- Jane Austen’s “Wild Imagination”:Romance and the Courtship Plot in the Six Canonical Novels
Even though it was once asserted that Jane Austen's six canonical novels have "but one plot,"1 this charge has generally been ignored in recent Austen studies and histories of the novel. To the extent that her works of fiction conform to the conventions of late eighteenth-century novels of courtship and romance, this omission is entirely understandable, for they obviously bear what Ludwig Wittgenstein called "a family" resemblance (17). What distinguishes the plot of the courtship novel is its depiction of the entrance of a young woman into adult society and her subsequent choice among competing suitors. The choice is not without its anxieties, however, for one of the unstated conventions of the courtship novel is that the lovers must undergo a traumatic experience, a violent shift from innocence to self-knowledge before their union can be consummated.
One danger confronting the authors of this familiar form is a slackening of narrative suspense: their outcomes, like the outcomes of contemporary genre fiction, often come to seem all-too predictable. Whoever will eventually win the hand of the heroine is easy to recognize early in the narrative from his prominence, if not from his obvious moral, social, or intellectual superiority. Austen does not quite manage to escape the homogeneity inherent in the form's insistence upon closure, yet the change that her novels incorporate is still noteworthy. It involves nothing less than the rejection of a single generic courtship narrative. Austen incorporates at least one distinct story pattern in each novel, in the process tossing out such overworked formulas as sexual entrapment or parental tyranny. She has been rightly praised for the way she differentiates between the various characters in her novels, but there is no [End Page 294] reason why the same observation cannot be made about the various plots and subplots within the novels. In order to consider what is distinctive about way courtship and romance are presented in her fiction, I want to historicize the topic by singling out seven different story-lines or models in the six canonical texts. The purpose of considering the novels from such a schematic vantage point is to suggest that they reveal a far greater uneasiness about the premises of the courtship plot than might appear from a consideration of individual works in relative isolation from one another.
Seven Models of Courtship and Romance
In using the term model, I mean a structural pattern or story-line that can not only be abstracted from the text but deployed in an infinite variety of other contexts and different permutations. According to Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, "a story-line is structured like the complete story, but unlike the latter it is restricted to one set of individuals" (16). Such a story-line corresponds to a limited extent to what Henry James described more globally as "the subject, the idea, the donnée of the novel" and thus is flexible enough to accommodate the array of minor characters and the finely wrought portrayal of domestic manners and mores that has always constituted the genius of Austen's fiction for many readers. James's vivid description of the donnée as "a blade which may be drawn more or less out of its sheath" points to its status as an artifact that can be employed in more than one context (411). The usual opposition between a conventional formula and a new and unique exploration of reality doesn't quite work here, for the seven models I am identifying might appear only once yet can also be susceptible to endless mutations and transformations in other works while still bearing certain enduring characteristics. Far from being mechanical repetitions of the same, they are malleable enough to be combined in the same text with other story-patterns, appear in a variety of different literary kinds, incorporate gender reversals, and find a place in same-sex romances. Austen's novels at once illuminate and are illuminated by earlier and later examples of similar patterns. Such models are not so much variations on the same rigid formula as seven different scenarios...