Raymond Williams on Jane Austen, Again
After all, it is you yourself [Raymond Williams] who have shown that there are multiple social processes of a manifestly historical character in the work of Jane Austen, whose fiction is instinct with her time in a much more direct way than is usually thought. Your central argument is that she is not at all unhistorical—she’s a highly historical writer.—New Left Review editors in conversation with Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters
Jane Austen is a favorite touchstone in Raymond Williams’s discussions of both the novel and the development of British culture more broadly. She inaugurates his account of The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970) and then, in The Country and the City (1973), marks the historical shift to “an acquisitive high bourgeois society at the point of its most evident interlocking with an agrarian capitalism . . . [a]n openly acquisitive society, which is concerned with the transmission of wealth, [and] trying to judge itself by an inherited code and the morality of improvement” (Williams, English Novel 21). Austen helps Williams describe a “most difficult world to describe”: “active, complicated, and sharply speculative” (Williams, Country 115). In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976), the novelist is tagged to terms Williams activated in The Country and the City specifically to track the rise of increasingly abstract forms of value: culture and improvement (Keywords 88, 162).
In Culture and Society, The Long Revolution, and even The Politics of Modernism, where she plays only bit parts, Austen nonetheless serves as a known quantity, a handy point of reference for the historical and social analyses Williams will roll out. As the editors of the New Left Review note in their interviews with Williams, even though he does not give Austen a chapter to herself, she nonetheless “figures as the starting point of a tradition” (Politics and Letters 224; emphasis added). “Remarkably confident,” “quite extraordinarily composed,” Austen’s work injects stability and familiarity into Williams’s revisionary analysis (Politics and Letters 230).
It was revisionary in the 1970s to treat Austen as “a highly historical writer,” to quote the words of Williams’s interviewers (Politics and Letters 256).
Williams’s treatment refutes what he calls a truth universally acknowledged (he does not employ quotation marks because he owns the phrase in common with his readers): the truth, that is, that Austen “chose to ignore the decisive political events of her time,” war and revolution (English Novel 18; Country 113). Williams does not claim that the novelist did address such events; rather, he uses Austen’s example to argue powerfully that history and politics belong less to events than to “the whole social experience” (Country 136). In the 1979 interview that became Politics and Letters, Williams goes so far as to align Austen with his view of the canonical Romantic poets (a radical move for any critic at the time). “The Romantic attempts to grasp the momentous social changes of their time, which were eventually to determine all politics,” Williams finds, “were of far greater significance” than their stance on, say, political revolution. ‘Just as—to take a comparable example—it was really much more important that Jane Austen depicted a vast complex transition in the world of English landowning and landholding than that she did not write about the Napoleonic Wars. It is the same kind of judgment. It is not a general dismissal of politics. (Politics and Letters 81–82)’ Williams’s understanding of the history in Austen’s fiction—a history of vast social, economic, and cultural transition—has been supremely influential, coloring scholarly works as diverse as Marilyn Butler’s Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1988), Clifford Siskin’s The Work of Writing: Literature and Social Change 1700–1830 (1999), and Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (1993).
This understanding builds, however, upon a curiously static representation of Austen, offered by a critic otherwise attuned to a literary and social history conceived as unsettled and agitated. As he elaborates in Marxism and Literature (1977), Williams typically directs his critical attention to “structures of feeling” where historical experience hovers “in solution,” not yet “precipitated” into “the fixed and explicit—the known relationships, institutions, formations, positions” (133–34; 128). Williams comes to this formulation, though, after his major work on Austen. If structures of feeling hold loosely “all that is present and moving, all that escapes or seems to escape from the fixed and the explicit and the known,” they seem absent from Austen’s world (Marxism 128). In The Country and the City especially Williams precipitates the world of her novels into something fixed, explicit and known—the anchor of an otherwise mobile “whole social experience” (136). His treatment of Austen tends furthermore to homogenize her fiction (so that any one work stands in for all) and to leave her work unread. By unread I mean to say that in making Austen a touchstone, Williams leaves the novels untouched, and because taken as so familiar, hardly seen.
Williams’s powerful presentation of Austen in history in fact depends less upon structures of feeling than a specific logic of vision and space. Most notably in The Country and the City, Williams focuses attention on “a problem of perspective,” the title of the book’s second chapter. For him the term designates a historiographical problem, but Williams’s “problem of perspective” also works rhetorically to situate the work of reading into a telling and restrictive geometry. The best critique of the rigidity of “perspective” is Williams’s own shift in subsequent work to discerning “history in solution.”
His invocation of the “problem of perspective” in these earlier works, by contrast, is especially inadequate to the stillness, quirks, and vertiges that sometimes characterize the way history moves in Austen’s work.
To loosen understanding of the history in Austen, then, I propose a turn to Williams’s later reflections on media, where rhythm, sound, and temporality replace the geometries of vision and space. Doing so asks us to reconsider the work of reading as Williams depicts it and to move Austen off the page and elsewhere, to less familiar horizons and other media. If works like The Country and the City rely on Austen’s fiction to establish a fixed and familiar horizon, Williams’s writings on “the concept of flow” in new media unmoor that horizon—and our expectations. On the one hand, film and television recognize and capitalize on something less certain or settled emerging especially in the novelist’s later fiction: “qualifications, reservations, indications . . . still sounding elsewhere” (to borrow the language of Marxism and Literature). These features have the potential, as Williams explains elsewhere, to disturb what consensus—critical, historical, or formal—has otherwise “seemed to settle” (Marxism 130). On the other hand, though, Williams’s reflections reveal how new media work to smooth the flux of history into programmatic flow—motion without variation or disturbance. Williams suggests that flow may be a new form of fixity, and that suggestion in turn opens new questions about Williams’s treatment of reading (in the medium of print), his commitment to metaphors of liquidity (“in solution”), and his valuation of motion per se. We might learn more about Austen as a “highly historical writer” by recognizing the limits of Williams’s treatment of the novelist and adopting instead his insights about new media.
In quoting from Williams’s most influential work on Austen, I give page numbers from both The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence and The Country and the City because the analysis of Austen’s novels in the latter repeats wholesale (then extends) that of the former. What interests me is not the obvious change in norms of academic publishing but rather this conflation: that when Williams considers Austen, his approach to a history of the novel and his approach to the social history of these signal English spaces—country and city—so fully overlap. It’s almost as if his rendering of Austen in The English Novel motivates the larger project of The Country and the City—that is, how “land” is “seen”: if Austen “sees land in a way that she does not see ‘other sources’ of income,” he will cultivate other ways of seeing, attuned to “other sources,” especially labor (English Novel 21; Country 115).
The repetition in his analyses works in part because the figure of perspective—styled also as “ways of seeing”—governs both projects. The movement of the eye implicit in perspective cannot for Williams be dissociated from the mode of reading proposed in these works. In the second chapter of The Country and the City, “The Problem of Perspective,” he explains that “the witnesses [i.e., authors and their texts] we have summoned raise questions of historical fact and perspective, but they raise questions, also, of literary fact and perspective” (12). For Williams perspective provides a provisional sort of mechanism for testing the assumptions of the present against those of prior moments; more significantly, it helps to coordinate individual experience with a given social structure. In this early effort, such coordination operates almost geometrically in the (socially and dialectically) constructed spaces denominated as country and city. In fact, recalling the function that it plays in painting, we recognize—as Williams must have—that perspective figures the construction of those spaces. In his argument, the figure of perspective helps to externalize, to diagram or map individual experience onto the perceived world through lines of sight (see figure 1).
Additionally, the second chapter’s famous image of an “escalator” moving through time as if through space (“back we would go again, over the next hill, to the 1750s”) implies that solving the “problem of perspective” requires movement (10).
(Williams’s escalator functions more like a mechanized walkway than a moving staircase—it seems to move laterally, not necessarily ascending or descending). For Williams, proper criticism promotes movement, training the eye to travel between detail and distance, near and far, particular and general, along multiple sightlines. In escalator fashion, The Country and the City organizes the reader’s movement past many stopping points (the “direct experience” of individual witnesses), a movement which then allows the reader to step back and recognize “the regularity of [the] patterns” that make up “real history” (Country 10).
Placing history within the sightlines of perspective, though, reduces felt experience to a single mode of perception, and a rationalized mode of perception at that (figure 2).
Later work by Williams will adopt a more flexible and phenomenologically complex approach to treat the relationship between individual and social experience.
But The Country and the City follows the sharp angles of perspective.
In these early works, the history available via perspective is mirrored by Williams’s mode of reading. As Jean-Jacques Lecercle and others point out, it was Williams, contesting the tradition laid down by F. R. Leavis, who prioritized literature for the New Left as it undertook its investigations of British culture, an emphasis that continues to motivate literary critics.
Framed by Williams’s view out his Cambridgeshire window, The Country and the City works to concretize the ways in which reading offers a kind of perspective, binding the lived and felt experience of individuals to the general forms of culture (e.g. literature, tradition). Reading can perform work similar to that of perspective: the reader’s eye travels over the flat page on its way to building a three-dimensional reality, a social totality defined by a horizon of “real history” beyond the page.
To this end, especially in The Country and the City, acts of reading and acts of seeing overlap and amplify each other. You can leaf through the book and discover simply through the formatting a certain reading practice: inset lines of verse stud and long block quotes knock and bump the way we follow the page. The method does not differ from earlier works of literary criticism: like his own teachers, Williams trains our eyes to read differently, more closely, these passages of quoted text. Yet because The Country and the City consistently aligns reading with the landscape out the window (“back we . . . go again, over the next hill, . . .”), the reader is encouraged to treat the printed page as topography, block quotes standing as landmarks or outcroppings in the continually morphing landscape of British city and country. Analytic focus moves from close to distant and back, the muscles of our inner eye as well as our reading eye exercised to toggle between small detail (of text) and large prospect (of social history). What matters most is precisely that ongoing, alternating, comparative movement, the constantly adjusting perspective: the work of the eye models the work of the mind.
The treatment of texts mimics Williams’s manner of visualizing the landscape of his country. Here, for instance, Williams recounts something like the tour Elizabeth Bennett takes in Pride and Prejudice when she visits “the principal wonders of the country” around Derbyshire, including Pemberley (Austen 157).
‘It is fashionable to admire these extraordinarily numerous houses: the extended manors, the neoclassical mansions, that lie so close in rural Britain. People still pass from village to village . . . to see the next and the next example, to look at the stones and the furniture. But stand at any point and look at the land.Look at what those fields, those streams, those woods even today produce. Think it through as labor and see how long and systematic that exploitation and seizure must have been, to rear that many houses, on that scale. . . . It isn’t only that you know, looking at the land and then at the house, how much robbery and fraud there must have been, for so long, to produce that degree of disparity, that barbarous disproportion of scale. The working farms are so small beside them. . . . What these “great” houses do is to break the scale, by an act of will corresponding to their real and systematic exploitation of others. For look at the sites, the façades, the defining avenues and walls, the great iron gates and the guardian lodges. They were chosen for more than the effect from the inside out. . . . They were chosen, also, you now see, for the other effect, from the outside looking in: a visible stamping of power, of displayed wealth and command: a social disproportion meant to impress and overawe. (Country 105–6; emphasis added)’ Our focus adjusts and readjusts throughout this paragraph: it moves from “People” to “you” most notably, and from then to now, but also from general series (“the next and the next example”), to pointed items (“the stones and the furniture”; “those fields, those streams”), then back out to the large prospect (“look at the land . . . and see the long and systematic . . . exploitation”), only to swing back to reassess detail (“great iron gates,” “guardian lodges”) before discovering finally beyond those details an abstract truth: “you now see” the fact of “social disproportion.” Reading the page teaches you to look at the landscape differently; looking at the landscape (“look at the land”) teaches you to read anew: each is a lens correcting the other. And both depend on that restless movement. The method, worked through form as through argument, is so fully visualized and spatialized that its extension into studies of landscape painting seems inevitable, if not mandatory.
The intellectual and political demands of The Country and the City promote this nimble and constantly shifting work of focalization, until reading itself is manifest, materialized, in the work of a three-dimensional kind of vision that can move between “the inside out” and “the outside looking in.” The dynamic is considerably more freighted and unsettled than the one we tend to associate with a surface/depth hermeneutic of reading: here the insides and outsides of the manor houses figure at the very least a cartography of class. They gesture to Williams’s own troubled position within and without the academic establishment.
Williams constructs for his reader a mobile perspective that he associates with many of his selected writers; but for him, Austen’s perspective does not budge. Just a few pages after this tour of the manor houses, Williams stages another lesson in vision and space in “Three around Farnham.” “In this period of change,” the chapter begins, “it mattered very much where you were looking from,” and Jane Austen is only ever looking from within (108). As Williams maps the “perspectives” of three writers at work in the Hampshire countryside circa 1800, Austen provides the pivot: she appears after William Cobbett, the rabble-rousing outsider, has been shown riding his horse around the neighborhood and before the Reverend Gilbert White strolls through the gardens and woods of Selborne. In a world of flux she remains still: working within “no single, settled society,” she nevertheless exhibits a “settled and remarkably confident way of seeing” (113–14). Essentially enclosed, Williams’s Austen is also strangely abstracted—the vanishing point in his picture of Farnham. Williams concretely visualizes Cobbett: “a boy of fourteen, Cobbett ran away from his father’s small farm at Farnham. Cobbett was to ride back through these villages many times” (108, 117). And he lets White’s journal provide vivid details of lived experience as the naturalist dissects a butcher-bird, notes the ripening of berries, and attends to the horrific effects of the 1783 eruption of the Laki volcano (118-19). By contrast, the figure of Austen remains hardly seen behind those impenetrable walls: “not far away, in another parsonage, Jane Austen was beginning to write. . . . in Chawton . . . inside the houses Cobbett was passing on the road. . . . from the other side of the park wall. . . . from inside the houses” (108, 112, 113, 117). No rooms divide this interior world, no upstairs or downstairs, no delineation of domestic routine: “walls” and “houses” are as concrete as it gets. Even as she tracks the “facts of general change and a certain mobility” affecting the families of the landed classes, the novelist herself remains immeuble (113).
Like the novelist, Austen’s fiction remains both already known (settled, composed) yet hardly seen. In both these early works Williams barely quotes from the novels: two sets of fewer than three lines from Persuasion, followed by a series of small scraps, not even sentences, and those only in order “to abstract this social history” which motivates him (115) (figure 4). He does not have to submit these bits for close analysis any more than he has to put quotation marks around a truth universally acknowledged (113). Compared to the large blocks of Tom Jones or larissa, of Eliot’s fiction and Hardy’s, mention of Austen’s novels blends into the page, barely registering topographically because they are already part of, fully within, the known landscape. The techniques Austen develops “would only have to be taken outside the park walls” by later novelists to gain the requisite distance to become a properly “social criticism” worthy of more sustained attention, of that recommended mobile focalizing, close and distant, by the reader (English Novel 23; Country 117; emphasis added).
In “Knowable Communities,” a later chapter of The Country and the City, Williams insists upon the intimate, inside the walls, “face-to-face” scale of Austen’s world: ‘It is outstandingly face-to-face; its crises, physically and spiritually, are in just these terms: a look, a gesture, a stare, a confrontation; and behind these, all the time, the novelist is watching, observing, physically recording and reflecting. (166)’ Outstandingly visual, the novelist (not unlike the critic) is gifted at seeing and recording how others see, yet little but seeing seems to be seen. As Williams notes elsewhere, what Austen sees is “understandably internal and exclusive” without benefit of larger movement or distance (117).
“Understandably” means we already know why: the reasons stand under our feet, beneath our gaze, without obtruding upon the page. In a pattern that marks his analysis of Austen, outstanding features are absorbed, folded into the understood. At the same time, her “settled and remarkably confident way of seeing” masks a stunted way of seeing: a “foreshortening” of perspective, a “blurring of [the] forces” at work on the larger social prospect (120, 166). Cobbett, perpetually riding by on his horse, can read “class” written on the countryside; Austen, perpetually “inside the houses,” “can never see that”: the common “underlying economic process” (117). When Edward Said quotes these lines in Culture and Imperialism (84), Susan Fraiman calls him—and Williams—out for clinging to “the myth of feminine myopia”: ‘While Said wants to go beyond Williams’s class analysis, his Austen, too, is tied to and constrained by a domestic purview in a specifically gendered way. Defined thus, her work is offered as “the perfect example” (C&I, 59) of the hegemonic geography emergent in the pre-imperialist period, centered on a Eurocentric formulation of the category “home.” Positioned at the beginning of his genealogy and at the heart of his argument, Austen’s fiction works, at least in part, to characterize as domestic and to sex as feminine the larger body of European culture. (Fraiman 819)’
Austen serves as the overtly gendered starting point for Culture and Imperialism, guaranteeing the wide-ranging and masculine force of the argument. (Austen opens both Williams’s The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence as well as Leavis’s The Great Tradition; in both, her work anchors the argument that follows but remains unanalyzed).
Fraiman’s reading of Said suggests that Williams’s positioning of Austen serves as a way of domesticating and feminizing—and I would add, immobilizing—the landholding class and the culture it produced, validating by contrast a certain modern—and masculinized—ethic of mobility.
“Ethic of mobility” is a term borrowed from Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth’s foundational study of realist fiction, Realism and Consensus in the English Novel: Time, Space and Narrative (1983). The term implies that Austen’s status for Williams is not just a function of gender; it may also be a question of genre. Ermarth explains how pictorial perspective finds its narrative counterpart in literary realism and how this shared logic of perspective demands from both an “ethic of mobility” (Ermarth 55–58). I cannot do justice here to Ermarth’s meticulous work, but the link she forges between perspective and realism reminds us that Williams approaches the English novel as a realist project. More significantly, her insights suggest that The Country and the City, with its investment in perspective, adopts the techniques of realist fiction—and nowhere more overtly than in “Three around Farnham.” That chapter asks the reader to track and compare three specific cases, unified in time and space, in order to arrive at an abstract idea of what Williams calls “real history.” In perspectival drawings, Ermarth explains, “the actual form of something [its identity] emerges from a series of vantage points” or “appearances”; realist narrative similarly depends upon a reader sorting and comparing multiple appearances (e.g., Cobbett, Austen, White) in order to compose a social whole. ‘[The] invariant identity of anything cannot be identified at once, but only eventually, through a series where similitudes and recurrent elements can be distinguished among the differences. [Given a homogeneous sense of time and space] the details . . . understood as discreet cases, now come to be understood as partial expressions of hidden wholes; wholes, or identities, which are independent of any particular form of visual apprehension, or, as in the novel, of apprehension by any single individual, in a single moment. (Ermarth 16)’ What Ermath designates as “series,” Williams dubs “pattern” or “general movement” made visible by the moving escalator—and the ongoing motions of reading; the “hidden whole” is the social totality or “real history.” For Ermarth, an ethic of mobility both supports and follows from the work perspective performs in painting and narrative realism; it applies as well to the work perspective performs in Williams’s mode of critical reading.
Ermarth derives the term “ethic of mobility” in contrast to the “ethic of stillness” which Leo Bersani uses to characterize Austen’s Mansfield Park. Stillness makes that novel a limit case, whose “social universe is inimical to the values of realism” and whose “social hierarchy . . . depends upon maintaining position” (Ermarth 55). Or, as Bersani puts it, Mansfield Park is a novel where a “tremblingly still Fanny Price” registers “a sense of the dangers”—and demands, we might add, thinking of the way Fanny is swapped between homes—“of movement” (Bersami 75). Bersani and Ermarth together suggest that Austen’s fiction may not always fit the logic of perspective governing realism; it may not always move in the ways narrative realism would come to demand. Indeed, recent critical work by Anne-Lise François (on Mansfield Park), Sonia Hofkosh (on Northanger Abbey), and Williams Galperin (on all the novels) have given us ways of reading Austen against the currents of realism, and within a capacious understanding of romance. We might simply recall the fragile bubble of romance in Persuasion, where the lovers step away from vision, sightlines and chronological time: they “slowly pace,” “heedless of every group around them, seeing neither sauntering politicians, bustling housekeepers, flirting girls, nor nursery-maids and children, . . . and of yesterday and today there could scarcely be an end” (240–41).
Another reason that Austen fails to appear fully in Williams’s work, then, could be this: her fiction cannot be seen fully within the framework of the realist novel; it eludes a realist mode of reading.
When Williams does envision a concrete image of Austen the novelist—“behind these [looks, etc.], all the time . . . watching, observing, physically recording and reflecting”—the image startles: not just because its apparently 3D depiction of Austen relies on a hard-to-locate “behind” (is she behind the faces? behind the words we read?); and not just because “physically recording and reflecting” raises further questions about the materiality of the scene (does physically recording describe an act of eye, hand, or ear? Does physically also modify reflecting?) (Country 166). The language startles because the watcher-recorder surfaces only to vanish again. Just watch: “Her eye for a house, for timber, for the details of improvement,” Williams notes, “is quick, accurate, monetary” (115). We see a quick eye, her eye. Then: ‘Yet money or other kinds, from the trading houses, from the colonial plantations, has no visual equivalent; it has to be converted into these signs of order to be recognised at all. This way of seeing is especially representative. The land is seen primarily as an index of revenue and position; its visible order and control are a valued product, while the process of working it is hardly seen at all. (English Novel 22; Country 115; emphasis added)’ What happens to her eye, to her, in “this way of seeing”? Elsewhere in this collection of essays, Brian McGrath diagnoses this recurrent feature of Williams’s prose, the recourse to the passive voice. Used sometimes ironically, the passive voice can demonstrate, McGrath writes, “how difficult it can be to determine and stabilize the difference between subjects and objects (the agents who act and the things that are acted upon)” (McGrath). Like perspective, then, the passive voice operates as another mechanism for holding together the individual instance with the larger social whole. In Williams’s writing about Austen, though, its use matches a pervasive disappearing of this woman and her novels. Some unstated generality or abstracting force (“the land is seen,” “the process . . . is hardly seen”) absorbs the novelist, leaving “no visual equivalent” of her “process of working” (the irony hits hard) (Country 115). The abstracting happens again when Williams decrees, “Where only one class is seen, no classes are seen” (117). And again, when “through the holes of this tightly-drawn mesh most actual people are not to be seen,” the mesh-maker in turn drops from view, written over by abstraction and stark impersonality (call it the park wall) (118). D. A. Miller will later twist the characterization, attributing to the novelist this refusal of embodied personhood, as if it were a mode of protection, effacing perforce her “peculiar” social status as spinster-woman-author, before “disappearing” into a flawless style (Miller 8–9).
Williams shows less sympathy. His paragraph concludes: “No other community [than the landed gentry] . . . is by any means knowable. And it is not only most of the people who have disappeared. . . . [it] is also most of the country, which becomes real [in these novels] only as it relates to the houses which are the real nodes; for the rest the country is weather or a place for a walk” (Country 166).
The taut cadence and irony of that last clause—“for the rest the country is weather or a place for a walk”—is nearly Austenian. It signals, if not contempt, then at least Williams’s alienation from this specific “knowable community” and its mode of seeing. But Williams overlooks Austen’s own ironies, and overlooks too her own manner of alienation from the network of manor houses (and her sometimes forced movement among them), all of which might position her differently on the landscape, with a less stable angle of vision. Both The English Novel and The City and the Country ignore the slippages and fissures of Austen’s irony, emphasizing instead the “achievement of a unity of tone,” “her remarkable unity of tone,” “a unity of language in all its main uses,” “a remarkable unity of tone” and what the editors of Politics and Letters echo in citing her “extraordinary unity of tone” (Country 115, 116, 169; Politics and Letters 228). With George Eilot, Williams can hear fracture and inconsistency, a “break in the texture” and coherent “idiom” inherited from Austen. Such dissonance gives evidence of the “acute difficulty” Eliot takes on when trying to comprehend a broader social world than her predecessor (Country 168–69).
In Austen’s fiction he hears no dissonance; hardly seeing, he seems hardly to hear. Impervious unity of tone provides the aural equivalent of her “remarkably settled and confident way of seeing,” elsewhere concretized in the impregnable walls that fix and delimit Jane Austen. All three—enclosing walls, settled way of seeing, unified tone—betoken the exclusive status (quite literal) of Austen’s social world. Features of the landscape as much as features of style, they function as objective correlatives of the otherwise “unseen formula” or rigid “grammar” of Austen’s writing, where “improvement is or ought to be improvement” (Country 116). As William Galperin points out in Historical Austen, Williams’s approach “assumes that Austen’s representational technique could only work in one register and to a single purpose” (Galperin 2). One might add: and from one fixed location and in one tone.
The urge to position Austen in terms of something settled, composed, and unified aligns with Williams’s need for a “point of origin” or, more precisely, a point of departure for critique (“to be taken outside the park walls”). The effort to keep Austen a settled matter nonetheless produces its own strain and discomposure in Williams’s writing, which characteristically gravitates toward a mobile and shifting perspective (the escalator), or toward friction, and unsettledness. I have remarked on the awkward picture of the novelist “behind . . . physically recording”; there is also the “is or ought to be” which snags the neat formula of Austen’s settled view of improvement. Additionally there are repeated (apologetic?) notes of exceptionalism (“outstanding,” “remarkable,” “extraordinary”) that jar an account that otherwise assimilates Austen’s work into a representative, hegemonic, and uniform way of seeing.
The effort to maintain Austen as a fixed entity—the requisite vanishing point—does begin to wobble later, in Politics and Letters. There Williams suggests that Austen’s achieved unity was hardly achieved: “In my view Jane Austen makes a very strenuous attempt to unify what was not unifiable” (228; emphasis added). Or achieved only through magic: he calls up a favorite image of the novelist accomplishing the “reconciliation of property and value like a supernatural lawyer.” The supernatural lawyer appears in both The English Novel and The Country and the City: this third time it feels almost insistent (English Novel 23; Country 116; Politics and Letters 228). Williams’s simile introduces a note of historical impossibility, of fantasy operating in a world he otherwise subjects fully to the protocols of realism. In claiming that her “settlements are an artificial solution” that will provide the “basis for critique” in the work of subsequent novelists, Williams seems not quite to recognize that the manifest artificiality, extraordinariness, and, for lack of a better word, romance of these settlements already form a kind of critique (Politics and Letters 228).
Quietly, slightly, something begins to shift and move in the way he speaks of Austen. After pages spent fending off the stringent objections of his interlocutors on the topic of Austen’s fiction, objections which seem to stand in for a discussion of tradition and literature per se, Williams turns an unforeseen corner. What had been assumed “understandably” in The Country and the City now needs to be investigated: “In Austen’s case, I would now say that two special conditions of her ideological stance were decisive: She was doubly marginalized in relation to her class, as a dependent within it, and as a woman” (Politics and Letters 230). The ground shifts, sending Austen to a more precarious position on the margins of the propertied class. To which Williams’s interlocutors respond, “Turning to Dickens . . .” (230).
Yet in any full assessment of history it is necessary to be aware that these temporary and provisional indications of attention and emphasis—of “subjects”—can never be mistaken for independent and isolated processes and products. For they are at best provisional intellectual identifications of significant areas of a common life. . . . Lines indeed have to be drawn, to make any account possible, but it is always necessary to see ourselves as drawing them, rather than to suppose that the marks on this one of many maps are hard features, of similar content and isolation, on the ground.—Williams, What I Came to Say
Williams makes the observations above in a 1983 essay on film history, but what he says here could easily carry over to a history of the novel or of Romanticism, or indeed, his own line-drawing around that “subject” of attention and emphasis, Jane Austen. Even as The Country and the City appeared in print, Williams was immersing himself in the new discipline of communications; his Television: Technology and Cultural Form appeared a year later, in 1974. Williams’s encounter with the study of new media appears to have made him more emphatic about destabilizing the subjects and “unitary” narratives of the “fixed and enclosed forms of established culture” (What I Came to Say 138, 136).
It seems plausible, indeed faithful to Williams’s insights, to engage Austen anew through the more mobile, multistranded and contentious mode that Williams developed for his histories of film and television, media forms which have amply welcomed Jane Austen—her fiction and her fictionalized life. Features that had hardened into familiarity, the park walls drawn around that “subject,” are set in motion when television, film, and a range of digital media testify that the “areas of common life” denominated by “Jane Austen” extend now—and have in fact extended for a century—well beyond an English countryside, and indeed beyond an English or even literary tradition, and well beyond the enclosure of a unified style.
Two concerns emerge with this change of approach. First, the terms Williams develops to speak of new media—television especially—help us perceive how deeply Austen’s fiction is informed and vexed by questions of motion, temporality, and tempo (rather than the questions of vision and space raised by Williams’s earlier work). Of course motion has a place in all Austen’s fiction (think only of Catherine Morland’s carriage ride with John Thorpe, or Elizabeth Bennett’s muddy walk); but motion (along with stasis) is subject to severe scrutiny in her later work: Emma, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, and Sanditon. Second, Williams’s analysis also suggests that in grasping this aspect of Austen’s work, new media risk exploiting and sanitizing it, smoothing its vexations into harmonious and continual “flow.” In short, Williams’s writing on media reveals the limitations of both his early work on Austen’s novels and the later adaptation of those novels by new media. If Austen led him to translate reading to a mode of seeing, new media lead him to worry about reading converted to a mode of watching.
With the move to the study of media comes a heightened attention in Williams’s method to multiple lines of development (no single tradition or telos) as well as a reconsideration of the appeal of mobility. He finds for instance that independent of narrative content, the medium of film provides “experiences of mobility, dislocation and alienation, but also intense curiosity about movement and newly possible dynamic forms” (142; emphasis added). The emphasis extends to his reflections on television, which offers not just a curiosity about mobility but—and again, independent of specific content—a newly mobile way of viewing: the “primary processes of the technology [of television],” he explains, promote a new “kind of attention,” “an experience of visual mobility, of contrast of angle, of variation of focus, which is often very beautiful” (Television 74–75). In both film and television the movement associated with the technology and an individual’s experience of that movement form part of a “whole social experience . . . of greater physical and social mobility” (87–88). Television makes Williams’s figure of the escalator (strained to begin with) unusable: motion expands almost infinitely even as it becomes more recursive and constraining. Wary of the greater mobility of new media, Williams’s analyses discard the spatialized, perspectival vision that informs The Country and the City, working instead with temporal markers of rhythm and tempo, as well as sonic qualities of dissonance and silence.
What preoccupies Williams about television especially (and his “television” powerfully anticipates subsequent new media) is the “concept of flow,” a reformulation of sequence and interval without interruption, where rhythmic and seemingly “natural breaks” foster “the impulse to go on watching”—not unlike, perhaps, the experience of reading serialized novels in print. Yet “watching” directs itself at no particular content, but simply an undifferentiated, horizonless, and ever-streaming “television,” quite distinct from the topographical model of seeing/reading promoted in The Country and the City.
Born of competition between networks and the cultivation of brand loyalty (stay tuned!), the “concept of flow” rearranges human experience. Perspective dissolves in the experience of the screen and visual activity finds itself subordinate to a certain tempo and movement captured by the liquid “flow” of ceaseless programming. Williams searches for both revolutionary and counterrevolutionary impulses in the phenomenon, but Television ends on this dystopian note: ‘Under cover of talk about choice and competition, a few para-national corporations, with their attendant states and agencies, could further reach into our lives, at every level from news to psycho-drama, until individual and collective response to many different kinds of experience and problem became almost limited to choice between their programmed possibilities. (151)’ In contrast to older and, as Williams sees it, more “static” notions of programming (in conventional modes of entertainment and education), “the flow [of new media] is always accessible, in many simultaneous and alternative sequences, at the flick of a switch”—or, we might now say, at the touch of a button or utterance of a command. “Both internally, in its immediate organization, and as a generally available experience,” “flow” indicates a mobile, primarily temporal mode of experience, inflected but not broken or divided by individual activity (95). As one scholar put it, Williams finds in the “flow” of television the theater of capitalism—and an apt image for capitalism’s principle of utter fungibility and exchangeability.
What would happen if we understood Jane Austen within that flow, continuously available “at the flick of a switch” in multiple, simultaneously streaming manifestations? And what might Austen know of flow? A concept of flow might be one way of reconsidering the recursive everydayness of a novel like Emma and its investigation of how choice—even for the privileged heroine—resides only in “programmed possibilities.” More specifically, such an approach would suggest how and to what extent Emma’s creation of a fictional everyday—praised by Walter Scott for its seamless fusion with the reader’s “own social habits” such that “the youthful wanderer may return from his promenade to the ordinary business of life, without any chance of having his head turned by the recollection of the scene through which he has been wandering”—might coincide with the ordinary business and ongoing flow of new media (68). (In addition to several film versions, “Clueless”  adapted from Emma and translated to Beverly Hills, spawned a TV series, “Clueless” [1996–1999] and the video blog, “Emma Approved,” all of which are continuously flowing through online media services. “Stream Anytime,” Amazon advises.) In the space that remains, though, I follow “flow” and the attendant qualities of tempo and silence in another direction, using the case of Austen’s last novel, Persuasion, and its televised 1996 remediation directed by Roger Michell (later turned into a film, also available for streaming).
In Persuasion, punctual event, threat, and work itself (domestic and military) promote competing and sometimes irreconcilable rhythms and temporalities, resolved uncertainly by what the last page of the novel calls “the tax of quick alarm.” These competing tempos provide part of the historical and critical force of the novel. But they are absorbed by the televised version and, as Williams guides us to see, channeled via transnational capitalism into a more harmonious flow.
It will be obvious to most Austen readers that Persuasion, the one novel of hers that Williams cites, however sparingly, is also the novel least stabilized by the economies of the park wall and the landed gentry. Persuasion is Austen’s most aqueous book, set in motion by the return of naval officers. Sir Walter Elliott must move to leased housing in Bath and rent his family estate; his renter is Admiral Croft, flush with prize money and newly returned from the Navy in 1814, the year of the so-called false peace (in this novel Austen does work carefully to bring together the upending events of the Napoleonic Wars with the unsettling social reality of the home front). Social instability is newly, baldly evident in Persuasion in the figures of the scheming widow Mrs. Clay, the gossiping invalid Mrs. Smith, and the wounded officer, Captain Harville (the mobility of the latter two seriously, physically impeded). A disturbing sense of flux lurks in unelaborated memories of the sailors’ years at sea and in the visit the protagonists make to Lyme Regis, where they walk upsetting promenades at the water’s edge. A pervasive unease makes itself heard, moreover, in the unprecedented bitterness of the narrator’s ironies and “lapses” of tone: a report, for instance, on “the large, fat sighings” of a mother recalling the death of her son, “whom alive nobody had cared for” (68).
Not only in characters, locations, and tone, but also in felt experiences that are new to Austen’s fiction, agitation asserts itself. In the various falls, faints, and dizziness that beset its characters and organize its plot, mobility-as-dislocation signals more than an economic and social experience, and more than an occasion for moral improvement. They penetrate now somatically and affectively, revealing “what escapes or seems to escape from the fixed and the explicit and the known”—revealing, that is, what Williams names a “structure of feeling.”
The 1995 television adaptation of the novel contains this sense of liquid flux and translates it to flow in several ways, not least when it has Anne Elliott and Captain Bewick recite together (by the seaside) these lines from Scott’s Lady of the Lake, canto 3:
Like the dew on the mountain,Like the foam on the river,Like the bubble on the fountain,Thou art gone, and forever! (lines 390–93).
Whatever loss the lines might register is pacified by repetition (the flowing sequence of exchangeable similes, the feminine rhyme, the easy concord of the reciters) as well as the excerptability of the lines, their ready portability from one story to another and another. More formally, the TV series opens and closes with scenes shot on water. An extraordinary underwater shot, all blue flow—beautiful in the way Williams identifies the contentless visual mobility of television—is the first thing to appear on screen, the camera then surfacing to the steady, diagetic pulse of oars (with extradiegetic harpsichord) as rowers ferry Admiral Croft to his ship. The abstraction of the initial image and the cadence of the oars together defuse any turbulence an underwater view might portend to the men of the Royal Navy. The film ends, again at sea, with another wordless scene Austen did not imagine: now married to Captain Wentworth, Anne Elliott stands with him on the deck of a ship he commands as sailors go about their daily chores (swabbing the deck, etc.). The camera pulls back to display the man-of-war floating serenely westward, then silhouetted against a glorious sunset. Like the first underwater shot, the final image surrenders depth to undulation across a two-dimensional surface. A swelling orchestral arrangement gives way to the piano, which closes the film in simple descending chords. The two final shots of the film, the naval vessel moving west and then poised on the horizon, were taken from footage of the film The Bounty, a 1984 remake of The Mutiny on the Bounty and the latest of five film versions (Parrill 156). A ready portability from one story to another and another.
From one image of the British Navy, a mutiny in the South Pacific in 1789, to this peaceably unmappable picture of married contentment (perhaps post-Waterloo: the novel and miniseries are pointedly set in 1814, but we have no idea when Wentworth is sent back to sea with Anne nor if, as in 1815, Britain is again at war), the movement of this footage from film to television is itself made possible by flow—in this case, the flow of capital funding for Persuasion. What began as a BBC project became a global enterprise via partnership with station WGBH in Boston, sponsored in turn by the Mobile Oil Corporation, backer of WGBH’s popular Masterpiece Theater program, and joined ultimately with Millésime Productions, a French company. (The TV miniseries–turned–feature film was distributed by Sony Classics beginning in 1997). With this boost of funding, the project moved from a chamber piece set primarily indoors to a much more ambitious historical romance, with the ability to film outdoors on location (in Bath and Lyme) and to purchase footage from the American-British-New Zealand product The Bounty (starring the Australian Mel Gibson and Welsh actor Anthony Hopkins). Expanding what might be considered the world of the novel, taking it well beyond the park walls, the scenes at sea also participate materially and thematically in the concept of flow as Williams defines it.
Such transnational enterprises have marked Austen’s entry into film and television for decades, and effectively made of Jane Austen a brand that circulates the globe. This is not news. But the concept of flow and its soothing rhythms, which so thoroughly inhabit the 1995 television adaptation of Persuasion, set in relief the less steady motions, the discordant tempos of the novel. If, in closing, we return to the novel not looking at its topography, nor pacified by memory of the flowing films, but with an ear for its own distinctive tempos, we can hear its enduring, unsettled dissonances more sharply.
On the largest scale we might point to the difference between Anne’s domesticating rhythms and those of the military enterprise that employs Wentworth and his fellow sailors. But such differences can be registered on smaller scales as well. The bouts of dizziness, for instance, that punctuate Persuasion—like the several falls, evidence of unsteady and erratic movement as well as historical instability—are mostly filtered through a free indirect discourse tied to Anne. Her consciousness is “bombarded,” as A. Walton Litz puts it, leaving her to endure private, interior waves of turbulence (228). That internal rhythm is juxtaposed to an exterior tempo embodied by Wentworth. As John Wilshire has remarked, Captain Wentworth serves as an agent of speed and suddenness: he is described often in motion, moving “in an instant” with a “quicker step,” often threatening Anne’s equilibrium (Wiltshire 171). The two rhythms, of inner turbulence and outer impetuousness, are so starkly opposed that they seem impossible to harmonize—until they do, magically, when Anne and Wentworth finally manage to be alone together. But the deep discord of those competing rhythms rumbles in the last lines of the novel, where the narrator relays that ‘[h]is profession was all that could ever make her friends wish [Anne’s] tenderness less; the dread of a future war all that could dim her sunshine. She gloried in being a sailor’s wife, but she must pay the tax of quick alarm for belonging to that profession which is, if possible, more distinguished in its domestic virtues than in its national importance. (Persuasion 252)’ It’s a foreboding resolution, to say the least, the repeated “all” of the opening sentence hardly sounding settled or promising stability. And who thinks “if possible”: Anne? The narrator? Social consensus? There is no firm ground; point of view—that is, perspective—feels impossible to secure. Reading instead for tempo (“all that could make . . . all that could dim”), what strikes me now is the odd phrase, “must pay the tax of quick alarm.” The phrasing is rhythmic and precise, a small shadow neatly tucked under the sunny smile of “she gloried.” In contrast to the preceding sentences, its monosyllables offer something simple, matter-of-fact, and almost proverbial. Yet “quick alarm” worries in part because of its seeming redundancy: the novel has been full of quick alarms, but this phrase raises the possibility of slow alarms we have not registered.
In these irreconcilable tempos, the novel here and elsewhere works with and against the concept of flow. “Paying the tax of quick alarm” yokes Anne’s emotional state to the coffers of the state, which had routinely, and more aggressively in the decades since Napoleon’s rise, proliferated modes of taxation so as to fund the wars with France (William Pitt introduced, among other funding schemes, the first individual income tax) (Brewer 110–11). But it is not clear what relation between our heroine’s emotional life and the state economy is suggested by the phrase. Had the author of Keywords included “tax” in his vocabulary of society and culture, he would have noted the slow turn away from the etymological link between “tax” and an obligatory “task” or job, and toward its current association with money exacted by government authorities. He might have noted as well the way taxes can coordinate individual activity (e.g., labor) with the demands of a larger sociopolitical entity through the medium of money. Austen’s language insists on tax as payment. But in what sense must Anne pay taxes? And is paying the tax a consequence of her “profession,” understood less as work (task) than as a mode of being (glorying and exhibiting “domestic virtues”)? Or is paying tax a duty (another word for tax) evenly distributed across the populace? I wonder whether the tax she must pay is a one-time offering or part of a general pattern, a periodic or indeed continuous demand. “Tax” hints that some species of slow alarm subtends the quick alarms so crisply forecast.
In any case, the notion of payment proposes to regulate feeling: paying a tax helps to pace Anne’s undifferentiated dread into smaller installments of quick alarm. Paying the tax furthermore recycles alarm—quietly, with no need for Anne to say a word—into the hands of the state, where it can flow out to support future military endeavors. All that could make, all that could dim, all channeled into paying the tax. And yet the resolution proposed here for coordinating Anne’s interior state with the workings of a militarized state can hardly be read as smoothly reassuring. Rather, it exposes and questions the mechanisms by which such resolutions are engineered.
Written by the sister of naval officers, Persuasion understands paying attention as paying a tax, funneling one’s private, emotional turbulence into the ongoing operations of the British Navy and the empire it will maintain. In Persuasion, a militarized state anticipates the “para-national corporations, with their attendant states and agencies,” that “could further reach into our lives, at every level from news to psycho-drama” (Williams, Television 151). When Williams meditates on “the concept of flow,” and studies how new media like television ask us simply and continually “to watch,” he is updating a Romantic phenomenon that Lily Gurton-Wachter, in her Watchwords, has illuminated so well—and that Austen fully grasps.
The friction she generates in Persuasion offers proleptic resistance to that flow Williams locates in the theater of capitalism. Watching, she might say, can be taxing.
It should not surprise us that television cannot admit such taxation. The 1995 television adaptation of Persuasion eliminates the dread, the tax, and the quick alarm. It does not wrestle to coordinate Anne’s domesticating rhythms with those of the man of war; she enters his world fully and wordlessly. The two stand together on the deck of a battleship, smile at each other, and look out placidly, watching, watching the empty ocean. A ship floats in silhouette on the flowing water. Everything is externalized, and everyone at sea.