- Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Worldly Realism by Pam Morris
In Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Worldly Realism, Pam Morris approaches the novel by focusing on worldly realism as “distinct from psychological and social realism” (p. 5). Worldly realism involves a simultaneous flattening and enriching of the text that reflects the social changes key to the periods in which both Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf wrote. Using Jacques Rancière, Morris emphasizes junctures at which hierarchical [End Page 484] structures of value were replaced by horizontal models of the relations between persons and between persons and things. She combines this focus on what Rancière calls dissensus with attention to critiques of idealism that were articulated in Austen’s period by David Hume, Adam Smith, David Hartley, and Elizabeth Hamilton, and in Woolf’s by H. G. Wells and Bertrand Russell. Using this two-pronged approach, Morris combines sweeping discussions of political and social change with passages that concentrate on the material objects that litter Austen’s and Woolf’s novels: the “books, boots, hearth, hair, mud, piano, food, cars, flowers, aeroplane, carriage, nerves, bodies, table” that spiral across the cover of Morris’s book.
For Morris, Austen and Woolf share “the sceptical mockery of heroic endeavour, of individualist exceptionalism, and of gender hierarchy along with the ironic rejection of established literary forms” (p. 3). This commonality necessitates revising accepted critical preconceptions about both Austen and Woolf; Morris reads the former as less politically conservative and the latter as less committed to the internal self and less resistant to realism than many critics have assumed. The introduction establishes the links between the two authors through parallel readings of Northanger Abbey (1817) and Jacob’s Room (1922), a novel in which Woolf references Austen. Generally, however, Morris does not bring the two authors together in one place, instead providing parallel readings of novels that follow the trajectory of Austen’s and Woolf’s careers. Beginning with Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925), Morris moves to Emma (1815) and The Waves (1931) and concludes with Persuasion (1817) and The Years (1937).
The pleasure of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Worldly Realism lies as much in its method of reading as in its arguments. The writing moves from discussing broad shifts in class structure in Austen’s period to considering the history of the piano (in the chapter on Emma) or from a broad consideration of England and the First World War to Henry Ford and the motorcar (in the chapter on Mrs. Dalloway). Turning away from the more common critical emphasis on plot or story, each chapter explores instead “the micro horizontal intersections of material, social and psychological forces that comprise macro processes of change” (p. 143). Packed with research from contemporary periodicals, references to Woolf’s essays, histories of objects, and lists of the words each novel emphasizes, Morris’s book is both erudite and lucidly written. As a whole its prose style makes it extremely accessible and its compiling of various materials means that it would be of interest to everyone from scholars of Austen and Woolf to a non-academic audience that enjoys finding out more about their favorite authors and the worlds in which they lived and wrote.
The book’s limitations are less a question of method and practice than of its central premise. By the end the reader is, I think, completely convinced [End Page 485] that focusing simultaneously on a macro and micro level produces fascinating and original readings of familiar texts. I was less persuaded that Austen and Woolf are particularly tied to one another or that worldly realism could not easily be applied to other authors. In her introduction, Morris alludes briefly to George Eliot as an author who would not be considered a worldly realist because of her exceptional heroines. However, I can imagine reading Eliot as someone who, like Austen, presents apparently exceptional figures like Emma Woodhouse, in order subsequently to show them interacting with others as equals. I could similarly imagine...