Monday, 21 September 2015

Miss Austin (Austen) and Aristotle

Miss Austin (the form of Jane’s name that Dr. Whately uses) pays attention and can conjure a world out of fragments:

Harriet, tempted by every thing and swayed by half a word, was always very long at a purchase; and while she was still hanging over muslins and changing her mind, Emma went to the door for amusement.—Much could not be hoped from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury;—Mr. Perry walking hastily by, Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office-door, Mr. Cole's carriage-horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.

That episode of Harriet shopping and going back to the Bates house with Frank Churchill and his step mother Mrs. Weston and then Mr. Knightley passing by on his horse on an errand and the meandering conversation, the teasing of Miss Fairfax, the fixing of a rivet on a pair of spectacles; one thing after another in a flow so natural that we hardly notice the art. Whately praises her in his review for her achievement of Aristotelian perfection.

It is a remark of the great father of criticism, that Poetry (i.e. narrative, and dramatic poetry) is of a more philosophical character than History; inasmuch as the latter details what has actually happened, of which many parts may chance to be exceptions to the general rules of probability, and consequently illustrate no general principles; whereas the former shows us what must naturally, or would probably, happen under given circumstances; and thus displays to us a comprehensive view of human nature, and furnishes general rules of practical wisdom. It is evident, that this will apply only to such fictions as are quite perfect in respect of the probability of their story; and that he, therefore, who resorts to the fabulist rather than the historian, for instruction in human character and conduct, must throw himself entirely on the judgment and skill of his teacher, and give him credit for talents much more rare than the accuracy and veracity which are the chief requisites in history. We fear, therefore, that the exultation which we can conceive some of our gentle readers to feel, at having Aristotle's warrant for (what probably they had never dreamed of) the philosophical character of their studies, must, in practice, be somewhat qualified, by those sundry little violations of probability which are to be met with in most novels; and which so far lower their value, as models of real life, that a person who had no other preparation for the world than is afforded by them, would form, probably, a less accurate idea of things as they are, than he would of a lion from studying merely the representations on China teapots.
(from Miscellaneous Lectures and Reviews by Richard Whately)

And Mr Knightley, that paragon, is he a little whim of improbability on the part of Miss Austin, a mocking perhaps of the beau ideal of ladies fiction, a snapping of the knight’s garter as it were. What evidence have I for this mischief? Alas none.

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