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Response of Richard Handler and Daniel Segal to John Halperin's review of Jane Austen and the Fiction of Culture in Eighteenth-Century Fiction 4 (1991), 81-83

From: Eighteenth-Century Fiction
Volume 4, Number 4, July 1992
pp. 351-352 | 10.1353/ecf.1992.0018

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Forum Response of Richard Handler and Daniel Segal to John Halperin's review of Jane Austen and the Fiction ofCulture in Eighteenth-Century Fiction 4 (1991), 81-83. If it were permissible to measure the quality of one's work by the rage it elicits, our book, Jane Austen and the Fiction of Culture, subject of a vitriolic attack by John Halperin, must be judged a resounding success. Halperin's review frequently relies not on rational argumentation but on name-calling and labelling. Likening our work to that of a "somewhat dim undergraduate English major," Halperin dismisses many of our arguments as "familiar and commonplace," "well-worn and discredited," while at the same time asserting that we suffer from "delusions." Just how it happens that our "delusions" converge so fully with the commonplace is not explained; rather, the name-calling simply goes on, interrupted only rarely by argument. Reliance on such rhetoric, and the absence of rebuttal to our arguments, suggest that our book offers a view of Austen which set this reviewer and canonical biographer of Austen into an apoplectic rage. He even mistakes Daniel Segal's name. When Halperin manages to rein in his anger, he shows little understanding of the substantive issues we raised. He equates the "symbolic incest" that we found characterizes Austen's heroines' marriages with "the closing of family ranks and the expulsion of outsiders ." This is to confuse incest and endogamy, however. We never claimed that the heroines' marriages close family ranks (that is, are endogamous). Rather, our argument is that those marriages are incest-like because they draw on patterns of behaviour typical of parent-child or sibling—rather than conjugal—relationships. It is in this sense that Austen's heroines displace their social order, rendering it otherwise than as they received it. For Halperin, Austen's heroines ultimately "submit and play the game by the usual rules." Halperin is unable to assess our argument here because he collapses a distinction our book elaborates between anti-social behaviour (which, as in the case of Maria Bertram, violates explicit rules) and what we call the heroine's "alter-cultural" behaviour. The heroines' creative play with the rules of courtship may not change the structure of EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION, Volume 4, Number 4, July 1992 352 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION 4:4 the English marriage system beyond recognition, but it displaces, and therefore makes visible, cultural norms that the other characters unthinkingly accept. Halperin goes on to decry our "ignorance of British social history." He claims that the social hierarchy in Austen's world was composed ofdiscrete and unambiguously bounded groups, and that our arguments to the contrary demonstrate our "loose" grasp of the facts. Thus does Halperin try to cast his quarrel with us as a question of historical facts which, he claims, he knows and we do not. At issue, however, are not the facts—it is clear that hierarchical social distinctions were crucially important in Austen's world—but how one thinks about them. In contrast to Halperin, we argue that to conceive categories such as social classes as unambiguously bounded entities is to reify sets of relationships which are always subject to negotiation and rearrangement. (Halperin lampoons our use of the word "reification" as "jargon.") As an extended example, we focus on Highbury in Emma where, we claim, the rising Cole family, the gentleman-farmer, the shopkeeper, the vicar's widow, and so on are all treated slightly differently by different families among the local elite, who are themselves not reducible to an unambiguously ranked pecking order. From this discussion, Halperin concludes that we say that "relative gentility and vulgarity among the families of Highbury cannot be identified." We say exactly the opposite, however: relative rank is constantly being identified by the characters of Emma. But none of those characters is able to enforce an absolute model of the social hierarchy—that is, one to which all the others will agree. Halperin also argues that we are wrong to assert that Austen and Rousseau condemn theatricals; we "know nothing," he continues, "of Jane Austen's lifelong passion for ... the theatre." In view of the fact that we quoted, and then took...