Monday, 1 April 2013

Romantic despite herself

"no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck..."
Charlotte Brontë's accusation that there is “no open country, no fresh air”1 in Austen’s polite world is untrue. Austen incorporates the natural world as her characters would see it, and their perceptions change over the years under the influence of Romanticism. Elizabeth admires Pemberley’s woods hanging over a winding stream with an 18th century appreciation of the picturesque; she is not emotionally uniting with nature; but a few years later, in about 1816, Anne Elliott, thinking of her own lost happiness, walks through the November fields quoting poetry about autumn to herself, glutting her sorrow on the mellow beauty around her, three years before Keats’ Ode to Autumn was published.
Painting, even the most familiar of places and weather, is another word for feeling: 
The Close, Salisbury oil by Constable,  
Victoria & Albert Museum. Image source: Web Gallery of Art

Constable, for whom painting was "but another word for feeling”2, was put on table mats...
for a large part of the 20th century, his innovatory painting of nature outdoors, depicting weather and landscape in response to his observation and subjective experience, completely misunderstood (in England, not in France where, in his lifetime, he influenced Géricault and Delacroix, and later, the Impressionists) and devalued by mass marketing and a modern confusion of instant gratification of the senses with Keatsian "instant feeling". Now we appreciate the freedom of his oil sketches, rapid brush strokes putting "instant feeling" and changes of light and wind on to canvas, art "upon the pulse".3

Thomas Lawrence, whose dilatory approach to completing commissions frustrated the sitters who sometimes waited years for their portraits, explained to his glamorous confidante, and probable lover, Isabella Wolff, that he was "mastered by [his] much the slave of the picture I am painting, as if it had personal, living existence and chained me to it...How often in the progress of a picture, have I said, 'Well, I’ll do no more', and after laying down my palette and pencils, and washing my hands, whilst wiping them dry I have seen the 'little more,' that has made me instantly take them up again." 4There is a surprising similarity in the long working process of this most impulsive and bravura of Regency artists with the far more detailed, palimpsest art of Austen, who laid aside the early versions of her first three novels, written between 1796 and 1799, and revised them a decade later for publication.

Bold and beautiful, shining with sensuality, posed and lit like a Hollywood screen goddess: Lady Blessington caught, eternally flirting with us, by Lawrence, the "male coquet"5 who made love to men and women through his art. He put sex into Romantic society portraiture the way Byron put it into poetry
Unlike Austen in her prose, he had a tendency to paint people "too flattered and pinky"6.  
Oil painting in Wallace Collection. Image source: Wikipedia

Austen, who knew her own limitations, leaves ecstasy, madness, murderous rage and self-destruction to other writers, and to painters and actors, part of whose craft was to heighten the colours of nature, but she sympathetically delineated the kind of difficult feelings,“mortification, grief, agony”7, that Sally Siddons suffered. Without affectation or self-dramatization of their feelings - crucially, “Anne’s object was, not to be in the way of any body”8 - her heroines apply Romantic lessons in psychological truths to themselves. 
The development of Emma's character during the novel is Austen's illustration of Keats' belief that suffering pain and troubles was necessary "to school an intelligence and make it a soul"3.

The movement towards a subjective, existential understanding of life was an urge in men and women from different parts of society, with different moral and political ideas, all of them affected to lesser or geater degrees by the tumultuous events in the outside world, revolution, war, famine, disease and social unrest, as well as by their private tragedies. “Till this moment I never knew myself” is as much the unspoken cry of an Austen heroine in a drawing room, as of a Byronic hero on a foreign mountain, or Wordsworth in the Lakes. Romanticism was a democratic way of explaining and ameliorating the human tragedy through feeling; excluding people from it just because they do not fit in to its most exalted manifestations belittles the thing itself.

One of Keats' final axioms was that poetry should "[enter] into one's soul, [and] not startle it or amaze itself but with its subject".3 This serves as a perfect description of Jane Austen's writing, and of truly loving another person.

Jane Austen is a Romantic - just a very, very cautious one.

PART THREE: "I fly with HORROR from such a passion"

1 Charlotte Bronte’s Letters 1848-51 edited by Margaret Smith, 2000  
2 Letter to John Fisher, 1821, in JR. Leslie Memoirs of the Life of John Constable
3 John Keats' Selected Letters edited by Robert Gittings4 Letter to Isabella Wolff, 1810, quoted in"The Life and Correspondence of Sir Thomas Lawrence" by D.E.Williams, 1831
5 Joseph Farington Diary
6 Ibid
7 Quotes from Sally Siddons' letters from Florence Clement Parsons, The Incomparable Siddons, University of California e-book.
8 Chapter 10, Persuasion