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MLQ: Modern Language Quarterly 63.1 (2002) 65-88

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Perfectly Helpless

Andrew H. Miller

In remarking that Jane Austen was, "of all great writers . . . the most difficult to capture in the act of greatness," Virginia Woolf became only the most famously helpless of Austen's readers, the culminating figure in a tradition of critical incapacity that might be said to begin with Sir Walter Scott, who found himself unable to capture Austen's merits in illustration, and Thomas Macaulay, who confessed that she achieved her ends "by touches so delicate, that they elude analysis" and "defy the powers of description." 1 This tradition continued, then, with such critics as the one who wrote in the Saturday Review in 1882 that Austen made him feel how "powerless analysis is to lay bare the sources of so subtle a thing as literary interest" (quoted in Southam, 2 :27). Henry James characteristically denied, and hence sustained, such analytic helplessness when he remarked that Austen's light felicity "leaves us hardly more curious of her process, or of the experience in her that fed it, than the brown thrush, who tells his story from the garden bough"--reminding us how handy it is to avoid curiosity about the things we are powerless to understand. 2 Austen seems to have invited critics to acknowledge a wondering awareness of impotence before her fictions. [End Page 65]

It would be immodest to propose to continue in this august tradition of failures--as if I could. Instead, I hope to find provocation to further thought in these instances of thought's defeat--to draw on these writers' experience of bemused incapacity to help me in my capacity as a reader of Austen. I'll consider the varieties of helplessness in Austen's work and wonder why her novels in particular should inspire such a collective shaking of heads and upturning of empty hands. These speculations will lead me to some reflections on novelistic form and its ethical inclinations, the formal and ethical aftereffects of Austen's writing later in the century. The form of the realistic novel inclines it to participate in that Victorian preoccupation that they called self-culture and that, provoked by the writing of Stanley Cavell, I have come to call moral perfectionism. Both banal in its apparent self-evidence--why should I not want to improve, to be in some sense better tomorrow than I am today, to be, indeed, all that I can be?--and, often enough, crushing in its rigors, such self-culture structured disparate Victorian discourses (aesthetic, ethical, political) around narratives of character conversion and development.

That Austen's novels are narrative hedgeworks, their plots propelled through the reticulation of constraint, is a familiar enough thought. From Anne Elliot's years of desolation following her refusal of Wentworth to Fanny Price's silencing dependence on her cousins, the novels originate in, are premised on, the experience of impulses hampered, desires thwarted, needs obstructed even as they are first felt. Looking just at Sense and Sensibility, in which Elinor's love of Marianne is pervasively figured as constraint, and recalling just a few chapters of it, we can see how constraint constitutes social relations and how the jostling of such constraints characterizes the movement of Austen's plots. On receiving a mysterious letter, Colonel Brandon announces that he must flee Barton Park for London. Pressed to delay his trip, he [End Page 66] regrets to say that "it is not in [his] power." 3 When reminded that his departure will render his friends--the three Miss Dashwoods, the two Miss Careys, Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton, Sir John, and Mr. Willoughby, in short, the community of the novel--powerless to pursue their planned sight-seeing, which depends upon Brandon, he expresses his sorrow at disappointing them but insists that it cannot be helped. When Mrs. Jennings presses him, with characteristically impertinent persistence, to explain what has summoned him so irresistibly, she finds her prying ineffectual before his intransigence. All of Brandon's companions are as powerless to pursue the course of their pleasures as they are to explain...


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