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  • A Likely Story:Character and Probability in Newman and Austen
  • Dwight Lindley (bio)

John Henry Newman was no Janeite. While there is evidence he read most or all of her novels, they did not entirely suit his taste: "everything Miss Austen writes is clever," wrote Newman in an 1837 letter to his sister, "but I desiderate something. There is a want of body to the story. The action is frittered away in over-little things.… Miss Austen has no romance—none at all" ("Extract" 117). Jane Austen, in other words, was not enough like Walter Scott. And yet, while Newman preferred plots of a different scope and coloration, he and Austen had more in common than these lines might suggest. In particular, they shared a certain conception of narrative intelligence, understood in broadly Aristotelian terms. An 1821 book review by Richard Whately, admirer of Austen and soon-to-be mentor to Newman, nicely underscores some of the features of thought Newman would come to share with Austen: in it, Whately celebrates the realism of an Austen novel ("this Flemish painting"), suggesting that it arises from her adherence to "the general rules of probability" in the depiction of character. Because the actions and choices of her characters are intelligible in terms of probability, they strike the reader as realistic, or in accord with "human nature." The result is that they "guide the judgment," giving us a clearer view of the world, and furnishing "general rules of practical wisdom" (88). Now, Newman was only an occasional, amateur writer of novels, but his theoretical work in epistemology easily maps onto Whately's description: at the heart of his view of human knowing was the way that something like Aristotelian prudence ("judgment," or "practical wisdom") discerns the truth about the character of things by means of probability. This is no coincidence, for it was Whately, beginning the year after his essay on Austen, who played a signal role in forming Newman's epistemological sensibilities.1 It makes sense that the kind of practical intelligence on display in an Austen narrative should be the same kind of intelligence Newman theorized in many different works.

The questions this essay seeks to address are: exactly how much do Austen and Newman have in common, and at the same time, where do they differ, and why? Newman, of course, as an Oxford scholar and public [End Page 101] intellectual, read much more widely than Austen: how did the differences in their reading and formation distinguish (what may be called) her basic Aristotelianism from his? To put them together is to realize, despite their differences, the presence of a largely unnoticed, but crucially influential tradition in nineteenth-century thought: beneath both the novelistic realism of Austen (and her successors) and the epistemological realism of Newman (and those who followed him) lay a common, Aristotelian theory of narrative probability and intelligence. Understanding this tradition will shed light not only on Newman and Austen themselves, but on the internal dynamics of Aristotelian narrative theory in general, and the development of realism throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

In order to understand both their shared theory and their differentiating characteristics, it will be helpful to set them against the backdrop of that tradition of which they were a part. The argument will proceed in five steps, as follows: first, an account of Aristotle's ethical probabilism in the Nicomachean Ethics, Rhetoric, and Poetics; second, an explanation of his reception among seventeenth-century French literary theorists, with a particular focus on René Rapin; third, an overview of the eighteenth-century English Aristotelianism that emerged under the influence of the French; fourth, a view of Austen's conception of probability in the novels, with special attention to Sense and Sensibility; and finally, an outline of Newman's own unique development of the tradition in his Fifteen Sermons, Essay on Development, and Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

The Aristotelian Theory

For Aristotle himself, the important concept to understand is the way probability makes the ethical world intelligible. In a passage early in the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes his way into the subject by observing that different disciplines work with different subject matters (hul...


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