ingredients

  • of real life.

Jane Austen seems to be saying in her novels, that reading carves out a private space for

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Jane Austen: The novel and social realism

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    S.H. posted on 2019/06/08
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