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Jane Austens

Narrative Techniques
A Stylistic and Pragmatic Analysis

Massimiliano Morini

Jane Austens
Narrative Techniques

For Valentina Poggi, who is about to begin her career

as a full-time translator

Jane Austens
Narrative Techniques
A Stylistic and Pragmatic Analysis

Massimiliano Morini
University of Udine, Italy

Massimiliano Morini 2009

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval
system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying,
recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the publisher.
Massimiliano Morini has asserted his moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents
Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
Published by
Ashgate Publishing Limited Ashgate Publishing Company
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British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
Morini, Massimiliano
Jane Austens narrative techniques: a stylistic and pragmatic analysis
1. Austen, Jane, 17751817 Literary style 2. Narration (Rhetoric)
I. Title
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Morini, Massimiliano.
Jane Austens narrative techniques: a stylistic and pragmatic analysis / by Massimiliano
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references (p.) and index.
ISBN 978-0-7546-6607-3 (alk. paper)
1. Austen, Jane, 17751817Criticism and interpretation. 2. Austen, Jane, 17751817
Technique. 3. Narration (Rhetoric)History19th century. 4. Women and literature
EnglandHistory19th century. 5. FictionTechnique. I. Title.
PR4037.M67 2009
ISBN: 978-0-7546-6607-3 (hbk)
ISBN: 978-0-7546-9313-0 (ebk.V)


List of Abbreviations
Part 1



1 Jane Austens Narrators


2 The Development of Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


3 Narrative Opacity in Mansfield Park


Part 2


4 Jane Austens Dialogue


5 Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


6 Winning the War of Conversation in Emma







Book Title

This book owes its existence to Beatrice Battaglia, the leading Austen scholar in
Italy, who fifteen years ago set me wandering down the paths of Highbury; and to
John Douthwaite, who encouraged me to pursue the study of stylistics. My thanks
are also due, as always, to Valentina Poggi and Romana Zacchi, for their longstanding advice and support; to Fabio Cimatti, for agreeing to lend me the talent he
keeps hidden from the world; and to Paola Venturi, because I would never dream
of publishing anything before submitting it to her quick eye and sound judgement.
I would also like to thank Francesco, for being too short as yet to damage my
Austen files and typescripts beyond repair; and collectively, Giovanni, Bianca and
Francesco, for not caring about Jane Austen or anything I write about.
Chapters 1 and 6, in slightly or (respectively) very different guises, have
already been published in Style (Who Evaluates Whom and What in Jane Austens
Novels?; 41:3, 2007) and Language and Literature (Say What You Mean, Mean
What You Say: A Pragmatic Analysis of the Italian Translations of Emma; 16:1,
2007); while Chapter 3 (Tracking Jane Austens Narrator: Sense and Significance
of Mansfield Park) has appeared on Il bianco e il nero. I would like to extend my
thanks to the editorial staffs of these journals, which gave me a forum for my ideas
and the opportunity to correct or clarify them.

Chapter Title

List of Abbreviations



Lady Susan


Mansfield Park


Northanger Abbey



Pride and Prejudice



Sense and Sensibility


The Watsons


This page has been left blank intentionally

Another Book on Jane Austen
Five years ago, compelled by what I saw as a small critical lacuna, I embarked on
a number of linguistic studies of Austens novels. When those studies accumulated
and started to form an abstract but substantial heap on my computer desktop, the
prospect of turning that heap into a consistent whole still seemed daunting, if not
ludicrous. An intimidating mass of analytical, biographical, and reference material
made any attempt at writing another book on Jane Austen appear doomed David
defying Goliath without as much as a sling up his critical sleeve. At that time, my
only idea for a title was a self-defeating one: Another Book on Jane Austen and it
is a measure of the difficulty of the enterprise that I did not even know if the idea
was mine, or if I had heard of the title somewhere else.
However, my embarrassment started to abate as my linguistic studies
progressed and defined themselves in the general context of Austen criticism. In
this context, it soon became evident that besides bridging a critical gap, the sort
of book-length study that I was planning would provide a means to gauge existing
critical readings of Austens novels against the actual linguistic materials with
which those novels are built. On the face of it, a book which combines linguistics
and Jane Austen may appear to create a very strange pair of bedfellows; but
if the conceptual anachronism is forgotten (or forgiven, along with other similar
anachronisms: Jane Austen and feminism, Jane Austen and postcolonial theory),
the basic methodological idea behind Jane Austens Narrative Techniques acquires
the cogency of obviousness. As I hope to demonstrate in what follows, pragmatics,
stylistics, and evaluation theory provide an appropriate analytical framework for
the writings of a theoretically reticent craftsman of the English language who has
been construed to say or mean radically different, often opposing things.
Through its linguistically-minded analysis, the present study expresses an
implicit and explicit dissatisfaction with some historical and contemporary
versions of Jane Austen. Admittedly, some of these versions are now outdated, and
have been replaced by new ones; but some new critical ideas have become modern
Austen commonplaces which will not pass the test of close linguistic scrutiny.
Therefore, in order to understand the aims of Jane Austens Narrative Techniques,
a preliminary historical survey is needed.
A Brief Summary of Austen Criticism
The earliest critical version of Jane Austen saw her as a provincial, harmless,
unconscious miniaturist whose works never touched upon the innermost feelings
of man or the greater destinies of mankind. This version originated in Austens

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

lifetime, and still has some popular, if not critical, currency. When E was published
in 1816, an anonymous reviewer wrote that it would probably become a favourite
with all those who seek for harmless amusement, rather than deep pathos or
appalling horrors, in works of fiction (Southam 1968: 70). The double-edged
compliment of harmless amusement was replicated in countless critical notices
and essays, and the portrait of the artist as an agreeable spinster, harmless herself,
was reinforced by the biographical accounts penned by members of Austens
family circle. When the compliment became an accusation, it was commonly noted
that the novels bore no trace of the innumerable social and political upheavals of
their age (Walter Scott wrote in 1815 that The subjects are not often elegant, and
certainly never grand; Southam 1968: 67). In this critical tradition, if Jane Austen
was allowed to possess great creative arts, these had been acquired unconsciously,
and were shown in the extraordinary grace of her facility (Southam 1987: 230),
to quote Henry Jamess faint and damning praise.
The legend of Austen as dear aunt Jane has been attacked from several
quarters, in its thematic and technical implications. In his famous essay on
Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen (1940), D.W. Harding
first identified a satirical vein which was obviously a means not of admonition
but of self-preservation (Harding 1940/1998: 12), the authors survival strategy
in a disagreeable world. Though Hardings reading was intentionally provocative,
lop-sided (Harding 1940/1998: 25), it gave birth to a whole subversive school
of critics who see Austen as deliberately, though covertly, challenging the values of
her society. From the technical point of view, it has become increasingly apparent
that the narratological complexity of Austens works cannot be accounted for in
terms of novelistic instinct or artistic unconsciousness. If Q.D. and F.R. Leavis
were already persuaded that Jane Austens plots, and her novels in general, were
put together very deliberately and calculatedly (if not like a building) (Leavis
1948/1964: 7), more recent criticism has found a place for Austen in the greater
tradition of European literature (cf. Roger Gards comparison of Austen with
Flaubert; Gard 1992: 14454).
However, while the recognition of Austen as a major and serious author dates
at least from the 1910s (Reginald Farrers 1917 essay springs to mind), it was in
the 1970s that aunt Janes harmless aura was definitively dispelled. Three critical
books of very different descriptions contributed to dismantle the foundations of
the legend: Raymond Williams The Country and the City (1973), Marilyn Butlers
Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975), and Gilbert and Gubars The Madwoman
in the Attic (1979).
In Chapter 11 of The Country and the City, Three around Farnham, Williams
refuted the critical commonplace which sees Austen as a gifted but limited novelist
of manners, whose works display no connections with the powerful currents of
history. Williams pointed out that history has many currents, and the social history
of the landed families, at that time in England, was among the most important. As
we sense its real processes, we find that they are quite central and structural in
Jane Austens novels (Williams 1973: 113). While the immortalizing effect of


fiction can create the impression that the world depicted in P&P, E, and MP is
a relatively stable one, Jane Austens characters are portrayed, if only one reads
between the lines of their amorous plots, as social beings in an epoch of social
upheavals and change (pages 11315 of Williams essay amount to a catalogue
of socially mobile characters in Austens fiction). Though he also highlighted the
social near-sightedness of Austens vision (she only wrote about the gentry, and
where only one class is seen, no classes are seen; Williams 1973: 117), Williams
was the first serious critic to define the historical relevance of her novels: far from
being harmless amusement, they were seen as representing a transitional period
in the life of one of Englands most important social classes.
Marylin Butlers Jane Austen and the War of Ideas was a further investigation
into the social and philosophical roots of Austens writings. Here, Jane Austen
was seen not as a precise but neutral beholder of social ties and contracts, but as
a politically conscious author whose works faithfully reproduced her ideology.
According to Butler, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the
intellectual field of England was divided between the opposing camps of the
Jacobins and the anti-Jacobins: and Austens sympathies, as expressed in her
works, were openly conservative. Austens novels were conceived as educational
projects in which The key virtues are prudence and concern for the evidence; the
vices are romanticism, self-indulgence, conceit, and, for Jane Austen, other subtle
variations upon the broad anti-jacobin target of individualism (Butler 1975: 122).
Taking a step forward from Williams image of Austen as a social author, Butler
described her as a political writer whose works straightforwardly conveyed her
views on the current state of affairs.
Four years later, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar painted a very different
picture of Austens ideology as reflected in her writings. The two chapters
dedicated to Jane Austen, in The Madwoman in the Attic, were a feminist version
of Hardings essay on Regulated Hatred. The famous image of Austen hiding
her manuscript if anyone outside her family circle knocked on the sitting-room
door, glad that a hinge creaked to warn her that somebody was about to come in,
was used as a metaphor for an undercover style that criticizes the conventions it
professes to sanction. According to Gilbert and Gubar, Austen used explicitly
decorous forms to make her implicitly rebellious vision acceptable (Gilbert and
Gubar 1979/1984: 153). In particular, her novels explored female confinement
in all its articulations (physical confinement, the compulsory nature of marriage,
the great number of inaccessible roles), and deplored that confinement at the same
time that they showed its inevitability, and even its propriety.
These three versions of Jane Austen, however distant from one another,
constituted as many attempts at liberating the author from the ivory tower of pure
or ahistorical art and made it virtually impossible to study Austens writings
without a reference to her social milieu. However, while Williams confined himself

Cf. also Tony Tanner, when he groups MP with the great novels [which] concern
themselves with characters whose place in society is not fixed or assured (Tanner
1968: 136).

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

to an observation of the social facts which are described or taken for granted in
the novels, Butler, Gilbert and Gubar preferred to see the novels themselves as
indirect manifestos issued by an ideologically embattled writer. For these critics,
Jane Austen was a political writer whether reactionary or subversive, patriarchal
or feminist, it remained to be seen and debated. The indirectness of her methods
demonstrated, if anything, the sharpness of her purposes.
This position has been immensely influential, and the following decades
have seen a flowering of political and ideological versions of Jane Austen.
Feminist criticism, in particular, has produced a great quantity of studies of
varying quality and inspiration, many of which have been invaluable in detailing
Austens indebtedness to female predecessors, her adherence to or rejection of
contemporary ideas of womanhood, and her awareness of the critical wars of her
time. Margaret Kirkham has studied Austen in the context of Enlightenment or
rational feminism a middle position between Wollstonecrafts radicalism and
evangelical defeatism (Kirkham 1983/1997). Mary Poovey, Claudia L. Johnson
and Alison G. Sulloway have studied Austens images of femininity in the cultural
and polemical contexts of her time (Poovey 1984; Johnson 1988; Sulloway
1989). Deborah Kaplan has convincingly portrayed an author whose divided
allegiances to the gentrys culture and the womens culture informed the muted
subversiveness of the novels (Kaplan 1992: 13). Indeed, feminist Austen is such
a multifaceted figure that it would be better to speak, as Devoney Looser has done,
of various feminist traditions in Austen criticism (Looser 1995: 16).
While feminist criticism has obviously concentrated on womans role in
society as depicted in Austen, other scholars have situated her novels in the wider
contexts of the British nation, Western civilization, or the world at large. Mary
Evans has read Austens novels as a radical critique of the morality of bourgeois
capitalism (Evans 1987: backcover). By contrast, A.M. Duckworth has contended,
against the whole subversive tradition, that though there are occasions where ...
individualism is admirable ... this is a long way from saying that individual action
of a subversive or antisocial nature is sanctioned, even unconsciously, in Jane
Austens novels ... Indeed, in one instance, that of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park,
it is precisely the resistance of the heroine to those forces endangering her world
which permits the continuity of an integral society (Duckworth 1994: 6). More
recently, a postcolonial Jane Austen has made its appearance, following a cultural/
ideological proposal formulated by Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism:
But just because Austen referred to Antigua in Mansfield Park or to realms visited
by the British navy in Persuasion without any thought of possible responses by
the Caribbean or Indian natives resident there is no reason why we should do
the same. We know now that these non-European peoples did not accept with
indifference the authority projected over them, or the general silence on which
their presence in variously attenuated forms is predicated. We must therefore
read the great canonical texts, and perhaps also the entire archive of modern and
pre-modern European and American culture, with an effort to draw out, extend,
give emphasis and voice to what is silent or marginally present or ideologically
represented ... in such works. (Said 1993: 66)


It is interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that all of these warring factions
have their favourite novels in the Austen canon. Postcolonial criticism concentrates
on MP (the Antigua plantation), P (the navy), and the unfinished S (the west
Indian schoolgirl; cf. Park and Sunder Rajan 2000). Those who argue for the
centrality of the satirical vein focus on the open parody of NA, while the critics
who see an educational project as being crucial to Austens concerns take S&S
as their starting point. Finally, dating at least from Butlers study, MP has been
the main battleground of the war between the subversive and the reactionary
schools, with the theatrical episode of Lovers Vows eliciting the same contrasting
interpretations that the novel and Austens whole career have stimulated.
Purpose and Scope of the Book
Though this study expresses a discomfort with the image of Austen as an
ideologically embattled writer, it does not aim at reinstating a de-historicized,
socially and intellectually harmless reading. Even in the scarcity of textual
evidence for Jane Austens artistic awareness (a brief passage in NA, some
references in her correspondence, the epistolary advice given to her niece Anna),
Henry Jamess accusation of unconsciousness is implicitly refuted. Part 1 details
a process of artistic development (involving a constant increase in narratological
complexity) that cannot but be accompanied by a corresponding growth in critical
consciousness. Feminist criticism has effectively exposed the male-chauvinistic
foundations of the aunt Jane legend, and the 1970s have made it impossible to
think of Austens novels as untouched by the bigger or smaller waves of history.
This book accepts the insights of Williams, Butler, and others as given, and aims at
linguistically vindicating Gards idea that Austens methods antedate Flauberts.
However, while the destructive activity of both the subversive and the
reactionary schools is taken as a starting point, their constructive proposals are
in part rejected. Butlers conclusions on the one hand, and Gilbert and Gubars

In his somewhat ingenuous but occasionally insightful study of Jane Austen,
Christopher Brooke formulates a judgment on Butlers study which can be extended to
many other critical works: I believe I have learned more of Jane Austens inspiration from
Marilyn Butlers Jane Austen and the War of Ideas than from any other book about her
written in the last thirty years. Above all she has shown very clearly how much Miss Austen
owed to the highly moral, didactic, conservative, anti-jacobine novels. So substantial is
the evidence for their influence that Dr Butler becomes convinced that Jane Austen must
have had a like didactic programme in her major novels, and she proceeds to discover it.
But a difficulty arises: for all the subtlety and power of Janes technique as a novelist, she
seems to falter in adapting her teaching and her stories. So consistently does Marilyn Butler
make her falter that our suspicions are aroused: no small part of Dr Butlers contribution
to our understanding lies in the failure of this part of her scheme (Brooke 1999: 19). More
generally, Mary Waldron has written that One of the most popular games that people play
with Jane Austens fiction is to try to determine from it whether she was committed to
the mores of the society in which she lived or, on the other hand, deeply critical of them.

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

on the other with their three decades of filiations are based on the common
assumption that Austen expresses an opinion on the key issues of her society
through her novels. The terminology used by both progressive and reactionary
critics (the novels challenge, suggest, subvert, embody ideals; they are
analyses, critiques, examinations; they serve a purpose, or reflect an
ideology) makes it clear that many commentators have become used to treating
Austens works as pamphlets rather than fictional works. This is particularly
obvious in certain feminist readings:
Three of Jane Austens novels end with marriages that have incestuous overtones.
In Mansfield Park, Fanny and Edmund are first cousins; moreover, they have
been brought up as brother and sister in the same household. In Emma, the
heroine marries her brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley, who throughout much of the
novel shares a fraternal relationship with her. In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor,
like Emma, marries her brother-in-law, Edward Ferrars. And in the same novel,
Colonel Brandon tells Elinor the story of his desire to marry Eliza Williams,
a sister-in-law brought up as his sister. Such relationships serve a singular
purpose in Austens work. With these in-family marriages, she challenges the
traditional dynamics of power and system of values in male/female relations.
Instead of creating marriages in which power is associated with sex, Austen
offers siblinglike unions that highlight moral and spiritual values. These unions
profoundly alter the balance of power between men and women in her novels.
(Hudson 1995: 101)

The striking fact that Austens oeuvre has attracted (and, indeed, stimulated, as
pointed out in chapter 1) such a diversity of ideological readings should alert us to
the dangers inherent in this kind of interpretation. Perhaps, if opposing analyses can
be presented in similarly convincing ways, the novels had better be read as complex
acts of ideological balancing rather than as unbalanced, biased manifestos.
Both conclusions have been reached; both are unsatisfactory and always open to challenge.
This is because fiction that is, the kind that goes on engaging the interest of readers long
after the writers are dead is always uncommitted; it plays its own games with the norms of
behaviour which are current at the time of writing (Waldron 2004: 427). However, in recent
years a number of studies have appeared which very much in the manner of Raymond
Williams situate Austen in the philosophical (Knox-Shaw 2004), scientific (Graham
2008) and literary (Mandal 2007) climate of her time, without assimilating her fiction to
any particular line of thought.

John Bayley wrote as early as 1968 that [Austens] critics, like those of Shakespeare,
find in her what most interests themselves, but having found it they assume in it a hard
unplastic significance, an intellectual absoluteness which they would also find in George
Eliot or Henry James (Bayley 1968: 4).

Beatrice Battaglia has written that the enormous bulk of critical studies and the
vitality of the debate on Jane Austen should make it an objective fact that she is the most
ambiguous and controversial author in the whole tradition of English literature [Che Jane
Austen sia la scrittrice pi ambigua e controversa della letteratura inglese dovrebbe essere
un fatto oggettivo confermato dallenorme produzione critica e dalla persistente attualit
del dibattito aperto sulla sua narrativa] (Battaglia1983: 7).


Such a reading has been provided by a number of post-structuralist critics who

have applied themselves to studying Jane Austen. Against the tendency to constrict
the author into a fixed ideological frame, these critics have noted that the novels are
characterized by a conflict between closure and a narrative dynamic ... which can
never be accommodated in a final settlement (Miller 1981: xii); that Jane Austens
use of narrative voice exposes the context of truth as a tissue of indeterminacy
(Patteson 1981: 465); that the order of authoritative narrative is undermined by
suggesting that it is an arbitrary system of mere writing (Holly 1989: 47). The poststructuralist critical line opposes all subversive and reactionary interpretations by
pointing out that no single authoritative voice is set up in the novels that can subvert
an existing system or react against modern values. A pamphlet-like reading of the
novels presupposes a Jane Austen looming from behind the veil of narration; but
as D.A. Miller has recently written, Austen manages to subtract her signature from
her creations: she writes like a real god, without anthropomorphism. Nowhere
else in nineteenth-century English narration have the claims of the person, its
ideology, been more completely denied (Miller 2003: 32).
Jane Austens Narrative Techniques agrees with the general conclusions of
post-structuralist criticism, and tries to extend those conclusions by looking at the
technical means by which Austens indeterminacy is created. Its first discovery
is that indeterminacy, in this case, is not a product of the narrators invisibility,
as our modernist prejudices would have us believe. D.A. Miller (2003) speaks
of a narrator paring his/her fingernails far from the events of MP or E but this
impression clashes with the narrators authoritative interventions, when the moral
has to be pointed or the tale adorned. Richard F. Patteson is perhaps closer to home
when he speaks of the multiplicity of narrative voice making the readers search
for determinacy even more difficult than the characters (Patteson 1981: 465). In
my account, there is no multiplicity of narrative voice, but there is as Patteson
notes a multiplicity of point of view. The narrator is only one of many sources
of authorititativess: he/she is automatically perceived by the reader as being more
authoritative than the characters, but he/she relinquishes his/her dominant position
by renouncing his/her authoritativeness or conferring it on others.
In the present study, Austens works are viewed as dialogic machines in the
Bakhtinian sense not because all novels are dialogic (though that can safely
be argued), but because these novels in particular are constructed as dialogues
among voices whose struggle for power can never be finally decided (which is
why opposing readings are possible and plausible). To analyze the workings of a

Barbara K. Seeber also proposes a dialogic, Bakhtinian interpretation of Jane Austen,

but she manages to combine this with the subversive reading. The effects are somewhat
contradictory: I want to present a reading of Jane Austen that overcomes this theoretical
dilemma. Austen is subversive, but this subversion is not just to be situated in a barely audible
subtext. Rather, it is in the interplay between main text and subtext that the subversive effect
lies. As we shall see, to designate parts of the novels as subtexts is to read Austens novels
monologically; the texts themselves do not take this authoritarian stance (Seeber 2000: 8).
But if the texts do not distinguish between text and subtext, why should we?

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

dialogic machine, there are no better tools than the tools of linguistics: evaluation
theory is used to understand which voices evaluate which events and characters,
and how; stylistics is used to observe the ways in which Austens narrators renounce
their evaluative power; while pragmatics and conversation analysis provide the
terminology and the theoretical framework for a close study of how narrators and
characters interact and produce meaning in and through their interaction. That this
meaning remains indeterminate, even after close study, does not mean that the
study has been in vain, but that Austen has created fictional vehicles for semantic
indeterminacy which, with the inevitable circularity of human sciences, is what
Jane Austens Narrative Techniques sets out to demonstrate.
Parts and Chapters
Parts 1 and 2 of this study are assigned respectively to Austens narrators and
characters, or to narrative technique and dialogue. As Graham Hough showed in
his famous essay of 1970, the distinction is even more artificial in Austens novels
than elsewhere: in E, for instance, the division of labour is by no means clear,
and most of the tale is told in coloured narrative or free indirect style (Hough
1970/1991: 172, 173). Artificial and a posteriori though it may be, however, a neat
division of labour is useful for the analyst who wants to show the mechanics of a
single complex action by splitting it into two synchronic events: in Part 1, Austens
narrators are shown to give up their natural position of authority by conferring
it on others and undermining their own credibility; in Part 2, the interpersonal
relationships (among characters, and characters and narrators) are shown through
which meaning is negotiated in a fictional world divested of a single central
In Part 1, evaluation theory and stylistics are used in order to understand who
evaluates whom in the novels. Evaluation theory provides a general theoretical
framework which re-articulates Pattesons indeterminacy of meaning as evaluative
opacity. Strong evaluations are provided, by the narrators and other characters,
but the readers belief in the existence of one or more authoritative evaluators
is consistently dismantled (stylistics provides the tools and the terminology to
observe the various ways in which evaluative authority is eroded, or erodes itself).
In the absence of a strong evaluative centre, all interpretations end up possessing
very similar degrees of authority an uncertainty which is mirrored in the diversity
of critical interpretations. Chapter 1 unfolds this theory in its general lines. Chapter
2 traces the development of evaluative opacity in the course of Austens career
as a novelist (and in so doing, re-interprets the traditional distinction between
the Steventon and the Chawton novels as a rise in the level of opacity). Chapter
3 is dedicated to a close reading of the incipit of MP, which demonstrates that
evaluative opacity does not coincide with the absence of evaluation.
In Part 2, pragmatics and conversation analysis, together with the conversation
manuals of Austens time, are used to understand the novels as records and


products of interpersonal negotiation. Conversation and characterization are

closely allied in Austens novels, for if readers cannot rely on an authoritative
narrator unquestionably identifying the moral and social nature of characters,
they must judge everybody on the basis of internal (the narrators view, the other
characters opinions) and external evidence (the readers own social-conversational
prejudices). Chapter 4 defines a set of social-conversational rules which can be
held to be (laxly) valid for Austens time and Austens fiction, and according to
which a number of types or categories can be identified (the boors, the fools,
etc.). Chapter 5 diachronically analyzes the changes in characterization from one
novel to another, and once again observes a divide between the Steventon and
the Chawton periods (the caricatures of NA, S&S and P&P become the mixed
psychological types of MP, E and P). Finally, Chapter 6 analyses a single complex
social occasion in E (the Box Hill episode) as a conversational tennis match
which sees the contestants striving for social power and gaining or losing status
with their every move though once again, in the mist of evaluative opacity,
winners and losers cannot be proclaimed with any final certainty.
All the six novels in the main Austen corpus are analyzed in both parts, with
some occasional forays into LS, TW and S. These three works/fragments are
included for the light they shed on the major works, and no attempt is made at
studying them in any detail; other fragments or juvenilia fall outside the scope of
this study. Even within the main corpus, however, a preference is silently assigned
to MP and E, both of which have a monographic chapter. This favouritism has
less to do with aesthetic than with practical considerations: MP and E are Austens
most complex novels, and as such they yield the greatest number of (contradictory)
facts to critical scrutiny.
Critical Debts and Predecessors
When one is researching a subject with a view to writing a book-length study,
ones worst nightmare is finding out that ones project has already been realized by
someone else. Fortunately, such an exact correspondence is rare if not impossible,
at least if the inception of the project is ones feeling that ones insight will add
a little something to the sum of general knowledge. Short of the discovery of a
nightmarish double, however, various degrees of analytical overlap are inevitable
and, indeed, desirable. Before detailing ones vision, therefore, an enumeration is
appropriate of all the precedents which made ones work possible and enabled one
to skip peripheral concerns (which others busied themselves with) in order to get
to the heart of the matter.
As said above, very few linguists have devoted themselves to Jane Austen.
The only book-length study so far was J.F. Burrows Computation into Criticism,

A recent book on Twentieth-Century Drama Dialogue as Ordinary Talk (Mandala
2007) has done much to reinforce my conviction that such analyses are justified and


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

which applies computational linguistics to an analysis of the novels. Burrows

statistics on personal pronouns (Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Fanny Price say
we very rarely, but for opposing reasons), or on the distribution of a 30-word
matrix in the conversational styles of a number of characters, produce interesting,
though somewhat predictable, results (one example: Save for the special case of
Mrs Gardiner ... Collins is the most isolated of the major characters of Pride and
Prejudice with only three correlations higher than 0.770; Burrows 1987: 6). The
main merit of the book is that it demonstrates the trustworthiness of computational
methods in the study of Austen, and therefore paves the way for other and perhaps
less mechanical linguistic applications.
Shorter computational studies include Rand Schmidt (1981) and DeForest and
Johnson (2001). Rand Schmidt attempts a comparison between male and female
language in the novels, and notes that the language of the female characters is
subject to norms to a much greater extent than that of the male characters (Rand
Schmidt 1981: 209). DeForest and Johnson measure the density of latinate words
in the speeches of Austens characters, and make interesting discoveries along the
axes of class, gender, education, mind, and mood (DeForest and Johnson 2001:
390): in particular, very similar densities reveal the linguistic alignment between
Austens narrators and their heroines (It is no coincidence that Austens four great
heroines are all within two percentage points of their narrators. Their voices blend
with the narrators, and we unconsciously give them the authority of the actual
storyteller [De Forest and Johnson 2001: 398]).
These essays aside, Jane Austens language has mainly attracted the attention
of literary critics rather than linguists. Phillips (1970), Page (1972) and Tave
(1973) are impressionistic studies which, after three or four decades, must be read
with a degree of critical detachment. The distribution of certain keywords mirrors
Austens social and ethical vision, and character is revealed by conversational
style (much in the manner of Chapters 4 and 5 here): but many a perceptive survey
is marred by the conflation of author with narrator, and, more generally, by the
unsystematic character of the analytical methods. A more recent monograph on
the language of Jane Austen is Stokes (1991), which is less impressionistic but
more limited in scope: rather than studying Austens language as it purports to
do, Stokess volume provides a social and etymological reading of a number of
significant terms (understanding, disposition, accomplishments, sense,
sensibility, prudence) which are used as keys to unlock the social contexts
portrayed in the novels.
Part 1 of this study owes its existence to all previous stylistic/narratological
analyses of Jane Austen, as well as to the post-structuralist studies quoted above.
My debt to Wayne Booths 1961 The Rhetoric of Fiction is acknowledged in
Chapter 1, when I describe the process whereby Austens narrators turn themselves

A recent addition to the number of studies concentrating on Jane Austens words is
a short but brilliant essay on Three Words of Jane Austen: Courtesy, Civility and Gallantry
(Wiesenfarth 2004).



into characters. Graham Houghs classic article on Narrative and Dialogue in

Jane Austen, with its definition of coloured narrative, is a precedent for my own
observation of how Austens narrators are conflated with one or more (mimetic or
non-mimetic) reflectors. Another important narratological study which dedicates
a chapter to Jane Austen is Roy Pascals The Dual Voice (1977): while Pascal
prefers to speak of free indirect speech rather than coloured narrative, his
conclusions are of a pair with Houghs (contamination is held to be the rule of
Austens narrative technique). Finally, after completing the article which has now
become Chapter 3, I found another essay which comes to the same conclusions by
a slightly different linguistic route (Blake 1988).
Part 2 counts fewer precedents, though many critics have busied themselves
with matters which touch its concerns tangentially. Among the predecessors,
Marylea Meyersohn has studied Austens garrulous speakers (1990), while Juliet
McMaster has written a very perceptive essay on Mrs Elton and other verbal
aggressors (McMaster 2002). Among the tangential precedents, classic studies
of Austens dialogue like Babb (1962) and Kroeber (1971) can be mentioned,
alongside the above-quoted critical monographs by Phillips, Page and Tave.
Chapter 4, in its outline of the relationships between Austens novels and the
conversational culture of Austens time, treats the latter as a rather unproblematic
datum while as Williams would say, even this small history has many currents.
A number of essays and monographs on British conversational culture and on the
idea of the gentleman in British society allowed me to treat these currents as a sea,
in the knowledge that they had been described separately elsewhere. Fritzer (1997)
observes in exhaustive but somewhat superficial fashion the connections between
Austens fiction and the courtesy books of her time. Robin Gilmour draws a wellrounded historical portrait of the idea of the gentleman, and describes a secular
strife between social and conversational models (aristocratic vs. bourgeois) which
is subterranean in Austen and comes to light in the Victorian novel (Gilmour
1981). Berger (1991) and Appleton (1992) see this strife as embodied in Austens
characters (Frank Churchill vs. Mr Knightley, in particular). Jenny Davidson
looks at the same strife in different terms, i.e., as a conflict between sincerity and
hypocrisy (she presents Fanny Price as a case of insincerity caused by extreme
dependence; Davidson 2004: 14669).
Finally, a recent work must be mentioned which starts out from much the
same assumptions as Jane Austens Narrative Techniques, though its analytical
method is strikingly different from the ones employed here. In the preface to his
Jane Austen and the Morality of Conversation (2003), Bharat Tandon writes that
the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century concern with conversation as a socially
cohesive activity, has led [him] to works on rhetoric and polite conduct, while
Austens emphasis on conversation as a complex social performance has made
her work fertile ground for the application of the language-use philosophy of
Wittgenstein, Austin and Grice (Tandon 2003: xiv). While this preface prefigures
a pragmatic/conversational account of Austens fiction, that account is never
actually given, and the most interesting section of Tandons book is the one about
the eighteenth-century debate on politeness.


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

Ted Hughes famous description of poetic creation has a thought-fox entering

the dark hole of the poets head to be formulated and typed (Till, with a sudden
sharp hot stink of fox / It enters the dark hole of the head. / The window is starless
still; the clock ticks, / The page is printed; [Hughes 1957/1986: 26]). The poem
is written in loneliness, in timelessness, in the absence of other voices silencing
the poets. It may be a matter for contention whether that description is universally
valid for poetic creation: but critical writing certainly takes different routes. The
critic, even if he/she were willing to do so, can never work in silent loneliness:
other thought-foxes roam the same meadows as his/her own; the hole of his/her
head is well-lighted, and crowded. And even if a wonderful thought-fox enters that
hole, the critic must go out of his/her room to chase after all the other foxes, and
nothing can be created until the last specimen is put in the same cage as the first.

Part 1

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Chapter 1

Jane Austens Narrators

The Point of Fiction
Many commentators of Jane Austens fiction have commented upon the difficulty
of her narrative game. As Virginia Woolf famously had it, of all great writers she
is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness (Southam 1987: 301). Speaking
of E, almost universally held to be the most complex and the most elusive of her
novels, Reginald Farrer wrote that if you read it twelve times over, at every fresh
reading you feel anew that you never understood anything like the widening sum
of its delights (Southam 1987: 266). Lionel Trilling added that the difficulty of
Emma is never overcome. We never know where to have it. If we finish it at night
and think we know what it is up to, we wake the next morning to believe it is up to
something else; it has become a different book (Trilling 1957/1991: 122). More
recently and more generally, Irvin Ehrenpreis has expressed the bafflement of all
those who try to establish what Austen (or, her narrator) is up to in her novels:
So the explicitness of the novelist is sometimes only apparent, and at other
times is a game played with the audience. By sounding blunt and outspoken in
many of her judgments, Austen entices unwary readers into assuming that she
is straightforward ...
But it remains true that when Austen does plainly set forth her judgment, it is
as I have said quite reliable. (Ehrenpreis 1991: 118)

However, while certain commentators have put their fingers on Austens

invisibility (for a recent example, cf. Miller 2003), others have seen her novels
as mirroring a definite world view a world view which has been interpreted
in diametrically opposing ways. A traditional reading of Austen as an upholder
of the patriarchal values of her society has been challenged by revolutionary
and/or feminist readings of the novels as subtle critiques of the same values. S&S
has been interpreted as a satire on (excessive) sensibility, but some readers have
observed that Marianne/sensibility is shown to be much more fascinating than
Elinor/sense (Nardin 1973: 10). MP the litmus test of Austen studies in terms
of this argument has been read as an evangelical plea for old gentrified England
and as a covert manifesto against the moral and social strictness of Austens time.
Lovers Vows, the unacted play at the centre of Mansfield Park, has itself elicited
similar divided comments as to its ideological function: Penny Gay has recently written
that As the critical literature demonstrates, Kotzebues play, as adapted by Inchbald, can be
used to support both a conservative and a radical reading of the novel (Gay 2002: 107).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

How can these positions be reconciled with Farrers (1917) image of the author as
a joycean divinity, indifferently paring her fingernails elsewhere?
... impersonality comes as the first ingredient in the specific for immortality.
The self-revelation of the writer must be as severely implicit as it is universally
pervasive; it must never be conscious or obtruded ... She is there all the time,
indeed, but never in propria persona, except when she gaily smiles through
the opener texture of Northanger Abbey, or, with her consummate sense
of art, mitigates for us the transition out of her paradises back into the grey
light of ordinary life, by letting the word I demurely peer forth at last, as the
fantasmagoria in Mansfield Park, Emma or Northanger Abbey begins to
thin out to its final pages. (Southam 1987: 248)

It comes as no surprise, of course, that Austens novels generate opposing

interpretations: all great literature is supposed to do so. Conversely, the ability
to instigate different readings has long been identified as a stigma of literary
greatness. What is at once interesting and baffling is that these opposing readings
appear to be equally justified, that there is ample textual material in Austens
novels to support them both. At the same time, there seems to be uncertainty as to
whether Jane Austen watches over her novels as a Victorian commentator or as a
modernist detached observer. Is there a point to her depiction of English gentry
between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, or is there not? And if that
point is there, what is it exactly?
From our postmodern position in history, we might dismiss all the business of
finding a point in Austens fiction in all fiction as self-evidently irrelevant.
Have we not been taught that novels are not pamphlets? That the point of any
narrative is the telling of a story? On the most basic level, these axioms are
certainly valid: novels are not pamphlets and narrators, in written fiction, are
not authors. Yet any story, besides telling itself, expresses, is symptomatic of,
a world-view, in Roger Fowlers terms. And in Austens case, this world-view
seems to be, at one and the same time, contradictory and elusive. And while
we might, once again, conclude that the point of (great) literature always
eludes us, there may be a lesson to be learnt about how Austens particular

Though, as Claudia L. Johnson has noted, Austen remains one of the great
anomalies of literary history. If few authors have occupied such an honored position in the
ranks of great literature, just as few have inspired such divergent accounts of what exactly
they are doing there in the first place (Johnson 1988: xiii). Elsewhere, Johnson has added
that Jane Austen always seems to inspire radically contradictory appeals to self-evidence
(Johnson 1996/2001: 119).

Indeed, for Fowler it is (fictional) language in general that expresses a world view:
modal devices ... make explicit (though sometimes ironic) announcements of beliefs; other
parts of language, indirectly but nevertheless convincingly, may be symptomatic of worldview: it has traditionally been assumed in stylistics that the different ways people express
their thoughts indicate, consciously or unconsciously, their personalities and attitudes
(Fowler 1986/1990: 132).

Jane Austens Narrators


elusiveness is constructed how readers are enticed into looking for a point
which consistently evades their grasp.
Before embarking on a linguistic investigation of how Austens elusiveness
is created, it may be useful to remind ourselves of two cultural facts. The first
one is contemporary: in our time, we have come to accept that the text does not
contain its author it contains a narrator, and can at most presuppose an implied
author with whom all readers ideally wish to be acquainted. The second one is
contemporary with Austen: in her time, it was customary to think of novels as
ethical/ideological mirrors, and she would have expected at least certain categories
of readers to deduce the authors opinions from her writings to conflate narrator
with author, the implied author with the real Jane Austen.
Settling the Point: Evaluation
In his seminal study of oral narratives told by young black Americans, William
Labov wrote that a story, in its minimal form, consists of two temporally ordered
clauses (Labov 1972: 360). Besides this basic definition, however, he also provided
a more detailed pattern, in order to account for the higher degree of complexity to
be found in some of the stories he analyzed. The six parts or stages of this pattern
can be and have been used to examine and dissect written as well as oral narratives
(cf. Pratt 1977; Fleischman 1997; Black 2006):

Complicating action
Result or resolution
Coda (Labov 1972: 363)

Some of these parts or stages may be present or not, in written as well as in oral
narratives. In written fiction, the abstract is usually provided by the title; the
orientation, if it is to be found at all, is most often found at the start (it is the
who, what, where, when, of the story); the complicating action unsettles the
initial balance and prepares the resolution; the coda, usually placed at the end
of the narrative, is where things are rounded off where the (implied) author, or
the narrator, parts company with the reader. Evaluation is the most difficult
part or stage to locate, because though it tends to cluster in certain areas of a

My reader, as will become apparent in the course of the chapter, is neither the
structural function implied by the text (Iser 1978: 2050), nor the model imagined by
the author in order to write (Eco 1983: 5053). It is a more adaptable creature, sometimes
coalescing with the critic himself, at other times pointing at various or conflicting interpretive
possibilities; perhaps the eclectic figure presupposed by the readings of certain cognitive
stylists (cf. for instance Stockwell 2002) comes closest to the one delineated here.

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


text (traditionally, at the beginning and end; but there is variation along the genre
and period axes), it can be found anywhere, and evaluative elements are hard
to identify with any certainty. Evaluation, as Labov himself defined it, is the
point of a story: it can be a moral, a religious, or a didactic point; more generally,
it is what demonstrates that the story is worth telling.
In a novel, as well as in any other kind of story, evaluation is endemic, and no
two readers will exactly agree as to which stretches of text are evaluative and which
are not though certain passages are quite unequivocally evaluative. Evaluative
elements can be found, to begin with, in dialogue as well as in narrative, in the
characters as well as in the narrators discourse. Some of Jane Austens novels
(P&P, E, the unfinished TW) are mostly made up of dialogue, and when this is the
case much of the evaluative work is as it were embedded in direct (or indirect)
speech. In P&P, we learn something about Mr and Mrs Bennet before the narrator
tells us who and what they are:

My dear Mr. Bennet, said his lady to him one day, have you heard that
Netherfield is let at last?

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

But it is, returned she; for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me
all about it.

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

Do not you want to know who has taken it? cried his wife impatiently.

You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it. (P&P 1)

The narrator, however, is always instinctively held to be a more reliable evaluator

than any single character. As Michael Toolan puts it, narrators are typically
trusted by their addressees ... To narrate is to bid for a kind of power (Toolan
1988/2001: 3). Even first-person homodiegetic narrators, who take part in the

In the introduction to a recent collection of essays, Marina Dossena and Andreas

H. Jucker have written that evaluation is as elusive as pervasive in discourse pervasive,
because no text or utterance is ever absolutely free from it; elusive, because it may be
difficult to say exactly what it is that gives the text or utterance that certain quality (Dossena
and Jucker 2007: 7).

That is what we term the evaluation of the narrative: the means used by the narrator
to indicate the point of the narrative, its raison dtre: why it was told, and what the narrator
is getting at. There are many ways to tell the same story, to make very different points, or
to make no point at all. Pointless stories are met (in English) with the withering rejoinder,
So What? Every good narrator is continually warding off this question (Labov 1972:
366). Certain systemic linguists working on storytelling (cf. Eggins and Slade 1997) have
argued that Labovs is only one of several narrative genres, not all of them comprehending
six parts. An anecdote, for instance, has no resolution and displays only a minimum of
evaluation. This open-endedness may be one of the reasons why Miss Batess speeches in
E are regarded as boring and inconclusive (while they often hide crucial truths).

Labov himself describes a number of ways in which (oral) narrators distance
themselves from the stories they tell by variously embedding their evaluative comments
(Labov 1972: 3723).

Jane Austens Narrators


story and can therefore be suspected of having a personal interest in directing

audience reactions, are considered more authoritative than any other character,
and can be confused with the author to a lesser or greater degree. Modernist
writers such as Conrad and James, and latter-day followers like Ishiguro, have
deliberately played with readers expectations by exploiting this authoritativeness
(cf. Morini 2002). Third-person heterodiegetic narrators acquire an extra
degree of authoritativeness by being impersonal (if that is the case) and situating
themselves out of the action: within the space of their fictional world, they are like
gods, and readers will tend to treat them as such i.e., they will tend to believe
all they say.
All of Austens narrators are third-person heterodiegetic narrators, and as such
command the readers blind faith (or his/her gullibility, if we believe in the author
mocking her audience). These narrators never take part in the action, and only
rarely come out of hiding to speak in the first person. Therefore, their evaluative
comments tend to have a ponderous weight on our interpretation of the novels of
what is going on, who are the good guys and the villains, what is likely to happen,
etc. It is my point, though, that these narratorial figures variously undermine their
own authoritativeness and leave readers more or less stranded between the waves
of conflicting interpretations.
However, before looking at how Austens narrators evaluate their fictional
worlds (and at how they undermine their own evaluative work), some preliminary
definitions of evaluation are needed in order to define the range of textual
data we are looking for. Evaluation is very difficult to locate, because it is not
necessarily linked to any particular linguistic items, and it is not consistently
signalled by any linguistic or metalinguistic means (at least in literary texts:
other textual types, e.g. manuals or academic articles, can display specifically
signalled evaluative techniques). Linguistic studies of evaluation have worked
with different definitions of a very elusive quality, and have attributed that quality
to words, sentences/utterances, text/discourse, speakers/writers, etc.: some terms
of art are connotation, affective meaning, attitude. Scholars belonging to the
field of stylistics have preferred to speak of the evaluative, attitudinal force of
language as modality (cf. Fowler 1986/1990: 1312; Simpson 1993: 4655),
but they too have had to admit that modal elements are only the tip of the iceberg
of attitude (cf. Chapter 3). More recently, a very promising new field of research
on evaluation as such has opened: the linguists working in this field are trying
to unify the terminology and to build a general evaluative theory and though
the concept of evaluation still seems ultimately irreducible to any satisfying
unity, some interesting results have been obtained in the analysis of literary
texts (Cortazzi and Jin 2000), argumentative prose (Hoey 2000), written and oral
academic discourse (Anderson and Bamford 2004).

The inevitable (theoretical and terminological) starting point for any description of
narrative voice is the chapter on Voix in Genette (1972: 22567).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

Textual (or discursive) evaluation is not simply a question of assessing what

is good and what is bad, what is important and what is not (though both axes
are relevant). Geoff Thompson and Susan Hunston, editors of a volume on
Evaluation in Text, have identified three main functions of evaluation, which are
respectively expressive, interpersonal, and textual.
1. to express the speakers or writers opinion, and in doing so to reflect the
value system of that person and their community;
2. to construct and maintain relations between the speaker or writer and hearer
or reader;
3. to organize the discourse.
(Thompson and Hunston 2000: 6)
If one thinks of evaluation in a novel, and conveniently substitutes narrator
for writer, one immediately sees the cogency of this tripartite definition. The
narrator, overtly or covertly, offers his/her point of view on the fictional world
he presents, and in so doing reflects (directly or indirectly) the value system of
the community which has spawned him/her, or of a part of that community.10 By
telling his/her novelistic story, the narrator maintains certain kinds of relations
with his/her readers, and/or, within the space of the text, with the shadowy figure
of the narratee (if given). Finally, even dispositio is a form of evaluation, and a
certain kind of ideological slant (using ideological in the widest possible sense)
brings about certain forms of textual organization. To give one very straightforward
example, the modernists sense that the world could no longer be described from
an external point of view, within the four walls of unified personality, sequential
chronology, narrative reliability and providential finality led to the freer structures
employed by Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford.
Though they insist that evaluation is essentially a unified phenomenon,
Thompson and Hunston identify four main parameters: good-bad, certainty,
expectedness, and importance (Thompson and Hunston 2000: 25). While it is
important to insist on the interpenetration of these axes (judging the importance
of an event can also imply gauging its expectedness and goodness), and though
expectedness and certainty can certainly be conflated, there is no doubt that the
three remaining parameters sum up the evaluative work performed by the authority
(or authorities) in charge of a text.11 In a novel, events are arranged, facts and
characters are judged along those three axes, as shown in the incipit of Dickenss

These three functions seem closely allied to Hallidays three grammatical
metafunctions (Halliday 1985: xiii, passim).
This is true even for subversive novels, because subversion is a form of reverse
The notion of implied author looms behind the idea of responsible authority,
because even if we cannot re-construct an author, we can think of an authorial figure
creating a narrator within a fictional world. For the sake of simplicity, however, and because
we could by the same token identify countless intermediate stages, we can skip the implied
author and think of the narrator as the person in charge of a narrative, even when that
narrator is also a character. At the same time, we will see how the narrator him/herself

Jane Austens Narrators


David Copperfield (expectedness/certainty) and at the start of the second chapter

of William McIlvanneys Docherty (good-bad, importance):
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my life, or whether that station will be
held by anybody else, these pages must show. (Dickens 18491850/1994: 13)
High Street was the capital of Conns childhood and boyhood. The rest of
Graithnock was just the provinces. High Street, both as a terrain and as a
population, was special. Everyone whom circumstances had herded into its
hundred-and-so yards had failed in the same way. It was a penal colony for those
who had committed poverty, a vice which was usually hereditary. (McIlvanney
1975/1996: 24)

As shown by these textual sketches, however, though it is sometimes very evident

that one is faced with an evaluative passage, it is by no means easy to determine
the linguistic means by which evaluation is effected. In a novel, the most evident
cases of evaluation are those in which the narrator commits him/herself to a
categorical assertion along the good-bad, important-unimportant axes, or reflects
on the probability of an event taking place (all of Austens narrators do all of these
things). On other, subtler, occasions, an event or a character may be compared to
another, a single modal expression used to determine probability or desirability
(must, may, certainly, luckily). Even more trickily, evaluation may be
hidden in lexical choice, collocation, or contextual elements. The beginning of
NA can be used as an illustration; it is only when one identifies the intertextual
link with the gothic genre that the evaluative contours of the narrators discourse
become visible:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy, would have
supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father
and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her. Her
father was a clergyman, without being neglected, or poor and a very respectable
man, though his name was Richard and he had never been handsome. ... Her
mother was a woman of useful plain sense, with a good temper, and, what is
more remarkable, with a good constitution. She had three sons before Catherine
was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter to the world, as any body
might expect, she still lived on (NA 5)

Attempts at identifying an exhaustive list of linguistic evaluative tools are of course

doomed to fail or to produce Lewis Carrolls 1:1 map of the world.12 It is true,
however, that evaluation tends to be effected by certain linguistic means, and that
certain linguistic items almost invariably carry evaluative force. Stylisticians have
classified narrators and narrative techniques according to the dominating presence
of one or more modality systems (cf. Simpson 1993: 4655): deontic (You
may/must/should leave, it is necessary that you leave), boulomaic (I hope that
can undermine and disperse his/her authority by conferring it on others, or by showing the
uncertain grounds on which that authority is founded.
The reference is to Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (Carroll 1988: 556).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

you will leave, I wish youd leave, hopefully youll leave), epistemic (You
may/must be right, Youre certainly/possibly right), and perceptive (it was
evident that he was tired). Even so, they have freely admitted that there is no fixed
connection between modality and language, and that certain forms of evaluation
seem to be too pervasive to be identified with any certainty.
Evaluation scholars, in this as in other matters, adopt an all-embracing
approach. Geoff Thompson and Susan Hunston start out from the assumption that
evaluation can appear at the level of lexis, grammar, and text; but after trying to
isolate specific lexical, grammatical and textual evaluative elements, they have
to admit that the task is ultimately impossible or useless. Consequently, they
decide to work with more general conceptual entities. Evaluation, they say,
can be comparative, subjective, value-laden. Of these three groups, the third
seems inherently more lexical in nature; but the first and the second are primarily
grammatical (Thompson and Hunston 2000: 22):
(1) Evaluation involves comparison of the object of evaluation against a
yardstick of some kind: the comparators. These include: comparative adjectives
and adverbs; adverbs of degree; comparator adverbs such as just, only, at
least; expressions of negativity (morphological, such as un- and other affixes;
grammatical, such as not, never, hardly; and lexical, such as fail, lack).
(2) Evaluation is subjective: the markers of subjectivity. This is a very large
group including: modals and other markers of (un)certainty; non-identifying
adjectives; certain adverbs, nouns, and verbs; sentence adverbs and conjunctions;
report and attribution structures; marked clause structures, including patterns
beginning with it and there, and Special Operations Clauses ... such as pseudoclefts.
(3) Evaluation is value-laden: the markers of value. These may be divided into
two groups: lexical items whose typical use is in an evaluative environment
(the circularity of this definition seems unavoidable); and indications of the
existence of goals and their (non-)achievement (what is good may be glossed
as what achieves our goals and what is bad may be glossed as what impedes
the achievement of our goals). (Thompson and Hunston 2000: 21)

In the end, the catalogue is so vast that the critic is left to his own resources,
and must brave the pitfalls of epistemic circularity on his own (cf. Chapter 3).
However, some of these tools, analyses and definitions may be useful in defining
how evaluation works in Austens novels.
Evaluation and Austens Novels
We are now in a position to redefine the difficulties many readers have experienced
who have tried to put their fingers on what Jane Austen is saying, or what narrative
game Jane Austen is playing. It is my contention that these difficulties can be
summed up in one general problem the problem of tracing evaluative patterns in

Jane Austens Narrators


Austens novels. This problem is not merely a consequence of the pervasive and
elusive qualities of evaluation in general, or of the fact that novels are not pamphlets
and have, therefore, no clear point to make: such novels as Dickenss Hard Times
or D.H. Lawrences Lady Chatterleys Lover do display a clear evaluative pattern
whatever different directions their fictional structures may take in spite of it. As
seen above, Austens novels also seem to invite evaluative scrutiny, while many
novels of similar complexity do not no serious critic would dream of finding
the point of Woolfs Mrs Dalloway, for instance, unless the point is a universal
one about the nature of mankind.13 But the readers search for Austens point is
frustrated as consistently as it is instigated, and a web of evaluative opacity is
created which does not coincide with evaluative absence.
Austen creates this web of opacity less by withdrawing evaluation than
by dismantling the authority of the evaluative sources she sets up. In fiction,
the evaluative source par excellence is of course the narrator: even when the
physically present spinner of yarns becomes a disembodied voice hovering over
a neutrally-told story, a narrative function still remains to give substance to facts
and words.14 In Austens novels, the narrator as an evaluative centre can still be
identified, sometimes even personally, but his/her evaluations cannot be relied
upon to provide a centripetal interpretation of events.
Some literary critics, though stopping short of a linguistic analysis of Jane
Austens dismantling of authority, have grappled with the problem of narrative
unreliability in her fiction. Many of these critics have brought post-structuralist
exegetic concepts to bear against some of her novels, particularly E (cf. Holly
1989; Rosmarin 1984/1991). Richard F. Patteson has written about the multiplicity
of narrative voice which makes the readers search for determinacy even
more difficult than the characters (Patteson 1981: 465). Tara Goshal Wallace
has observed the moves by which Austens narrators renounce omniscience, or
partially disappear from their narratives, from LS to P (Wallace 1995). D.A.
Miller has identified a conflict in Austens novels between closure and the
narrative dynamic itself, which can never be accommodated in a final settlement
(Miller 1981: xii). In a totally different vein, Bernard J. Paris has suggested that
while narrative structures may present an abstract moral perspective ... Realistic
characterization fights against theme as well as against form (Paris 1978/1979:
20); in MP, for instance, Fannys real character undermines Austens project of
making her the heroine of a conservative evangelical novel:

Toolan interestingly defines narrative point in a didactic manner: A narrative

is a perceived sequence of non-randomly connected events, typically involving, as the
experiencing agonist, humans or quasi-humans, or other sentient beings, from whose
experience we humans can learn (Toolan 1988/2001: 8).
Cf. Fludernik (1993: 443): I am here modifying and refining Chatmans views on
the narrator ... I reject Chatmans narrator at all times (including a cinematic narrator),
but decisively maintain the existence of narration, and a gradual scale between an overt
(personalized) narrator persona and a more covert narrative voice all the way to an objective
backgrounded narrative function in reflector mode narrative.


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

There are a number of brilliant essays which explain what Jane Austen meant
by the creation of such a heroine as Fanny Price ... The fact remains, however,
that many readers cannot identify with Fannys hopes and fears or admire her
character and values in the ways that they must if the novels comic pattern
and rhetoric are to have their desired effects. Some critics complain that Fanny
is insipid, others that she is a prig. The major source of difficulty, I believe, is
that Fanny is a highly realized mimetic character whose human qualities are not
compatible with her aesthetic and thematic roles. (Paris 1978/1979: 22)

Post-structuralist and psycho-analytic views highlight two different but related

sources of evaluative unreliability in Austens fiction: on the one hand, the narrator
tends to undermine his/her own authority by contradicting him/herself, claiming
or showing ignorance of facts or thoughts, etc.; on the other hand, the novel is
an inherently heteroglossal genre (Bakhtin 1963/1984), where the narrators is
only one of the voices at play, if a highly privileged one. In this heteroglossal
context, evaluation becomes engagement with what other voices say (Martin
and White 2005: 923). Austens narrators tend to undermine their own authority
and/or leave evaluative room to other characters whose views, in their turn, are
often refuted by the unfolding of events. In these conditions, it becomes hard, and
ultimately impossible, to establish who evaluates what, in and through narrative,
and why (Cortazzi and Jin 2000: 104).
The problem with Austens narrators is that they seem to change during
the course of each novel, or, to look at it from another angle, that they react
differently to the various characters and events it falls to their lot to introduce
and describe. They are, all of them, third-person heterodiegetic narrators, yet their
level of detachment varies greatly, and their vision disturbingly hovers between
omniscience and ignorance. Furthermore, they sometimes employ (and mingle
with) one or more reflectors through which the action is shown. In the terms of
Paul Simpsons exhaustive classification, Austens novels always display category
B narrators, but these oscillate between narratorial and reflector modes. These
narrators employ both negative and positive strategies: at times they speak
from outside the consciousness of their characters, whereas on other occasions
they claim knowledge of thoughts, feelings, and past actions (Simpson 1993:
5575). Given these premises, it is not surprising that many Austen readers feel
the interpretive ground slipping from beneath their feet: they look to the evaluative
centre of the novel to know where they stand, but that centre is continually shifting
or disappearing from view.
Sometimes the centre does hold. There are moments in which Austens category
B narrators work in the narratorial positive mode (i.e., they profess omniscience,
or rather, they move freely between past and future events, characters thoughts
and feelings): these moments are usually situated at crucial stages of the narrative,
so that readers are encouraged to think that they will set the norm for the rest.
When working in the narratorial positive mode, Austens narrators offer strong
evaluations of people and actions, mostly on the good-bad and importance
axis. To fall back on Labovs 1972 pattern, these strong evaluations mostly occur
during the initial Orientation and the final Result and Coda, as well as when

Jane Austens Narrators


new characters have to be introduced. In the Orientation, Austens narrators

usually provide social and financial information on the main dramatis personae
and judge their moral and social character. The first Chapter of S&S provides most
of the practical and psychological information we need on the Dashwood family:
The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex. Their estate was large,
and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property ... The
late owner of this estate was a single man ... he invited and received into his
house the family of his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the
Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it ...

By a former marriage, Mr. Henry Dashwood had one son; by his present
lady, three daughters. The son, a steady respectable young man, was amply
provided for by the fortune of his mother ... To him therefore the succession to
the Norland estate was not so really important as to his sisters; for their fortune
... could be but small ...
The old gentleman died ... to [Henry Dashwoods] son, and his sons son,
[Norland Park] was secured, in such a way, as to leave him no power of providing
for those who were most dear to him ... He [Henry Dashwoods uncle] meant not
to be unkind, however, and, as a mark of his affection for the three girls, he left
them a thousand pounds a-piece ...

[Mr John Dashwood, Henry Dashwoods son] was not an ill-disposed young
man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed ...
But Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself; more narrowminded and selfish ...

Elinor ... possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment ...

Mariannes abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinors. She was
sensible and clever; but eager in every thing ... she was every thing but prudent.
The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great ... Margaret,
the other sister, was a good-humoured well-disposed girl; but as she had already
imbibed a good deal of Mariannes romance, without having much of her sense,
she did not, at thirteen, bid fair to equal her sisters at a more advanced period of
life. (S&S 15)

The information Austens narrators provide, almost invariably, when a new actor
appears on stage, is complementary to this initial orientation. Even in E, where
the narrator is mostly noted for his/her absence and reticence, no new character is
launched without a few introductory words:
Lady Lucas was a very good kind of woman, not too clever to be a valuable
neighbour to Mrs. Bennet. (P&P 12)
Mr. Perry was an intelligent, gentlemanlike man ... (E 16)
Mr. and Mrs. Musgrove were a very good sort of people; friendly and hospitable,
not much educated, and not at all elegant. (P 38)

However, this positive evaluative handling soon disappears, and readers are left
to their own resources. For the main part of each novel, after the initial orientation,


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

the narrator employs many strategies of invisibility and reticence: he/she does
not vanish completely, or fall into absolute silence, yet the moments when he/she
demonstrably evaluates the narrative are few and far between (though of course,
even organization, dispositio, is a form of textual evaluation).
The narrative voice comes back to the surface only at the end, in the result
and the coda, when it takes charge to condense certain parts of the story, or,
particularly in the coda, to judge past events and anticipate future developments.15
Generally speaking, the result of all of Austens novels is marriage (between the
heroine and the most desirable man, between another woman and the second-best
man, etc.). When a marriage proposal takes place, the narrator prefers to make a
summary of the facts rather than merely repeat the characters words. In Leech and
Shorts classification of speech and thought presentation modes, what readers are
offered is a prolonged and reticent Narrative Report of Speech Act(s) (Leech and
Short 1981/1983: 31836), sometimes supplemented by half-moral comments,
often uttered with half a tongue in the narrators cheek:16
How soon he had walked himself into the proper resolution, however, how soon
an opportunity of exercising it occurred, in what manner he expressed himself,
and how he was received, need not be particularly told. (S&S 317)
What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does. (E 391)

In the summing-up coda, Austens narrators oscillate between the light irony
and benevolence of E (where Mrs Eltons ventriloquized criticism of Emma and
Mr Knightleys wedding is counterbalanced by their friends concluding faith in
Penny Gay offers a theatrical interpretation of these final interventions. In the
late eighteenth century, such famous actresses as Dorothy Jordan and Frances Abington
were often assigned the task of reciting the final prologue, in Shakespeares As You Like
It as well as in more recent productions. For a gleeful extra minute or so of theatre time,
Shakespeares Rosalind plays with the audiences expectations of conventional gender
behaviour, and invites applause for her and her companys performance. In doing so
she both ironises the apparent closure of the story that the audience has just enjoyed, and
leads the audience to appreciation of an even more sophisticated pleasure: recognition of
the creative energy of the author and the actors. Gay suggests that Jane Austen ... takes a
similar position on the stage of her own creations, her novels, putting on with a flourish the
mask of author and speaking with affectionate irony of the story that we have all author,
actors, and audience been involved in ... Austen, like the principal actress, is both inside
and outside the novel as it ends: both authoritatively knowledgeable about her fictional
world, and ironically dismissive of its reality (Gay 2002: 1667).
James Thompson has noted the conventional character of these summaries, which
were also employed, among others, by Scott, Edgeworth, and Inchbald: such strategies
represented a reaction against a generation of overblown language of sentimentality
... implying that [previous] novelists had used up the language of emotion. If this most
important emotion cannot be expressed well, Austen and contemporary novelists imply, it
ought not to be expressed at all (Thompson 1988: 723).

Jane Austens Narrators


the perfect happiness of the union; E 440) and the harsh retributive morality of
MP, where villains are both punished and reproached. In this case, the narrator
employs a variety of value-laden expressions (the indignities of stupidity, the
disappointments of selfish passion, punishment, conduct, guilt, mortified,
reproach) which leave the reader in no doubt as to the deontic character of that
final must:
Mr. Rushworth had no difficulty in procuring a divorce; and so ended a marriage
contracted under such circumstances as to make any better end, the effect of
good luck, not to be reckoned on. She had despised him, and loved another
and he had been very much aware that it was so. The indignities of stupidity,
and the disappointments of selfish passion, can excite little pity. His punishment
followed his conduct, as did a deeper punishment, the deeper guilt of his wife. He
was released from the engagement to be mortified and unhappy, till some other
pretty girl could attract him into matrimony again, and he might set forward on a
second, and it is to be hoped, more prosperous trial of the state if duped, to be
duped at least with good humour and good luck; while she must withdraw with
infinitely stronger feelings to a retirement and reproach, which could allow no
second spring of hope or character. (MP 3645)

These narrative apparitions can have a twofold effect on readers: on the one hand,
they create in their minds a conflation of the narrator with the author (because if
an opinion is forcibly expressed by a third-person heterodiegetic narrator, it must
be the authors); on the other, they convince them that the author or the narrator
will be or has been in charge throughout which is very far from being the case.
Firstly, the greater part of Austens novels is made up of dialogue (free and bound
direct and indirect speech, narrative reports of speech acts), often unmediated by
the narrator (above all, but by no means only, in P&P and E). Secondly, even when
the narrator is present, his/her opinions cannot be readily identified because they
are not expressed explicitly enough, because they are contradictory, or because it
is not clear who is speaking/thinking.
Let us first examine the narrators evaluative reticence, which is apparently
at odds with his/her openness in the openings and closings. Sometimes, this
reticence is a function of mystery, or of what Leech calls the interest principle:17
the narrator does not want to uncover his/her plans, as he/she would if he/she
offered explicit evaluation of a character or an event. When Willoughby first
appears in S&S, for instance, the narrator does not judge him on the ethical plane
(on the good-bad axis), nor does he/she pry into his real feelings; so, even when
readers start to suspect him of double dealing, they can still hope he will act
honourably by Marianne. In the Chawton novels, narrative reticence becomes

Leech formulates this principle to account for certain uncommunicative features of

conversation, but the definition can be easily adapted to the written word: I shall tentatively
propose ... an Interest Principle, by which conversation which is interesting, in the sense
of having unpredictability or news value, is preferred to conversation which is boring and
predictable (Leech 1983: 146).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

the rule if orientations, results and codas be excepted; in E, it takes the peculiar
form of listing both good and bad qualities of (almost) all characters, from the
eponymous heroine downwards:
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and
happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence ... The
real evils indeed of Emmas situation were the power of having rather too much
her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself ... (E 34)

This quotation also illustrates the second source of narrative unreliability, or of

evaluative confusion in the narrators discourse. In the space of a few paragraphs,
the narrator shifts from a negative to a positive mode: in the first sentence,
he/she adopts an external point of view which forces him/her to make conjectures
about the real state of affairs (Emma seemed to unite some of the best blessings
of existence); whereas in the second, he/she falls back on a positive perspective
which allows him/her to establish the real evils indeed of Emmas situation.
This kind of oscillation produces epistemological uncertainty, because readers
cannot be sure whether the narrator knows or does not know about peoples
morals and feelings, about past and future events. Owing to narratorial ignorance
or reticence, Jane Austens novels are permeated with evaluative opacity, on the
good-bad, certainty, and importance axes. We have already seen how on certain
occasions, her narrators refuse to provide open evaluations of certain characters
(Willoughby, but also, initially, the Crawfords in MP). The same is true of events:
sometimes an omniscient narrator informs his/her readers about facts which have
taken place on a different temporal plane (cf. for instance Mr Westons story, told
in Chapter 2 of E); on other occasions, though, an ignorant or reticent narrator
omits crucial information or does not signal the importance of certain details.18
In E, we learn that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are engaged only towards
the end of the novel, even though various hints are dropped before that stage. In
P&P, we are never told who betrays Elizabeth Bennet and Darcys secret to Lady
Catherine (cf. Sutherland 1999: 1722). Not infrequently, the narrator openly
pleads his/her ignorance, from the early LS to the mature P:

John Douthwaite defines these information gaps in pragmatic terms, as breaches of
Grices maxim of quantity: To illustrate both how radical and how arresting the pragmatic
manipulation of language can be, let us examine one type of infraction that is crucial in
creating implicature. I am referring to the extreme application of the infraction of the submaxim of quantity, where sufficient information referring to a key event would be expected
in normal circumstances in order to clarify the action, but none is provided. This is a standard
pragmatic canon employed in all genres to keep the reader out of the know in order to bend
the sjuzhet to the narrators ends, including maintaining the tension high and keeping readers
glued to the page. Its use is particularly prevalent and transparent in one genre which relies
on this device as its mainstay: detective stories (Douthwaite 2000: 236).

Jane Austens Narrators


Whether Lady Susan was, or was not happy in her second Choice I do not see
how it can ever be ascertained for who would take her assurance of it, on either
side of the question? The World must judge from probability. (LS 249)
Mrs. Clays affections had overpowered her interest, and she had sacrificed, for
the young mans sake, the possibility of scheming longer for Sir Walter. She has
abilities, however, as well as affections; and it is now a doubtful point whether
his cunning, or hers, may finally carry the day. (P 201)

In the first case, the narrator/editor (Lady Susan is a short epistolary novel with
a very short narrative coda) professes him/herself unable to guess a characters
thoughts and feelings; in the second, he/she pleads ignorance of the future. In both
instances, the narrators powers are limited much as a characters would, by being
situated in time and in an individual psyche.
The very individual quality of Austens narrators clashes with the omniscience
they also claim at certain stages: if sometimes they seem to be looking at the
action from above, on other occasions they descend upon the earth and betray their
position they say I, they become characters. In Jane Austen, or The Secret of
Style, D.A. Miller rightly observes that Austens novels lack a strong evaluative
centre (Austens divinity is free of all accents that might identify it with a socially
accredited broker of power/knowledge in the world under narration; Miller
2003: 32), but simplistically attributes this centrifugal quality to the absence of a
perceptible narrator (Austens work most fundamentally consists in dematerializing
the voice that speaks it; Miller 2003: 67). While Millers identification of a void,
a cut (Miller 2003: 34) at the heart of the novels is instructive, his conflation
of this cut with the narrators disappearance clashes with all those instances in
which the narrator makes a nameless, but not impersonal, appearance.19
If, on the other hand, the narrator is seen as a character among many (though
one with a special functional status), his/her personal interventions need no longer
be seen as intrusions, and his/her evaluative and epistemological uncertainties
become a sign of human, no longer godlike, authority. In his seminal study of
E in The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne C. Booth identified the narrator with Jane
Austen, in inverted commas both a character and a dramatized projection
of the implied author.20 Booth observed that this dramatized Jane Austen
is sometimes unreliable (Is the mystery purchased at the price of shaking the

Predictably, Miller confines the novels which most evidently disprove his theory
of impersonality to the periphery of the Austen canon: NA is The least revised of Austens
early novels, while P is the great false step of Austen Style (Miller 2003: 33, 68).
In her analysis of MP, Beatrice Battaglia distinguishes between the Author as
a director [lAutrice nei panni di regista] and the narrative voice [which] belongs to a
character who has the function of narrator a character who has the historical attributes
of the omniscient, didactic she-Narrator of anti-jacobin and evangelical literature [la voce
narrante [di] un personaggio, che ha appunto la funzione di narratrice, ben caratterizzato
storicamente come il personaggio della Narratrice omnisciente e didattica della letteratura
moralistica antigiacobina ed evangelica] (Battaglia 1983: 128).

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


readers faith in Jane Austens integrity? Booth 1961: 254), and that her presence
is a key structural element of the novel (The dramatic illusion of her presence as a
character is as important as any other element in the story; Booth 1961: 266); but
he failed to link unreliability and presence, personification and fallibility.
Whereas it is probably excessive to say that an omniscient narrator destroys
his authority the moment he says I (Black 2006: 14), it is true that absence and
omniscience often go together (a prejudice having to do with our received ideas on
God) and a humorous narrator speaking in the first person, as well as alternatively
knowing and guessing, certainly does lose a great part of his/her reliability.21
I come now to the relation of a misfortune, which about this time befell Mrs.
John Dashwood. (S&S 216)
I wish I could say, for the sake of [Mrs Bennets] family, that the accomplishment
of her earnest desire in the establishment of so many of her children, produced
so happy an effect as to make her a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for
the rest of her life; (P&P 295)
... although there doubtless are such unconquerable young ladies of eighteen (or
one should not read about them) as are never to be persuaded into love against
their judgment by all that talent, manner, attention, and flattery can do, I have no
inclination to think Fanny one of them ... (MP 181)
Mrs Goddard was the mistress of a school not of a seminary, or an establishment,
or any thing which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine
liberal acquirements with elegant morality upon new principles and new systems
and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and
into vanity but a real, honest, old-fashioned Boarding-school ... (E 18)

In all these cases, the narrator-as-a-character (a figure conflated by many with

Austen herself) comes out of impersonal hiding, though in different ways and
with different degrees of omniscience (or, renunciation of omniscience). In the
quotations from S&S and P&P, the narrator, though speaking in the first person, is
in full charge of the narrative: he/she knows what has happened and will happen,
and is free to move in the consciousness of his/her characters. In MP, the narrator
is guessing at possibilities and measuring a (limited) knowledge of Fannys
inclinations against her background and situation (though one implicature of the
text between parentheses is that the narrator does know what would happen if
Henry Crawford persisted, because Fanny is not one of those romantic characters
peopling the novels the narrator is taking a swipe at). Finally, in E, the narrator
comes out not by saying I, but by expressing in a very direct manner his/her
personal opinions on contemporary affairs (in this case, the confusion with the
historical Jane Austen is almost inevitable).

The author also addresses his/her audience, i.e., the narrator addresses his/her
narratees, thus foregrounding him/herself as a character. When the narrator of P says that
Lady Russels aversion to the idea of a second marriage needs no apology to the public
(P 11), we are encouraged to think of him/her as a person, or at least a persona.

Jane Austens Narrators


Another fluctuating movement exhibited by Jane Austens narrators one

that further complicates the network of evaluation is the continual shift of
perspective from the narrator to one or more characters with the heroine usually
taking up the role of reflector. From the mock-gothic part of NA onwards, all of
Austens novels pivot on one central character whose consciousness the narrator
can penetrate, but who also mixes with the narrator him/herself, at times in an
inextricable manner. The mixture is stylistic as well as narratological: as literary
critics have noted and computational linguists have statistically demonstrated,
there is greater linguistic similarity between heroines and narrators than between
any two characters in each novel what Bakhtin called stylisation (Bakhtin
193441/1981: 30166).22
A distinction is needed, however, between the cases in which a central character
functions as a reflector, and the many instances in which Austens narrators and
reflectors become virtually indistinguishable. When the narrator consistently places
the narrative focus within a characters consciousness (it happens throughout
Emma), readers may tend to see things from that characters visual, psychological,
and ideological perspective. But when this central consciousness and the narrator
are blended, and readers no longer know who is speaking, evaluative confusion
reaches a peak. In order to discriminate between these two techniques (both of
them alternately used in all novels, though with different proportions), I propose a
distinction between mimetic and non-mimetic reflector.
In all of Austens novels, a central reflecting consciousness is employed. After
the initial orientation conducted by the narrator, when all characters have been
introduced and events set in motion, readers are plunged into the consciousness of
the heroine. This plunge takes place later in the early works, while in the Chawton
novels the reflector is employed more consistently, and in E we are allowed to
abandon Emmas gaze and feelings only once or twice. The narrator penetrates the
reflectors consciousness by the use of mental process clauses (Halliday 1985:
107).23 Readers are told what the reflector is feeling, thinking, or perceiving:24

Cf. De Forest and Johnson, who also comment on how the conflation of narrator and
heroine/reflector tricks the reader into giving the latter more credibility than she deserves:
It is no coincidence that Austens four great heroines are all within two percentage points
of their narrators. Their voices blend with the narrators, and we unconsciously give them
the authority of the actual storyteller ... One of the great pleasures in reading Austen is being
tricked by the heroines mistake (De Forest and Johnson 2001: 398).
For a definition and a four-way taxonomy of mental process clauses applicable to
Jane Austens novels, cf. Halliday (1976: 165): Mental process clauses are of four main
types: perception (e.g. verbs see, look), reaction (e.g. please, like, smile), cognition (e.g.
convince, believe, wonder), and verbalization (e.g. say, speak). The last is in fact rather
different from the other three.
Peter W. Graham, however, notes that in Austens fiction, all forms of perception
pivot on the sense of sight: The primacy of the eye is important here. John Locke considered
thought itself a visual process; and as Ira Konigsberg points out the novel as practiced
by Austen and her eighteenth-century predecessors responded to this new understanding,


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

Every object in the next days journey was new and interesting to Elizabeth; and
her spirits were in a state of enjoyment; (P&P 119)
Fanny could not wonder that Edmund was at the parsonage every morning ...
(MP 52)
On the morning appointed for Admiral and Mrs. Crofts seeing Kellynch-hall,
Anne found it most natural to take her almost daily walk to Lady Russels, and
keep out of the way till all was over ... (P 31)25

From this first plunge onwards, and with the exception of all those cases in which
the narrator comes into the open, the heroine becomes the temporal, spatial, and
psychological pivot of the narrative. When a scene is described, this pivot functions
as a deictic centre; and throughout the reflector narrative, occasional sensing
reminders are inserted to signal that the angle of vision has not been shifted:
Fanny supposed she must have been mistaken, and meant to think differently in
future; but with all that submission to Edmund could do, and all the help of the
coinciding looks and hints which she occasionally noticed in some of the others,
and which seemed to say that Julia was Mr. Crawfords choice, she knew not
always what to think. She was privy, one evening, to the hopes of her aunt Norris
on this subject, as well as to her feelings, and the feelings of Mrs. Rushworth,
on a point of some similarity, and could not help wondering as she listened; and
glad would she have been not to be obliged to listen ...

I think, maam, said Mrs. Norris her eyes directed towards Mr. Rushworth
and Maria, who were partners for the second time we shall see some happy
faces again now....

Miss Bertram did indeed look happy, her eyes were sparkling with pleasure,
and she was speaking with great animation, for Julia and her partner, Mr.
Crawford, were close to her; they were all in a cluster together. How she had
looked before, Fanny could not recollect, for she had been dancing with Edmund
herself, and had not thought about her. (MP 923; italics mine)

The narrator first selects Fanny as senser, then describes a scene and reports a
conversation as seen through her eyes and heard by her ears. At the end of the
passage, readers are used to Fanny functioning as a deictic/psychological centre,
and will tend to interpret that indeed as belonging to her (as if she had turned her
gaze towards Julia Bertram and Henry Crawford to verify the probability of her

and thereby became the dominant literary genre of the period, as it directly confronted the
problem of perception in both its narrative technique and its subject matter. This is not to
say that novels confine themselves to what the eye can see. Rather, thought itself is visual
in novels (Graham 2008: 910).
The process here is one of doing rather than sensing, yet we are also allowed an
insight into Annes feelings, for example her unwillingness to be in the way when the Crofts
visit her family house as prospective tenants.

Jane Austens Narrators


aunts suppositions).26 If any doubts should arise, however, Fanny is again selected
as senser before the end of the paragraph (How she had looked before, Fanny
could not recollect): readers are reminded that they are looking at the fictional
world through her eyes, and that they are not allowed to see what she does not.27
In an article comparing modernist narrative techniques with Austens, I have
already observed how narrators employ the reflector technique in order to sift
knowledge before presenting it to their readers (Morini 2002: 77, 8393). In E,
many mysteries are unveiled for the reader when they are unveiled for Emma.
In the excerpt from MP quoted above, we may suspect the reflecting narrator of
a (psychological) omission: we are told that Fanny had not thought about Julia
before because she was dancing with Edmund but the reason is given in passing,
and it is left to the reader to guess (or learn later) that since she is in love with
Edmund, very little else is likely to engage her attention when she is with him.
Things become even more complicated, and evaluation becomes even more
elusive, when a mimetic reflector is substituted for its non-mimetic counterpart.
When the narrator and the reflector are completely conflated, it becomes impossible
to attribute evaluative comments with any certainty to one or the other. Even in the
above passage from MP, which is clearly non-mimetic, certain words and clauses
(indeed, she was speaking with great animation) could be grammatically
assigned to the narrator as well as the reflector (though logic leads to the latter).
In other instances, neither grammar nor logic offer any guidance. The following
passage from P&P describes a social occasion which the narrator shows through
Elizabeth Bennets eyes (The chapter begins: Convinced as Elizabeth now was ...
she could not help feeling ...):

In Thompson and Hunstons three-way definition, this would count as comparative

evaluation (the narrators, or Fannys, vision physical and moral is compared with
Mrs Norriss).
This technical account is very close to Houghs idea of coloured narrative (Hough
1970/1991: 173). Other narratologists prefer to see this blending of voices in terms of free
indirect speech (Pascal 1977: 4560) or free indirect discourse (Fludernik 1993) the
narrator moving towards the character, imitating his/her voice. Michael Toolan identifies
free indirect discourse as a privileged means to align the narrator with a character: I
favour the word alignment because it doesnt prescribe whether that closeness of narrator
to character is going to be used for purposes of irony, empathy, as a vehicle for stream-ofconsciousness or the clashing of two voices, or whatever: the alignment is perceived, then
the function (or naturalization) is worked out by the reader. The term alignment also
helps us keep in mind that, in terms of lexicogrammatical markers and aesthetic or narrative
effect, there is a continuum from pure narrative words to pure character words, with any
number of points on that continuum (Toolan 1988/2001: 135). Violeta Sotirova envisages
a conversational model for free indirect style in which free indirect discourse can be seen
as representing a dialogue between different or contrasting points of view (Sotirova 2004:
2256).The notion of free indirect discourse as a hold-all term, however, is misleading
(at least for Austen), in that it suggests that an imitation of speech or thought is always
present while my description of blending includes all those cases in which it is point of
view alone that sustains the conflation between character and narrator.


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

By Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley, they were noticed only by a curtsey; and on
their being seated, a pause, awkward as such pauses must always be, succeeded
for a few moments. It was first broken by Mrs. Annesley, a genteel, agreeablelooking woman, whose endeavour to introduce some kind of discourse, proved
her to be more truly well bred than either of the others ...28

In Darcys presence [Elizabeth] dared not mention Wickhams name ... but,
exerting herself vigorously to repel the ill-natured attack, she presently answered
the question in a tolerably disengaged tone. (P&P 205; italics mine)

As many have noted, Jane Austen is an eclectic master of thought, as well as

speech, presentation. She employs direct and indirect thought, free direct and
indirect thought, narrative reports of speech acts (Leech and Short 1981/1983:
33751). However, the nature of speech and thought presentation is such that the
boundaries between different techniques are not always clear-cut. Free indirect
thought is particularly tricky: in the absence of clear signals (and in a novel whose
narrator seems to be omniscient and not omniscient, and appears to be working
both in the positive and in the negative mode), how are readers to tell if the
thought is attributable to the narrator or the reflector? In the above passages, are the
italicized evaluative comments to be allotted to Elizabeth, the narrator, or both?
In other words, to come back to Simpsons taxonomy of narrators, in these cases
we no longer know if the narrator is working in the narratorial or in the reflector
mode. One could say that it is not so crucial to distinguish between the narrators
and the reflectors voices, because each heroine is a spokesman for her narrator (or,
for Jane Austen), and therefore heroine and narrator are one from the ideological
point of view. Though that may be the case, however, it is as simplistic to equate
narrator with character as it is unfeasible to identify narrator with author: it has
been often noted that the point of E and NA, for instance, is to prove the heroines
wrong; in E, MP and P, the narrators occasionally use not only their heroines, but
even such unsympathetic characters as Mrs Norris as reflectors (cf. Chapter 2).
More generally still, the narrator is apt to ventriloquize the speech of all
characters, as well as the kind of tittle-tattle one could hear in Bath or in the
village of Highbury (cf. Finch and Bowen 1990). The famous incipit of P&P is
a typical example: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in
possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife (P&P 1). In this case,
the narrator overtly appears to endorse the proposition expressed by the relative
clause, but a certain degree of exaggeration suggests that the endorsement may not
be totally heart-felt. This kind of stylisation, or ventriloquizing appropriation,
illustrates very well the concept of irony in relevance theory: according to Wilson
and Sperber, irony is echoic language: The speaker echoes a thought [he/she]
attributes to someone else, while dissociating [him/herself] from it with anything
from mild ridicule to savage scorn (Wilson and Sperber 1992/1996: 265). While
the definition of irony as echoic language does not hold for all ironical statements
This passage contains a different example of comparative (more truly well bred)
mixed with value-laden evaluation (a genteel, agreeable-looking woman).

Jane Austens Narrators


(unless the definition is circular), it applies very well to the kind of appropriating
game Austens narrator plays: and since it is often difficult to determine whether
the narrators voice aligns itself with or detaches itself from (and if so, in what
measure) from the other voices it swallows, the reader is left without a firm
evaluative ground to stand on.29
In the end, we find that we cannot catch Jane Austen in her novels, because
she is simply not there to be caught; only Booths Jane Austen walks through
the rooms of Barton Cottage or in the Mansfield Park grounds, silently watching,
loudly commenting on, openly or covertly conniving with the (other) characters.
The presence of Jane Austen awakens the readers desire to know Jane Austens
mind, and at the same time it posits access to the real Jane Austen as impossible.
With a further complicating move, however, even Jane Austen goes into hiding
behind her reflectors, or in the meanderings of description. Readers can rely on no
stable evaluative centre, and opacity becomes the rule of the most crystal-clear of
narrative creations.
Traditional ironical readings of Jane Austen (cf. Mudrick 1952) set naive
first impressions against a more sophisticated reading of the novels, promoted
by the narrative structure itself. But in Jane Austens novels, whenever readers
expectations are frustrated, one reading is not simply substituted for another:
interpretations are heaped upon interpretations, and if certain evaluative comments
are presented as more authoritative than others, in other cases readers do not know
whether they are allowed an insight into the heart of the matter, or whether they
are only following this or that character (or the narrator-as-a-character) in their
misreadings. Logic, linguistic knowledge, and literary expectations cannot unravel
one discourse from another, one interpretation from another: for on the one hand,
Austen tricks us into believing that certain evaluative comments are more reliable
than others; while on the other, she allows us no stable source of authoritativeness,
by proving that a chance word, or a silence, can contain a bigger grain of truth than
a long authorized speech.
Choice or Chance?
One cannot help concluding that Jane Austen is difficult to catch at her narrative
game because she does not want to be caught. Without an explicit narratological
theory, she perfects a number of narrative strategies that allow her to transform a
third-person narrator into a character, to conflate this character with others, and so
Drawing on Fowlers definition of mind style, Elena Semino distinguishes between
ideological point of view (a term she uses to capture those aspects of world views that
are social, cultural, religious or political in origin, and which an individual is likely to share
with others) and mind style (covering those aspects of world views which are primarily
personal and cognitive in origin; Semino 2002: 97): in this theoretical framework, Austens
irony can be seen as playing with various degrees of confusion/conflation between these
two planes.


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

to avoid evaluative commitment. Thus constructed, her novels have at the same
time invited and baffled evaluative analysis for almost two centuries.
If one should ask oneself why such secretiveness was necessary, one could
perhaps have a look at Jane Austens letters (that portion of her letters we are
allowed to read): they are even more reticent than the novels, perhaps because in
the novels some opinions can at least be attributed to characters. In the nineteenth
century, however, critics tended to identify the author not only with his/her
narrators, but also with his/her characters, unless these characters were explicitly
condemned by the narrator and by poetic justice. With all this in mind, we might
view Austens narrative technique as a masterpiece of prudence a way to elude
and delude the moral scrutinizers of literature, those who praised or condemned
a novel for its ideas or morals.30 One is reminded of the exhortation, common
to all manuals of conversation (and derived from Castigliones Cortegiano), to
endorse one opinion and its opposite, or at least to see the merits of both and never
take sides with excessive vigour.
Whether prudence was her motivation or not, however, and whether she was
a fully conscious artist or Henry Jamess unconscious craftsman, Jane Austen
created narrative machines which still produce epistemological uncertainty. Her
novels promise complete disclosures which do not disclose everything; and
though it would be anachronistic to fashion a postmodern, poststructuralist, or
decostructionist Austen, it is tempting to believe that she did not believe in truth
as an external, verifiable entity:
Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure;
seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken;
but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it
may not be very material. (E 391)

Janis P. Stout (1990: 44) explicitly links Austens silent narrative strategies
with the reticent conversational modes exhibited by some of her (female) characters,
and with the premium put on (womens) silence by Austens society: Clearly, Austens
suppressions were, very often at least, chosen strategies, primarily for reader involvement
and for conveying a theory of language. That they were at the same time manifestations of
culturally imposed notions of appropriateness, or tact, particularly on the part of women, and
reactions to those notions, is also clear. Anthony Mandal (2007: 389), however, describes
the novelistic tendencies of Austens time in such a manner as to give an alternative, or
supplementary, explanation for these silent strategies: The close of the eighteenth century
saw the convergence of two conservative reactions which, allied together, curtailed the
expansion of the fiction market. There was the general political backlash led by the AntiJacobins against any voice of protest. There was also a reaction against the novel genre
itself, which aligned itself against salacious and morally disturbing titles. As a consequence
of both impulses, the 1800s saw the depolemicization (if not the depoliticization) of fiction,
leading to its reconstruction as a proper vehicle for middle-class expression.

Chapter 2

The Development of Jane Austens

Narrative Techniques
A general description of Austens narrative technique may give rise to the
impression that besides describing the same social set, the author also employed
the same techniques in all her novels. This impression is both grounded and false.
It is grounded, because NA already contains the narratological germs of MP and
E; false, because the same tricks are mastered more and more fully, and MP and E
are more complex narratologically, and bear little or no resemblance to the simple
mechanisms of NA.
Unlike the modernists, Austen left us very little in the way of explicit theory,
either in her letters or elsewhere. Therefore, if we want to study the development
of her narrative technique, the only documents we can access are the novels
themselves: and based on the evidence of the novels, Austen progressively
extends that web of evaluative opacity which, as has been seen (cf. Chapter 1),
both invites and frustrates interpretation. In the interests of evaluative opacity,
the narrators learn to shift from a positive to a negative mode, to undermine
their own authoritativeness by being reticent and unreliable, and to transfer some
of their prerogatives to a variety of reflectors. In MP and E, the reflectors voices
become virtually indistinguishable from the narrators.
It is interesting to note, however, that Austens use of narrative devices is
not unfailingly progressive. In certain cases, she reverts to the narrative habits
displayed two or three novels before: in P, for instance (and to a certain extent in
the unfinished S), the effect of evaluative opacity is mostly abandoned in favour
of open, explicit narratorial control, as if after the complexities of MP and E the
author needed a breath of fresh air, a plunge into the clearer waters of the Steventon
Northanger Abbey
In NA, many of the narrative techniques which will be adopted in later novels are
already in use, though they are employed in a light, playful context, and with a

As Park Honan writes: The English novel with few exceptions was degenerate
in the 1790s, because there was no coherent and deeply based theory of fiction to inspire
new artistic developments of the genre or to defend it against its moralistic attackers. Jane
Austen joined the debate over the moral value of novels not by theorizing, but by showing
that what a novel imitates is far less important than its technical forms of expression
(Honan 1987: 144).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

certain degree of youthful inconsistency. From the evaluative point of view, NA

displays a very simple structure: the narrator, who is in charge through most of the
novel, uses the pseudo-gothic story of Catherine Morland as a parodic foil for the
absurdities of gothic fiction (as seen in Chapter 1, this evaluative net can only be
identified on the intertextual plane). The parodic inception of the novel is declared
at the beginning and resumed in the result and coda (having a man falling in
love with her out of gratitude is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge,
and dreadfully derogatory of an heroines dignity; NA 240). Characters and
actions are unambiguously identified as good or bad, intelligent or stupid; feelings
and motives are usually explained; and while Catherine may be left to her own
devices (she has to make evaluative mistakes, and will learn to discriminate before
the end), the reader certainly is not:
It is now expedient to give some description of Mrs. Allen ...

Mrs. Allen was one of that numerous class of females, whose society can
raise no other emotion than surprise at there being any men in the world who
could like them well enough to marry them. She had neither beauty, genius,
accomplishment, nor manner. (NA 10)
[Catherines brother], being of a very amiable disposition, and sincerely attached
to her ... (NA 29)
Thorpe never finished the simile, for it could hardly have been a proper one.
(NA 73)

On the good-bad axis, and on the moral plane, two sets of characters are identified at
a very early stage: the Morlands, Henry and Miss Tilney are good and respectable,
while General Tilney is bad and the Thorpes are bad and disreputable. The narrator
does not immediately identify Isabella Thorpe as the scheming, insidious figure
she is, because the reader is to follow Catherine in her misreadings; but Miss
Thorpes real motives are transparent, not least because her protestations are
ironically set against her actions. In this form of factual irony, the evaluative
force always conveyed by irony springs from a marked disparity between what is
said and the situation (Black 2006: 110). The narrator apparently remains silent,
yet the readers judgment is implicitly directed:
Catherine had nothing to oppose against such reasoning; and therefore, to shew
the independence of Miss Thorpe, and her resolution of humbling the sex, they
set off immediately as fast as they could walk, in pursuit of the two young men.
(NA 28)

In NA, Austens celebrated irony is mostly present in its traditional rhetorical

meaning of semantic reversal. Even when the narrator does not speak his/her
mind openly, his/her evaluative position remains apparent: when Thorpe clumsily
courts Catherine, for instance, the narrator comments that he continued the same
kind of delicate flattery, in spite of her entreating him to have done (NA 69).

The Development of Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


Sometimes this kind of irony is signaled by hyperbole, as when James Morlands

letter arrives containing the news that his engagement with Isabella Thorpe
received his fathers stamp of approval:
Mrs. Thorpe, with tears of joy, embraced her daughter, her son, her visitor, and
could have embraced half the inhabitants of Bath with satisfaction. Her heart was
overflowing with tenderness. It was dear John, and dear Catherine at every
word;dear Anne and dear Maria must immediately be made sharers in their
felicity; and two dears at once before the name of Isabella were not more than
that beloved child had now well earned. John himself was no skulker in joy. He
not only bestowed on Mr. Morland the high commendation of being one of the
finest fellows in the world, but swore off many sentences in his praise. (NA 89)

Apart from a few inconsistent remarks in the negative mode (whether [Catherine]
thought of [Henry] so much ... as to dream of him ... cannot be ascertained; but I
hope it was no more than in a slight slumber ...; NA 1718), the narrator always
functions in the positive mode: he/she knows everything about the characters
thoughts and feelings, as well as about past and future events. While Catherines
gothic and personal evaluations are disproved by facts and corrected by the narrator
(Catherine listened with astonishment; she knew not how to reconcile two such
different accounts of the same thing; for she had not been brought up to understand
the propensities of a rattle, nor to know to how many idle assertions and impudent
falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead; NA 46), the narrators judgments are
never refuted. When the narrator says I, or evokes my heroine, and when he/she
plays his/her intertextual games with his/her readers, one may well regard him/her
as a character, but one cannot help thinking him/her a very assured one. Whether
he/she chooses to provide his/her interpretation at any stage of the narrative, or
not, that interpretation is never presented as less than authoritative: the narrator, in
NA, is the immovable primum mobile of evaluation.
The mock-gothic atmosphere of the novel, however, occasions the adoption of
a technique which will be put to a different use in S&S. When Catherine is invited
to Northanger Abbey, her literary tastes combine with the atmosphere of the place
to inspire her with gothic excitement and fear. Her false romantic interpretations
of reality are of course exposed for what they are: but in order to make them at least
initially plausible, the narrator has to switch from the narratorial to the reflector
mode. Through Chapters VIX of Volume II, the story is told with Catherine as
a reflector: readers are constantly reminded that they are viewing the action from
NA contains one of the two examples of prolepsis to be found in Austens fiction:
From the latter circumstance it may be presumed that, whatever might be our heroines
opinion of [General Tilney], his admiration of her was not of a very dangerous kind; not
likely to produce animosities between the brothers, nor persecutions to the lady. He cannot
be the instigator of the three villains in horsemens great coats, by whom she will hereafter
be forced into a traveling-chaise and four, which will drive off with incredible speed
(NA 95). The anticipation is given as typical of the gothic genre, though its gothic
implications will of course be cancelled or qualified.

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


her mental perspective (Miss Tilneys manners and Henrys smile soon did away
some of her unpleasant feelings, she doubted, she felt utterly unworthy, He
listened to his father in silence, and attempted not any defence, which confirmed
her in feeling; NA 11213), while the narrator occasionally peeps out to remind
them that he/she has not completely relinquished his/her control over the narrative
(Thus wisely fortifying her mind; The General was flattered by her looks of
surprize; NA 122, 130).
In order to make the gothic sub-plot convincing, Catherine must function,
at least on the grammatical plane, as a mimetic reflector free indirect thought
linking her discourse and point of view with the narrators. At the end of these four
Chapters in reflector mode, the narrator informs us that The visions of romance
were over. Catherine was completely awakened (NA 146): and with Catherines
awakening, it is the narrator who regains control over the story. In the case of NA,
though, even when narrator and reflector are conflated from the linguistic point
of view, a logical interpretation, supported by the narrators initial and pervasive
strong evaluations of the conventions of gothic, is that the narrator never endorses
his/her reflectors suppositions, that he/she is fixing a sardonic gaze on her. It is
a kind of irony which is used consistently in Austens oeuvre, though never as
unambiguously as in NA the irony stemming from a discrepancy between the
views of character and narrator (Black 2006: 110):
But neither the business alleged, nor the magnificent compliment, could win
Catherine from thinking, that some very different object must occasion so
serious a delay of proper repose. To be kept up for hours, after the family were
in bed, by stupid pamphlets, was not very likely. There must be some deeper
cause: something was to be done which could be done only while the household
slept; and the probability that Mrs. Tilney yet lived, shut up for causes unknown,
and receiving from the pitiless hands of her husband a nightly supply of coarse
food, was the conclusion which necessarily followed. Shocking as was the idea,
it was at least better than a death unfairly hastened, as, in the natural course of
things, she must ere long be released. The suddenness of her reputed illness;
the absence of her daughter, and probably of her other children, at the timeall
favoured the supposition of her imprisonment.Its originjealousy perhaps,
or wanton crueltywas yet to be unravelled. (NA 138)

The shift from one mode of narration to another is more abruptly and arbitrarily
managed here than elsewhere. Nick de Marco has registered dissatisfaction with the
capricious mutability of narratorial reticence in NA, which ends up destabilizing the
narrator-reader relationship: The reader cannot passively accept everything the narrator
says, firstly because the reader shares a different point of view from that of the narrator.
Thus, the struggle, or dialectic commences when the narrator tries to convince the reader
of the reality of a certain situation. But after engaging in this type of struggle, at some
other point in the narrative, the narrator negates the very existence of the reader. The
plot suddenly turns upon itself and this centripetal thrust excludes the reader from any
subsequent involvement. This exclusion may last a few pages or entire chapters only to
be reopened again, quite arbitrarily, by a cool, ironic remark to the effect that the narrator
hasnt really forgotten the reader after all (de Marco 1994: 75).

The Development of Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


Sense and Sensibility

In S&S, the reflector technique is used more consistently and more eclectically.
Nevertheless, for vast stretches of the novel the narratorial voice is as positive,
as omniscient, and as strongly evaluative as its counterpart in NA: as seen in
Chapter 1, the orientation is conducted by the narrator, who informs us about
the moral qualities and financial situation of the two branches of the Dashwood
family (S&S 15). The opening also introduces the main topic of the novel, the
theme of sensibility, and reflects the narrators evaluative position on Mariannes
excesses (she is sensible and clever; but eager in every thing; her sorrows, her
joys, could have no moderation ... she was everything but prudent; S&S 45).
This evaluative net is woven into completion in the coda, after Mariannes
capitulation to sense, when the narrator points a female Quixotic moral that was
already implicit in the beginning:
Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover
the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most
favourite maxims. She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in
life as at seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively
friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another!and that other, a man who
had suffered no less than herself under the event of a former attachment, whom,
two years before, she had considered too old to be married,and who still
sought the constitutional safeguard of a flannel waistcoat! (S&S 333)

Sensibility, therefore, is openly condemned or laughed at by the narrator but the

narrator is not the only evaluative source in S&S. Sometimes the narratorial voice
disappears behind the brains and voices of the characters, while on other occasions
it abstains from giving full information or drawing conclusions. One example of
reticence is provided by the introduction of Willoughby into the plot: the halfhearted villain which captivates Mariannes sensitive heart is not openly evaluated
by the narrator, so that there remains an uncertainty as to whether he is the villain
or the hero until his actions prove him bad. When Marianne first meets him in

According to Beatrice Battaglia, no accurate reading of S&S is possible which does
not discriminate between the narrator and the author (Battaglia 1983: 4788).

On the intertextual plane, Willoughby is initially presented as a hero, because, as
Margaret Anne Doody reminds us in her introduction to S&S, his description reflects the
first appearance of the hero in Ann Radcliffes The Mysteries of Udolpho (S&S xxvii).
Beatrice Battaglia has recently pointed out that a critical awareness of this intertextual level
is perhaps less widespread than could be expected or desirable: Occasionally, one also
finds that the most recent editor of Sense and Sensibility, M.A. Doody, is praised for her
remarkable insight in observing that the first apparition of Willoughby reflects the scene in
which the hero of The Mysteries of Udolpho appears for the first time. This seems to be very
naive praise, and its navet is all the more significant, for it implies little awareness of the
fact that Willoughby is first of all a stereotype in contemporary popular fiction, no less than
the two heroines. Without recognizing this fact, we cannot properly measure the extent and
quality of Jane Austens operation of rewriting (Battaglia 2002: 41).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

her distress, he is merely defined as a gentleman; and when he carries the injured
young lady inside the house, he is seen through the reflecting eyes of Elinor and
her mother:
Elinor and her mother rose up in amazement at their entrance, and while the
eyes of both were fixed on him with an evident wonder and a secret admiration
which equally sprung from his appearance, he apologized for his intrusion by
relating its cause, in a manner so frank and so graceful, that his person, which
was uncommonly handsome, received additional charms from his voice and
expression. Had he been even old, ugly, and vulgar, the gratitude and kindness
of Mrs. Dashwood would have been secured by any act of attention to her child;
but the influence of youth, beauty, and elegance, gave an interest to the action
which came home to her feelings. (S&S 36)

In what follows, before Willoughbys real nature and intentions are disclosed,
readers will generally have to rely on Elinors impressions to confirm or dispel their
own uneasiness at his excessive sensibility, extreme imprudence, and inconstant
Another form of evaluative reticence is less narratological than pragmatic. In
S&S, a strategy is inaugurated which will be perfected in the Chawton novels:
the narrator appears to comment on a stretch of dialogue, but he/she does so in
a somewhat un-cooperative manner (Grice 1967/1991). The narrator breaches,
or exploits, the maxim of relation (be relevant), or one of the twin maxims of
quantity (Make your contribution as informative as is required and Do not make
your contribution more informative than is required): readers are thus left to work
out the implicatures for themselves.
Here [Lucy] took out her handkerchief; but Elinor did not feel very compassionate.
(S&S 115)
Elinor could only smile. (S&S 197)

In the first passage, the narrator does not explain why Elinor should feel
compassionate when Lucy takes out her handkerchief, nor why Elinor does not feel
as she perhaps should: the first, obvious, implicature, is that Lucy is crying; while
the second logical gap triggers more than just one implicature. This narratorial
comment interrupts a conversational battle fought by Lucy and Elinor for Edward
Ferrars (Lucy is engaged with him, and knows, but pretends she does not, that
there is a strong attachment between her fianc and Elinor): Elinor cannot feel very
compassionate about her rivals sufferings but additional implicatures suggest
that Lucy may be feigning her sorrow, that Elinor thinks or knows that she is
a fake, or that the narrator is telling us that she is a fake. The second excerpt is
taken from a conversation between Elinor and his half-brother, John Dashwood:
the latter has been speaking at some length of his financial difficulties, and Elinor
has been answering him in as condescending a tone as she can muster. Given
the financial difficulties she has been plunged into by his lack of generosity, the
obvious implicature is that he is being either very disingenuous or very stupid.

The Development of Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


Unlike NA, in which the narrators evaluating eye is felt even when it is not
overtly presiding over the proceedings, S&S is conducted by a fluctuating narrator
who alternates between control and withdrawal and the main form of narratorial
withdrawal is conflation with a characters voice. Whereas in Austens mockgothic experiment the reflector mode had been used for the purposes of a partial
and momentary suspension of disbelief, in S&S the technique is more pervasive
and organic to the description of a social reality. The main reflector is of course
Elinor/sense: from a very early stage, we see things from her point of view (Elinor
saw, with concern, the excess of her sisters sensibility; S&S 5). That point of view
remains central throughout, though a deeper plunge into Elinors consciousness
takes place when serious trouble with Edward Ferrars looms ahead (Volume
I, Chapter XIX). Whereas in NA there had been a clear evaluative detachment
between Catherine and the narrator, here Elinors voice and the narrators are
sometimes indistinguishable:
Edward remained a week at the cottage; he was earnestly pressed by Mrs.
Dashwood to stay longer; but as if he were bent only on self-mortification, he
seemed resolved to be gone when his enjoyment among his friends was at the
height. His spirits, during the last two or three days, were greatly improvedhe
grew more and more partial to the house and the environsnever spoke of going
away without a sighdeclared his time to be wholly disengagedeven doubted
to what place he should go when he left thembut still, go he must. Never had
any week passed so quicklyhe could hardly believe it to be gone. He said so
repeatedly; other things he said too, which marked the turn of his feelings and
gave the lie to his actions. He had no pleasure at Norland; he detested being in
town; but either to Norland or to London, he must go. He valued their kindness
beyond any thing, and his greatest happiness was in being with them. Yet he
must leave them at the end of the week, in spite of their wishes and his own, and
without any restraint on his time.
Elinor placed all that was astonishing in this way of acting to his mothers
account; (S&S 867)

The narratorial mode is negative: the narrator remains outside Edward Ferrars,
makes conjectures about his motives and real feelings (as if he were bent only on
self-mortification; he seemed resolved); if he/she told us that Edward is engaged
with Lucy Steele, our reading would change completely. In the negative mode,
there is no telling whether this description is made from a narratorial position or
through a reflector: by now, readers are accustomed to Elinor being at least the
deictic centre of the action, and it is tempting to transform them into us, and to
read all the passage as a long stretch of free indirect thought (containing Edwards
discourse in the form of free indirect speech).
It is interesting to note that S&S contains two sub-fictions, two stories told by
Colonel Brandon (17884) and Willoughby (27890). In these cases, it is the tellers who
are evaluated through their stories (cf. Cortazzi and Jin 2000: 11416); and it is Elinor who
functions as hearer and evaluator.

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


In this novel, Jane Austen starts perfecting the reflector technique she had
learned to use in NA. Another striking development is that the angle of vision
is occasionally shifted from Elinor to other characters, including Marianne, Mrs
Dashwood, the Dashwood family at large, and even Willoughby:
Colonel Brandon alone, of all the party, heard [Marianne] without being in
raptures. He paid her only the compliment of attention; and she felt a respect for
him, which the others had reasonably forfeited by their shameless want of taste.
His pleasure in music, though it amounted not to that ecstatic delight which
alone could sympathize with her own, was estimable when contrasted against
the horrible insensibility of the others; (S&S 30)

Mariannes preserver, as Margaret, with more elegance than precision, stiled
Willoughby, called at the cottage early the next morning to make his personal
inquiries ... every thing that passed during the visit, tended to assure him of the
sense, elegance, mutual affection, and domestic comfort of the family to whom
accident had now introduced him. Of their personal charms he had not required
a second interview to be convinced.

Miss Dashwood had a delicate complexion, regular features, and a
remarkably pretty figure. Marianne was still handsomer. Her form, though not so
correct as her sisters, in having the advantage of height, was more striking; and
her face was so lovely, that when in the common cant of praise she was called a
beautiful girl, truth was less violently outraged than usually happens. (S&S 39)

It is perhaps also due to these stretches of reflector narrative, as well as to Jane

Austens powers of characterization, that Marianne/sensibility and the rakish
Willoughby are perceived by many readers to be at least as attractive as Elinor or
Colonel Brandon. By sharing his/her evaluative privileges with these characters
(who is it that thinks that the other listeners have reasonably forfeited Mariannes
musical respect by their shameless want of taste, or that Mariannes face is so
lovely, that when in the common cant of praise she was called a beautiful girl,
truth was less violently outraged than usually happens?), the narrator confers
on them some of his/her authoritativeness; and no character can be thoroughly
unsympathetic who possesses some of the qualities of a narrator.
Pride and Prejudice
Though the same set of narrative techniques is used in P&P as in S&S, these
techniques are mixed in a different blend to tell the story of how three of the five
Bennet sisters came to be married (two of them, though comparatively poor, with
comparatively rich husbands). The caesura is evident from the very first chapter.
The narrator provides a very brief, humorous introduction in the form of a general
statement in the present tense (It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single
man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife; P&P 1), followed
by a dramatic set-piece featuring Mr and Mrs Bennet, interrupted only by very
brief narratorial stage-directions and comments (Mr. Bennet made no answer;

The Development of Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


This was invitation enough; P&P 1). Only at the end of this lively conversational
exchange, the narrator introduces their warring personalities (Mr. Bennet was so
odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice ... She was a
woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper; P&P 3):
these evaluative comments, however, are offered when readers may already have
formed an opinion of the couple through dialogue.
Throughout the novel, characters discourses are given precedence, at least
from the point of view of structural organization, over narratorial comments. The
predominance is spatial as well as temporal: dialogue takes up the greatest part of
P&P, with a ratio paralleled only in E. In these two novels (and possibly in the
unfinished TW), the dramatic quality of Austens narrative art becomes transparent.
The narrator provides the usual elements of orientation, but these elements are
often prefaced by conversational exchanges which speak for themselves. A typical
example is the introduction of Mr Collins, who is perhaps the most complete fool
in Austens fiction (cf. Chapters 4 and 5). The following narratorial judgments
only come after a couple of Chapters in which Collins has been introduced, and
evaluated, through a letter of his (P&P 47), in Mr Bennets words (P&P 48), and
by his own contributions to a conversational exchange (P&P 4952):
Mr. Collins was not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature had been but
little assisted by education or society; the greatest part of his life having been
spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father; and though he
belonged to one of the universities, he had merely kept the necessary terms,
without forming at it any useful acquaintance .

Having now a good house and very sufficient income, he intended to marry;
and in seeking a reconciliation with the Longbourn family he had a wife in view,
as he meant to choose one of the daughters, if he found them as handsome and
amiable as they were represented by common report. (P&P 523)

The fact that dialogue takes precedence over narratorial discourse, however, does
not entail that the narrator has no hold over the story and its evaluative net. Firstly,
even though presentation often prefaces description, the latter is never absent
(the Bingley sisters are proud and conceited; Lady Lucas is a very good kind
of woman, not too clever to be a valuable neighbour to Mrs. Bennet; P&P 10,
12). And as always happens in Austens novels, the result and the coda are
conducted by the narrator in the first person. When the final marriage proposal
takes place, narrative reports of speech and thought acts are substituted for
dialogue; and when all is said and done, the author comes out to bid farewell to
characters and readers:
Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his
situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately gave him to understand,
that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to

Austens knowledge of and borrowings from the theatre of her time have only
recently been studied in any significant detail (cf. Byrne 2002, Gay 2002).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present
assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had
probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly
and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. (P&P 280)
Happy for all her maternal feelings was the day on which Mrs. Bennet got rid
of her two most deserving daughters. With what delighted pride she afterwards
visited Mrs. Bingley and talked of Mrs. Darcy may be guessed. I wish I could
say, for the sake of her family, that the accomplishment of her earnest desire
in the establishment of so many of her children, produced so happy an effect
as to make her a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for the rest of her
life; though perhaps it was lucky for her husband, who might not have relished
domestic felicity in so unusual a form, that she still was occasionally nervous
and invariably silly. (P&P 295)

Secondly, the narrator reserves the right for him/herself to move at his/her pleasure
in and out of his/her characters minds and lives, and therefore to inform the reader
or keep him/her in the dark: Mr Collinss motives, as seen above, are soon betrayed;
Mr Bennet had rather hoped that all his wifes views on the stranger would be
disappointed (P&P 8). As in S&S, crucial information is withheld for the sake
of the interest principle: readers may expect, but are not explicitly prepared for,
Darcys proposal to Elizabeth; they do not know at first that Darcy has a part
in marrying Wickham and Lydia; and there remains an unsolved mystery as to
how Lady Catherine comes to know that her nephew is in matrimonial danger
(Sutherland 1999: 1722).
A great deal of interest (or, suspense) is created by using the central
intelligence (James 1953: 299300) of Elizabeth as a mimetic reflector at crucial
moments, thereby limiting the readers perspective to hers. The reader, however,
can be better than she is at unravelling the mystery of Darcys behaviour (as well
as at unravelling narratorial discourse from free indirect thought):
More than once did Elizabeth in her ramble within the Park, unexpectedly meet
Mr. Darcy.She felt all the perverseness of the mischance that should bring
him where no one else was brought; and to prevent its ever happening again,
took care to inform him at first, that it was a favourite haunt of hers.How it
could occur a second time therefore was very odd!Yet it did, and even a third.
It seemed like wilful ill-nature, or a voluntary penance, for on these occasions it
was not merely a few formal enquiries and an awkward pause and then away, but
he actually thought it necessary to turn back and walk with her. (P&P 140)

Elizabeth becomes the narrators reflector from a very early stage, though
sometimes we are reminded that our vision is not invariably confined to hers (when
questioned by Lady Catherine, Elizabeth felt all the impertinence of her questions,
but answered them very composedly; P&P 126 the focus is outside as well as
inside Elizabeth). However, the narrators mirror is not always pointed towards the
heroine. As in S&S, Austen continues to experiment with the reflector technique,
widening its application to include other characters; and if in the previous novel

The Development of Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


the Dashwood women, and even Willoughby, had briefly functioned as reflectors,
in P&P the technique assumes even more democratic, if ironical, features:
Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasing countenance,
and easy, unaffected manners. His sisters were fine women, with an air of
decided fashion. His brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, merely looked the gentleman;
but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall
person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general
circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand
a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies
declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with
great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which
turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above
his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire
could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance,
and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.

Mr. Bingley had soon made himself acquainted with all the principal people
in the room; he was lively and unreserved, danced every dance, was angry that
the ball closed so early, and talked of giving one himself at Netherfield. Such
amiable qualities must speak for themselves. What a contrast between him and
his friend! (P&P 67)

Here, the central intelligence is a collective one the narrator ventriloquizing the
words and thoughts of the whole party assembled for the ball. As usual, the negative
narrative technique dealing only with appearances and not with essences (good
looking, gentlemanlike, countenance, manners, fine women, with an air of
decided fashion) makes for a conflation of the narrators and the characters
perspectives. After an ambiguous beginning, the point of view is located within
this collective intelligence by the insistence on mental processes (he was looked
at, till his manners gave a disgust, he was discovered to be proud), with the
whole party, or sections of it (The gentlemen, the ladies), functioning as senser.
The pattern of transitivity, however, with the collective actor usually kept distinct
from the grammatical subject by passivization, underlines the distance between the
narrators voice and this particular reflector, as does the emphatic, conversational
exclamation mark in What a contrast between him and his friend!. Another marker
of detachment is the epistemic ambiguity in the use of the modal verb must in
Such amiable qualities must speak for themselves, signalling that there may be a
difference between the narrators and general opinion or at least that the general
opinion is not simplistically endorsed by the narrator.
In the moral framework of such novels as S&S and MP, there is a fundamental
ambiguity whose origin is probably aesthetic: the virtuous characters (Elinor,
Edward Ferrars, Edmund, Fanny) are less attractive than the less virtuous ones
(Marianne, Willoughby, the Crawfords), and the narrators wavering non-committal
attitude leaves free room for opposing interpretations which uphold or subvert
the social order. In P&P, no such aesthetic ambiguities exist: the good are not
necessarily boring (Elizabeth certainly is not), the potential villains are discovered

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


to be good at heart (Darcy), and even the ominously-named Wickham turns out to
be ridiculous rather than truly evil. Readers are in no doubt as to who is good and
who is bad, or who is better and who is worse, and can rejoice in the final (mild)
distribution of punishments and rewards. Nonetheless, an ineradicable source of
evaluative ambiguity remains, rooted as it is in the narrators refusal to commit
him/herself to a definitive position (or, to one single definitive position) and to
endorse the views of a character or a group of characters. Irony, intended as the
distance between character and narrator, fact and fiction, saying and meaning, is
the rule even in the light, sparkling, uncomplicated world of Elizabeth Bennet.
The Watsons
In TW, Jane Austen insists on the same fortunate narrative vein of P&P, though
the tone is much more sombre. As in the previous novel, dialogue mostly takes
precedence over the narrators discourse, though the narrator does not renounce
his/her evaluative role. At the start, we are only told by the narrator that The
Edwards were people of fortune who lived in the Town and kept their coach,
while The Watsons inhabited a village about three miles distant, were poor and
had no close carriage (TW 253) no moral or psychological description is offered.
The inexperienced Emma Watson, who becomes the narrators reflector from a
very early stage, is immediately introduced and presented by means of dialogue
rather than narration. And it is in the uncharacteristically frank (and bitter) opening
conversation that the situation of the Watson women, and the absolute necessity
of marriage as a financial remedy to their poverty, are discussed at some length
between Emma and her eldest sister (cf. Chapter 5).
Emma has just come back to her family after living for a number of years
with a widowed aunt (who has unwisely married again). She is at the same time
an integral part of the Watson household and a stranger, and this is why she can
function as a reflector from the very beginning (Austens narrators employ the
reflector mode more thoroughly and consistently when their reflectors are in an
estranged situation, e.g. in a gothic Abbey or away from home). As in NA, S&S
and P&P, the narrator sometimes positively peeps from behind or above her
heroine to judge her or to reveal what she really thinks or feels. However, it is
interesting to note that the narrators hand is much less firm here than it is in P&P,
or even S&S some uncertainties rather reminding the reader of the experimental
fluctuations of NA:
Your Club would be better fitted for an Invalid, said Mrs. E., if you did not
keep it up so late.This was an old grievance. (TW 261)
To say that Emma was not flattered by Lord Osbornes visit, would be to assert a
very unlikely thing, and to describe a very odd young lady; (TW 279)
She was now so delighted to see dear, dear Emma that she could hardly speak
a word in a minute. (TW 280)

The Development of Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


Emmas curtsey in reply must have struck him as very unlike the encouraging
warmth he had been used to receive from her Sisters, and gave him probably the
novel sensation of doubting his own influence, and of wishing for more attention
than she bestowed. (TW 269)
As Tom Musgrave was seen no more, we may suppose his plan to have
succeeded. (TW 270)
Of the pain of such feelings, Elizabeth knew very little;her simpler Mind, or
juster reason saved her from such mortification (TW 277)

In the first three quotations, the narrator is functioning in the positive mode: he/she
knows everything about the past (This was an old grievance) and the characters
feelings (Emma is flattered, and Margaret is not particularly happy to see Emma).
In the other passages, the fact that certain events or feelings are conjectured at
rather than exposed alerts us to the presence of a negative narrator. Whereas this
kind of narratorial inconsistency is a constant in all of Austens oeuvre, here it
seems less a matter of technique than of confusion. And while it is as likely that
Austen would have adjusted her aim as the novel went on, this confusion (together
with the bitterness permeating many conversational interactions) might be one of
the reasons why TW was never completed.
Mansfield Park
E is usually held to be the greatest narrative (and evaluative) mystery among
Austens novels: but MP is, in more than one sense, an even deeper, or at least
more complex, mystery. In E, much of the evaluative fuzziness is due to the
angle of vision, almost invariably centred on Emma herself: in MP, no such
single perspective is provided, and we have to make sense of a multiplicity of
perspectives. As readers, we are encouraged to invest certain privileged voices
(the narrators, the reflectors) with an extra degree of authoritativeness: but if we
read deeper into the novels structure, we have to admit that authoritativeness does
not always coincide with credibility.
Apparently, the narrator assumes a strongly evaluative position, at least at
certain strategic stages (orientation, result, and coda). At the beginning,
he/she assumes him/herself as a deictic centre for the action, as he/she informs
us that the marriage between Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon and Sir Thomas
Bertram of Mansfield Park took place About thirty years ago (MP 3). Judging
from this personal beginning, one could be inclined to guess that the narrator will
Mary Lascelles wrote as early as 1937 that In Mansfield Park Jane Austens style
develops a new faculty, out of one perceptible in all her novels a faculty I can only describe
as chameleon-like ... [The] habits of expression of the characters impress themselves on the
narrative style of the episodes in which they are involved, and on the description of their
situations (Lascelles 1937: 767).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

be more present than ever in the story and in its evaluative net. The very first
Chapter, however, discounts this possibility by providing an orientation which,
though very informative on the financial and social planes, is very poor in moral
and psychological details (cf. Chapter 3). We have to wait until the coda if we want
to hear the narrators definitive opinion about the characters and the deeds and
misdeeds they have performed:
Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I
can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, and to have
done with all the rest. (MP 362)

Between the initial deictic self-betrayal and the coda, the narrator is very aloof
and reticent, though here and there his/her voice makes itself heard. In part,
the narrator recedes into the background by identifying with a reflector and
one providing a particularly limited angle of vision at that. Poorer than Elinor
Dashwood and shyer than Anne Elliot, Fanny Price is the most complete outsider
in the whole set of Austens heroines: having been intimidated from a very early
age by her uncle Bertrams dignified manners and her aunt Norriss humiliating
demeanour, she scarcely allows herself any comments, even in her thoughts.
Readers are therefore presented with a negative account of events that they have
to interpret for themselves:
Fanny could not wonder that Edmund was at the parsonage every morning;
she would gladly have been there too, might she have gone in uninvited and
unnoticed to hear the harp; neither could she wonder, that when the evening
stroll was over, and the two families parted again, he should think it right to
attend Mrs. Grant and her sister to come home, while Mr. Crawford was devoted
to the ladies of the park; but she thought it a very bad exchange, and if Edmund
were not there to mix the wine and water for her, would rather go without it
than not. She was a little surprised that he could spend so many hours with Miss
Crawford, and not see more of the sort of fault which he had already observed,
and of which she was almost always reminded by a something of the same nature
whenever she was in her company; but so it was. (MP 52)

This passage marks the beginning of the reflector narrative, and it already contains
two unspoken psychological facts which Fanny vaguely grasps but cannot or does
not want to make explicit i.e., that Fanny is in love with Edmund, and that
Edmund is in love with Mary Crawford. These two very important facts are not
openly commented on until a much later stage, and Fanny never admits that she is
in love with Edmund until Mary Crawford is defeated and her cousins affection
secured. A similar limitation, factual rather than psychological, is imposed upon
the reader when the calamitous event takes place which makes Edmund and Marys
marriage impossible: the reader only learns about Henry Crawfords elopement
with Maria Bertram when Fanny is informed about it.
As in the previous novel, the use of a reflector is not the only strategy
employed by the narrator to hide him/herself. Even when a narratorial voice is

The Development of Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


clearly presiding, the opinions it expresses are generally rather guarded. The only
characters who elicit open evaluations are Mrs Norris and the Bertram sisters:
Such were the counsels by which Mrs. Norris assisted to form her nieces
minds; and it is not very wonderful that with all their promising talents and early
information, they should be entirely deficient in the less common acquirements
of self-knowledge, generosity, and humility. In every thing but disposition, they
were admirably taught. (MP 16)

Mrs Norris, Julia and Maria are the only characters who never receive a kind word
from the narrator. The others are either presented without evaluation or evaluated
in mixed tones. Mrs Rushworth is said to be well-meaning, civil, prosing,
pompous (MP 60) a mixture of good and bad qualities which gives us an idea of
her personality but not of her position on the ethical axis (psychologically mixed
characters abound in the Chawton novels; cf. Chapters 4 and 5). Even Henry and
Mary Crawford, the fascinating outsiders who break into the peaceful but flawed
paradise of Mansfield Park, bringing the values of a new fashionable world to bear
on the old values of the landed gentry, are initially described as young people
of fortune. The son had a good estate in Norfolk, the daughter twenty thousand
pounds (MP 32). Apart from these financial details, the narrator only tells us
that Marys object is marriage, provided she could marry well (MP 33); and
many pages have to be turned before he/she openly comments on Henrys moral
... a fortnight of sufficient leisure in the intervals of shooting and sleeping,
[as ought] to have convinced the gentleman that he ought to keep longer away,
had he been more in the habit of examining his own motives, and of reflecting
to what the indulgence of his idle vanity was tending; but, thoughtless and
selfish from prosperity and bad example, he would not look beyond the present
moment. (MP 91)

The narrator is similarly reticent when he/she describes events and in the comments
he/she intersperses the dialogue with. Readers are usually given all the necessary
details for evaluation, but little or no evaluative work is done by the narrator in
advance. A very good example is the multiple interaction at the heart of Volume
I, Chapter IX, featuring Fanny Price, Edmund, Maria and Julia Bertram, the
Crawfords, and Mr Rushworth, and taking place in the Rushworths family chapel.
We understand, but are not told, that Edmund is in love with Mary Crawford, and
that Fanny is secretly jealous; that Julia and Maria Bertram are battling for Henry
Crawfords attention, even if Maria is going to be married to Mr Rushworth.
When Mary speaks disrespectfully of the Church of England, the narrator tells
us that For a few moments she was unanswered. Fanny coloured and looked at
Edmund, but felt too angry for speech; and he needed a little recollection before
he could say .... Immediately afterwards, Julia directs Henrys attention towards
her sister and Mr Rushworth, who look exactly as if the ceremony were going to
be performed: Henry accepts the invitation to have fun at Marias expense, then

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


resumes courting her. Julia, however, is not to be defeated, and drops another
hint about her sisters imminent marriage by complaining that Edmund is not yet
ordained (How unlucky that you are not ordained, Mr. Rushworth and Maria
are quite ready). Miss Bertram looks aghast at the news that Edmund is to be
a clergyman. When they finally get out of the chapel, there are few happy faces
The chapel was soon afterwards left to the silence and stillness which reigned in
it with few interruptions throughout the year. Miss Bertram, displeased with her
sister, led the way, and all seemed to feel that they had been there long enough.
(MP 6970)

In the whole passage, the narrators comments can be construed as breaching

the maxim of quantity. Though each characters thoughts, feelings and motives
can be guessed at, they are not explicitly stated or explained. Is the pious Fanny
merely indignant, or is there a measure of jealousy in her anger? Is Mary Crawford
aghast at her own gaffe, or at the novel idea of Edmund becoming a clergyman?
Why should Julias comments so displease Maria?
Another factor of evaluative dilution in MP is, as already in S&S and, on a minor
scale, in P&P, the multiplication of reflectors, the dissemination of point of view.
Here the technique is brought to new heights of complexity and flexibility. The
focus is generally on Fanny, but it occasionally shifts on Edmund, Mary Crawford,
Sir Thomas, Mrs Norris, the Bertram sisters, and even the very marginal Yates:
... there was a something in Sir Thomas, when they sat round the same table,
which made Mr. Yates think it wiser to let him pursue his own way, and feel the
folly of it without opposition. He had known many disagreeable fathers before,
and often been struck with the inconveniences they occasioned, but never in the
whole course of his life, had he seen one of that class, so unintelligibly moral, so
infamously tyrannical as Sir Thomas. He was not a man to be endured but for his
childrens sake, and he might be thankful to his fair daughter Julia that Mr. Yates
did yet mean to stay a few days longer under his roof. (MP 150)

By now, Austen can use the reflector technique with such ease that she can move
the mirror at her will from one character to another. Her mastery is at its most
evident in the collective scene of Volume II, Chapter VII. A double game of cards
is played which involves all the main characters and allows for a number of deft

Julia Prewitt Brown has written that Mansfield Park is without a narrator as
we have understood the term in the narrators place is a collective consciousness, the
combination of all the intelligences that collect around an event, an ethos that is the effect
of the event on the group (Brown 1979: 81).
A recent development in (cognitive) stylistics, deictic shift theory (cf. Stockwell
2002: 789), provides very rewarding analytical methods for such eclectic passages.

The Development of Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


Fannys eyes were turned on Crawford for a moment with an expression
more than grave, even reproachful; ...

As yet Sir Thomas had seen nothing to remark in Mr. Crawfords
All the agreeable of [Marys] speculation was over for that hour. It was
time to have done with cards if sermons prevailed, and she was glad to find it
necessary to come to a conclusion and to refresh her spirits by a change of place
and neighbour.

Fannys last feeling in the visit was of disappointment. (MP 1917)

The evaluative pattern of MP is, in a sense, clear and simple enough: the old
moral and religious values of the landed gentry are threatened by internal as well
as external forces, and these forces are finally defeated by an outsider (Fanny),
who becomes the prime upholder of those values. If there is no doubt that the
narrator wishes us to see this point, however, there is also no doubt that this
interpretation does not exhaust the novel other perspectives are given, other
points are tenable.11 More eclectically than in S&S or P&P, Austen creates a
narrator who questions his/her own authority by disseminating it in various ways
and among various characters: and in the end, our reading of the novel is not
double, but multiple, depending as it does on how much we identify with Fanny,
Edmund, Mary, and even with such unattractive characters as the Bertram sisters,
Sir Thomas, and Mrs Norris.
E has always been considered the most complex of Austens novels, the one whose
sum of delights widens at every reading. It is, in a sense, the most modern,
or modernist novel written by Austen, as I have pointed out in a 2002 essay
comparing E with Ishiguros An Artist of the Floating World (Morini 2002). From
the narratological/evaluative point of view, however, E is simpler than MP, just
as it is surely sunnier and more playful in tone and setting (Margaret Oliphant
wrote in 1870 that in Emma the sun shines, and the playful soft breezes blow, and
the heroine herself, with all her talents and quickwittedness ... makes such mistakes
as only a clever girl ... could be expected to make; Southam 1968: 224). In MP,
the authoritative voice of the narrator speaks (or is silent) in a myriad ways,
whereas in E it speaks in Emmas accents. The point of MP is so complicated that
there almost seems to be no point to the novel; the point of E is only confused by
As William H. Galperin has noted, Mansfield Park, more than any other novel of
Austens, is far from opaque, especially in the Manichaean struggle to which the narrative
is continually pegged. The repositories of value in the novel, no matter how odious or
inscrutable to modern sensibilities, are just as obvious today as they were to readers such as
Walter Scott. On the other hand, the peculiar difficulty of the novel overall ... continually
cries out for some acknowledgment that the author and her narrator are not in fact one and
the same (Galperin 2003: 171).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

the fact that our perspective is Emmas, and in the end things are made clearer (but
not absolutely clear) when Emmas psychological mists disperse.12
Much of the evaluative confusion of E is due to Emmas mistakes, and to the
readers mistake in following Emma and crediting (to a greater or lesser degree)
her interpretations of fictional reality. Emma is identified as the central intelligence
of the novel from the very beginning of the action. In the first chapter, Mr Weston
is not presented directly, but through the filter of her eyes:
The event had every promise of happiness for [Emmas] friend. Mr. Weston
was a man of unexceptionable character, easy fortune, suitable age and pleasant
manners; and there was some satisfaction in considering with what self-denying,
generous friendship she had always wished and promoted the match; but it was
a black mornings work for her. (E 4)

Emma is almost always present in the rest of the novel the only substantial
exception being Volume I, Chapter V, in which she and her friendship with Harriet
Smith are discussed by Mr Knightley and Mrs Weston. The reiteration of mental
process clauses constantly reminds the readers that Emmas eyes, ears, and brains
are open (even when duelling with Mr Knightley: Emma knew ... Emma was
more than half in hopes ... It was most convenient to Emma ...; E 529). At balls
and on all other collective occasions, the camera is always with Emma, and we
miss what she is not close enough to see or hear (cf. Volume I, Chapter XV). After
a very short while, the narrators voice becomes so identified with Emmas that
there is no telling who is saying what. As Wayne Booth pointed out almost half
a century ago, Emma is a kind of narrator of her own story (Booth 1961: 245);
another way of putting it is that she is almost constantly a mimetic reflector of
the action:
The lovers were standing together at one of the windows. It had a most
favourable aspect; and, for half a minute, Emma felt the glory of having schemed
successfully. But it would not do; he had not come to the point. He had been
most agreeable, most delightful; he had told Harriet that he had seen them go by,
and had purposely followed them; other little gallantries and allusions had been
dropt, but nothing serious. (E 82)

Except when the narrator qualifies Emmas thoughts as such (Emma felt the
glory), these are given in the free indirect form, and are therefore spoken in the
narrators voice. Grammatically, there is no telling whether Emma or the narrator
Recent cognitive accounts of the novels (Butte 2004; Zunshine 2007) have stressed
Austens complexity of mental embedment (Zunshine 2007: 279), the ways in which she
describes her characters in the act of interpreting the mental states of others (including
others responses to their own mental states the title of Buttes monograph is I Know That
You Know That I Know) in order to shape their own behaviour. In a sense, Emma can be
read as a novel about Emmas Theory of Mind (Zunshine 2007: 27685) i.e., about the
wrongness and eventual correction of her psychological interpretations.

The Development of Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


is telling us that The lovers were standing together at one of the windows
apparently a question of minor importance, because the passage seems merely
descriptive. There is also, however, a high degree of implicit evaluation in this
description, because Mr Elton and Harriet are not officially lovers, and can be
seen as such only by an act of imagination or wishful thinking. It is because Emma
and the narrator are so mimetically identified with each other that readers can miss
the evaluative content inherent in the use of lovers: according to the degree of
audience perceptiveness, the narrator is having a joke at the readers expense, or
the narrator and the reader are jointly laughing behind Emmas back.
E is full of these jokes, some of which are rather easy to get (most readers would
understand what Mr Elton is about far earlier than Emma does), whereas others
are only explained towards the end of the novel, when Emma herself understands
them. In a sense, E is structured as a detective novel, with inspector Emma solving
all the riddles just before the end: the major mystery of the novel, of course, is
Frank Churchills engagement with Jane Fairfax; another, less evident but in some
ways more elusive, is Mr Knightleys love for Emma. In both cases, the narrator
does not intervene to fill Emmas interpretive gaps or to correct her mistakes:
nevertheless, many hints are dropped throughout the novel that become clear at
the end, or at a second reading. In pragmatic terms, we could say that the narrator
is so blatantly flouting the maxim of quantity that he/she is almost breaching the
maxim of quality:
... I do not recommend matrimony at present to Emma, though I mean no slight
to the state I assure you.

Part of [Mrs Westons] meaning was to conceal some favourite thoughts
of her own and Mr. Westons on the subject, as much as possible. There were
wishes at Randalls respecting Emmas destiny, but it was not desirable to have
them suspected; (E 36)
Certain it was that [Jane Fairfax] was to come; and that Highbury, instead of
welcoming that perfect novelty which had been so long promised itMr. Frank
Churchillmust put up for the present with Jane Fairfax, who could bring only
the freshness of a two years absence. (E 148)

In the first example (from Chapter V, the only one outside Emmas consciousness),
the narrator refrains from telling us what Mr and Mrs Westons thoughts on Emmas
marriage are; in the second, he/she speaks in Emmas voice to unite two newly
introduced characters for no apparent reason. In both instances, the narrator seems
to be having fun at our expense, anticipating events we still know nothing about.
That is why it is close to impossible to have a clear understanding of the evaluative
pattern of E at a first reading; and why successive readings are so enjoyable to the
analytic mind.
In passages such as the one quoted above (E 148), we can only identify the
narrators opinion, or point, if and when we realize that he/she is playing with
information which Emma does not possess: the narrators voice, however, is not
distinguished from the heroines. Throughout E, the narrator rarely peeps out of
Emmas reflecting consciousness, and the cases in which the narrator is above


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

Emma, openly judging her, are even more rare. One such case occurs during Mr
Eltons courtship of Emma, when Emma herself thinks that he is courting Harriet
Smith: the narrator comments that Emma [is] too eager and busy in her own
previous conceptions and views to hear him impartially, or see him with clear
vision (E 99100). Generally, however, Emma is not judged or criticized, and
her point of view is always presented as authoritative; even when she is forced to
acknowledge that Elton has been courting her and not Harriet, she is left to work
out the consequences of her realization for herself the narrator leaving all the
evaluative work to the reflector (and there are signs that this evaluative work is not
done with the complete ruthlessness a detached narrator would exert):
How she could have been so deceived!He protested that he had never thought
seriously of Harrietnever! She looked back as well as she could; but it was all
confusion. She had taken up the idea, she supposed, and made every thing bend
to it. His manners, however, must have been unmarked, or she could not have
been so misled. (E 121)

Since the narrators voice is very rarely heard, Emmas is for long stretches the
only authoritative point of view. The narrator, even when he/she appears to judge
and guide the readers judgment, does so in a very unobtrusive and cautious way
as already seen in MP. Most characters, when they are not first seen through
Emmas eyes, are presented either neutrally or in a very prudent tone, as mixtures
of good and bad qualities (Mr Elton is a young man living alone without liking it;
Mrs Bates enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither
young, handsome, rich, nor married; E 17). In the end, the narrator comes out of
hiding only on those very few occasions when he/she speaks sardonically, and in
the present tense, of certain parallels between his/her fictional world and Austens
real one:
In this age of literature, such collections [of riddles] on a very grand scale are not
uncommon. Miss Nash, head-teacher at Mrs. Goddards, had written out at least
three hundred; and Harriet, who had taken the first hint of it from her, hoped,
with Miss Woodhouses help, to get a great many more. (E 63)

Of course, the narrator also comes out at the end of the novel. While he/she is
evaluatively reticent in the initial orientation and throughout the rest of the action,
the result and the coda find him/her in charge as usual. Emma and Knightleys
amorous exchange is given in summary, and a happy end is offered which is so
commonplace as to appear unreal after the narrators refutation of complete truth
as a possibility in life or fiction (E 391):
She spoke then, on being so entreated.What did she say?Just what she
ought, of course. A lady always does.She said enough to show there need not
be despairand to invite him to say more himself. (E 391)
But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the
predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were
fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union. (E 440)

The Development of Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


In E, Penny Gays theatrical interpretation of Jane Austens endings, and indeed of

the whole of Austens fiction (Gay 2002: 1667), becomes even more cogent than
elsewhere: for in this novel, Jane Austen has definitively found a way of making the
characters act without external interference; and in the epilogue, Austens narrator,
disguised as Jane Austen herself, comes on stage to judge the whole action and
celebrate the performance that Jane Austen has so carefully orchestrated.
P is very distant from E and MP in narratological/evaluative terms. While in MP
many authoritative voices are set up beside and against one another, and in E a
characters voice almost completely subsumes the narrators, in P the narrator
resumes the authority he/she has given up elsewhere and tells his/her own story.13
In this sense, P is closer to S&S and P&P than to the other Chawton novels: but
here the tone is cooler and more open, as if the narrator were standing back and
enjoying the unfolding of the tale, rather than laughing behind his/her characters
backs or leaguing with them.
The narrators dominance is only semantic and not quantitative (Linell
1990; cf. Chapter 4) in the sense that though the events are always commented
on, and reader response is always guided, most of the novel is occupied by
dialogue and reflector narrative. Anne, the heroine-reflector, is very close to the
narrator linguistically and ideologically. Sometimes we are deceived with her as
to the meaning of a speech or a gesture, as when she does not guess that there are
the makings of an engagement in a conversation between Mrs Clay and Annes
cousin, Mr Elliot:
She only roused herself from the broodings of this restless agitation, to let Mrs.
Clay know that she had been seen with Mr. Elliot three hours after his being
supposed to be out of Bath; for having watched in vain for some intimation
of the interview from the lady herself, she determined to mention it; and it
seemed to her that there was guilt in Mrs. Clays face as she listened. It was
transient, cleared away in an instant, but Anne could imagine she read there
the consciousness of having, by some complication of mutual trick, or some
overbearing authority of his, been obliged to attend (perhaps for half an hour) to
his lectures and restrictions on her designs on Sir Walter. (P 1834)
Mirella Billi has written that In Persuasion, more than in other novels by Austen,
this narrating personality, which is not dramatized and does not take direct part in the action,
controls reader response, by turns identifying itself with the heroines subjectivity, or retiring
in the objective distance of facts [In Persuasion, pi che in altri romanzi della Austen,
questa personalit narrante, non drammatizzata, non direttamente partecipe, controlla la
risposta del lettore, di volta in volta spingendosi fino a una sorta di identificazione con la
soggettivit delleroina, o ritirandosi nella distanza della oggettivit dei fatti] (Billi 1994:
115). By virtue of the narrators controlling presence, P becomes the great false step of
Austen Style (Miller 2003: 68) in all those critical accounts which prize impersonality over


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

The narrator, in this case, does not set Anne to rights, and exploits the reflector
function to create a small mystery that is soon solved. But Annes interpretation of
reality is presented as hers and hers alone, and though the style is negative, there
is no grammatical confusion between narrator and reflector (and it seemed to her;
Anne could imagine). No extra authoritativeness is given to Annes discourse by
turning her into a mimetic reflector.
The narrators control, though often unobtrusive, is exercised throughout the
novel. The initial orientation is very clear from the evaluative point of view. All the
characters are presented in their moral and psychological traits as well as in their
social and financial conditions: Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter
Elliots character (P 10); Lady Elliot had been an excellent woman, sensible and
amiable (P 10); Mr. Shepherd is a civil, cautious lawyer (P 15); Elizabeth is
reproved for turning from the society of so deserving a sister [Anne] to bestow her
affection on one who ought to have been nothing to her but the object of distant
civility [Mrs Clay] (P 19). Such is the narrators control over the events and the
characters that towards the end of Chapter IV, prolepsis is used for the second time
in all of Austens oeuvre: Anne had been forced into prudence in her youth, she
learned romance as she grew olderthe natural sequel of an unnatural beginning
(P 30) with natural and unnatural marking the narrators ideological position as
regards Annes initial refusal of Wentworth and her final recovery and acceptance
of his love. In a way, it is as if Austen had realized that the point of her novels is not
what happens, but how events are told: if that is true as six novels all unfolding
more or less the same fabula in different ways seem to demonstrate it is no use
trying to postpone the disclosure of the final resolution.
In P, however, narratorial control is by no means confined to the beginning
and the end, to the orientation, the result and the coda. The narrator reserves
for him/herself the possibility to move at his/her pleasure among speeches and
thoughts, thus correcting characters and readers on more than one occasion.
Characters thoughts and motives are made explicit and commented on: Sir Walter
was not very wise; but still he had experience enough of the world to feel, that a
more unobjectionable tenant ... could hardly offer (P 26); Captain Wentworths
purpose is to marry. He was rich, and being turned on shore, fully intended to
settle as soon as he could be properly tempted (P 54). Even Annes feelings are
often judged externally (she truly felt as she said; P 102, italics mine). When
a characters point of view differs from the narrators in a significant manner, the
narratorial version is presented as the only true, authorized one:
The real circumstances of this pathetic piece of family history were, that the
Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and
the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had
been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had
been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he
deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of
his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before. (P 456)

The Development of Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


That P is very much the narrators story is confirmed by the fact that here as
in no other novel, this figure comes out in the open as a character, says we,
if not I, and often situates the story, spatially, temporally, and psychologically,
in connection with him/herself: Captain Wentworths first meeting with Anne is
dated in the summer of 1806 (P 26); Anne learns another lesson, in the art of
knowing our own nothingness beyond our own circle (P 389); the protagonist
has a vast knowledge, just as Austen herself, of our best moralists (P 85). As
the narrator becomes a more recognizable figure, his/her allegiances also become
clearer, his/her identity acquires national as well as local and private contours.
P is no doubt the one among Austens novels which comes closest to providing
a historical background, with the Napoleonic wars always looming behind the
various references to the navy; and it is significant that this small-scale romantic
story should end on a high patriotic note, with the narrator extending his/her
evaluative net from text to context:
[Anne] gloried in being a sailors 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. (P 203)

S does not appear to be a new beginning in narratological terms, though of course
the dimensions of the fragment allow for only a tentative assessment. The beginning
resembles P&P or E rather than P, in the sense that the readers evaluative work
is not openly guided by the narrator. Mr and Mrs Parker are only presented as A
Gentleman and Lady (S 295), and we have to turn pages upon pages until we
know anything more. Soon, however, the main evaluative pattern of the novel
as dictated by the narrator emerges. The most reprehensible characters in the
fragment (Lady Denham, the Parker brothers, Sir Edward) are exposed for what
they are (The truth was that Sir Edward had read more sentimental novels than
agreed with him. Sir Edwards great object in life was to be seductive; S 328). The
narrator always looms behind and towers above the characters, even in the case of
Charlotte Heywood, the heroine/outsider/reflector (I make no apologies for my
Heroines vanity; S 320). The main topic the contrast between old and modern
times, between the country of the landed gentry and the new promised land of the
commercial classes is mainly presented and evaluated by the narrator, though the
reflector obviously shares some of his/her views:
And whose very snug-looking Place is this?said Charlotte, as in a sheltered
Dip within two miles of the Sea, they passed close by a moderate-sized house,
well-fenced and planted, and rich in the Garden, Orchard and Meadows which
are the best embellishments of such a Dwelling.
A branch only, of the Valley, winding more obliquely to the Sea, gave a passage
to an inconsiderable Stream, and formed at its mouth, a third Habitable Division,
in a small cluster of Fishermans Houses.The village contained little more


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

than Cottages, but the Spirit of the day had been caught, as Mr. P. observed with
delight to Charlotte, and two or three of the best of them were smartened up with
a white Curtain and Lodgings to let (S 30910)

The narrators evaluation is not explicit but easily traceable. All the words
connected with the Parkers ancestral home have positive connotations (sheltered,
moderate, well-fenced and planted, rich, best embellishments), whereas
the new seaside town of Sanditon is presented as a poor, inconsiderable thing,
containing little more than Cottages the negative construction giving the idea
of material paucity.
All in all, S seems to mark a return to the narrative technique of NA, with
the narrator playing with his/her characters and occasionally having a joke at
the heroines expense. The usefulness of comparing S with NA which was not
published in Austens lifetime is confirmed by the parallels between the two plots
and thematic structures: a very young heroine visits a place where she is a complete
outsider, and initially understands but little of what is going on. The presence of
Sir Edward points towards the possibility of a sentimental/gothic development in
the plot, and certainly allows a quantity of bookish parody on the narrators part.
Whether she still hoped to be able to publish NA or not, Jane Austen may have
seen the possibilities of the old mock-gothic plot in a new context which allowed
her to confront a crucial financial and social issue of her day.

Chapter 3

Narrative Opacity in Mansfield Park

Evaluation, Style, Choice
Evaluation is the slant given to a story or a piece of information by the teller
or the reporter. It is as pervasive as it is elusive, but when evaluative elements
can be isolated, they tell us a lot about the speakers, or writers, personality and
ideology. As Thompson and Hunston write, one of the main uses of evaluation is
to express the speakers or writers opinion, and in doing so to reflect the value
system of that person and their community (Thompson and Hunston 2000: 6). In
this sense, evaluation can be equated with what stylistics calls (ideological) point
of view, or style. According to such stylisticians as Leech, Short, and Fowler,
analyzing a style means distinguishing between a noumenal world as it is and
the stylistic slant added by the author or narrator i.e., evaluation. Analyzing
Austens style, of course especially in such masterpieces of indirection as MP
and E means engaging with the author in a game of epistemic hide-and-seek in
which no stylistic fly can be disentangled with absolute certainty from the web of
evaluative opacity.
In their seminal and influential Style in Fiction, first published in 1981,
G.N. Leech and M.H. Short drew a distinction between monism and dualism
in interpreting style. They were fully conscious of the artificial nature of the
distinction, yet they were also convinced it provided critics with two different
and useful ways of looking at (different) texts. In a monistic view of style, a
literary work is written in the only possible manner in which it could have been
written, and if it had been written in a different manner it would be a different
text; while in a dualistic view, each work contains a certain matter which could
have been set down in another slightly different manner. Artificial as it evidently
is, the distinction serves to identify and analyze two different classes of texts.
The style of Joyces Finnegans Wake is sui generis, and can hardly be modified
without undergoing a complete alteration, without becoming something else: in
this case the full gist of the novel or whatever Finnegans Wake is resides in its
unique style. The style of Jane Austens novels, on the other hand, is characteristic,
but can be successfully set against other similar styles, and alternatives may be
identified which, if chosen, would not have wholly modified the gist, the content,
or the story whatever these are. Prosaically, and approximately, what happens
in Finnegans Wake cannot be thought in different words, whereas what happens
in E or MP can. Of course, nothing remains exactly the same when an element

They also discussed a third, pluralist view of style, but that lies beyond the scope of
this chapter.

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


is shifted or altered: the fictional element, as Leech and Short call it, is only
invariant in a special sense; the author is free to order his universe as he wants,
but for the purposes of stylistic variation we are only interested in those choices of
language which do not involve changes in the fictional universe (Leech and Short
1981/1983: 37).
It is only in a dualistic epistemic system that the notion of style as choice
becomes materially evident. For in such a system, what an author has written
can be set against the background of what he might have written, had he failed to
apply certain transformations, or chosen to apply others instead (Leech and Short
1981/1983: 22). Style, therefore, can be calculated and isolated, provided that we
are able to deduct what might have been written from what has been written.
This view, and this analytical method, postulate the existence of two different
semantic dimensions, one in which the text is actualized as it is, and another in
which it is stripped of something identifiable as the authors style. Leech and
Short drew a further distinction, as artificial and as useful as the first, between
sense and significance, the latter being the sum of the former plus what they called
stylistic value:
Let us use sense to refer to the basic logical, conceptual, paraphrasable meaning,
and significance to refer to the total of what is communicated to the world by a
given sentence or text ... sense + stylistic value = (total) significance. (Leech
and Short 1981/1983: 23)

If we take an authors fictional universe (i.e., what is described stripped of the

attributes of style) as a fixed, given quantity, we can disentangle the sense from the
significance of the authors words. Sense resides in the fictional universe itself, not
as it is evaluated but as it is; while significance is that world as perceived by all
those who participate in it (narrator, characters). Style, or rather stylistic value,
provides a way of looking at a fictional universe, an evaluative point of view,
and is to be identified with all the colours and impressions which are added and
give shape to that universe-in-itself. Of course, the only way of identifying that
stylistic value, and therefore of distinguishing between sense and significance,
is accepting that we cannot escape Spitzers philological circle (Leech and
Short 1981/1983: 13): the insights we have are stimulated by (linguistic, stylistic)
observation, but observation in turn is guided by our insights as well as by our
Even though we are trapped in the philological circle, and even though any
distinction between sense and significance is bound to be arbitrary (but not random

It is to be noted that the description of this circle as a potential cage is mine

alone: Leech and Short are more neutral, and Spitzer writes that the philological circle
is not a vicious one; on the contrary, it is the basic operation of the humanities, the
Zirkel im Verstehen as Dilthey has termed the discovery, made by the Romantic scholar
and theologian Schleiermacher, that cognizance in philosophy is reached not only by the
gradual progression from one detail to another detail, but by the anticipation or divination
of the whole (Spitzer 1948/1962: 19).

Narrative Opacity in Mansfield Park


or accidental), there is no doubt that in any literary work of art, and in certain
works more than in others, a number of linguistic expressions and constructions
are identifiable through which a neutral, pre-stylistic fictional universe becomes
the authors, or the narrators, world. In literary texts such as Jane Austens novels,
which work by subtle accumulation of details rather than by sweeping the reader
along or constantly disappointing his/her expectations, these stylistic markers
are perhaps more evident than elsewhere. Though ultimately (i.e., in a monistic
system) no narrative brick can be shifted from E or MP as well as from Joyces
Finnegans Wake, in E or in MP it is easier to isolate the carriers of stylistic value,
to identify consistent structural options [which], agreeing in cutting the presented
world to one pattern or another, give rise to an impression of world-view, ... a
mind-style (Fowler 1977: 76). Fowlers concept of mind-style can be applied
to single characters, to a narrator, or even to an author-figure stretching across a
number of literary works originated by the same person. Living authors like James
Joyce create different mind-styles (and therefore different fictional authors) for
each work they write, while the mind-style created by the likes of Jane Austen
only undergoes small modifications from one novel to another.
Elsewhere, Roger Fowler drew a tripartite distinction between psychological,
spatio-temporal, and ideological point of view, and identified mind-style with
the latter (Fowler 1986/1990: 127). From this equation, and from Leech and
Shorts separation of sense from significance, we derive the idea of style as
an ideological, evaluative quantity, the colours and impressions superimposed
on the neutral fictional world when it is filtered through a character, a narrator,
a (fictional, implied) author. In the traditional view of rhetoric, especially after
Ramuss revolution, style is seen as an ornamental layer added to the irreplaceable
kernel (and in this traditional view, translation is always possible because only
this ornamental layer is replaced). In the (dualistic) view of modern stylistics,
style is still an added layer, but one which gives the fictional world a coating of
impressions and opinions, i.e., an ideological dimension. Of course, ideology is
here intended in its broadest possible sense: not as a system of political beliefs, but
as the totality of cultural, social, and personal beliefs brought to bear on a fictional
universe. In this broad sense, ideology, evaluation, and style are one and the same
thing: the angle from which something is seen.
Once ideology, evaluation, and style are conflated, however, a fundamental
problem remains: how can evaluative, ideological stylistic markers be identified
with any certainty? In Linguistic Criticism, Fowler identified two fairly distinct
ways in which point of view on the ideological plane may be manifested. On
the one hand there are modal expressions, which come from a fairly specialized
section of the vocabulary, and are easy to spot. On the other hand there are other
parts of language which are harder to locate, and which convey world-view more
indirectly but nevertheless convincingly:

It is of course ultimately impossible to distinguish point of view from point of
view (Pugliatti 1985: 19); but that is one of the dualistic abstractions we must accept in
order to be able to isolate stylistic value.


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

Modality ... is the grammar of explicit comment, the means by which people
express their degree of commitment to the truth of the propositions they utter,
and their views on the desirability or otherwise of the states of affairs referred
to. Respectively, Sir Arthur certainly lost his fortune at the gaming table and
His gambling was disastrous for the family ... The forms of modal expression

modal auxiliaries ...

modal adverbs or sentence adverbs: certainly, probably, surely, perhaps,
etc. ...

evaluative adjectives and adverbs: lucky, luckily, fortunate, regrettably, and
many others.

verbs of knowledge, prediction, evaluation: seem, believe, guess, foresee,
approve, dislike, etc.

generic sentences: these are generalized propositions claiming universal
truth and usually cast in a syntax reminiscent of proverbs or scientific laws ...
There is a perhaps even more interesting sense in which language indicates
ideology, or, in fiction, the world-views of author or characters. The modal
devices just discussed make explicit (though sometimes ironic) announcements
of beliefs; other parts of language, indirectly but nevertheless convincingly, may
be symptomatic of world-view: it has traditionally been assumed in stylistics
that the different ways people express their thoughts indicate, consciously or
unconsciously, their personalities and attitudes. (Fowler 1986/1990: 1312)

If modal expressions are more explicit, and therefore easier to spot, isolating
other stylistic-evaluative expressions is harder and inevitably more arbitrary (cf.
Chapter 1). Here the philological circle becomes a tangible prison, and we run the
risk of finding nothing that we did not set out looking for. But our search, however
personal, will always be dictated by the text we deal with, which will present us
with continuities and discontinuities in order to impress its stylistic fabric on our
investigating eye. We will look for significant elisions and repetitions, and we
will stop at those points in the narrative when something could have been said in
a markedly different manner. In the terms of information theory, we will keep in
mind that information-content varies inversely with probability (Lyons 1968:
89): whenever we find an unlikely expression, a choice which evokes a more
likely, normal alternative, we will suspect that we are in the presence of a relevant
stylistic feature. In our analysis of the initial orientation of MP, we will see that
Mrs Bertram is pronounced by the narrator to have captivated Sir Thomas
where captivated is characterized by its improbability in relation with married,
and is therefore informationally marked. It is such linguistic wordings, as well as
modal expressions, that we will search thoroughly in our quest for style.
Evaluation and Style in the Orientation of Mansfield Park
In Jane Austens novels, it is not easy to isolate all informationally marked
expressions, because they can be figuratively represented as small waves
disturbing the surface of a calm, oily sea. The fictional world of Austens country

Narrative Opacity in Mansfield Park


houses is described by her narrators in a quiet voice and in a predictable manner,

except when a single unforeseen epithet, a noun or a verb strangely misplaced, jolt
the readers senses awake and warn him/her that something is amiss, that he/she
might be in the presence of a crucial stylistic feature. Also, compared with the
works written by more rootless, cosmopolitan writers, Jane Austens novels neatly
show the connection between style and ideology, because almost any remarkable
stylistic feature in E or MP refers us back in a very straightforward manner to the
social and cultural beliefs of early nineteenth-century provincial gentry. When we
are told that a woman captivates a man, we immediately recognize some of those
beliefs, an integral part of that ideology.
There is, however, a problem with these stylistic-evaluative markers in Jane
Austens novels one which makes them so easy to read on the surface and so
difficult to scan in depth: though we can easily recognize many of those markers,
it is never clear how much the single characters or, above all, the narrator endorse
the beliefs they represent. It is Austens celebrated irony, or what we have
termed the evaluative opacity of her narrative constructions (cf. Chapters 1, 2).
In all of Austens novels, and more subtly in E and MP, the narrator by turns
endorses, reverses, subverts, ventriloquizes. When the narrator opens P&P by
stating, deadpan, that It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in
possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, we may be tempted to take
this statement at face value: but the rest of P&P leaves us in doubt as to whether
the narrator speaks with, or distances him/herself from, what we will henceforth
call the village voice.
In the incipit of MP, the story of a family (the general orientation of the novel)
is told in about 800 words which are packed with significant stylistic-evaluative
markers. The narrator is apparently telling a very simple story of marriages, family
arguments, and reconciliation three sisters marry: the first marries a rich man, the
second marries a man of middling fortunes, the third marries a good-for-nothing
Lieutenant of Marines; as a consequence of this disparity of fate and fortune, the
three sisters are severed, and then brought together by the practical difficulties
of the third but these markers invest that simple story with a whole consistent
world-view. Once this world-view is recognized and made explicit, the problem
remains of assessing the evaluative position of the narrator him/herself. And
though we can never definitively fix that position, it will add to our understanding
of Austens style to accept and verify that it cannot be fixed.
In order to appreciate Austens style, an attempt is made in what follows at
producing a de-stylized version of the incipit, and therefore at separating sense
and significance, a neutral fictional universe from the world as seen and evaluated
by the narrator. It is of course impossible to re-create such a world, for the very
simple reason that it does not exist. Yet, just as creating an artificial language
called Proto-German served the purpose of studying the developments of natural
languages, creating an artificial fictional universe before the addition of Austens
style can tell us something about that style.


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

The re-written text is marked as follows: whenever a de-stylized variant is

offered, Austens original text is given in square brackets (e.g. [only]); if the neutral,
de-stylized version requires the substitution of textual material, the substitutional
words are in italics (e.g. married replacing [had the good luck to captivate]). Also,
Austens text is underlined when euphemistic or ironic (e.g. a woman of very
tranquil feelings), and written in small capitals when it ventriloquizes the village
voice (e.g. in the common phrase).
The Orientation of Mansfield Park Rewritten
About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with [only] seven
thousand pounds, [had the good luck to captivate] married Sir Thomas Bertram,
of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and [to be thereby raised to]
acquired the rank of a baronets lady, with all the comforts and consequences of
an handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon [exclaimed] commented
on the [greatness of the] match, and her uncle, the lawyer, [himself], [allowed]
declared her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any [equitable] claim
to it. She had two sisters [to be benefited] who could profit by her [elevation]
marriage; and such of their acquaintance as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances
quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with
almost equal [advantage] satisfaction. But there certainly are not so many men
of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to [deserve] marry them.
Miss Ward, at the end of half a dozen years, [found herself obliged to be attached
to] formed an attachment with the Rev. Mr. Norris, a friend of her brother-inlaw, with scarcely any private fortune, and Miss Frances [fared yet worse] found
a husband with no fortune at all. Miss Wards match, indeed, [when it came to
the point,] was [not contemptible] fairly satisfactory, Sir Thomas being happily
able to give his friend an income in the living of Mansfield, and Mr. and Mrs.
Norris began their [career of conjugal felicity] marriage with very little less
than a thousand a year. But Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to
[disoblige] disappoint her family, and by fixing on a Lieutenant of Marines,
without education, fortune, or connections, did it very thoroughly. She could
hardly have made a more [untoward] unhappy choice. Sir Thomas Bertram had
interest, which, [from principle as well as pride,] from a general wish of doing
right, and a desire of seeing all that were connected with him in [situations of
respectability] satisfactory situations, he would have been glad to exert for
[the advantage of Lady Bertrams sister] his sister-in-law; but her husbands
profession was such as no interest could reach; and before he had time to devise
any other method of assisting them, an absolute breach between the sisters had
taken place. It was the [natural] result of the [conduct] opinions of each party,
and such as a very [imprudent] unsatisfactory marriage almost always produces.
To save herself from [useless remonstrance] criticism, Mrs. Price never wrote to
her family on the subject till actually married. Lady Bertram, who was a woman
of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent, would
have [contented herself with merely giving up her sister, and thinking no more
of the matter] given up her sister, and thought no more of the matter: but Mrs.
Norris had a spirit of activity, which could not be satisfied till she had written a
long and angry letter to Fanny, to point out the [folly] wrongness of her conduct,

Narrative Opacity in Mansfield Park


and [threaten her with] explain to her all its possible ill consequences. Mrs. Price
in her turn was injured and angry; and an answer which comprehended each
sister in its bitterness, and bestowed such very disrespectful reflections on the
pride of Sir Thomas, as Mrs. Norris could not possibly keep to herself, put an
end to all intercourse between them for a considerable period.
Their homes were so distant, and the circles in which they moved so distinct,
as almost to preclude the means of ever hearing of each others existence during
the eleven following years, or at least to make it very wonderful to Sir Thomas,
that Mrs. Norris should ever have it in her power to tell them, as she now and
then did in an angry voice, that Fanny had got another child. By the end of
eleven years, however, Mrs. Price could no longer [afford to] cherish pride or
resentment, or to lose one [connection] tie which might possibly assist her. A
large and still increasing family, an husband disabled for active service, but not
the less equal to company and good liquor, and a very small income to supply
their wants, made her eager to regain the friends she had [so carelessly sacrificed]
lost; and she addressed Lady Bertram in a letter which spoke so much contrition
and despondence, such a [superfluity] number of children, and such a want of
almost every thing else, as could not but dispose them all to a reconciliation. She
was preparing for her ninth lying-in, and after [bewailing] complaining of the
circumstance, and [imploring] asking for their countenance as sponsors to the
expected child, she [could not conceal] wrote how important she felt they might
be to the future maintenance of the eight already in being. Her eldest was a boy
of ten years old, a fine spirited fellow who longed to be out in the world; [but
what could she do?] but how? Was there any chance of his being hereafter useful
to Sir Thomas in the concerns of his West Indian property? No situation would
be beneath him or what did Sir Thomas think of Woolwich? or how could a
boy be sent out to the East?

The letter was not unproductive. It re-established peace and kindness. Sir
Thomas sent friendly advice and professions, Lady Bertram dispatched money
and baby-linen, and Mrs. Norris wrote the letters. (MP 35)

Stylistic-Evaluative Enquiry: Marriage and Economics

If Austens incipit is compared with its de-stylized version, a thematic question
immediately meets the eye (is foregrounded, in stylistic terms). The main topic
of these 800 words is marriage, but marriage is not described in all its aspects,
or in the aspects we most readily associate with it (i.e., affection/disaffection,
attraction/repulsion, love/hate). Its social and financial causes and consequences
are openly stated and anatomized, as if MP were an essay in cultural materialism
rather than a novel. In order to grasp the exceptionality of such analytic precision,
we can compare it with the relative reticence of Elizabeth Inchbalds A Simple
Story (1791), in a passage which contains in brief a similar story of socially
unacceptable marriage:

For a detailed description of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century middleclass economy as related to womens literature, cf. Copeland (1995).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

The child of a once beloved sister, who married a young officer against her
brothers consent, was at the age of three years left an orphan, destitute of every
support but from his uncles generosity: but though Dorriforth maintained,
he would never see him. Miss Milner, whose heart was a receptacle for the
unfortunate, no sooner was told the melancholy history of Mr. and Mrs.
Rushbrook, the parents of the child, than she longed to behold the innocent
inheritor of her guardians resentment, and took Miss Woodley with her to see
the boy ... determined to take young Rushbrook to town and present him to his
uncle. (Inchbald 1791/1967: 34)

Though in this case confessional differences may also be imputable for the breach
(the brother is a Roman Catholic, whereas the husband is probably a Protestant),
there is no doubt that Dorriforths displeasure mainly arises from social and
financial questions (as we understand by the fact that he has to provide for the
child whose existence he deplores). But these social and financial questions are
covered by a sheen of paternalistic sentimentalism which muddles the matter for
all those who are unfamiliar with late eighteenth-century social conventions. In
MP the tables are turned: sentiment is momentarily erased in order to introduce
the material conditions in which the characters thoughts, actions and feelings will
unfold. Austens speaker, however, is not a sociologist but a narrator: the dissection
of marriage is obtained not through direct description and definition, but by the
subtle insertion of modal expressions or other stylistic markers.
Marriage is described as a hunting campaign, which is conducted by women at
the expense of men: the narrator does not simply say, as Inchbalds narrator does,
that Miss Maria Ward married Sir Thomas Bertram, but that she had the good luck
to captivate him. Captivate can be set against fascinate, and other similar verbs
(charm, enchant, bewitch) which share its main semantic content: it is not
chosen by chance, or at any rate the choice is significant in a sentence whose theme
and grammatical subject is defined by geographical origin (of Huntingdon) and
financial situation (with only seven thousand pounds). The choice is significant
because captivate makes us think of captive, and what follows is a comparative
description of three sisters failures and successes in hunting for a quarry. What
women need in order to catch a big quarry is, apart from money, beauty, though
elsewhere (in MP and other novels) we are reminded that accomplishments may
also be of importance. In the same paragraph, Austens narrator adds that there
certainly are not so many men of fortune in the world, as there are pretty women
to deserve them where that deserve, as opposed to marry or even catch,
implies that prettiness is a sufficient quality to obtain money in the form of a
husband (once again, not love or affection).
Living as most of us do in a society which, at least superficially, prizes love
over social and financial convenience, we might be tempted to see moral squalor
in such a depiction. But these simplistic ethical considerations are outside the
interests of Austens narrator, who only describes things as they are. Husbandhunting is an absolute necessity for all those women who are not themselves in
possession of a big fortune (and since money passed from male hand to male hand,

Narrative Opacity in Mansfield Park


such figures were rare): Miss Ward, the second (but eldest) sister, does not merely
form an attachment with Mr Norris, but finds herself obliged to be attached to
him. Finding herself in the impossibility of catching a quarry as big as Sir Bertram,
she hunts around for the second best, and must, is obliged to, content herself; and
the polysemous nature of obliged tells us that she must also be thankful, for she
might have fared worse she might have incurred the third sisters fate.
Marriage is, as Austens narrator tactfully reminds us, a career (Mr and Mrs
Norris begin their career of conjugal felicity with very little less than a thousand
a year), and there are very few women who can afford not to embark on it. A
brilliant career brings social respect and admiration (and envy, of course, behind
the curtains), whereas an indifferent career brings a continual struggle against the
tide of domestic difficulties, and a bad career record brings financial hardship and
social censure. While a good match is looked at as the outcome of luck and is
exclaimed upon by the neighbours, a bad match is looked down on as untoward
and imprudent, sheer folly, an occasion for remonstrance and threats (Mrs
Norris writes to her sister to threaten her with all its possible ill consequences).
By choosing the wrong husband, a woman positions herself outside the happy
circle within which situations of respectability are to be found. In MP, the
centre of that circle is Sir Bertram, the unmoving primum mobile of this small
genteel world: all the other social and financial positions are evaluated by his
standards; and it is not by chance that the sentence which contains situations
of respectability (as opposed to a more neutral satisfactory situations) has the
baronet as its interpersonal and ideational subject.
What makes a marriage a good match is money, though here as elsewhere,
we are reminded in passing that money does not always smell the same, for certain
social qualities (epitomized in the term respectability) tend to give it a somewhat
better flavour. The greatness of a match is measured by the social and financial
disparity between the parties. Maria Ward/Lady Bertram has made a very good
match, for she had only seven thousand pounds to her name the modal adverb
signalling a disparity between initial and final social position. She has been raised
to the rank of a baronets lady an elevation potentially bringing advantage and
benefits (She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation) to other members
of the family. At the other end of the spectrum, Miss Francess choice does not
bring any social or financial advantages the most tangible economic outcome
being a superfluity of children which does nothing but add to the despondence
of her situation.
What is the narrators position in relation to all this? We cannot tell with
absolute certainty, and that is what makes Austens mature works, in some

Juliet McMaster has written that the gentry and professional classes felt somewhat
threatened by the large changes that were coming with the Industrial Revolution, and
tended to close ranks against the newly powerful and nouveaux riches. Trade represents
new money, and money, like wine, isnt considered quite respectable until it has aged a
little (McMaster 1997: 123).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

respects, like so many detective novels. Since the narrator does not give us clear
indications as to his/her evaluative position, his/her approval or disapproval of this
or that character/behaviour/situation, it is only with the unfolding of the plot that
we can infer something about the general ideological (and ethical) framework of
the novel. After the first reading, we can go back to the beginning and understand
things we had not been told openly in the first place. Though the narrator tends to
remain aloof from the facts he/she narrates and the conversational exchanges he/
she reports, those facts and those exchanges cast a revealing light on the narrators
That aloofness, however, can never be complete, and a wry smile whether of
mirth, condescension, or disapproval, it is hard to say shows through the cracks
of impassivity. For one thing, the selection of stylistic markers is, of course, far
from neutral. By choosing to present marriage as it were on a dissecting table,
ready for the readers inspection, the narrator breaches a social convention which
made it distasteful and tactless to speak openly of financial matters. We should
remind ourselves that Austens characters never (or almost never, for some of
these characters are tactless; cf. Chapter 4) speak as her narrators do: in E, when
the eponymous heroine rejects Mr Elton, who in turn rejects Miss Smith, each of
the two rejections is based on the assumption that there is a social and economic
disparity which is never openly stated (Cf. Chapter 6). Thus, in MP as elsewhere,
the narrator is breaching a social norm he/she knows very well, in order to show
what lies behind the curtain of social respectability.
Also, in this initial orientation there are a couple of passages in which the
narrator seems to distance him/herself from the ideological world he/she is
presenting to us. When we read that All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness
of the match, and that Miss Frances married, in the common phrase, to disoblige
her family, we hear the village voice, not the narrators. At two crucial points in
the narrative, where the most advantageous and the most disadvantageous matches
are described, the narrator prefers not to speak in his/her own voice which does
not tell us what his/her position is, but leaves us groping in the dark for a clear
evaluation of what we are told.

It is interesting to compare the authors narrative and epistolary styles. Of Austens
letters, Caroline Austen wrote that They were very well expressed, and they must have
been very interesting to those who received them but they detailed chiefly home and
family events: and she seldom committed herself even to an opinion so that to strangers
they could be no transcript of her mind they would not feel that they knew her any the
better for having read them (La Faye 1989: 249).

Though certain contemporary prose writers have managed to make their negative
narrators as indecipherable as possible. Many of Carvers short stories can be mentioned
as narrative creations whose style seems to reside in the absence of style, and where, as a
consequence, all the evaluative colouring appears to be delegated to the selection of facts
and speeches.

Narrative Opacity in Mansfield Park


Style and Cohesion

A comparison between Austens incipit and its de-stylized version makes the
theme of marriage as a social and economic institution stand out in bold relief:
but pointing out what is foregrounded is by no means the only way of discovering
what a text or a portion of text is about. The theme can also be identified by tracing
the lexical nets innervating the text, as actualized by word repetition, by the use of
different forms of the same root, or by the accretion of synonyms, near-synonyms,
and lexical items belonging to the same semantic area.
All these phenomena belong to the field of lexical cohesion, as defined by
Halliday and Hasan in Cohesion in English. After noticing how lexical items can
function much as grammatical ties in making a text cohesive, Halliday and Hasan
grade these cohesive lexical items according to their degree of differentiation from
one another, thus creating a scale which displays on one end sheer repetition, and
on the other end what the two scholars call collocation. Collocation, in this case,
is defined not so much by the syntagmatic company words keep, but by their
paradigmatic relations with other words on the semantic level. Halliday and Hasan
shrink from classifying the various meaning relations that are involved (Halliday
and Hasan 1976: 287); but that collocation here means semantic nearness
is made evident both by the word-chains used as examples (mountaineering/
Yosemite/summit peaks/climb/ridge) and by the recapitulatory table for lexical
Type of lexical cohesion: Referential relation:
I. Reiteration
(a) same word (repetition)
(i) same referent
(b) synonym (or near-synonym)
(ii) inclusive
(c) superordinate
(iii) exclusive
(d) general word
(iv) unrelated
II. Collocation
(Halliday and Hasan 1976: 288)

In the three paragraphs making up the incipit under discussion, the study of lexical
cohesion leads us to the same conclusions as the study of foregrounded evaluative
stylistic markers. While the word marriage appears only once (and is arguably
substituted, on two more occasions, by elevation and above all career of conjugal
felicity), there are words or different forms of the same root that are repeated
up to three times, and all these words belong to semantic fields which we could
define as financial matters and social matters. As far as money is concerned,
while the actual word appears only once, there are three occurrences each for
fortune and income, two occurrences for pounds, and these are supplemented
by the occurrence of maintenance, concerns, and property. In the field of
social matters, connections features alongside connected and connection, as
well as rank, profession, career, respectability, and interest (the personal
relationship that one can exploit in order to further ones or someone elses career).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

It is to be noted that most of these lexical items are directly connected with the
theme of marriage, in the sense that they are used either to denote or to define
the pursuit of a husband or the married state. By contrast, in Austens quasisociological style, lexical items related to the semantic field of sentiment (love,
affection, attraction, etc.) are virtually absent. The only reference to sentiments
akin to love is to peace and kindness. It comes at the end of the passage, and is
put into perspective by all that has been said so far and by the narrators catalogue
of how the two more fortunate sisters and Sir Bertram materially express that
kindness and celebrate that peace:
The letter was not unproductive. It re-established peace and kindness. Sir
Thomas sent friendly advice and professions, Lady Bertram dispatched money
and baby-linen, and Mrs. Norris wrote the letters.

Stylistic Symmetry: A Tale of Three Sisters

MP begins like a fairy-tale or a parable, by telling the story of three sisters who
start from roughly the same situation (lower-upper-middle class upbringing as
Orwell would say; Orwell 1937/1997: 113) some money but not a lot, good looks)
but find themselves, at the end of their husband-hunting period, with very different
game in their bag. It is a perfect tripartite symmetry, reversed and completed at
the end of the novel by the marriage of Fanny and Edmund, i.e., of the unfortunate
sisters daughter and the privileged sisters son. It is interesting to note how it
seems to be this very symmetry and the different positions held in society by the
three sisters that shapes their individual characters, rather than the reverse. This
is the effect of the narrator first giving us a detailed account of material conditions,
and then introducing the characters themselves.
This tripartite symmetry is realized in the initial orientation by the insertion
of stylistic-evaluative markers which immediately sprawl the three sisters on
their respective hierarchical social pins. As a result of her ability to captivate Sir
Thomas, Lady Bertram does not simply acquire a title, but is raised to the rank
of a baronets lady. Her good luck is underlined by the surprised reactions of
her uncle and her community, whose comments show that elevation is perceived

Peter W. Graham provides an interesting Darwinian interpretation of this family
history (Graham 2008: 716).

Fanny works her way into the society of Mansfield Park by endorsing its values:
comparing her to the model woman of her day, Mary Poovey finds her outwardly
everything a textbook proper lady should be; she is dependent, self-effacing, and apparently
free of impermissible desires (Poovey 1984: 212; cf. also Chapters 4 and 5). In spite of
this textbook perfection, however, Fannys climb does not reach the social peak where
Lady Bertram roosts, because Edmund is a younger son, and as such will not inherit his
fathers estate. As a clergymans wife, Fanny will belong to that section of society (termed
pseudo-gentry by the historian David Spring [Spring 1983]) which is attached to, but not
identifiable with, the landed gentry.

Narrative Opacity in Mansfield Park


as a small breach in the fabric of society, to be marvelled at but also justified (her
uncle allows her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim
to it). In Austens world, those who seek to better their position, by marriage or
other means, are looked down upon as social climbers. On the other hand, when
the climb reaches the summit, the breach mends itself by its own consequences
the panacea of rank applying the plaster of admiration to the wound of envy.
The other two sisters fare worse than Lady Bertram, and differently from one
another. The eldest sister finds herself obliged to be attached to the Reverend
Mr Norris a fact and an expression which, as we have seen, tell us a lot about
the condition of early nineteenth-century women. By fixing on a relatively poor
parson, Mrs Norris is enrolled, or remains, in the middle ranks of society, or in
the lower ranks of country gentry, only a step higher than Miss Bates in E: her
match is described as not contemptible, a litotes indicating the short distance
between her fate and Mrs Prices. The marriage with the passionless Rev. Norris
is described as a career of conjugal felicity, where career suggests hard labour,
and felicity a more domestic feeling than happiness would perhaps entail. Mrs
Norriss mean and self-centred temperament is suited to (or a consequence of) her
married and, later, widowed condition: a woman in her position has to struggle
if she does not want to be socially relegated, and one needs money and leisure in
order to be disinterested and open-minded.
Mrs Norriss liminal social condition is further underlined by a cohesive
element of comparative reference (Halliday and Hasan 1976: 39) evaluatively
linking her plight with Mrs Prices. The third sister is said to have fared yet worse
than Mrs Norris, thus implying that if Mrs Prices marriage is a downfall, Mrs
Norriss is not very far from being contemptible. In Mrs Price we can observe the
fate awaiting all (gentle)women who make an imprudent marriage, an untoward
choice, who marry to disoblige [their] family. Disoblige is once again an
element of cohesion with Mrs Norriss story (Mrs Norris has been obliged to
marry a man, also in order to oblige those social norms which are embodied
in the familial institution). The choice is untoward, i.e., unfortunate, but also
unforeseen and unseemly. It breaches the master law of bourgeois behaviour,
i.e., prudence. As a consequence of her imprudence and folly, Mrs Price is
cast out from the family, or is at least forced, by her relatives as well as by the
circumstances, to humiliate herself in order to be included again after having preemptively excluded herself. The terms in which the reconciliation of the three
sisters is described leave us in no doubt that it is only financial factors, and not
sororal affection, that lead Mrs Price to make the first move: she can no longer
afford to cherish pride or resentment, because she is saddled with a large and
still increasing family and an husband disabled for active service, but not the less
equal to company and good liquor. She needs help, but she is in no position to
ask for it, and must beg for it (imploring). With a masterstroke of ventriloquism,
the narrator incorporates into his/her discourse a stretch of a letter from Mrs Price,
where a modal verb is used for the sake of understatement, but presented to the
reader as an indicator of how desperate the sender must be (she could not conceal
how important she felt they might be).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

As observed in the previous sections, the narrators position is not openly

stated, and readers must largely rely, to place their sympathies and antipathies, on
the juxtaposition of facts. There are, of course, the stylistic-evaluative markers I
have bracketed to show us how the dominant social ideology influences characters
actions: and there are some euphemistic expressions (which I have underlined)
whose surface meaning is disproved or reversed by their co-text, and whose deep,
ironical meaning casts the light of opinion on the darkness of events.
These expressions are apportioned to all three sisters, reflecting their social
positions and their temperaments. Lady Bertram is said to be a woman of very
tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent where the negative
connotations of indolent are counterbalanced by the positive aura of tranquil
and easy. When we learn, however, that she would have contented herself
with merely giving up her sister, and thinking no more of the matter, we begin
to suspect that her tranquillity, easiness and indolence are not as harmless as they
might appear. We are faced with something akin to Wordsworths savage torpor
a passivity which is actively capable of hurting others. As for Mrs Norris, we are
told that she has a spirit of activity but in the course of a few lines (she writes
a long and angry letter to Fanny, to point out the folly of her conduct, and threaten
her with all its possible ill consequences), we understand that it is an alacrity
in hurting others, in putting people in their place and reminding them of their
mistakes (she will soon act as self-appointed censor for the young Fanny Price).
She receives from her fallen sister a letter containing such very disrespectful
reflections on the pride of Sir Thomas, as Mrs Norris could not possibly keep to
herself and at this stage, though no open evaluation of her character has been
provided by the narrator, we can see her on her way to Mansfield Park, gloating on
each passage of a letter she is holding in her hand.
As to Mrs Price, we are euphemistically informed by the narrator of how her
financial difficulties compel her to humiliate herself in front of the very people she
has every reason to hate. After eleven years she can no longer afford to cherish
pride or resentment, and is eager to regain the friends she had so carelessly
sacrificed. The letter she addresses to Lady Bertram is full of contrition and
despondence and it is obviously the latter that induces the former, just as it is the
fact that she can no longer afford to cherish pride and resentment that makes her
eager to regain her friends. Once all these euphemistic expressions are decoded,
very few doubts remain about the motives of the reconciliation and the quality
of the peace of which Fannys arrival at Mansfield Park is a sort of tangible
Conclusion: Slovenliness Exploited
In a famous essay on Politics and the English Language (1946), George Orwell
complains that the English of his time is becoming imprecise and slovenly, its
speakers (and above all its writers) mostly unable to express their thoughts clearly
through its words. In his opinion, prose consists less and less of words chosen for

Narrative Opacity in Mansfield Park


the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of
a prefabricated hen-house; locked in this prefabricated building, the user either
has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or
he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not (Orwell
1984: 356). This stylistic decline must have external causes in everyday affairs,
but the state of everyday affairs in turn is not made a jot better by the decline of
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political
and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influences of this or that
individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause
and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A
man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the
more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening
to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts
are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have
foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English,
especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and
which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets
rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary
first step towards political regeneration: so that to fight against bad English is
not frivolous and is not the exclusive concern of professional writers. (Orwell
1984: 3545)

In Orwells indignation against sloppy prose we can trace the influence of another
commonplace idea: language, for the novelist, is a mirror of thought, and is more
or less successful insofar as it expresses thought clearly and distinctly. Though it is
of ancient Greek descent, this idea was formulated for English-speaking modernity
in the second half of the seventeenth century, by such thinkers as Hobbes, Locke,
and the Royal Society affiliates. Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan that The
generall use of Speech, is to transferre our Mentall Discourse, into Verbal; or the
Trayne of our Thoughts, into a Trayne of Words (Hobbes 1651/1997: 20); John
Locke spoke (in the Essay concerning Human Understanding) of the use and
force of language as subservient to instruction and knowledge (Locke 1690/1877:
10); Thomas Sprat, who in 1668 penned a History of the Royal Society, praised
its members for their attempt to come back to the primitive purity, and shortness,
when men deliverd so many things, almost in equal number of words (Sprat
1668: 113). For the men of the seventeenth-century epistemic revolution, it was of
course prose, more than verse, that had to bear the weight of denotative precision;
and the prose genre par excellence, the novel, inherited from the beginning an
aspiration to describe the world as it is. Jane Austen and George Orwell both
belong to this tradition, and try to describe what they see by means of the language
they have at their disposal.
Orwells remedy against the slovenliness of language is a disposition to think
clearly through language, and if necessary against the grain of contemporary
English, by avoiding all those expressions that either do not convey any precise


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

content or carry the writer astray from what he/she means to write. Austens
strategy is different: the language she has at her disposal is as imprecise and
slovenly, in Orwells sense, as that of Orwells contemporaries, because it is full
of commonplace expressions and of words the meanings of which are not well
definable, though their functions can always be inferred on the pragmatic plane.
Words like prudence, sense, sensibility, judgment, reason, respectability, are
imprecise because they reflect the ideology of a classist male-dominated society
that aims at maintaining its privileges while never stating them openly. Instead
of refusing to use these words, Austen (or, her narrator) continues to do so, but
surrounds them with a co-text in which they are both explained and unmasked.
By first detailing the material conditions in which the events take place (and by
means of the contrast between words and events), the narrator of MP alerts us to the
real significance of such expressions as respectability, untoward, imprudent,
career of conjugal felicity; and by thus exploiting the tesserae his/her social
mosaic is made up of, he/she tells us more about the habits and prejudices of early
nineteenth-century country gentry than a whole battery of sociological papers
ever could. At the same time, by avoiding any kind of open confrontation with
the ideology of his/her world (and with the linguistic expressions which convey
that ideology), Austens narrator maintains a web of evaluative opacity which
makes it very difficult to identify his/her moral position, and to catch him/her
definitely approving or disapproving the state of affairs he/she is describing.
The narrators position in his/her ideological and linguistic world is at one and the
same time acquiescent and subversive, parasitic and critical.
All in all, the initial orientation of MP resembles a report written by a very
careful double-dealing spy for his superiors: the text leads its readers to evaluate
a situation in a certain manner; yet no single word is traceable that commits the
writer to the evaluation which the text unmistakably proposes.

Part 2

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Chapter 4

Jane Austens Dialogue

Reality and Fiction
Conversation in Jane Austens novels is a complex role-playing game, the rules
of which are dictated by general consensus about what can and cannot be said,
what can be said openly and what must be hinted at or implied, which moves
and acts are allowed and which are not. These rules, if one observes the novels
in their varied but consistent whole, form a recognizable set almost universally
acknowledged as valid those who stand outside the rules being labelled by the
other characters or by the narrator as arrogant, boorish, or foolish.
In order to identify this set of rules and the narrative purposes it serves, an
internal perspective can be adopted: observing characters behaviour in Austenland
can help the critic draw a list of requirements for the perfect speaker, and then the
abilities of each individual speaker can be gauged against this yardstick. There is,
nonetheless, an evident circularity in such an approach: the novels are judged on
the sole authority of the principles they convey, and those principles are inferred
from internal observation. Though such a procedure can yield results which
satisfy the scholars as well as the readers common sense, an external point of
view would be welcome from which those internal observations can be verified.
When one studies novels or any other work of art this external point of view
is guaranteed by the fact that no human product can be created in perfect isolation.
Even those works of art which do not offer a direct representation of society have
at least an indirect link with the context they spring from and Jane Austen is a
realistic novelist writing about the sector of society it was her portion in life to
know. Therefore, in order to study conversation in Austenland we can look at
how conversation worked in Austens world, just as we can look at the material
conditions of life in Austens time to understand why, in her novels, (relatively)
poor women have to marry well or die socially.
Since we have no reliable transcriptions of everyday talk in Austens time, we
must look at how conversation was supposed to work rather than at how it actually
worked. The various manuals devoted to the art of conversation which appeared in
the eighteenth century and before, in England and abroad (particularly in France),
give us a fair idea of how people were expected to behave in polite society, if not
of their actual behaviour. The formal quality of these manuals, as opposed to

For the sake of brevity, I distinguish here between Austens world (the world in
which the authoress lived) and Austenland (the world of her characters).

As announced in the Introduction, this chapter does not contain a discussion of the
eighteenth-century conflict between different models of conversation. The main quarrel was
between an aristocratic model (symbolized by Lord Chesterfield, whose scandalous letters


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

the supposedly more informal quality of real conversation, is no insurmountable

problem, because it parallels the gap between fictional (i.e., idealized, normalized)
and real speech. If one measures these conversational rules against conversational
behaviour in Austens novels, one sees at one and the same time the predictive
power of the rules and the significance of the exceptions. Furthermore, whatever
the distance between real and ideal behaviour, conversation in Austens time was
supposed to be a formal, well-ordered business; in the manuals, we find a constant
insistence on conformity between oral and written discourse as well as on the
usefulness of literature as a model for conversation.
were posthumously published in 1774, and then digested and methodised (and neutralized)
again and again by the likes of John Trusler) and a bourgeois model, between honest
dissimulation and honesty, hypocrisy and sincerity. Exhaustive accounts of the debate can
be found in Gilmour (1981) and Davidson (2004). Here, a number of manuals which aimed
to reach as large an audience as possible, and can be expected to mediate between opposing
views are used indifferently to identify a golden mean of conversational behaviour.

As Norman Page wrote in 1972, Recent investigations into spontaneous speech
suggest that it is altogether freer and looser, less patterned and organized and more wasteful
and repetitive than has often been assumed; and, even making allowance for the greater
formality that obtained in much of the polite speech of the upper levels of early nineteenthcentury society, there seems good reason to doubt whether Jane Austens contemporaries
really spoke with the sureness and economy of effect which characterize the speech of
even her foolish and vulgar figures ... Inevitably, even when it is based on observation
rather than literary convention, written dialogue is the result of a controlled and modified
selection from the features of living speech: the uncertainties and misdirections of actual
talk are distilled into a concentration of effects that justifies their appearance in the
very different medium of print and their perception through the eye rather than the ear
(Page 1972: 11617).

Lord Chesterfield urges his son to Be careful then of your style upon all occasions;
whether you write or speak, study for the best words and best expressions, even in common
conversation or the most familiar letters; a good way to acquire a graceful utterance, is to
read aloud to some friend every day, and beg of him to set you right, in case you read too
fast, do not observe the proper stops, lay a wrong emphasis, or utter your words indistinctly.
You may even read aloud to yourself, where such a friend is not at hand, and you will find
your own ear a good corrector. Take care to open your teeth when you read or speak, and
articulate every word distinctly (Trusler 1775: 3032). The author of The Accomplished
Youth also stresses the connection between oral and written dialogue: The first thing you
should attend to is, to speak whatever language you do speak, in its greatest purity, and
according to the rules of Grammar; for we must never offend against grammar, nor make
use of words which are not really words. This is not all; for not to speak ill, is not sufficient:
we must speak well; and the best method of attaining to that, is, to read the best authors with
attention; and to observe how people of fashion speak, and those who express themselves
best; (Anon. 1811: 196). The author of an 1821 Essay on Conversation observes that what
can be said by ... Dr. Blair, concerning written compositions, may be applied with equal
propriety to conversation. Embarrassed, obscure, and feeble sentences, are generally, if not
always, the result of embarrassed, obscure, and feeble thought (Anon. 1821: 23). Cf. also
Michaelson (2002: 190, passim) on how novels came to be used as conversation guides, and
gradually replaced the manuals themselves.

Jane Austens Dialogue


Those branches of linguistics which study spoken interaction pragmatics,

conversation analysis, ethnomethodology can also be of use, insofar as they
mirror and observe from above (as behavioural norms) the actions that the
manuals try to direct from outside (as behavioural rules). In his survey of European
writings on the art of conversation from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries
(Italy inaugurating the genre in the sixteenth century, France ruling the roost in
the seventeenth, and England making its contribution in the eighteenth), Peter
Burke has noticed the parallels between the cultural rules which ethnographers
and linguists try to discover who communicates with whom, when, where, about
what, in what manner, and so on and the advice given in treatises written several
centuries earlier (Burke 1993: 9091). As Burke suggests, The systematic
comparison of the two sets of rules should help to illuminate both and all these
rules (or rather, these norms and rules) taken together should help to illuminate
the behaviour of fictional characters. Also, modern theories of language provide a
relatively stable, relatively consistent set of conceptual terms which can be used to
systematize the different insights yielded by novels and manuals.
Of course, novelistic characters belong to a fictional tradition at least as
much as they belong to the society they are copied from: when one thinks of
Austens dialogue, one has to remind oneself that it is of literary descent, as well
as of realistic origin. The well-read Austen has many novelists in mind from
Richardson and Fielding to Radcliffe, Inchbald, and a host of minor practitioners.
In her early works, situations and conversations are often drawn from other novels
at least as much as from reality: up to NA, Austens art is often imitative, and it
is by means of parody a kind of parody involving setting novelistic situations
against real life that she acquires her style.
It is particularly useful to draw a comparison between Jane Austen and
such contemporary colleagues, or close predecessors, as Fanny Burney, Maria
Edgeworth, and Elizabeth Inchbald. If one sets Austens dialogue against theirs,
one immediately notices that her conversations are both more stylized (more
formal and controlled) and more plausible (nobody ever says a thing he/she is not
expected to say, and yet there are conversational surprises). On the one hand, this
duplicity has to do with the authors firm grasp of fictional psychology with the
necessary way in which all turns at talk reflect character and situation. On the other
hand, the effect is created by Austens keen observation, and brilliant exploitation,

Gary Kelly turns this critical position on its head: The point about the difference
between Austens style as a novelist and the enormously diverse styles of her contemporaries
is not that Austen is a superior stylist or realist, or artist ... Austens political purpose was,
through her own stylistic insistence on formal reduction, minimalism and irony, to relativize
comprehensively the styles and thereby the politics of her contemporary novelists, and, at
the same time, to re-educate the novel reader, stylistically and therefore politically. It is
this relativization ... that has produced the famous realism effect for Austens readers ...
the impression that Austens, not other fictions, must be realistic because, read from her
style, theirs seems excessive, extravagant, unreal, untrue, bad, unethical, immoral (Kelly
2004: 678).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

of the conventions of real speech. Unlike the world of everyday life, Austenland is
a country where nothing happens by chance: but its creator manages to give it the
appearance of chance and naturalness by holding her mirror up to human nature.
In other words, Austen displays a perfect knowledge of the rules of polite
conversation and a firm grasp of all the exceptions to those rules, of the (social,
psychological) reasons why a certain character in a certain situation can choose to
ignore or evade those rules, or can breach them without noticing. As so often with
this ineffable creator of literary crystals, the impression is created that nothing is
allowed to exist without a reason or a relation to the rest: even the random speck
of sand becomes grist to the narrative mill; even chance is enrolled at the service
of all-seeing providence.
The Art of Conversation
Turn-Taking and Conversational Roles
The allocation of turns in conversation was, at least in theory, an orderly affair in
Austens world. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century conversation manuals warned
their readers against the sins of speaking too much and interrupting other speakers.
In his Essay on Conversation, Fielding wrote that A well-bred man ... will not take
more of the discourse than falls to his share (Fielding 1743: 150); the anonymous
author of The Accomplished Youth exhorted his pupil to Talk often, but never
long (Anon. 1811: 174); Lord Chesterfield felt it almost unnecessary to point
out what every child knows, that It is a great piece of ill-manners to interrupt
any one when speaking, by speaking yourself, or calling off the attention of the
company to any foreign matter (Trusler 1775: 34). In Austenland, interruptions
and overlaps are very rare, and lengthy speeches are uttered only by characters
who are perceived by the others as contravening the social pact (Miss Bates in E
is forgiven because she is both helpless and harmless, but her infringements are
tolerated rather than approved; another garrulous speechmaker is Mr Collins in
P&P, who is openly or covertly treated like an idiot by most characters).

John A. Dussinger (1990: 1314) rightly observes that the intertextual (parodic)
inception of many characters is not necessarily at odds with their mimetic plausibility:
Although previous scholarship has generally assumed a mimetic model to describe Austens
characterization, this approach has been at odds sometimes with a parodic art that calls
attention to literary analogues and deliberately subverts trusting the text. The aesthetic of
representation, however, tends to be a contradictory mixture of the natural and the artificial:
the Messein porcelain figurine delights not only by its lifelike resemblance but also by
its cold, fragile composition the two opposite qualities being somehow interdependent.
Similarly, even fictional characters most patently rooted in motivations of the plot and
contrived for thematic purposes can strike us as psychologically reified beings. An assurance
of the characters artificial origins seems actually to enhance their mimetic value.

Lord Chesterfield notes that Incessant talkers are very disagreeable companions.
Nothing can be more rude than to engross the conversation to yourself, or to take the words,
as it were, out of another mans mouth. Every man in company has an equal claim to bear

Jane Austens Dialogue


Given this orderly procedure, interruptions are seen as serious face-threatening

acts (Brown and Levinson 1987), allowable only in particular situations. Austen
uses them to underline moments of stress or tension, in intimate more often than in
socialising contexts (McCarthy 1998: 10). In S&S, the close sisterly relationship
between Elinor and Marianne makes it possible for each to interrupt the other
to scold her or anticipate her words (They will one day be Mr. Willoughbys,
and ... / If they were one day to be your own, Marianne, you would not be justified
in what you have done; 59). In one instance in MP, Mrs Norris dares to interrupt
Sir Thomas in her anxiety to avoid personal censure (148). In E, Emma interrupts
Mr Elton in her proud, righteous rage (and the encouragement I received /
Encouragement! I give you encouragement!; 120). In P&P, Mr Collins is so
unbearable that people cut him short when he embarks on his endless speeches (I
know little of the game, at present, said he, but I shall be glad to improve myself,
for in my situation in life Mrs. Philips was very thankful for his compliance,
but could not wait for his reason; 58). Altogether, these cases amount to a dozen
in the whole corpus, each interruption marking a moment of comic or dramatic
crisis. Overlap is even rarer than interruption, represented as it is by a single coreferential instance in NA:
...Delightful! Mr. Morland and my brother!

Good heaven! tis James! was uttered at the same moment by Catherine;
(NA 29)

In this well-ordered social and conversational world, other-selection is naturally

favoured over self-selection in the allocation of turns (cf. Sacks, Schegloff, and
Jefferson 1974: 701 ff.). Quite frequently, when there are more than two participants
in an interaction, current speaker directly addresses next speaker or drops hints as
to who should or can continue:
[Frank Churchill speaking] Ladies and gentlemen, I am ordered by Miss
Woodhouse (who, wherever she is, presides,) to say, that she desires to know
what you are all thinking of.
Some laughed, and answered good-humouredly. Miss Bates said a great
deal; Mrs. Elton swelled at the idea of Miss Woodhouses presiding; Mr.
Knightleys answer was the most distinct.

Is Miss Woodhouse sure that she would like to hear what we are all
thinking of?

Oh! no, no cried Emma, laughing as carelessly as she could ... (E 334)

his part in the conversation (Trusler 1775: 95). In The Literary Economy of Jane Austen
and George Crabbe, Colin Winborn writes that Austen prizes the ability to manage ones
words, along with the capacity to know when and how to hold ones tongue ... Over-speech
is associated with vulnerability, with laying oneself open. Those who say too much are
liable to be wounded by exposing too much of themselves through their words; or they are
liable to wound or expose others (Winborn 2004: 79).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

Frank Churchill addresses the whole company, so that everybody feels entitled
to speak; while Mr Knightley, though really talking to both Emma and Churchill,
addresses himself indirectly to Emma, who obtains a right to take up the floor.
A related set of rules establishes who can or should conduct a conversation, and
the role each character plays in each exchange. Interaction in Austenland is always
asymmetrical (Markova and Foppa 1991), in the sense that there are always one
or more dominant figures, and each participant has a different contribution to
make. Per Linell has defined three different types of interactional dominance:
quantitative (determined by the amount of words spoken by each participant),
semantic (having to do with the power to choose the topic, and to impose ones
interpretation on that topic), and strategic (the authority of those who contribute
the most important interventions) (Linell 1990). The distinction is relevant to
Austens novels: while women usually exercise quantitative and semantic
dominance (most men preferring to let them do the talking), it is usually men
who are strategically dominant the opinion of such authoritative characters as
Mr Knightley clearly bearing a different weight from all the others.
Of course, gender is not the only criterion according to which dominant or
subordinate positions are assigned. In many cases, it is simply the most selfassured or the most garrulous that take up the floor or do most of the talking: but
there is a marked preference for people of higher rank over people of lower rank,
for married over unmarried women, etc. Rank, income, gender and personality
combine to assign each character a place in multiple interactions but this place
can change as the situation changes: as will be shown in Chapter 5, MP and P
have Cinderella-like plots in which the female protagonists grow from a marginal
position to one of relative power, and, consequently, from silence to modestly
articulate speech.
Dominance or subordination, of course, are not only displayed in each
characters turns at talk. In 1981, Erving Goffman coined the phrase participation
framework to define the position and status of each interactant: When a word is
spoken, all those who happen to be in perceptual range of the event will have some
sort of participation status relative to it. The codification of these various positions
and the normative specification of appropriate conduct within each provide an
essential background for interaction analysis (Goffman 1981: 3). He observed,
amongst other things, that speaker and hearer are not the only available roles:
in the complex interactions of numerous groups, there can be overhearers,
ratified participants [who] are not specifically addressed by the speaker, and
ratified participants who are addressed. Multiple interactions in Austenland
(both in socialising and intimate contexts) often show complex participation
frameworks: when the Dashwood women talk amongst themselves in S&S, Mrs
Dashwood is semantically dominant, Elinor is often strategically dominant, while
Marianne can be quantitatively dominant, and Margaret is almost invariably a
ratified but silent hearer. In the Box Hill episode of E, dominance is negotiated
and striven for rather than possessed, and different hearers are variously addressed
by each speaker (cf. Chapter 6).

Jane Austens Dialogue


Another general rule for conversation seems to be that each participant has
to take up former speakers speech and take it as a starting point for his/her
contribution, in a cooperative game of tennis where nobody wants the ball to
bounce twice in the opponents half. As noted by Peter Burke, eighteenth-century
English manuals took up the Renaissance idea of the conversazione as the
sociable event par excellence (one of the most famous Italian courtesy books of
the period was Guazzos Civil Conversazione, 1574) by insisting that one had
to adapt ones conversation to the people one is conversing with, and we have
already seen that interrupting people or calling attention away from what they
said was perceived as impolite. In the terms of feminist linguist Jennifer Coates,
a female kind of conversation structure X1 + X2 + X3 is preferred to a male
structure X + Y + Z (Coates 1996: 60). In Austenland, there are characters who
change or shift the subject at their pleasure (or who drift between loosely related
subjects), but they are usually considered foolish or boorish or both, and they may
be put up with merely because they are acknowledged to be in the grip of one or
more hobby horses (and can afford it, as Sir Walter Elliot in P). Other characters
men, usually refuse to cooperate in picking up the conversational thread. The
price they pay for this behaviour is covert social censure:
[Mrs Palmer speaking] How I should like such a house for myself! Should not
you, Mr. Palmer?

Mr. Palmer made her no answer, and did not even raise his eyes from the

Mr. Palmer does not hear me, said she, laughing, he never does sometimes.
It is so ridiculous!
This was quite a new idea to Mrs. Dashwood, she had never been used to
find wit in the inattention of any one, and could not help looking with surprise at
them both. (S&S 92)

Another kind of impolite behaviour is displayed by Lady Catherine in P&P.

The conversation manuals inveighed against the vice of despotism, i.e., that
disposition which some persons possess, of never being at ease except in society
where they can take the lead, and assume the style of dictator (Anon. 1821: 71).
Lord Chesterfield wrote that one need not be ashamed of asking questions, if such
questions lead to information; however, these questions were to be accompanied
with some excuse, so as not to be reckoned impertinent, while abrupt questions,
without some apology were to be avoided by all means (Trusler 1775: 106).
In Lady Catherines hands, each conversation turns into an interrogation displaying

Lord Chesterfield thinks it almost superfluous to insist on this point: I should
suppose it unnecessary to advise you to adapt your conversation to the company you are
in (Trusler 1775: 98). The author of An Essay on Conversation warned the reader against
the habit of forming, in the midst of the same company, several select parties of private
conversation, where a general conversation would be more instructive and more universally
agreeable (Anon. 1821: 87).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

that IRF structure (initiation / response / feedback by first speaker) which has
been observed to be typical of classroom interaction (Sinclair and Coulthard 1975;
Hoey 1991):
Do you play and sing, Miss Bennet? ...
... Do your sisters play and sing? ...
Why did not you all learn?...Do you draw?...
... Pray, what is your age? (P&P 1268)

In conclusion, a sketch can be drawn of an ideal conversation as far as turn-taking,

dominance and participation framework are concerned: only a few conversations
in Austenland will conform to this ideal, but every clear deviation from it will have
to be explained as an exception or a breach. Ideally, a conversation will be initiated
and conducted by the people of higher rank, and by married rather than unmarried
ladies when women are in the lead. Interruptions will be forbidden, and each
topic will be handed round from participant to participant (with other-selection
preferred over self-selection, but by no means universal) to be serially developed,
with no interactant taking up too much space. The following (rather informal and
bantering) exchange between Mrs Dashwood, her daughters Elinor and Marianne,
and Edward Ferrars in S&S is a perfect illustration. Mrs Dashwood makes all the
initiating moves Edward Ferrars properly submitting to her semantic dominance;
Marianne (sensibility: the most spontaneous of the sisters) is the first character
to intervene without being other-selected, and Elinors interventions carry more
authority than her sisters:

What are Mrs. Ferrarss views for you at present, Edward? said she, when
dinner was over and they had drawn round the fire; are you still to be a great
orator in spite of yourself?

No. I hope my mother is now convinced that I have no more talents than
inclination for a public life!

But how is your fame to be established? for famous you must be to satisfy
all your family; and with no inclination for expense, no affection for strangers,
no profession, and no assurance, you may find it a difficult matter.

I shall not attempt it. I have no wish to be distinguished; and I have every
reason to hope I never shall. Thank Heaven! I cannot be forced into genius and

You have no ambition, I well know. Your wishes are all moderate.

As moderate as those of the rest of the world, I believe. I wish as well as
every body else to be perfectly happy; but like every body else it must be in my
own way. Greatness will not make me so.

Strange if it would! cried Marianne. What have wealth or grandeur to do
with happiness?

Grandeur has but little, said Elinor, but wealth has much to do with it.

Elinor, for shame! said Marianne; money can only give happiness where
there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competence, it can afford no real
satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned.

Perhaps, said Elinor, smiling, we may come to the same point. Your
competence and my wealth are very much alike, I dare say; (S&S 778)

Jane Austens Dialogue


Topics, politeness and grammar

The injunction to adapt ones conversation to the people one is conversing with
can be applied to choice of topic as well as cooperation. Within a conversational
structure of the kind outlined above (X1 + X2 + X3), it is expected of each participant
that he/she shall contribute to create a high degree of topical coherence (Bublitz
1988). However, this is not always the case: bringing up certain subjects creates
embarrassment, and can result into somebodys attempt to change or shift the topic.
Here is Lucy Steeles response (itself barely acceptable, containing as it does a
reference to the Lord) to her sisters embarrassing remarks on beaux in S&S:

Oh! dear! one never thinks of married mens being beaux they have
something else to do.

Lord! Anne, cried her sister, you cant talk of nothing but beaux; you
will make Miss Dashwood believe you think of nothing else. And then to turn
the discourse, she began admiring the house and the furniture. (S&S 107)

In Austenland, there are a number of universally acceptable topics, ranging from

the intellectual and social qualities of individuals to such general themes as sense,
sensibility, morality, professions, female accomplishments, improvements, poems,
and novels. Other topics, notably marriage in its social and financial aspects,
can only be dealt with in an indirect manner, involving characters knowledge of
social conventions and their ability to mean what they are not allowed to say by
variously exploiting the cooperative principle (Grice 1967/1991) and the maxims
(Leech 1983) or strategies of politeness (Brown and Levinson 1987). While an
intimate context (the one extensively depicted in P&P, for instance) allows for
more liberty, it is hardly allowable to speak openly of financial matters in wider
socializing gatherings and unawareness of such invisible boundaries marks
out the boors and the socially-conversationally inept. Witness the difference of
linguistic behaviour between Mr Elton and Emma Woodhouse when the former
proposes to the latter:

Never, madam, cried he, affronted, in his turn: never, I assure you. I think
seriously of Miss Smith! Miss Smith is a very good sort of girl; and I should
be happy to see her respectably settled. I wish her extremely well: and, no doubt,

The conversation manuals advised their readers to speak only of general, indifferent
matters in any social gatherings larger than their families, so as to avoid stirring up contention
and inadvertently causing pain. Lord Chesterfield writes that this kind of chit-chat can be
learned by observing the way ladies talk: There is a fashionable kind of small-talk, which
however trifling it may be thought, has its use in mixed companies: of course you should
endeavour to acquire it. By small-talk, I mean a good deal to say of unimportant matters;
for example, foods, the flavour and growth of wines, and the chit-chat of the day. Such
conversation will serve to keep off serious subjects, that might sometimes create disputes.
This chit-chat is chiefly to be learned by frequenting the company of the ladies (Trusler
1775: 36).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

there are men who might not object to Every body has their level: but as for
myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss. I need not so totally despair
of an equal alliance, as to be addressing myself to Miss Smith! No, madam,
my visits to Hartfield have been for yourself only; and the encouragement I

Encouragement! I give you encouragement! sir, you have been entirely
mistaken in supposing it. I have seen you only as the admirer of my friend. In no
other light could you have been more to me than a common acquaintance. I am
exceedingly sorry: but it is well that the mistake ends where it does ... I have no
thoughts of matrimony at present. (E 11920)

We can say that Emma and Mr Elton, on this occasion, display different degrees of
ability in the wielding of silence if silence be considered, in Adam Jaworskis
words, a metaphor for [lack of] communication (Jaworski 1997: 3). Mr Elton
almost says what must remain unspoken about the social and financial distance
between Harriet Smith and himself (there are men who might not object to
Every body has their levelI need not so totally despair of an equal alliance),
while Emma manages to reject him without making any mention of her own social
and financial superiority (a superiority she is perfectly aware of, as the mental
soliloquies of the following Chapter show) beyond a contrastive hint (I give you
encouragement!; Brown and Levinson 1987: 217). After being refused by Emma,
Mr Elton will marry Augusta Hawkins, the boorish daughter of a Bristol merchant
(Miss Hawkins was the youngest of the two daughters of a Bristol merchant, of
course, he must be called; E 164), and the two will show their joint social inability
on various communal occasions.
Other topics are silenced completely they cannot even be touched upon
in passing or alluded to. The male and female bodies, for instance, are never
mentioned in conversation beyond the commonplace assertions as to a woman
being pretty, having a good figure, or a man being handsome (though the
narrator is occasionally more outspoken than the characters as regards features).10
In MP, it is a measure of Mr Rushworths social silliness, as well as of his jealousy,
that he keeps mentioning Henry Crawfords short stature (I do not say he is not
gentleman-like, considering; but you should tell your father he is not above five
feet eight, or he will be expecting a well-looking man; 145).
Another forbidden, silenced topic, though here it is quantity, rather than
quality, that makes a difference, is oneself. The conversation manuals openly
discouraged self-panegyric (Burke 1993: 111); while modern pragmatists have
observed that modesty is a conversational strategy as well as a moral quality
(Leech 1983: 13151). In Austenland, it is only the boorish or stupid characters
who speak too much about themselves, and even a boor like Mrs Elton feels she

As John Wiltshire points out, the body is also mentioned in conversation as a
repository of health (or, more typically, ill-health). Inquiries about health are one way in
which a community is constituted (Wiltshire 1992: 6).

Jane Austens Dialogue


has to appear to be talking about indifferent subjects or somebody else even while
she is really bragging about her own importance:11
The very first subject after being seated was Maple Grove, My brother Mr.
Sucklings seat a comparison of Hartfield to Maple Grove. The grounds of
Hartfield were small, but neat and pretty; and the house was modern and wellbuilt. Mrs. Elton seemed most favourably impressed by the size of the room, the
entrance, and all that she could see or imagine. Very like Maple Grove indeed!
She was quite struck by the likeness! That room was the very shape and size
of the morning-room at Maple Grove; her sisters favourite room. (E 244)

A similar kind of topical self-centredness is displayed by those characters who

have one or more hobby horses which they use to pester the others and as seen
in the preceding section to hold the floor for longer intervals than they should.
These hobby horses range from rank (Sir Walter in P), health (Mr Woodhouse in
E, the Parker brothers in S) and beauty (Sir Walter again) to seaside resorts (Mr
Parker in S). Quite often, they are only masks behind which a character hides his/
her own preoccupation with him/herself. Men and women with hobby horses are
usually put up with, not least because they can afford them socially and financially
(most hobby-horse characters are men of independent means).
This preoccupation with topical coherence and the correct choice of topic runs
parallel with the importance attributed to correct vocabulary and well-formed
grammar. For the writers of conversation manuals, he who mumbles out a set of
ill-chosen words, utters them ingrammatically, or with a dull monotony, will tire
and disgust as much as someone who interrupts other people or comes out with
an unwanted subject (Trusler 1775: 30). In Austenland, badly-formed sentences
are as rare as undesirable subjects; swearwords and coarse expressions mark out
the boor or the fool as does the inability to distinguish between acceptable and
unacceptable topics. The only all-round boor in Austenland is John Thorpe, who
continually takes the Lords name in vain, says of an acquaintance that he is as rich
as a Jew (NA 82), uses the expletive d (94), and utters frequent exclamations,
amounting almost to oaths (84).12 Other characters (Mrs Jennings and Miss Steele
The author of The Accomplished Youth urges his reader Above all things, and upon
all occasions, [to] avoid speaking of yourself, if it be possible. He adds that there are
devious as well as direct ways of praising oneself: Some, abruptly, speak advantageously
of themselves, without either pretence or provocation. They are impudent. Others proceed
more artfully, as they imagine, and forge accusations against themselves by exhibiting
a catalogue of their many virtues ... Others go more modestly and more slyly still (as
they think) to work; but, in my mind, still more ridiculously. They confess themselves
(not without some degree of shame and confusion) into all the cardinal virtues; by first
degrading them into weaknesses, and then owning their misfortune, in being made up of
those weaknesses (Anon. 1811: 1778).
One word only, as to swearing. Those who addict themselves to it, and interlard
their discourse with oaths, can never be considered as gentlemen; they are generally people
of low education, and are unwelcome in what is called good company (Trusler 1775: 100).

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


in S&S, for instance) show their vulgarity by using such intensifiers as monstrous
or Miss Steeles exclamation Oh, la (S&S 23840).13
All characters, or at least all but the boors and the socially stupid, are engaged
in a conversational tennis game which involves not only sending a manageable ball
in the other half, but also hitting the ball in an elegant manner. The great majority
of speeches in Austens novels are made up of well-formed sentences so much
so that dialogue in Austenland can sound artificial to contemporary ears, and the
question is raised of how much fictional conversation reflects real oral interaction
whatever the conversation manuals may say.
Austen, however, knows how to exploit the vagaries of natural speech, the
laxer grammar of spoken language. Badly-formed and unfinished sentences are
exceptionally but knowingly used in her novels to obtain the following effects:
1. conveying feelings of embarrassment (Perhaps, said Miss Tilney in an
embarrassed manner, you would be so good it would make me very happy
if ; NA 100), surprise (Engaged to Mr. Collins! my dear Charlotte,
impossible!; P&P 96), pain and displeasure (Good heavens! cried
Elinor, what do you mean? Are you acquainted with Mr. Robert Ferrars?
Can you be ? And she did not feel very delighted with the idea of such
a sister-in-law; S&S 111);
2. conveying characters awareness that they are saying what should remain
unspoken for reasons of tact or delicacy (Mrs John Dashwood persuading
her husband to give as little as possible to his half-sisters: Oh! beyond
anything great! What brother on earth would do half so much for his
sisters, even if really his sisters! And as it is only half blood! But you
have such a generous spirit!; S&S 7), or because they are betraying too
much of themselves (Colonel Brandon vaguely hinting at unmentionable

The conversation of a low-bred man, is filled up with proverbs and hackneyed

sayings. Instead of observing that tastes are different, and that most men have one peculiar
to themselves, he will give you What is one mans meat is another mans poison; or,
Every one to their liking, as the old woman said, when she kissed her cow. He has
ever some favourite word, which he lugs in up on all occasions, right or wrong; such as
vastly angry, vastly kind; devilish ugly, devilish handsome; immensely great, immensely
little. Even his pronunciation carries the mark of vulgarity along with it; he calls the earth,
yearth; finances, finances; he goes to wards and not towards such a place. He affects to
use hard words ... and seldom, if ever, pronounces them properly (Trusler 1775: 334).
Patricia Howell Michaelson discusses an essay on conversation written by Addison at the
beginning of the century; she writes that it articulated the stereotype of womans language
that remained alive through the period: women spoke too much and said too little. The
quantity and emptiness of womans language were probably its most obvious features. But
it is worth sketching out other characteristic deficiencies as well. Particularly useful in
literary representations (because so easily imitated) was the specialized vocabulary that
marked womens language, consisting of overused intensifiers like vast and monstrous
(Michaelson 2002: 378).

Jane Austens Dialogue


mysteries in his past: This, said he, cannot hold; but a change, a total
change of sentiments No, no, do not desire it ... I once knew a lady who
in temper and mind greatly resembled your sister, who thought and judged
like her, but who from an inforced change from a series of unfortunate
circumstances Here he stopt suddenly; S&S 48);
3. more generally, displaying a characters nature, his/her relative weakness
or strength of understanding, also in relation with upbringing and social
position (Mr Elton and Miss Bates, in E, leave many of their sentences
unfinished, the former because he seems to be a man of limited understanding
and learning, the latter for the same reasons and because she is in a great
hurry to express herself).
The last point holds true for all kinds of utterances whether or not containing
unfinished or badly-formed sentences in the pragmatic sense that every character,
when speaking, conveys knowledge about his/her context, other characters, and
him/herself. This connection between language and (social) self is never more
evident than on those rare occasions on which the lower classes make their
appearance to remind us that the country gentlemen and gentlewomen depicted by
Austen are not the only inhabitants of late eighteenth-century and early nineteenthcentury England. In that case, the connection between rank and (spoken) grammar,
social propriety and propriety of speech, becomes as it were materially perceptible
in the non-U forms (Ross 1954) employed by these waiters and nannies:14
I see Mr. Ferrars myself, maam, this morning in Exeter, and his lady too, Miss
Steele as was. They was stopping in a chaise at the door of the New London Inn,
as I went there with a message from Sally at the Park to her brother, who is one
of the post-boys. (S&S 310)
No, maam, he did not mention no particular family; but he said his master
was a very rich gentleman, and would be a baronight some day. (P 889)
Please Maam, Master wants to know why he bent to have his dinner. (TW 278)

Gender, Class and Types

Malcolm Coulthard wrote in 1977 that A successful ethnography of speaking
will describe the normative structure of all the speech acts and events of a given
speech community ... Norms, of course, are not always adhered to, and each
community has its own rules for interpreting rule-breaking (Coulthard 1977: 47).
Characters in a novel, just as people in real life, are judged (in a social,

All this must be avoided, if you would not be supposed to have kept company with
footmen and housemaids. Never have recourse to proverbial or vulgar sayings; use neither
favourite nor hard words, but seek for the most elegant; be careful in the management of
them, and depend on it your labour will not be lost; for nothing is more engaging than a
fashionable and polite address (Trusler 1775: 34).

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


conversational light) for their adherence to rules, as well as for their ability to
infringe rules and get away with it.
All of the conversational rules outlined above are universally valid in Austenland
though some characters defy or ignore them, intentionally or otherwise. There
is a difference, however, in the degrees of normative power they have for various
psychological and social types. Grand ladies and lords, like Lady Catherine de
Bourgh and her nephew Darcy, are rather considered proud and disagreeable
(P&P 7) than boorish if they turn a conversation into an IRF interrogation (as
Lady Catherine is apt to do), or deviate from such elementary rules as the ones
advising the use of tact in refusing a dancing partner:

You are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room, said Mr. Darcy,
looking at the eldest Miss Bennet.

Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of
her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say, very
agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you.

Which do you mean? and turning round, he looked for a moment at
Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said, She is
tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at
present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.
You had better return to your partner, for you are wasting your time with me.
(P&P 78)

Degree of subjection to rules is defined for each character by three social and
personal traits: gender, rank/income,15 and psychology. In a general way, however,
it can be noted that men are freer than women, high-born and rich people (often,
but not always, birth and money coalesce) are freer than poor people and people
of no rank, while those characters who are gifted with a simple soul are freer
than the socially clever (they gain their freedom by failing to notice most of the
chasms yawning in front of them). Of course, different social situations the
setting, participants, topic and purposes of each single interaction (Hymes 1974)
influence these three variables in different and ultimately irreducible ways,
so that it is impossible to predict conversational behaviour with any precision.
Nonetheless, the variables have a bearing on how characters perceive themselves
and are perceived by other characters and the narrator, and can therefore be used
to sketch a summary two-way typology.
On the one hand, there are all those who (generally) remain within the bounds
of good conversational deportment men and women of all ranks and incomes
spanning the restricted domain of Austens country gentry. Within this large group,
however, the three variables outlined above create different degrees of assurance

Lord Chesterfield sums up the connection between rank and conversation in the
following subtle manner: Your first address to, and indeed all your conversation with, your
superiors, should be open, chearful and respectful; with your equals, warm and animated;
with your inferiors, hearty, free and unreserved (Trusler 1775: 36).

Jane Austens Dialogue


and assertiveness. Among themselves, men tend to interact at a level of equality,

whatever the social and financial gaps separating them16 though certain rankconscious gentlemen like Sir Walter Elliot in P insist that their superiority be
recognized and bowed to. Here is a brief exchange between Sir Thomas Bertram
and his poor nephew William Price, where the only sign of social distance is the
title William uses to address his uncle:

I should like to go to a ball with you and see you dance. Have you never
any balls at Northampton?... And turning to his uncle, who was now close to
them Is not Fanny a very good dancer, sir?

...I am sorry to say that I am unable to answer your question. I have never
seen Fanny dance since she was a little girl; but I trust we shall both think she
acquits herself like a gentlewoman when we do see her, which perhaps we may
have an opportunity of doing ere long. (MP 196)

Rank/income (real or presumptive, as in Mrs Eltons case) exercises a different,

more palpable weight on the conversational behaviour of women. Ladies of rank
and wealth, like Emma Woodhouse in E, Mary Crawford and the Bertram sisters
in MP, tend to display a more assertive style, even when they do not openly
contravene any conversational rules (cf. Chapter 5, the sections on MP and E);
while women of lower standing tend to display a more cautious and deferent style,
featuring many of the strategies which have been observed by Robin Lakoff in her
studies of language and womans place (here summarized by Susan Speer):

Women tend to avoid speaking in a way that conveys strong emotions and generally
use weaker expletives than men (e.g., Oh dear as opposed to shit).
Men and women use a different set of adjectives to convey their opinion on






women only

Women tend to use more tag questions than men. Tag questions are declarative
statements that have been turned into a question with the use of a tag, such as The
war in Vietnam is terrible, isnt it? ... Tags and intonations require confirmation
from others and act as requests for reassurance or approval.

In his survey of eighteenth-century manuals of conversation in Britain, Peter Burke
notes that The area in which the English theory of conversation diverged most sharply
from its Italian and French counterparts was that of ceremony and compliment ... The
balance between equality (among members of the speech community) and hierarchy was
shifting in favour of the former, at a time when even kings prided themselves on being the
first gentlemen of their respective nations (Burke 1993: 11112).

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


Women use more hedges such as well, yknow, kinda than men. In doing so,
they avoid making forthright statements. Womens use of hedging is evidence for
hesitancy, making them appear less assertive than men.
Women use hypercorrect grammar and more superpolite forms than men.
Finally, women speak in italics. That is, they give double force to certain words in
order to convey the importance of what they are saying. Italics convey doubt about
ones self-expression and ones fears that their words are apt to have no effect ...
The speaker who uses tags, intonation, hedging and italics to excess may appear
insecure and uncertain about what they are saying and lacking in self-confidence.
(Lakoff 1973, 1975; Speer 2005: 334)17

Allowing for the linguistic distance between Austens society and the Englishspeaking world of the twentieth century (nobody would say shit, cool or kinda
in Austen, of course), these strategies are employed by female characters as diverse
as Mrs Allen in NA, Mrs Palmer in S&S, Fanny Price in MP, Harriet Smith, Jane
Fairfax and Miss Bates in E, and Anne Elliot in P thus demonstrating that this
kind of female style cuts across all layers of the social pyramid, though it is most
readily found at low level. One additional female rule could be termed the rule
of communicative silence (for the notion of communicative silence vs. mere
absence of sound, cf. Sobkowiak 1997): all these women, besides showing caution
when they speak, tend to speak less, and less freely, than men or more powerful
or self-assured women do. Their silent role is a function of their subordinate
position in the society they inhabit (cf. Dendrinos and Ribeiro Pedro 1997).
On the other hand, there are those who do not entirely submit to the
conversational rules dictated by society. These can be further split up into at least
three main categories:
1. The boors. There are educated and non-educated boors in Austenland.
A non-educated boor, like Thorpe in NA or Mrs Jennings in S&S, is simply
not smart or wise enough to recognize all the indirect meanings, and to
behave correctly in the allocation of turns or in the use of tact and modesty.
An educated boor, like Darcy in P&P, knows what is generally due to
society but feels he/she is above such obligations.
2. The fools. The conversational fools, or conversational children (like children
in the world of adults, they do not understand what is going on) are usually
educated people who nonetheless display an inability to discriminate
between allowed and forbidden topics, allowed and forbidden types of
conversational behaviour. The prototypes are Mr Dashwood in S&S, Mr
Collins in P&P, and Mr Rushworth in MP (Miss Bates, a mixture of various
things, bears only a partial resemblance to these characters). They have

Lakoffs conclusions have been challenged from various quarters (cf. for instance
OBarr and Atkins 1980). Whatever the general validity of gender linguistics, however,
linguistic generalizations based on gender have interesting applications in Austenland
(cf. also Rand Schmidt 1981).

Jane Austens Dialogue


learned to master all strategies, but apply them wrongly (typically, they are
very polite in indifferent matters and too direct when facing burning issues;
or they speak openly of what should remain unspoken).
3. The critics. This is almost a category of one, for the only character to
fit it perfectly is Mr Bennet in P&P (another partially eligible candidate
being Henry Tilney in NA). Mr Bennet understands the conversational
rules of his society perfectly well, yet sometimes he chooses not to abide
by them. More than that, he exploits the principles of cooperation and
politeness to emphasize the absurdity of peoples behaviour. This kind of
behaviour seems to be mainly occasioned by his having to withstand his
wifes querulous insistence, but there is some evidence that Mr Bennets
fame has reached beyond his domestic walls (in his post-refusal letter to
Elizabeth, Darcy writes that The situation of your mothers family, though
objectionable, was nothing in comparison of that total want of propriety so
frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three younger
sisters, and occasionally even by your father; P&P 152).
Only a few characters fit one category perfectly and it is mostly in the earlier
novels that the mask of type is to be glimpsed beneath the characters face. After
Austens early fictional attempts, monolithic characters become rarer, each actor
assuming more than one role and each role developing more fully as the plot
unfolds (on a scale of complexity increasing novel after novel).18 While NA,
from this point of view, displays a relatively stable structure, it can be said that
all of Austens novels, from S&S onwards, are about the loss or gain of socialconversational power, about how certain characters (Marianne Dashwood, Darcy
and Elizabeth Bennet, the Bertram sisters, Emma Woodhouse) receive instruction
in the ways of humility, while others (Fanny Price, Anne Elliot) acquire
greater social consequence and/or conversational dominance. In this sense,
all of Austens mature novels are about negotiation, about people engaging
one another in a communicative attempt to accommodate potential or real
differences in interests in order to make mutually acceptable decisions on
substantive matters (Firth 1995: 67) these substantive matters always having
to do with ones position in the subtly mobile society depicted by Austen. That
position in society, with an evident effect of circularity, in turn dictates how each
character shall conduct him/herself in each successive negotiation.

I implicitly disagree with D.W. Harding, when he speaks of such characters as Mrs
Elton, Miss Bates, and Mrs Norris as caricatures rather than characters (Harding 1968).

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Chapter 5

Jane Austens Novels as

Conversational Machines
All of Austens novels concern themselves with the 3 or 4 Families in a Country
Village that she advised her niece Anna to concentrate on in her own planned work
(Austen 2004: 176). Therefore, Austens settings are more or less the same, and
her characters correspondingly are taken from the same social set. That does not
mean, however, that any single character in a novel is exactly like another though
similarities can be observed and recurrent types recognized. In each successive
novel, social-conversational types acquire new contours and interact in slightly
different ways with the other inhabitants of each country village. Furthermore, an
overall change can be detected from the Steventon to the Chawton novels in the
way characters behave and speak: simple, one-sided characters like Thorpe and Mr
Collins gradually disappear, and their antics are replaced by the subtler (though
equally boorish or foolish) conversational moves of Mrs Elton, Miss Bates, and
Sir Walter Elliot.
It is also worthwhile to look at the way conversation and the development
of conversational techniques interact with the unfolding of plot and character in
each novel. There is a long critical tradition of reading Jane Austens works (all
but MP and P, at least) as educational pieces: the heroines start out in the fictional
world with sentimental views or proud misconceptions, and their ideas have to
be corrected before they finally marry the right man. Some critics, however,
have pointed out that education is a linguistic as well as a moral process: Laura
G. Mooneyham, for instance, has written that The most productive way to trace
the progress of a heroines education is to follow her changing habits of speech
(Mooneyham 1988: x). Looking at dialogue in progress through each single
novel, as well as in Austenland at large, means understanding the nature of each
educational project, and the extent to which it is actually carried out at the expense
of Austens protagonists.

All Jane Austens novels, and many of her minor works, unfinished pieces and
juvenilia, are about education. It is the imprudencies and education of her heroines that
chiefly interest us; but other people, too, in her stories undergo the discomforts of a true
education, or the greater discomforts of a false one, and the novels sometimes move
beyond imprudencies to evils (Devlin 1975: 1). A study of the possibilities as well as of
the limitations (above all for the Chawton novels) of the traditional didactic approach is
Fergus (1983).

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


Finally, even when Austens novels cannot be read as educational tales in a

straightforward manner, a close reading of (developing) dialogue yields crucial
narratological and ideological results: if applied to MP and P, such a reading confirms
the impression that these novels are Cinderella-like tales in which (conversational)
bashfulness is rewarded and (conversational) forwardness is punished though
the fascination of forwardness is often shown with more vividness than the virtue
of bashfulness. Everywhere, conversation analysis provides an insight into the
relationships forming and developing within Austens select set. In Austenland,
each conversation is a battle for the acquisition of social-conversational status,
and each novel portrays the changing contours of a network of hierarchical links
which are continually negotiated in and through conversation.
Northanger Abbey
The protagonist of NA, Catherine Morland, is a simpleton who, in the course of
the few events she witnesses, learns to distinguish not only between gothic fancy
and reality, but also between good and bad social behaviour, gentlemen and socialconversational boors. Initially, when exposed to the varied society of Bath, she
mixes almost indifferently with the Thorpes and the Tilneys though she has a
feeling that there is something wrong with John Thorpes behaviour and language.
In the end, though she is still candid, she is no longer so gullible (when Isabella
Thorpe, after breaking her engagement with Catherines brother, tries to justify her
behaviour by letter, the narrator informs us that Such a strain of shallow artifice
could not impose even upon Catherine; NA 160), and we may expect her to enter
her matrimonial life with a fuller awareness of social semiotics.
Mrs Allen, her chaperone in Bath, does nothing to help her grasp the complex
mechanisms of conversation, because she does not seem to understand them very
well herself. Furthermore, she adopts an extreme form of female style which
does not allow for questioning and instruction (so that Catherine is generally left
to fend for herself when she has to decide what is proper or not). The only routine
Mrs Allen masters is one in which almost all the space of the utterance is taken up
by an emphatic repetition of what her interlocutor says though she also employs
the occasional appealing tag question. The information content of her answers is
practically nil. She agrees but never expands (Stenstrm 1994: 3944):

Mrs. Allen congratulated herself ... on having preserved her gown from
injury. It would have been very shocking to have it torn, said she, would not
it? It is such a delicate muslin ....

The reference is to Richard J. Wattss network/status model of verbal interaction.

According to Watts, every verbal interaction can be described as a battle for status in
which contestants try to score points against one another with each conversational move.
Each speaker has his/her own position in a social-conversational network which influences
their choices and is modified with every move (Watts 1997: 8893).

Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


How uncomfortable it is, whispered Catherine, not to have a single
acquaintance here!

Yes, my dear, replied Mrs. Allen, with perfect serenity, it is very
uncomfortable indeed.

What shall we do? The gentlemen and ladies at this table look as if they
wondered why we came here we seem forcing ourselves into their party.

Aye, so we do. That is very disagreeable. I wish we had a large
acquaintance here. (NA 12).

Left to her own devices as she is, Catherine is often unable to discriminate between
the different degrees of social-conversational impropriety she is exposed to. Gross
deviations from the norm (bad language) do not escape her attention, but small
transgressions (wrong choice of topic, uncooperative behaviour) usually do and
that is why she cannot see through Isabella Thorpes deceptions at first. That is
also why she is as much perplexed as she is amused when she first meets Henry
Tilney in the Lower Rooms. In introducing himself, he produces a parody of the
sort of conversation one is supposed to have in Bath thus implicitly exposing
the absurdity of a conversational rule while demonstrating that he masters all its
He talked with fluency and spirit and there was an archness and pleasantry in
his manner which interested, though it was hardly understood by her ... I have
hitherto been very remiss, madam, in the proper attentions of a partner here; I
have not yet asked you how long you have been in Bath; whether you were ever
here before; whether you have been at the Upper Rooms, the theatre, and the
concert; and how you like the place altogether. I have been very negligent but
are you now at leisure to satisfy me in these particulars? If you are I will begin

You need not give yourself that trouble, sir.

No trouble I assure you, madam. Then forming his features into a set
smile, and affectedly softening his voice, he added, with a simpering air, Have
you been long in Bath, madam? (NA 14)

Henry Tilney is satirizing a propensity to courteous officiousness which was by no

means universally censored, and which had been in vogue, in certain sectors of society, for
several decades. Lord Chesterfield writes that There is a certain distinguishing diction that
marks the man of fashion, a certain language of conversation that every gentleman should
be master of. Saying to a man just married, I wish you joy, or to one who has lost his wife,
I am sorry for your loss, and both perhaps with an unmeaning countenance, may be civil,
but is nevertheless vulgar. A man of fashion will express the same thing more elegantly
and with a look of sincerity, that shall attract the esteem of the person he speaks to. He will
advance to the one, with warmth and chearfulness, and perhaps squeezing him by the hand,
will say, Believe me, my dear sir, I have scarce words to express the joy I feel, upon your
happy alliance with such or such a family, &c. to the other in affliction, he will advance
slower, and with a peculiar composure of voice and countenance, begin his compliments
of condolence with, I hope, sir, you will do me the justice to be persuaded, that I am not


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

Instead of simply abiding by the rules, Henry Tilney meta-communicatively

describes the rules he must or should abide by. The conversation between him
and Catherine is a perfect illustration of how wooden talk would be if all speakers
followed Grices cooperative maxims literally (Grice 1967/1991): instead of
interpreting Henrys first question as a direct request for information, Catherine
decodes it literally as a request for permission to ask for information; he follows
suit by proceeding to ask the first question he had asked permission to ask.
Isabella Thorpe is, at least in part, a conversational boor, yet her infringements
are not so great as to be evident to Catherine she never commits on-record facethreatening acts. Miss Thorpes main sin is a propensity to exploit others talk to
further her own conversational aims and personal purposes. Far from taking part in
an equal X1 + X2 + X3 tennis match where each opponent hits the others ball and
sends a comfortable shot in the other half, she exploits the kinetic energy of her
opponents ball to play her own game. Her parasitic technique is, in a sense, the
very reverse of female style, because where someone adopting the latter would
ask for confirmation even when stating the obvious, she twists the obvious into
something else while still appearing to defer to her interlocutors judgement. In
thematic terms, she talks about the same topic but does not talk topically:
[Isabella talking] Do you know I get so immoderately sick of Bath; your brother
and I were agreeing this morning that, though it is vastly well to be here for a
few weeks, we would not live here for millions. We soon found out that our
tastes were exactly alike in preferring the country to every other place; really,
our opinions were so exactly the same, it was quite ridiculous! There was not a
single point in which we differed; I would not have had you by for the world;
you are such a sly thing, I am sure you would have made some droll remark or
other about it.

No, indeed I should not.

Oh, yes you would indeed; I know you better than you know yourself. You
would have told us that we seemed born for each other, or some nonsense of that
kind, which would have distressed me beyond conception; my cheeks would
have been as red as your roses; I would not have had you by for the world.

Indeed you do me injustice; I would not have made so improper a remark

Isabella smiled incredulously, and talked the rest of the evening to James.
(NA 50)

insensible of your unhappiness, that I take part in your distress, and shall ever be affected
where you are so (Trusler 1775: 356).

The reference is to a definition of Sackss as quoted by Coulthard: However, as
Sacks (1968) argues, talking topically and talking about some topic chosen by another
speaker is not the same thing at all. One can perfectly well have a sequence in which
successive speakers talk in a way topically coherent with the last utterance, but in which
each speaker talks on a different topic (Coulthard 1977: 77).

Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


Miss Thorpes vulgarity is also mirrored in her slovenly, vague, stereotyped use
of language: she displays an ample provision of such expressions as vastly and
for millions, and misapplies many of the terms she employs (ridiculous is a
case in point here).
John Thorpes conversational manners are far worse than his sisters. He is
a complete boor, the reverse of a gentleman, by all contemporary standards. As
seen in Chapter 4, he is a catalogue of conversational errors. He swears, takes the
Lords name in vain, uses a great variety of fillers and informal expressions, forms
elliptical sentences, and says what must remain unspoken (He tells Catherine: Not
expect me! thats a good one! And what a dust would you have made, if I had not
come; NA 42). Like his sister, he tends to exploit others talk in parasitic fashion,
as when he covertly proposes marriage to the uncomprehending Catherine:
A famous good thing this marrying scheme, upon my soul! A clever fancy of
Morlands and Belles. What do you think of it, Miss Morland? I say it is no bad

I am sure I think it a very good one.

Do you? thats honest, by heavens! I am glad you are no enemy to
matrimony however. Did you hear the old song, Going to one wedding brings
on another? I say, you will come to Belles wedding, I hope. (NA 90)

His most serious infringement, however, is that he contradicts people openly, on

record and without redress (Brown and Levinson 1987: 6870). In the manuals of
conversation, as noted by Peter Burke, Direct contradiction was forbidden, and
indirect expressions of dissent recommended (Burke 1993: 110). Thorpe shows

Vague expressions are universally identified in modern linguistics as characterizing
spoken as opposed to written language (Carter and McCarthy 1996: 19). In a sense, the
quality of spoken language in Austenland is gauged by its proximity with the more elegant
written variety.

Cf. Wiesenfarth (1967: 17): Isabella and John have no regard for the meaning of
words or for propriety in using them. Isabella is a great offender with adjectives and adverbs
and has an affection for superlatives.

In an apparent paraphrase of Cowper, Jane Austen defines John Thorpes endless
effusions as talk rather than conversation. As Jane Austen makes clear everywhere
in Northanger Abbey, conversation is much more than a verbal exchange, in the looser
twentieth-century sense. Thus she notes that Mrs. Allen and Mrs. Thorpe habitually engage
in what they called conversation, but in which there was scarcely ever any exchange of
opinion, and not often any resemblance of subject (Brown 1973: 108).

Lord Chesterfield observes that Those who contradict others upon all occasions,
and make every assertion a matter of dispute, betray by this behaviour an unacquaintance
with good-breeding. Expressions such as That cant be true, Sir, The affair is as I
say, That must be false, Sir have to be substituted with such indirect objections as I
may be wrong, butI wont be positive but I really thinkI should rather supposeif I
may be permitted to say. More generally, in matters of no great importance one should
complaisantly ... submit [ones] opinion to that of others; for a victory of this kind often
costs a man the loss of a friend. (Trusler 1775: 956, 104).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

no concern for his fellow speakers face, just as he demonstrates a complete

disregard for the correct distribution of turns at talk. He takes up too much
conversational space, fills his speeches with a great amount of information which
holds no interest for his hearers, and selects himself as next speaker even when he
appears to be yielding the floor:

I do not know the distance. Her brother told her that it was twenty-three

Three-and twenty! cried Thorpe; five-and-twenty if it is an inch. ...

You have lost an hour, said Morland; it was only ten oclock when we
came from Tetbury.

Ten oclock! it was eleven, upon my soul!...Three hours and a half indeed
coming only three-and-twenty miles! look at [my horse], and suppose it possible
if you can.

He does look very hot to be sure.

Hot! he had not turned a hair till we came to Walcot Church ... What do
you think of my gig, Miss Morland? a neat one, is not it? Well hung; town built;
I have not had it a month. It was built for a Christchurch man, a friend of mine, a
very good sort of fellow; he ran it a few weeks, till, I believe, it was convenient
to have done with it. I happened just then to be looking out for some light thing
of the kind, though I had pretty well determined on a curricle too; but I chanced
to meet him on Magdalen Bridge as he was driving into Oxford, last term: Ah!
Thorpe, says he, do you happen to want such a little thing as this? it is a capital
one of the kind, but I am cursed tired of it. Oh! d , said I, I am your man;
what do you ask? And how much do you think he did, Miss Morland?

I am sure I cannot guess at all.

Curricle-hung you see; seat, trunk, sword-case, splashing-board, lamps,
silver moulding ... He asked fifty guineas; I closed with him directly, threw down
the money, and the carriage was mine. (NA 30)

In NA, the main source of conversational interest is the friction between gentlemen,
or gentlewomen, and boors the former acting as a sort of magnifying glass
highlighting the conversational errors of the latter. Just as the inception of the plot
is parodic (the novel starting out as a humorous rewriting of the Gothic genre),
many of the characters are excessive, a caricature of common novelistic types.
Catherine Morland, the protagonist, is a perfect simpleton, just as Henry Tilney
is the perfect gentleman and John Thorpe is the perfect boor; and with such a
set of perfect gentlemen, gentlewomen and fools, dialogue turns out to be either
comical or wooden. When a verbal interaction is initiated within a set of polite,
well-mannered people, the characters appear to be at a loss what to say, because
there can be no friction, no real negotiation between perfect social-conversational
creatures. So as not to remain silent, the interactants make resort to general topics
of high intellectual interest, and some of them employ a pompous essayistic tone
perhaps intended for the readers as well as for the hearers instruction:
[Henry Tilney speaking] That little boys and girls should be tormented [with
the study of history], said Henry, is what no one at all acquainted with human

Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


nature in a civilized world can deny; but in behalf of our most distinguished
historians, I must observe, that they might well be offended at being supposed to
have no higher aim; and that by their method and style, they are perfectly well
qualified to torment readers of the most advanced reason and mature time of life.
I use the verb to torment, as I observed to be your own method, instead of to
instruct, supposing them to be now admitted as synonimous. (NA 80)

Sense and Sensibility

A bit of didactic woodenness still characterizes some of the conversations in S&S.
The exchange between Edward Ferrars, Mrs Dashwood, and her three daughters
quoted in Chapter 4 is one of the neatest examples in Austenland of a wellordered conversation in which a central topic (Edwards ambition, and ambition in
general) is introduced and developed from beginning to end, all characters making
their own contribution. The lack of real interpersonal tension, however, creates
a sense of inertia, and it takes the debate between Elinor/Sense and Marianne/
Sensibility, or Margarets inexperienced (and sensitive) silliness, to put a spark of
life into the exchange:

About eighteen hundred or two thousand a-year; not more than that.
Elinor laughed. Two thousand a year! One is my wealth! I guessed how it
would end.

And yet two thousand a-year is a very moderate income, said Marianne.
A family cannot well be maintained on a smaller. I am sure I am not extravagant
in my demands. A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and
hunters, cannot be supported on less. ...

Hunters! repeated Edward But why must you have hunters? Every body
does not hunt. ...

I wish, said Margaret, striking out a novel thought, that somebody would
give us all a large fortune apiece! (S&S 789)

As in NA, in S&S a contrast between gentlemen and fools is created for the sake
of conversational vivacity. In the corpus of Austens novels, this is the richest in
social boors and conversational fools. Unlike NA, however, S&S displays boorish
characters who are not morally corrupt: a case in point is Mrs Jennings, the elderly
widow of a London tradesman (S&S 131), who is vulgar (S&S 29) and kindhearted at the same time (she tries to comfort Marianne when Willoughby deserts
her, and wishes everybody happily married). Like John Thorpe in NA, she takes the
Lords name in vain, and like many other vulgar characters she uses the intensifier
monstrous (S&S 2245). But her main transgressions have less to do with
vocabulary than with interactional dominance and discretion; in the following
exchanges with an embarrassed Colonel Brandon, she shamelessly conducts the
conversation and pries into what must remain secret:

Cautiously avoid talking of either your own or other peoples domestic affairs.
Yours are nothing to them, but tedious; theirs are nothing to you. The subject is a tender
one, and it is odds but you touch some body or others sore place? (Anon. 1811: 1845).

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


No bad news, Colonel, I hope; said Mrs. Jennings, as soon as he entered
the room.

None at all, maam, I thank you.

Was it from Avignon? I hope it is not to say that your sister is worse.

No, maam. It came from town, and is merely a letter of business.

But how came the hand to discompose you so much, if it was only a letter
of business? Come, come, this wont do, Colonel; so let us hear the truth of it.

My dear Madam, said Lady Middleton, recollect what you are saying.

Perhaps it is to tell you that your cousin Fanny is married? said Mrs.
Jennings, without attending to her daughters reproof.

No, indeed, it is not.

Well, then, I know who it is from, Colonel. And I hope she is well.

Whom do you mean, maam? said he, colouring a little.

Oh! you know who I mean. (S&S 54)

Mr and Mrs Palmer (Mrs Jenningss younger daughter and her husband) are an
interesting couple. She is something of a social fool, in Miss Batess garrulous
manner (cf. below, the section on E); and like Miss Bates, she is also a perfect
illustration of female style in conversation (if garrulity be excepted). As witnessed
by her use of enthusiastic feminine adjectives (sweet, charming, delightful),
she approves of everything and everybody, including her ill-mannered, badtempered husband; and she is continually consulting someone elses opinion and
asking for someone elses approbation through a great number of appealing tags
(Stenstrm 1994: 7980):10
Well! what a delightful room this is! I never saw anything so charming! Only
think, mama, how it is improved since I was here last! I have always thought it
such a sweet place, maam! (turning to Mrs Dashwood,) but you have made it
so charming! Only look, sister, how delightful every thing is! How I should like
such a house for myself! Should not you, Mr Palmer? (S&S 92)

Mr Palmer, with a temper perhaps a little soured by finding ... that through some
unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman
(S&S 97), is half a conversational boor, half a social critic. On the one hand, he
flatly contradicts people and commits face-threatening acts on record, without
redress; on the other, his frequent use of irony comically exposes the hypocrisy
of a social system dictating extreme politeness even among hostile or indifferent

You and I, Sir John, said Mrs. Jennings, should not stand upon such

Then you would be very ill-bred, cried Mr. Palmer. (S&S 96)

Though she also shows some of her mothers behavioural traits when she teases
Marianne about Willoughby: Oh! Dont be so sly before us, said Mrs. Palmer; for we
know all about it, I assure you; and I admire your taste very much, for I think he is extremely
handsome. We do not live a great way from him in the country, you know. Not above ten
miles, I dare say (S&S 95).

Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


[Mrs Palmer speaking] My love, applying to her husband, dont you long
to have the Miss Dashwoods come to Cleveland?

Certainly, he replied with a sneer I came into Devonshire with no
other view.

There now said his lady, you see Mr. Palmer expects you .... (S&S 97)

Another involuntary source of comic effects is Mr Dashwood, the first

representative of the category of social-conversational fools. Like Mr Palmer, he
often steps beyond the barrier separating explicitness and indirection, what can
be said openly and what must be silenced, or implicated. Unlike Mr Palmer,
however, he is often totally unaware of the existence of this barrier, or cannot
locate it with any precision. He does not know how to pursue his conversational
goals without giving offence though he is so evidently a fool that he is usually
exempt from censure. When he persuades himself that his half-sister, Elinor, has
a chance to marry Colonel Brandon, he thinks it fit to advise her to encourage
the Colonels attentions, because if she married him there would be no danger of
her marrying his own brother-in-law, Edward Ferrars. In doing so, however, he
blunders several times, because he cannot refrain from speaking too explicitly
of financial-matrimonial matters, as well as of his wifes opposition to Edwards
prospective engagement with Elinor. Also, he does not realize that his advice goes
against the grain of his warnings:11
You are mistaken, Elinor; you are very much mistaken. A very little trouble
on your side secures him. Perhaps just at present he may be undecided; the
smallness of your fortune may make him hang back; his friends may all advise
him against it. But some of those little attentions and encouragements which
ladies can so easily give, will fix him, in spite of himself. And there can be no
reason why you should not try for him. It is not to be supposed that any prior
attachment on your side in short, you know as to an attachment of that kind,
it is quite out of the question, the objections are insurmountable you have too
much sense not to see all that. Colonel Brandon must be the man; and no civility
shall be wanting on my part, to make him pleased with you and your family. It is
a match that must give universal satisfaction. In short, it is a kind of thing that
lowering his voice to an important whisper will be exceedingly welcome to
all parties. (S&S 195)

The third fool in S&S is the elder Miss Steele, who is too ingenuous to be considered
a boor, though she is certainly vulgar and full of herself. Her vulgarity is expressed,
from a stylistic point of view, in the fixed expressions she continually punctuates
her speeches with (vast, Oh, la); and, from the point of view of topic, in her
having beaux as a hobby horse (her lexicon is itself rather vulgar). Her naivety

The conversational manuals warned their readers against giving unsolicited advice:
Giving advice unasked is another piece of rudeness; it is, in effect, declaring ourselves
wiser than those to whom we give it; reproaching them with ignorance and inexperience
(Trusler 1775: 96).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

appears in the ingenuous, falsely covert way she has of talking about herself as
mens object of desire (There now, said Miss Steele, affectedly simpering,
everybody laughs at me so about the Doctor, and I cannot think why ...; S&S
190). Like Mr Dashwood, she is judged a simple soul as well as a vulgar woman,
and that is why, though poor, she is spared the open or covert censure of the other
characters. Ironically, it is this simple soul who sets the events in motion which
will eventually bring about Elinors marriage with Edward Ferrars.
S&S is, as announced by the title itself, a novel of contrasts: between the
Dashwoods and the John Dashwoods, between Colonel Brandon and Willoughby,
Mr and Mrs Palmer, Elinor and Lucy Steele. The quiet, undercover war between
Elinor and Lucy is particularly interesting in its conversational results. It begins
when Lucy, who is afraid and jealous of Elinor, secretly reveals to her that she has
been engaged with Edward for years. During one of their several, falsely friendly
exchanges, it becomes apparent how vital it is for both of them not to let the other
have the upper hand. Whatever the outcome of their personal war, Elinors deft use
of hedges and indirect statements and Lucys cruder behaviour (she interrupts her
interlocutor and contradicts her more openly) leave us in no doubt as to who is to
win the conversational battle:

Undoubtedly, if they had known your engagement, said [Elinor], nothing
could be more flattering than their treatment of you; but as that is not the

I guessed you would say so replied Lucy quickly but there was no
reason in the world why Mrs. Ferrars should seem to like me, if she did not, and
her liking me is every thing .... (S&S 209)

The most interesting contrast, however, from the linguistic as well as from the
thematic point of view, is between Elinor and Marianne, i.e., sense and sensibility,
rationality and the sublime, social propriety and transcendental individualism. In
the terms of Austenland, Elinor is a perfectly proper unmarried lady: she does not
put herself forward, she speaks neither too little nor too much, and she displays
a linguistic fluency which is the equal of her social dexterity. Marianne, on the
contrary, does not behave, or rather does not want to behave, like a proper lady
though she is certainly no boor. The whole ill-fated affair with Willoughby
demonstrates that she is apt to forget most social and pre-matrimonial proprieties
when swayed by sentiment just as she is apt to forget classical rhetoric and
linguistic elegance. Her conversation is usually emotive, and often emotional
i.e., she usually speaks of emotion, and her emotions often pervade her words.12
Horst Arndt and Richard W. Janney distinguish between emotive and emotional
communication the former being a social, strategic way of conveying ones feelings, the
latter being the result of ones feelings coming to the surface of language (Arndt and Janney
1991: 531). William Downes writes that emotions, just like evaluations and intuitions,
usually fall outside the scope of linguistics though they can come to the surface of language:
Linguistics traditionally does not do justice to non-thought experiences, those that are
not expressed by propositional form, reasoning or speech acts, but which nevertheless can
be manifested in language use (Downes 2000: 100).

Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


When she is in the grip of a sweeping feeling, her sentences often become ill- or
half-formed, elliptical, unfinished:13
He has, he has, cried Marianne, I am sure he has. His air, his coat, his horse. I
knew how soon he would come. (S&S 74)
... But my mother, my dearest, kindest mother, I feel the justice of what Elinor
has urged, and if she were to be made less happy, less comfortable by our absence
Oh! no, nothing should tempt me to leave her .... (S&S 133)
Invited! cried Marianne. (S&S 148)
Go to him, Elinor, she cried, as soon as she could speak, and force him to
come to me. Tell him I must see him again must speak to him instantly. I
cannot rest I shall not have a moments peace till this is explained some
dreadful misapprehension or other. Oh go to him this moment. (S&S 153)

In the end, sense triumphs over sensibility. Mariannes despair is conquered, and
she marries the sentimentally unappetizing Colonel Brandon. Even before the
event, however, her conversational surrender is signalled by the quiet epistolary
eloquence with which she speaks of her physical and moral recovery, and of
her repentance for all that her mother and her sister have had to suffer on her
... Do not, my dearest Elinor, let your kindness defend what I know your
judgement must censure. My illness has made me think It has given me leisure
and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to
talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past; I saw in my own
behaviour since the beginning of our acquaintance with him last autumn, nothing
but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw
that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude
under them had almost led me to the grave .... (S&S 303)
Interestingly, Francesco Marroni sees Mariannes treatment of everyday language
as an explosion: Austen delineates an itinerary from the explosion to the re-composition
of epistemic reference: thanks to Elinor (who embodies cultural mediation), this itinerary
culminates in a reworking-cum-assimilation of Mariannes unpredictable speech [Quello
che viene delineato dalla Austen un itinerario che va dallesplosione alla ricomposizione
dei riferimenti epistemici: itinerario che culmina, grazie allopera di Elinor (il personaggio
della mediazione culturale), nella rielaborazione e insieme nellassimilazione della parola
dellimprevedibilit] (Marroni 1994: 16).
Howard S. Babb, one of the few literary critics who has studied Austens dialogue
in any detail if impressionistically writes: in terms of the novel one thing [Marianne]
must learn is a rhetoric that plainly differentiates between sense and feeling, a rhetoric
that will prove her fully capable of evaluating personality by demonstrating that she can
stand outside herself. Thus in her climactic speeches, when she looks back on her past with
Willoughby, Marianne takes over a style like the one that Elinor practices most often (Babb
1962: 60).

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


The speech goes on for much longer, as fully developed as every single sentence
is thought out and neatly finished. As so often in Austen, moral uprightness is
reflected in syntactic and conversational order.
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austens second published novel probably owes much of its immediate and
long-standing popularity to the liveliness of its dialogue. P&P displays some
of the characteristics which make NA and S&S conversationally interesting,
without those touches of moral and didactic woodenness which characterize
certain exchanges between Catherine Morland and the Tilneys, or Edward Ferrars
and the Dashwoods. Like S&S, P&P is rich in social-conversational boors and
fools, though here the boors mainly belong to the higher orders of society (and
are consequently more dangerous). Among the fools, the purest specimen is Mr
Collins, a very near relation to Mr John Dashwood in S&S only blinder and
more pompous, as well as having to suffer the misfortune of being exposed to Mr
Bennet as a comic reflector:
... I have more than once observed to Lady Catherine, that her charming daughter
seemed born to be a duchess, and that the most elevated rank, instead of giving
her consequence, would be adorned by her. These are the kind of little things
which please her ladyship, and it is a sort of attention which I conceive myself
peculiarly bound to pay.

You judge very properly, said Mr. Bennet, and it is happy for you that you
possess the talent of flattering with delicacy. May I ask whether these pleasing
attentions proceed from the impulse of the moment, or are the result of previous

They arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes
amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little elegant compliments as
may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied
an air as possible. (P&P 51)

Since Mr Collins is himself incapable of distinguishing between allowed and

forbidden topics, he fails to notice that Mr Bennet is actually being insulting when
he compliments him on possessing the talent of flattering with delicacy.
Apart from Mr Collins, who is so absurd (P&P 51) that most characters hold
him beneath their notice, the other fools in P&P belong to the Bennet family:
Mary is a sententious simpleton whose speeches always sound like quotations
from a sermon or one of Johnsons essays (Pride ... is a very common failing
I believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common
indeed, that human nature is particularly prone to it ...; P&P 1314); Lizzy and
Kitty are continually speaking about soldiers and committing all sorts of socialconversational blunders; Mrs Bennet herself, though more experienced, is a rather
vulgar woman who often talks more and more openly than she should (in Volume
I, Chapter IX, she criticizes Mr Darcy to his face, making Elizabeth blush for
her; P&P 32). Taken together, the Bennet family is an ensemble of very different

Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


voices. The vivacity of family conversations is guaranteed the silliness of Mrs

Bennet and three of her daughters interacting as it does with Mr Bennets sardonic
wit, Janes quiet kind-heartedness, and Elizabeths quick and solid judgement.
Free as it is from many of the accoutrements of politeness, dialogue among the
Bennets is as quick as it is explicit:

After listening one morning to [Kittys and Lizzys] effusions on this subject
[of soldiers], Mr. Bennet coolly observed,

From all that I can collect by your manner of talking, you must be two
of the silliest girls in the country. I have suspected it some time, but I am now
convinced. ...

I am astonished, my dear, said Mrs Bennet, that you should be so ready to
think your children silly. If I wished to think slightingly of any bodys children,
it should not be of my own however.

If my children are silly I must hope to be always sensible of it. ...

[they are interrupted by the entrance of a footman with a note from the
Bingleys, containing an invitation for Jane]

[Mrs Bennet speaking] Well, Jane, who is it from? what is it about? what
does he say? Well, Jane, make haste and tell us; make haste, my love.

It is from Miss Bingley, said Jane, and then read it aloud ...

With the officers! cried Lydia. I wonder my aunt did not tell us of that.

Dining out, said Mrs. Bennet, that is very unlucky.

Can I have the carriage? said Jane.

No, my dear, you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to
rain; and then you must stay all night.

That would be a good scheme, said Elizabeth, if you were sure that they
would not offer to send her home. ...

I had much rather go in the coach.

But, my dear, your father cannot spare the horses, I am sure. They are
wanted in the farm, Mr. Bennet, are not they?

They are wanted in the farm much oftener than I can get them. (P&P 212)

In the Bingley/Darcy mnage, by contrast, conversations are characterized

by greater subtlety and indirection. The Bingley sisters plan to dissuade their
brother from marrying Jane Bennet, but far from admitting the nature of their
conversational goal,15 they express their regret that Jane, though she is such a very
sweet girl, has bad connections; and Darcy states it as a general truth that it is very
hard for any girl with such connections to marry well. In other words, Darcy and
the Bingley sisters use both positive and negative politeness to soften the facethreatening act they are committing against Janes suitor (Brown and Levinson
1987: 6970):

I have an excessive regard for Jane Bennet, she is really a very sweet girl,
and I wish with all my heart she were well settled. But with such a father and
mother, and such low connections, I am afraid there is no chance of it.
An interesting goals-and-plans description of communication is provided by Berger

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


I think I have heard you say, that their uncle is an attorney in Meryton.

Yes; and they have another, who lives somewhere else near Cheapside.

That is capital, added her sister, and they both laughed heartily.

If they had uncles enough to fill all Cheapside, cried Bingley, it would not
make them one jot less agreeable.

But it must very materially lessen their chance of marrying men of any
consideration in the world, replied Darcy. (P&P 26)

Darcy himself is one of the two educated boors of high rank that figure among the
characters of the novel. Pride (personal pride, class pride) is self-evidently one
of the main themes of P&P, and it is pride that leads Darcy to behave impolitely
towards the Bennet sisters, just as it is pride that dictates his aunts commandeering
deportment and IRF questioning. Darcy and Lady Catherine both incur censure,
but they do not suffer under it, because they are too rich and powerful for that
censure to be open or to influence their actions. As seen in Chapter 4, Lady
Catherines boorishness is mainly expressed in her tyrannical way of dominating
a conversation. The only kind of conversational transaction she understands is one
in which she asks the questions and evaluates her interlocutors answers:
... Do you play and sing, Miss Bennet?

A little.

Oh! then some time or other we shall be happy to hear you. Our instrument
is a capital one, probably superior to you shall try it some day. Do your
sisters play and sing?

One of them does.

Why did not you all learn? You ought all to have learned. The Miss
Webbs all play, and their father has not so good an income as yours. Do you
draw? ...

... Pray, what is your age?

With three younger sisters grown up, replied Elizabeth smiling, your
Ladyship can hardly expect me to own it. ...

You cannot be more than twenty, I am sure, therefore you need not
conceal your age.

I am not one and twenty. (P&P 1268)

Besides her propensity to conduct conversations imperiously, Lady Catherine

shows a marked lack of politeness, or of tact (Leech 1983: 10430), in the way
she has of threatening her hearers face on record, without any redressive action
(for instance, when she offers advice or opinions in a very decided manner; Brown
and Levinson 1987: 656). Elizabeth, for her own part, is not as obliging as her
interrogator could wish: Lady Catherine is evidently used to complying partners,
whereas Miss Bennet often evades her questions, supplies inadequate information,
or implies more than she says.16

In her survey of conversational acts, Stenstrm (1994: 11415) gives a list of

answer-types: complying (giving adequate information explicitly), implying (giving
adequate information implicitly), supplying (giving inadequate information), evading
(avoiding answering), disclaiming (declaring that the answer is unknown).

Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


Finally, it could be said that the whole plot of P&P centres on Elizabeths taming
of the educated boor Darcy. At the start of their acquaintance, Darcy is haughty
and openly contemptuous: amongst other things, he makes an uncomplimentary
remark on Elizabeth when Bingley draws his attention to her. Elizabeths pretty
figure, and her proud resolve not to be impressed by his self-importance, combine
to make him fall in love with her. Yet, when he proposes to her notwithstanding
his social and patrimonial reservations he does so in his habitual haughty style.
Even as he is asking for permission, he is doing so in a commandeering manner,
as shown by his choice of modal verbs expressing obligation (you must allow
me); and when Elizabeth charges him with Janes sentimental disappointment,
he proudly asserts the correctness of his behaviour on that occasion, and does not
refrain from comparing his kindness towards his friend Bingley to his unkindness
towards himself (as open a double face-threatening act as will be found in all
Austens novels):

In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed.
You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.

... I have no wish of denying that I did every thing in my power to separate
my friend from your sister, or that I rejoice in my success. Towards him I have
been kinder than towards myself. (P&P 1457)

Elizabeths proud refusal teaches him, in time, to swallow his own pride. When
Elizabeth meets him at his ancestral house of Pemberley, he employs a style that
is almost female in its insistent politeness thus showing that his taming is
already underway, if not completed. His requests for permission now contain no
modal verbs of obligation, and are formulated with such tact, with such regard for
Elizabeths negative and his own positive face, as to make it evident that he is no
longer certain of being accepted:
There is also one other person in the party, he continued after a pause, who
more particularly wishes to be known to you, will you allow me, or do I ask too
much, to introduce my sister to your acquaintance during your stay in London?
(P&P 194)

The Watsons
TW was begun in Bath in 1804, and abandoned early in 1805, after the death of
Jane Austens father. The protagonist of this fragment is Emma Watson, one of
four daughters of a sickly father who has lost his wife and cannot provide for his
children. At the beginning of the novel, Emma has just returned to her family from
the care of an aunt who has had the imprudence of marrying again after her first
husbands death, thus leaving her niece comparatively destitute. A ball is the first
occasion to introduce her to the society her family mixes with in Surrey a society
comprehending such distinguished young members of the country aristocracy as
Lord Osborne and Tom Musgrave. Nothing much happens in the few chapters


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

Austen completed, but it is already apparent that Lord Osborne will fall in love
with Emma, and that she herself will fall in love with Mr Howard, a parson she
also meets at the ball. From Austens plans we know that Mr Watson was to die,
Emma was to decline a marriage proposal from Lord Osborne, and Mr Howard
and Emma were eventually to marry.
The interruption of the plan may have to do with biographical as well as internal
reasons. Austen may have been dissatisfied with a novel in which everything was
too extreme and too open, from the contrast between the middle-class and the
aristocracy to the description of the material conditions of life of impoverished
single women.
While the middle-class Watsons are depicted as poor but dignified, the people
belonging to the higher ranks of society are either foolish or corrupt, or both. Lord
Osborne is half a social fool, half a conversational boor. On the one hand, he is too
simple-minded to understand that some people do not have the means to afford
his own lifestyle; on the other, he is not polite enough to avoid dominating the
conversation (with an IRF routine which places him in the same category as Lady
Catherine) and giving advice too forcibly:
Have you been walking this morning?[Emma speaking] No, my Lord. We
thought it too dirty. You should wear half-boots ... Do not you like Half-boots?
Yes but unless they are so stout as to injure their beauty, they are not fit for
Country walking. Ladies should ride in dirty weather. Do you ride? No
my Lord. I wonder every Lady does not. A woman never looks better than on
horseback. But every woman may not have the inclination, or the means. If
they knew how much it became them, they would all have the inclination, and I
fancy Miss Watson when once they had the inclination, the means would soon
follow. (TW 2778)

If Lord Osborne is a boor and a fool, Tom Musgrave is a rake and a seducer.
His seducing technique, however, is again excessive, a far cry from the refined
manners of Henry Crawford in MP. In the following exchange, his courtship of
Emma is barely covered by his own cancellation of a conversational implicature
(Grice 1967/1991; Levinson 1983: 114) but it remains so open that the narrator
registers it as offensive:
I could never dread a meeting with Miss Emma Watson, or any of her Sisters.
It was lucky that he added that finish. Were you speaking to me? said
Emma, who had caught her own name. Not absolutely he answered but
I was thinking of you, as many at a greater distance are probably doing at this
moment. Fine open weather Miss Emma! Charming season for Hunting.
(TW 286)

All the characters, however, speak very openly; in most conversational exchanges,
the distance between saying and meaning is very short. If Lord Osborne is
outspoken in his disdain for poverty, and Tom Musgrave employs explicit seducing
techniques, the Watson sisters use no indirection when they discuss their finances
and the importance of marriage in the society in which they live:

Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


I am sorry for her anxieties, said Emma, but I do not like her plans or her
opinions ... To be so bent on marriage to pursue a Man merely for the sake
of situation is a sort of thing that shocks me; I cannot understand it. Poverty
is a great Evil, but to a woman of Education and feeling it ought not, it cannot
be the greatest. I would rather be a Teacher at a school (and I can think of
nothing worse) than marry a Man I did not like. I would rather do anything
than be Teacher at a school said her sister. I have been at school, Emma,
and know what a Life they lead; you never have. I should not like marrying
a disagreeable Man any more than yourself, but I do not think there are very
many disagreeable Men; I think I could like any good humoured Man with a
comfortable Income. I suppose my Aunt brought you up to be rather refined.
(TW 256)

The Steventon novels never speak so openly of (comparative) poverty, though

the Dashwoods in S&S and the Bennets in P&P are certainly in a bad way (but
not so bad as the Watsons). In the Chawton novels, much that is on the surface
here becomes submerged. In TW, it is as if Austen were trying to watch (female)
poverty from a closer angle and perhaps she finally shrunk from such an explicit
description. From MP onwards, she tried to endow her characters (and her
narrators) with a talent for indirection.
Mansfield Park
Everything, including conversation, becomes less extreme and more subdued in
the Chawton novels. From MP onwards, characters become more complex, and
are less easily classifiable as social-conversational types. Some of them can still be
identified as fools or boors, but their infringements are less serious. Conversations,
just like characters, are all more or less polite. Even Miss Bates in E, though she is
culpable of many infractions, generally knows how to behave, and when attacked
by Emma, (cf. Chapter 6) shows a dignity no John Thorpe or Mr Collins would
ever be capable of.
The nearest thing to a fool in MP is Mr Rushworth, the rich simpleton whose
fate it is to be selected for marriage by Maria Bertram, and then discarded in
favour of Henry Crawford. Though he occasionally embarrasses his hearers,
Rushworth is a fool, not a boor: he is generally well-bred, but does not understand
his own limitations (before marrying Maria to him, Sir Thomas perceives that he
was an inferior young man, as ignorant in business as in books, with opinions
in general unfixed, and without seeming much aware of it himself; MP 156).
However ingenuous he may be, however, he is not a clown like Mr Collins, who is
consistently making a fool of himself; he knows, for instance, how to be indirect,
and when he expresses his jealousy he does so under the pretence of expressing a
dislike of continual rehearsing:
If I must say what I think, continued Mr. Rushworth, in my opinion it is very
disagreeable to be always rehearsing. It is having too much of a good thing. I am
not so fond of acting as I was at first. I think we are a great deal better employed,
sitting comfortably here among ourselves, and doing nothing. (MP 146)


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

Just as there is no all-round fool, there are no perfect boors in MP. Nobody
contradicts people the way John Thorpe or Mr Palmer do; nobody pries into someone
elses affairs like Mrs Jennings, bosses people around like Lady Catherine, or is
openly offensive like the untamed Darcy. Yet many characters have very assertive
conversational styles. Excepting Edmund, the Bertram brothers and sisters all
speak as if they feared no contradiction and were ready to brook no denial. Tom
Bertram, being a male, and the eldest brother at that, is the most imperative, even
in grammatical mood (at least when speaking to his younger brother):
I know all that, said Tom displeased. I know my father as well as you do, and
Ill take care that his daughters do nothing to distress him. Manage your own
concerns, Edmund, and Ill take care of the rest of the family. (MP 100)

When grafted onto his sister Julias style, Toms imperative translates into a modal
verb of desirability which is just a little more tactful, and every inch as strong:
Those who see quickly, will resolve quickly and act quickly, said Julia [to
Henry Crawford]. You can never want employment. Instead of envying Mr
Rushworth, you should assist him with your opinion. (MP 47)

The Bertram sisters form a very tight trio with Mrs Norris, who, though as
domineering in spirit as Lady Catherine, is neither rich nor independent, and must
therefore veil her will to dominance behind a concern for others welfare and for
the good management of domestic affairs (she has no real power or authority of
her own, so she relies on the authority of those who are more powerful than herself
in order to exercise influence)17. The assertiveness of this trio, their semantically
dominant assurance as to what is right or wrong (That will not quite do,
I know, the truth is, I will answer for it, there is no idea), stands out very
neatly in comparison with Edmunds more prudent, interrogative style (even as he
is planning to do something with words, for his goal is to have Fanny participate
in the Sotherton excursion):18

But why is it necessary, said Edmund, that Crawfords carriage, or his
only should be employed? Why is no use to be made of my mothers chaise? I
could not, when the scheme was first mentioned the other day, understand why
a visit from the family were not to be made in the carriage of the family.

According to David Bells political linguistics, Power is the use of sanctions that
may be either positive (inducements) or negative (punishments) ... Authority statements
typically take the form of orders, instructions, directives, pronouncements, commands,
while the user of influence merely predicts certain contingent outcomes that will follow
from certain types of behaviour (Bell 1995: 44).
Amongst other things, politeness in Austens world is signalled by the distance
between the locutionary surface and the illocutionary and perlocutionary levels of speech
(Austin 1962).

Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


What! cried Julia: go boxd up three in a post-chaise in this weather, when
we may have seats in a barouche! No, my dear Edmund, that will not quite do.

Besides, said Maria, I know that Mr. Crawford depends upon taking us.
After what passed at first, he would claim it as a promise.

And my dear Edmund, added Mrs. Norris, taking out two carriages when
one will do, would be trouble for nothing; and between ourselves, coachman
is not very fond of the roads between this and Sotherton; he always complains
bitterly of the narrow lanes scratching his carriage, and you know one should
not like to have dear Sir Thomas when he comes home find all the varnish
scratched off.

That would not be a very handsome reason for using Mr. Crawfords,
said Maria; But the truth is, that Wilcox is a very stupid fellow, and does not
know how to drive. I will answer for it that we shall find no inconvenience from
narrow roads on Wednesday.

There is no hardship, I suppose, nothing unpleasant, said Edmund, in
going in the barouche box.

Unpleasant! cried Maria; Oh! dear, I believe it would be generally thought
the favourite seat. There can be no comparison as to ones view of the country.
Probably, Miss Crawford will choose the barouche box herself.

There can be no objection then to Fannys going with you; there can be no
doubt of your having room for her.

Fanny! repeated Mrs. Norris; my dear Edmund, there is no idea of her
going with us. She stays with her aunt. I told Mrs. Rushworth so. She is not
expected. (MP 612)

In comparison with Tom Bertram and his sisters, the Crawfords are more polite
and tactful but at least as dominant as their neighbours. Henry Crawford is
ready to boast that he never asks for information, even when he is looking for
directions (No, I never inquire. But I told a man mending a hedge that it was
Thornton Lacey, and he agreed to it.; MP 189). Nevertheless, he does use polite
interrogative forms, as well as hedges, when he must defer to someones authority
(Sir Thomass, for instance):
I want to be your neighbour, Sir Thomas, as you have perhaps heard me telling
Miss Price. May I hope for your acquiescence and for your not influencing your
son against such a tenant? (MP 193)

The revealing trait in the conversational style of this self-centred character (it is
Henry Crawfords egotism which precipitates the situation, leading him to court
Maria Bertram after her marriage with Mr Rushworth) is that even as he is deferring
to someone elses authority, he refers to himself and his own wants. When he
tells his sister that he is in love with Fanny Price, he never thinks of mentioning
her will and her determination (a self-assured man like him would never dream of
being refused by someone inferior by birth and fortune):
I could not get away sooner Fanny looked so lovely! I am quite determined,
Mary. My mind is entirely made up. Will it astonish you? No You must be
aware that I am quite determined to marry Fanny Price. (MP 228)


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

Interestingly, when his ego has to suffer the blow of Fannys rejection (but his
ego is strong enough to keep the siege going), a taming process begins which
resembles very closely the one undergone by Darcy in P&P. In his case, the lady
is not to be won, and Crawfords conversational faults had never been as great or
evident as Darcys but the change is striking all the same. First-person pronouns
almost disappear (in favour of the second person), and when they do appear, they
no longer function as subjects for verbs of volition. He asks for permission and
advice, and acts on the few answers he can get out of a perplexed Fanny:
... Shall I go? Do you advise it?

I advise! you know very well what is right.

Yes. When you give me your opinion, I always know what is right. Your
judgment is my rule of right.

Oh, no! do not say so. We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we
would attend to it, than any other person can be. Good bye; I wish you a pleasant
journey to-morrow.

Is there nothing I can do for you in town?

Nothing, I am much obliged to you.

Have you any message for anybody?

My love to your sister, if you please; and when you see my cousin my
cousin Edmund, I wish you would be so good as to say that I suppose I shall
soon hear from him.

Certainly; and if he is lazy or negligent, I will write his excuses myself
(MP 324)

His sister Mary is a curious mixture of female and dominant styles, as shown
in the apology she makes to Fanny for riding too long while the latter is waiting.
She uses endearing terms (My dear Miss Price), modestly lays all the blame on
herself (Leech 1983: 132), yet she also offers no real reason for her actions, and
maintains that since her behaviour cannot be justified in any way, then in a sense it
must be forgiven. She uses a modal verb expressing strong obligation (you must)
even as she is asking for forgiveness (forgive me) and using tactful hedges (if
you please):
My dear Miss Price ... I am come to make my own apologies for keeping you
waiting but I have nothing in the world to say for myself I knew it was very
late, and that I was behaving extremely ill; and, therefore, if you please, you
must forgive me. Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there
is no hope of a cure. (MP 54)

Edmund wants to marry her, but in order to do so he must struggle with her and win
and it is because he fails to dominate her, because he is not able to overcome her
ambition and her pride (she is attracted to him, but does not want to be a clergymans
wife), that he renounces her and marries his subordinate cousin, Fanny. Mary and
Edmund fight several battles over the crucial question of church orders. They are
both of them very skilful conversational wrestlers, who know how to argue a very
personal point in very general terms (so as to avoid open FTAs):

Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


Oh! no doubt he [an impersonal clergyman] is very sincere in preferring
an income ready made, to the trouble of waiting for one; and has the best
intentions of doing nothing all the rest of his days but eat, drink, and grow fat.
It is indolence Mr. Bertram, indeed. Indolence and love of ease a want of all
laudable ambition, of taste for good company, or of inclination to take the trouble
of being agreeable, which make men clergymen. A clergyman has nothing to do
but to be slovenly and selfish read the newspaper, watch the weather, and
quarrel with his wife. His curate does all the work, and the business of his own
life is to dine.

There are such clergymen, no doubt, but I think they are not so common as
to justify Miss Crawford in esteeming it their general character. (MP 87)

Ironically, among all these dominant characters (for even Edmund, though very
polite, is assertive in his upright and modest way), Fanny, the most perfect
example of subordination and female style in Austens works, is the only one
who gets what she wants. Maria and Julia Bertram want Henry Crawford, and
have to content themselves with Mr Rushworth and Mr Yates. Edmund Bertram
wants Mary Crawford, but in the end he marries Fanny. Mary Crawford sacrifices
Edmund to her pride and ambition. Fanny is in love with Edmund, and manages to
marry him after Henrys elopement with Maria, and Marys bland condemnation
of such an enormous social crime.
As soon as the young Fanny comes to Mansfield Park, she is taught in the
ways of social-conversational subordination by her aunt Norris and her cousins
(Edmund excepted): in order to survive, she has to cancel herself, to deny her own
wants and make herself as useful to others as she can. Paradoxically, it is thanks
to this self-cancellation that she insinuates herself into other peoples lives and
eventually becomes mistress of her own. It is through the rhetoric of silence that
she captivates males who like being listened and deferred to.
Almost four decades before the publication of MP, the evangelical writer
Hannah More (Fanny herself is a sort of evangelical model) had extolled the
virtue and usefulness of female silence: How easily and effectually may a wellbred woman promote the most useful and elegant conversation, almost without
speaking a word! for the modes of speech are scarcely more variable than the
modes of silence ... A woman, in a company where she has the least influence, may
promote any subject by a profound and invariable attention, which shews that she is
pleased with it, and by an illuminated countenance, which proves she understands
it. This obliging attention is the most flattering encouragement in the world to
men of sense and letters, to continue any topic of instruction or entertainment
they happen to be engaged in (More 1777: 4041). The hero of Mores Coelebs
in Search of a Wife a fictional translation of the authors ideology finally finds
the perfect bride in a young woman who closely resembles Fanny Price, though
she is far more perfect and far more wooden as a fictional character. When men are
speaking, Lucilla has her attention always riveted on the speaker. If the speaker
was Dr. Barlow, or her father, or any one whom she thought entitled to particular

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


respect, she gently laid down her work, and as quietly resumed it when they had
done speaking (More 1808/1995: 105).19
Conversationally, Fanny is a constant but inaudible presence in the novel.
When questioned, she speaks briefly, in a low voice, in the interrogative mood
(asking for someone elses approval), by litotes, and her modest interventions (she
is always submissive in tone and fact) are often swallowed or summed up by the
Certainly, said Fanny with gentle earnestness. (MP 74)
I am disappointed, said she, in a low voice, to Edmund. (MP 68)
Do not you think, said Fanny, after a little consideration, that this impropriety
is a reflection itself upon Mrs. Crawford, as her niece has been entirely brought
up by her? She cannot have given her right notions of what was due to the
admiral. (MP 51)
... whatever profession Dr. Grant had chosen, he would have taken a not a
good temper into it; (MP 88)

Fanny, said Edmund, after looking at her attentively; I am sure you have
the headach?
She could not deny it, but said it was not very bad. (MP 57)

However, it would be wrong to deduce that since Fanny so often disappears

vocally from the scene, her silent gaze is absent from it, or that since she never
speaks of her wants, she has no ambitions and does nothing to further her purposes.
Her self-silencing is a strategy as well as a necessity and when she finally has
the opportunity to pursue her (unconscious?) plans, she does not waste it. When
Edmund relates his final, decisive argument with Mary Crawford, Fanny tries to
reinforce his own negative impressions (Cruel! ... quite cruel! at such a moment to
give way to gaiety and to speak with lightness, and to you! Absolute cruelty!; MP
358); and when after a while he is starting to relent, she adds a detail which casts
an evil shadow on Marys character (she had heard her say that if Tom Bertram
had died, sir Thomass inheritance would have fallen in better hands). The fact that
her intervention is, once again, summed up by the narrator, should not blind us to
its ruthless timing:
[Edmund and Fanny] continued to talk of Miss Crawford alone, and how she
had attached him, and how delightful nature had made her, and how excellent
she would have been, had she fallen into good hands earlier. Fanny, now at
liberty to speak openly, felt more than justified in adding to his knowledge of
The dependence of MP on the evangelical novels written by the likes of More is
widely recognized, though there is no universal agreement on the ideological nature of the
relationship. A recent account which problematizes this dependence, and situates it in the
context of the early nineteenth-century literary marketplace, is Mandal (2007: 91130).

Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


her real character, by some hint of what share his brothers state of health might
be supposed to have in her wish for a complete reconciliation. This was not an
agreeable intimation. Nature resisted it for a while. It would have been a vast
deal pleasanter to have had her more disinterested in her attachment; but his
vanity was not of a strength to fight long against reason. (MP 361)

In E as in MP, there are no perfect social-conversational fools or boors. This might
seem a strange contention to make regarding a novel which contains Miss Bates
and Mrs Elton but even Miss Bates and Mrs Elton are characters rather than types,
their functions in the Highbury society extending far beyond those of a Mr Collins
or of a Lady Catherine. Of course, from the psychological point of view, Miss Bates
is a fool, and Mrs Elton is a boor, but readers are never allowed to merely laugh or
grow indignant at their behaviour, and quite often, they are forced to acknowledge
their social and conversational powers (while Mr Collins is invariably made fun of,
and Lady Catherine is never shown as less than a virago).
Mrs Eltons bad manners, we are given to understand, have something to
do with her being the daughter of a Bristol tradesman (E 164). In Austenland,
those who have connections with trade are sometimes allowed to be good, but
never refined. Mrs Elton, unlike Mrs Jennings in S&S, tries to acquire the socialconversational manners of her betters (or, of that country gentry her father has
bought and sold his way into), but blunders continually. Sometimes she is openly
(though unwittingly) face-threatening, as when she flatly contradicts Emma:

Oh! yes, I am quite aware of that. It is the garden of England, you know.
Surry is the garden of England.

Yes; but we must not rest our claims on that distinction. Many counties, I
believe, are called the garden of England, as well as Surry.

No, I fancy not, replied Mrs. Elton, with a most satisfied smile. I never
heard any county but Surry called so.
Emma was silenced. (E 2456)

Usually, though, Mrs Elton is more skilled in the use of indirection. As seen in
Chapter 4, she speaks too much in the first person, but she knows how to praise
herself while appearing to praise somebody else. Also, one of Mrs Eltons favourite
indirect techniques is contrastive stress (Brown and Levinson 1987: 217) a
technique she often uses to commit off-record FTAs (cf. Chapter 6):
It is a sort of thing, cried Mrs. Elton emphatically, which I should not have
thought myself privileged to inquire into. Though, perhaps, as the Chaperon of
the party I never was in any circle exploring parties young ladies married
women (E 334)

Even Miss Bates, though she is perhaps the funniest and certainly the most famous
fool in Austenland, is not a perfect fool. Her conversational style displays a garrulous


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

naivety which is endearing and irritating at the same time yet one also suspects
a degree of craft in this simplicity. Surely, she infringes many of the rules which
govern the allocation of turns in conversation (whenever she speaks, she exercises
a perceptible quantitative dominance), as well as the selection of allowable
topics. She speaks too much, and relates endless anecdotes20 and conversations of
no interest whatsoever for her hearers (though Austen drops many hints about the
mysteries of this novel in her long speeches). At the same time, and except for their
lengthiness, Miss Batess speeches are as perfect an illustration of female style
as can be found in Austens novels (she may be quantitatively dominant, but
she is semantically and strategically deferent). She is continually dispraising
herself, praising and thanking other people (Leech 1983: 132), appealing to their
judgement through the use of questions and question tags. She is conscious of her
position of total subordination (as a poor widow), and knows that she must bow to
everybody elses power and authority (Bell 1995: 44):

Thank you. You are so kind! replied the happily deceived aunt, while
eagerly hunting for the letter. Oh! here it is. I was sure it could not be far off;
but I had put my huswife upon it, you see, without being aware, and so it was
quite hid, but I had it in my hand so very lately that I was almost sure it must
be on the table. I was reading it to Mrs. Cole, and since she went away, I was
reading it again to my mother, for it is such a pleasure to her a letter from Jane
that she can never hear it often enough; so I knew it could not be far off, and
here it is, only just under my huswife and since you are so kind as to wish to
hear what she says; but, first of all, I really must, in justice to Jane, apologise
for her writing so short a letter only two pages you see hardly two and in
general she fills the whole paper and crosses half. My mother often wonders
that I can make it out so well. She often says, when the letter is first opened,
Well, Hetty, now I think you will be put to it to make out all that chequer-work
dont you, maam? And then I tell her, I am sure she would contrive to make
it out herself, if she had nobody to do it for her every word of it I am sure
she would pore over it till she had made out every word. And, indeed, though
my mothers eyes are not so good as they were, she can see amazingly well still,
thank God! with the help of spectacles. It is such a blessing! ....

All this spoken very fast obliged Miss Bates to stop for breath; and Emma
said something very civil about the excellence of Miss Fairfaxs handwriting.

You are extremely kind, replied Miss Bates highly gratified; you who are
such a judge, and write so beautifully yourself. I am sure there is nobodys praise
that could give me so much pleasure as Miss Woodhouses. My mother does not
hear; she is a little deaf you know. Maam, addressing her, do you hear what
Miss Woodhouse is so obliging to say about Janes handwriting? (E 13940)

Since Emma is almost always the narrators reflector in E, readers see Miss Bates
through her patronizing eyes, and are led to think the elderly spinster as simple20
Avoid telling stories in company, unless they are very short indeed, and very
applicable to the subject you are upon; in this case relate them in as few words as possible,
without the least digression, and with some apology (Trusler 1775: 92).

Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


minded as she appears. So they share Emmas shock when she realizes that she has
just committed an on-record FTA against the harmless lady, and that the latter has
perfectly understood her meaning (cf. Chapter 6):

Oh! very well, exclaimed Miss Bates, then I need not be uneasy. Three
things very dull indeed. That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to
say three dull things as soon as I open my mouth, shant I? (looking round will
the most good-humoured dependence on every bodys assent) Do not you all
think I shall?
Emma could not resist.

Ah! maam, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me but you will be
limited as to number only three at once. ...

Ah! well to be sure. Yes, I see what she means, (turning to Mr. Knightley,)
and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she
would not have said such a thing to an old friend. (E 335)

Miss Bates and Mrs Elton are marginal characters, though they both have their
conversational and narrative roles to play; while the obvious protagonist of the
novel is the eponymous heroine. Emma is also the narrators reflector, the (often
distorting) mirror through which readers are allowed to watch (cf. Chapter 1). Even
more consistently than in Austens previous works, we see all events as filtered by
Emmas senses and prejudices. Consequently, most characters display their nature
to the reader only in connection with Emma, and this holds true for conversational
styles as well as for morals and manners.
E can be described as the story of Emmas taming by Mr Knightley.21 The
protagonist starts out as an independent, self-willed young woman who wants
to exercise social power and conversational dominance; and ends up as a more
subordinate lady who is very glad to admit that her husband had been right in all
their transactions, herself almost invariably wrong. At the beginning, she displays
her will to power in her successful attempt to marry Miss Taylor to Mr Weston,
and in her failed attempts to marry Harriet Smith above her social level. From
the conversational point of view, she gets on very well with those who accept her
quantitative, semantic and strategic dominance (Miss Taylor and Harriet Smith),
while she has difficulties with those who exercise quantitative (Miss Bates),
semantic (Mrs Elton), and strategic dominance (Mr Knightley).
Harriet Smith, in particular, is yet another illustration of female style: in
her transactions with Emma, she speaks only when questioned, and always in a
compliant vein (to be sure, certainly, indeed). A selection shows the parasitic
nature of her interventions since they are full of cohesive ties with Emmas
speeches, they rarely make sense on their own:

It has been described as the story of Emmas passing from (female) fancy to
(male) judgment (The world of Emmas fancy fades into the clear, cool light of day;
Lascelles 1939: 76); but such a description accepts the male world-view implicitly inspiring
Knightleys ideas.

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


Oh, yes! that is, no I do not know but I believe he has read a good deal
but not what you would think any thing of .... (E 24)
Oh! not handsome not at all handsome .... (E 25)
To be sure. Oh! yes, it is not likely you should ever have observed him but he
knows you very well indeed I mean by sight. (E 25)
To be sure, so it is. But they live very comfortably .... (E 26)
Certainly, he is not like Mr. Knightley .... (E 28)
There is no saying, indeed! (E 29)
Will he, indeed, that will be very bad. (E 29)

Another example of female style is Jane Fairfax but with Jane Fairfax, Emma
cannot sympathize or commune at all. Partly, Emma is jealous of Jane because
unlike Harriet, she is on a par with her as to beauty and accomplishments but
it is also evident that when she first meets the socially unimportant Miss Fairfax,
the heiress of Hartfield tries to patronize her in the same way as Miss Smith. Jane
Fairfax, however, is far more skilled than Harriet Smith in the ways of indirection,
and has her own secrets to hide (the secret engagement with Frank Churchill).
Therefore, she uses her female style to evade Emmas grasp: while she defers to
everybody elses judgment, it is evident that she does so in order to avoid awkward
topics.22 Emma, as the narrator informs the reader, sees through her artifice and
does not forgive her:
The like reserve prevailed on other topics. She and Mr. Frank Churchill had been
at Weymouth at the same time. It was known they were a little acquainted; but
not a syllable of real information could Emma procure as to what he truly was.
Was he handsome? She believed he was reckoned a very fine young man.
Was he agreeable? He was generally thought so. Did he appear a sensible
young man; a man of information? At a watering-place, or in a common
London acquaintance, it was difficult to decide on such points. Manners were
all that could be safely judged of, under a much longer knowledge than they had
of Mr. Churchill. She believed every body found his manners pleasing. Emma
could not forgive her. (E 151)

Emmas real war, however, is with Mr Knightley; and it is a war she will finally
lose by accepting marriage. Theirs is a clash between opposing world-views not,
as Knightley would have Emma and us believe, a conflict between fancy and

Be careful not to appear dark and mysterious, lest you should be thought suspicious;
than which there cannot be a more unamiable character. If you appear mysterious and
reserved, others will be truly so with you; and in this case, there is an end to improvement,
for you will gather no information. Be reserved, but never seem so (Trusler 1775: 99100).

Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


judgment, but one between her will and his own. They have their worst row over
Harriets prospective marriage to Mr Martin an event which Knightley deems
desirable and Emma improper. Beside himself with rage at Emmas momentary
triumph, Knightley does not lose any of his time and energy in tactful repartees,
and ends up flatly contradicting her propositions:

Come, said she, I will tell you something, in return for what you have
told me [he has just informed her of Martins intentions]. He did speak yesterday
that is, he wrote, and was refused.

This was obliged to be repeated before it could be believed; and Mr.
Knightley actually looked red with surprize and displeasure, as he stood up, in
tall indignation, and said,

Then she is a greater simpleton than I ever believed her. What is the foolish
girl about?

Oh! to be sure, cried Emma, it is always incomprehensible to a man that
a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. A man always imagines a
woman to be ready for anybody who asks her.

Nonsense! a man does not imagine any such thing. But what is the meaning
of this? Harriet Smith refuse Robert Martin? madness, if it is so; but I hope you
are mistaken.

I saw her answer, nothing could be clearer.

You saw her answer! you wrote her answer too. Emma, this is your doing.
You persuaded him to refuse him.

And if I did, (which, however, I am far from allowing,) I should not feel
that I had done wrong. Mr. Martin is a very respectable young man, but I cannot
admit him to be Harriets equal ....

Not Harriets equal! exclaimed Mr. Knightley loudly and warmly; and
with calmer asperity, added, a few moments afterwards, No, he is not her equal
indeed, for he is as much her superior in sense as in situation .... (E 54)

Emma, however, is tamed by no argument, whether advanced by Mr Knightley

or anybody else: her final defeat is a practical one, in the sense that events refuse
to obey her. Mr Elton proposes to her instead of Harriet, and she is forced to
acknowledge that her plans have been defeated that her vision of reality has been
proven wrong. We can ask ourselves what would have happened had she managed
to direct Miss Smiths destiny as she had directed Miss Taylors for after all,
Emma marries the only man who has been able to stand his conversational ground
with her, and to win an argument with the incontrovertible strength of facts.
P is, like MP, a Cinderella story. Anne Elliot has a vain and selfish father (Sir
Walter, a baronet), an unmarried elder sister exactly like him (Elizabeth), and a
very self-centred younger sister (Mrs Charles Musgrove). She herself is modest and
self-effacing, both by inclination and as a consequence of an unhappy love affair
seven years before the events related in the novel, she fell in love with Captain


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

Wentworth, whom her family and friends persuaded her not to marry. By chance,
Captain Wentworth now a rich and successful navy officer is thrown back on
her path: after recovering from the shock of finding her altered for the worse, he
experiences a renewal of his feelings, proposes to her again, and is accepted.
There are no all-round boors or fools in P, though Sir Walter and Annes sisters
are certainly foolish, and exposed as such. Sir Walter is a man with two hobby
horses, both pivoting on his own person: rank and personal beauty (Vanity was
the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliots character, as the narrator informs
us; P 10). He continually pesters people with these fixations, and uses them as
yardsticks to judge everything and everybody:
Yes; [the navy] is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of
objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth
into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and
grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a mans youth and vigour
most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man; I have observed it
all my life. A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise of
one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to, and of becoming
prematurely an object of disgust himself, than in any other line .... (P 22)

His eldest daughter is almost an exact copy of himself. Quite often, they are
attended in their house by Mr Shepherd and Mrs Clay, a lawyer and his widowed
daughter two exponents of that pseudo-gentry that moved in the same sphere
as the landed gentry, but had to support themselves through work (Spring: 1983).
In order to conciliate and get round Sir Walter (whom Mrs Clay hopes to marry,
and both hope to persuade to move house for financial reasons), they adopt a very
prudent and tactful complying style:

I must take leave to observe, Sir Walter, said Mr. Shepherd one morning ...

Mr. Shepherd laughed, as he knew he must, at this wit, and then added,

I presume to observe, Sir Walter ....
Sir Walter only nodded. But soon afterwards, rising and pacing the room, he
observed sarcastically,

There are few among the gentlemen of the navy, I imagine, who would not
be surprised to find themselves in a house of this description.

They would look around them, no doubt, and bless their good fortune, said
Mrs. Clay, for Mrs. Clay was present ...

Here Anne spoke,

The navy, I think, who have done so much for us, have at least an equal
claim with any other set of men, for all the comforts and all the privileges which
any home can give. Sailors work hard for their comforts, we must all allow.

Very true, very true. What Miss Anne says, is very true, was Mr. Shepherds
rejoinder, and Oh! certainly, was his daughters; but Sir Walters remark was,
soon afterwards (P 2022)

Sir Walters youngest daughter, while perhaps slightly less vain, is no less selfcentred than he is. Her conversational manner is the very opposite of female

Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


style, because she always speaks in the first person and puts her own needs before
the welfare of others:

I am sorry to find you unwell, replied Anne. You sent me such a good
account of yourself on Thursday!

Yes, I made the best of it; I always do; but I was very far from well at the
time; and I do not think I ever was so ill in my life as I have been all this morning
very unfit to be left alone, I am sure. Suppose I were to be seized of a sudden in
some dreadful way, and not able to ring the bell! So, Lady Russel would not get
out. I do not think she has been in this house three times this summer. (P 35)

By contrast, Anne is always silent about herself. Like Fanny, she tends to disappear
from all interactions involving more than two people: during one of the first
conversations including Wentworth and the Musgraves, she does not utter a single
word, even when she is spoken to (Anne suppressed a smile, and listened kindly;
P 56). Like Fannys, her interventions are often summed up by the narrator. When
she does speak, she usually speaks of others, reserving for herself the role of helper
or comforter doing what Arlie Hochschild calls emotional labour.23 Even when
she has to act, and as a consequence to speak, she does so in a very modest way.
When Louisa Musgrove falls and hits her head on the Cobb in Lyme Regis, she
finds herself in the necessity of taking charge, and therefore of using language
in action (Carter and McCarthy 1996: 589). Her first directives (Searle 1979:
1314) are formulated in the imperative mood, but very soon she masters herself
so well as to be able to formulate her orders as questions:

Go to him, go to him, cried Anne, for heavens sake go to him. I can
support her myself. Leave me, and go to him. Rub her hands, rub her temples;
here are salts, take them, take them. ...

A surgeon! cried Anne ...

Captain Benwick, wouldnt it be better for Captain Benwick? He knows
where a surgeon is to be found. (P 92)

Her rise from her initial unimportant and neglected state is mirrored in her acquisition
of relative conversational dominance for in Austens novels, becoming powerful
means gaining a right to speak, just as losing power means being sentenced to
silence (or to harmless, meaningless chatter, which is another form of silence).
In the course of the novel, Anne gradually finds a polite but assured voice. After
Wentworths second proposal, she goes so far as to gently reprehend him about
what he should or should not have thought:
You should have distinguished, replied Anne. You should not have suspected
me now; the case so different, and my age so different. If I was wrong in yielding
to persuasion once, I thought it was my duty; but no duty could be called in aid
here. In marrying a man indifferent to me, all risk would have been incurred, and
all duty violated. (P 197)
In Deborah Camerons summary, the kind of work that involves making others feel
good (Cameron 2000: 80).

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


This final fragment of a novel contains some interesting characters and at least
one thematic novelty, though its plot is only a sketch. Mr and Mrs Parker have a
cart accident somewhere in Sussex; he sprains an ankle, and they are helped and
welcomed by the Heywood family. When they go back to their home town of
Sanditon, they carry along one of Mr Heywoods daughters, Miss Charlotte, a
very pleasing woman of two and twenty (S 303), who is to stay with them for a
while. From the structural point of view, Charlotte functions as the alien reflector
casting back an image of the Parkers home town to the reader. Sanditon has been
transformed into a seaside resort, and in Mr Parkers intentions (Sanditon was
a second Wife and four Children to him; S 302) it is meant to compete with
Brighton and Eastbourne. The novel is cut short before any couples are formed,
but it appears quite likely that Charlotte will fall in love with Mr Parkers absent
younger brother, Sidney.
Mr Parker is no doubt the most interesting character in the fragment, and he
also provides the link with its new thematic net. By birth, he belongs to the landed
gentry (he himself proudly presents his family as holding Landed Property in
the Parish of Sanditon; S 298), yet he also shares the aspirations of the rising
commercial class, of which he is a member by inclination if not by business
instinct. It is interesting that while all characters with commercial connections
are shown as vulgar in the other novels, in S we see a refined country gentleman
joining in the gold rush (the gold rush itself is mildly satirized). The novelty is
not only of a thematic, but also of a linguistic nature. When he speaks of his
commercial enterprise and hobby horse, Mr Parker employs the language of
selling and advertising. He employs no adjectives but in the superlative, lists all
the required qualities (breeze, sand, bathing, distance from London), and appeals
to the authority of unspecified but multitudinous admirers:
... Such a place as Sanditon, Sir, I may say was wanted, was called for. Nature
had marked it out had spoken in most intelligible characters the finest, purest
Sea Breeze on the Coast acknowledged to be so Excellent bathing fine hard
Sand Deep Water ten yards from the Shore no Mud no Weeds no slimey
rocks Never was there a place more palpably designed by Nature for the resort
of the Invalid the very Spot which Thousands seemed in need of. The most
desirable distance from London! (S 299)

The other inhabitants of S lead the reader to suspect that Austen was coming back
to the lighter characterization techniques of the Steventon novels, because most
characters are comic types. Lady Denham is an upstart and a boor: she married
a rich Mr Hollis, and then a Sir Denham. Used as she is to being deferred to
by everybody (she is the grand lady of Sanditon), in her conversation she is
(quantitatively, semantically, strategically) domineering, but blundering. She uses
vulgar intensifiers like monstrous (S 325), and refers too openly to (small) financial
matters and her own (social, financial) importance, thus implicitly betraying her

Jane Austens Novels as Conversational Machines


commercial descent. She is Mr Parkers partner in the Sanditon business, but lacks
the high-flown enthusiasm which in his case redeems commercial interest:
Oh! well. But I should not like to have Butchers meat raised, though and
I shall keep it down as long as I can. Aye that young Lady smiles I see; I
dare say she thinks me an odd sort of a Creature, but she will come to care
about such matters herself in time. Yes, yes, my Dear, depend upon it, you will
be thinking of the price of Butchers meat in time though you may not happen
to have quite such a Servants Hall full to feed, as I have. And I do beleive those
are best off, that have fewest Servants. I am not a Woman of Parade, as all the
World knows, and if it was not for what I owe to poor Mr. Holliss memory, I
should never keep up Sanditon House as I do; it is not for my own pleasure.
Well Mr. Parker and the other is a Boarding school, a French Boarding
School, is it? No harm in that. Theyll stay their six weeks. And out of such
a number, who knows but some may be consumptive and want Asses milk and
I have two Milch asses at this present time. But perhaps the little Misses may
hurt the Furniture. I hope they will have a good sharp Governess to look after
them. (S 31819)

Another set of comic, excessive characters is formed by Arthur, Susan, and Diana,
Mr Parkers brother and sisters: they do not merely have a hobby horse, they live
in it. Their hobby horse and purpose in life is illness, and their conversational
goal is getting other people to pity them. Diana Parker is the leader of this small
cohesive group:
Invalides indeed. I trust there are not three People in England who have so
sad a right to that appellation! But my dear Miss Heywood, we are sent into
this World to be as extensively useful as possible, and where some degree of
Strength of Mind is given, it is not a feeble body which will excuse or incline
us to excuse ourselves. The World is pretty much divided between the Weak of
Mind and the Strong between those who can act and those who can not, and it
is the bounden Duty of the Capable to let no opportunity of being useful escape
them. My Sisters Complaints and mine are happily not often of a Nature, to
threaten Existence immediately and as long as we can exert ourselves to be of
use to others, I am convinced that the Body is the better, for the refreshment the
Mind receives in doing its Duty .... (S 332)

A different kind of comic character is Sir Edward, Lady Catherines nephew, who
allows Austen to write a parody of romantic excess and of literary jargon in general.
Sir Edward is a would-be rake, an inept seducer bred on more Sentimental novels
than agreed with him (S 327), from Richardson to a host of minor imitators. His
style is a mixture of clichs and bad linguistic habits copied from the times literary
critics and conversationalists:
... I am no indiscriminate Novel-Reader. The mere Trash of the Common
Circulating Library, I hold in the highest contempt. You will never hear me
advocating those puerile Emanations which detail nothing but discordant


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

Principles incapable of Amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary
Occurrences from which no useful Deductions can be drawn. In vain may we
put them into a literary Alembic; we distil nothing which can add to Science ...
The Novels which I approve of are such as display Human Nature with Grandeur
such as shew her in the Sublimities of intense Feeling such as exhibit the
progress of strong Passion from the first Germ of incipient Susceptibility to the
utmost Energies of Reason half-dethroned, where we see the strong spark of
Womans Captivations elicit such Fire in the Soul of Man as leads him (though
at the risk of some Aberration from the strict line of Primitive Obligations)
hazard all, dare all, atcheive all, to obtain her ... and even when the Event is
mainly anti-prosperous to the high-toned Machinations of the prime Character,
the potent, pervading Hero of the Story, it leaves us full of Generous Emotions
for him; our Hearts are paralized. Twere Pseudo-Philosophy to assert that
we do not feel more enwrapped by the brilliancy of his Career, than by the
tranquil and morbid Virtues of any opposing Character .... (S 327)

As shown by these soliloquizing fragments, Austen was perhaps falling back

on the portrayal of excessive comic characters whose bad conversational habits
betray their mental and moral deficiencies. Nonetheless, there also appears to be
a fundamental difference between Sir Edward and the Parker brothers on the one
hand, and such characters as Mr Dashwood and Mr Collins on the other: while in
S&S and P&P, as well as in the Chawton novels, the fools show their foolishness by
failing to master the same conversational strategies correctly employed by others,
in S the fools are almost possessed by discoursive practices which are marked as
distinct from the social-conversational rule. In other words, though it would not
do to formulate any definitive statements on the basis of an unfinished fragment,
it is a fair guess that Austen was passing from using dialogue in order to show off
characters to using characters in order to criticize bad linguistic and conversational
habits: she had probably caught the scent of something new in the air of English
conversation, and was proceeding to ridicule its excesses just as she had done with
the excesses of fiction, when she had first embarked on her narrative enterprise.

Chapter 6

Winning the War of Conversation in Emma

In Chapters 4 and 5, various types of conversational behaviour have been seen in
a fairly static manner. In order to identify the connections between conversation
and character on the one hand and character and plot on the other; changes in
conversational habits have been observed which are functional to the enfolding
of Austens plots (e.g., Mariannes conversational taming in S&S). Conversation
in Austenland, however, is far from static it is never a fixed system that can be
analyzed in its general outline, with no attention being paid to the single elements
making up the whole. If anything, each single spoken interaction in Austens
novels particularly in her mature novels is a moving, developing system a
battle the outcome of which is produced by the endless clash of personalities and
conversational moves.
Richard J. Wattss network/status theory provides a perfect description of
what takes place in Austens multiple verbal interactions. In this conversational
model, all participants in a given exchange are seen as involved in a hierarchical
network; their respective positions change continually as they acquire or lose
status by scoring points against one another:
In terms of the verbal interaction in which individuals are involved, status is
gained or lost by carrying out various kinds of verbal activity ... If speaker A
orders or requests speaker B to carry out some action, whether verbal or nonverbal, and B complies, then A gains in status. B, however, does not necessarily
lose status. If B refuses to comply, then A loses status ... If speaker A asserts
something ... with a commitment to the truth of that information, then s/he has
set up an argument position and gains in status by doing so. Any support of this
position by A or any other member of the group will increase status still further.
If the position is countered by B, A will lose the status s/he previously gained
and B will gain status. (Watts 1997: 88)

The famous Box Hill episode of E (E 33141) can easily be interpreted in this
light, even though on the surface, the characters are simply playing conversational
games or speaking of indifferent matters. Emma, Frank Churchill, Mr Knightley,
Jane Fairfax, Mr and Mrs Elton, Miss Bates, and Mr Weston take active part in the

The selection of this particular episode for detailed analysis is motivated by the
assumption that individual conversational abilities are most severely tested in what David
Monaghan calls social rituals: since in the eighteenth century the ceremonies of life ...
were characterised by particularly strict codes of behaviour ... By examining formal social
occasions ... we can learn some important things about Jane Austens social ideals, and about
her sense of how well her society is living up to these ideals (Monaghan 1980: 4, 12).

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


conversation, Harriet Smith being the only listener who remains silent throughout
the scene. This very complex multiple interaction takes place in Volume III,
Chapter VII, only a few chapters away from the final denouement. At this stage
of the plot, the tensions between characters are already more or less clear, though
not openly declared (the Eltons against Emma, Emma against Jane Fairfax, Mr
Knightley against Frank Churchill). Only one of the marriages has been celebrated
(the Eltons); Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfaxs attachment has not yet been
revealed, and there is still no reason to think that Harriet Smith will marry the
farmer Robert Martin, or that Emma will marry Mr Knightley.
Given these tensions and these mysteries, it comes as no surprise that many
conversational acts are aggressive, even if they remain ostensively polite. Mrs
Elton is of course particularly busy committing off-record face-threatening acts
against Miss Woodhouse, but even the gentlemanlike Mr Knightley and the modest
Miss Fairfax try to score points against Frank Churchill. It is perhaps ironical that
the only open FTA is committed by Emma against Miss Bates the most obvious
interpersonal interpretation being that the eponymous heroine discharges all the
tension she has accumulated as a primary or indirect target on the most helpless
victim available.
The whole interaction can be interpreted as a struggle for dominance (Linell
1990) as well as status but dominance, on the whole, seems to be more predetermined and less changeable (less negotiable). In the Box Hill episode,
semantic dominance is exercised throughout by Frank Churchill, who conducts the
conversation and selects the topics; quantitative dominance is neatly distributed
between Frank Churchill and the embittered Mrs Elton; while strategic dominance
can be incontestably attributed (here as in the whole novel) only to Mr Knightley
and perhaps to Jane Fairfax when Frank Churchill bows in submission at her
indirect reproach. It can be said that the way in which these patterns of dominance
are perceived leads the characters to attempt to score points against each other:
Mr Knightley is irritated by Frank Churchills dominant behaviour (as well as by
his courting of Emma); whereas Mrs Elton is offended by the status accorded to
Emma in Churchills playful opening moves.
If the Box Hill episode is seen as a struggle, however, it must be described
as a covert one: all the participants, as is the rule with Austens later novels
(cf. Chapters 4 and 5), master the art of indirection i.e., they know how to score
points without incurring censure. Therefore, if it is true that pragmatics is the
study of the relations of signs to interpreters (Morris 1938/1971: 43) and of all
the aspects of meaning not captured in a semantic theory (Levinson 1983: 12),
only a pragmatic analysis will enable us to distinguish between what the characters
say and what they mean, or between what they say and what they do (socially,
conversationally) with words. The narrator is not very helpful in this sense, because
he/she is at least as reticent and as indirect as the beleaguered Miss Fairfax.

Douthwaite (2000: 1667) underlines the centrality of pragmatics within the domain
of stylistics: The practical application of pragmatics to the analysis of literary and nonliterary texts is as important as it is vast ... It might be noted in passing that the introduction
of pragmatics as an analytical tool reinstates content as a source of meaning.

Winning the War of Conversation in Emma


In what follows, I use the tools of pragmatics to uncover the strategies employed
by the Box Hill interactants (and, occasionally, by the Box Hill narrator) to score
social-conversational points against one another (or to mystify the reader and
arouse his/her curiosity). In order to show what a fine balance is struck between
saying and meaning, directness and indirection, I compare the English text with
three Italian translations, in which that balance is often modified or lost, owing to
the translators misreading of Austens complexities. While these alterations and
erasures make Austens Italian dialogue more wooden and less sparkling, in the
present context they are very useful to highlight the characters indirect striving for
status by way of interlingual contrast (Jakobson 1959: 233).
Of course, the following bi-textual analysis does not amount to a full criticism
of the three translations under discussion, which are merely used as distorting
mirrors for their source text. In a recent article (Morini 2008), I outline the details
of a pragmatic theory of translation whereby I seek to renovate traditional
linguistic theories and to unify a number of pragmatic intuitions on the nature of
the translational process (cf. Neubert 1968/1981; Reiss and Vermeer 1984/1991;
Fawcett 1998; Hatim 1998). My theory posits three textual functions according
to which the relationship between source and target texts can be described: the
performative (textual illocution and perlocution), the interpersonal (textual
cooperation and politeness), and the locative function (textual deixis). In what
follows, the similarities and differences between Austens Emma and its Italian
translations are only analysed on the interpersonal plane, while a more complete
description is set aside for a more appropriate context.
The Analysis
For reasons of space as well as analytic convenience, I confine myself to the
central part of the interaction (E 3347), which is richest in conversational hit-andparry. The pragmatic analysis of the original is marked [ST], while the analysis
of the translations is marked [TT]. Source and target texts are kept separated in
the interests of reader comprehensibility . The three Italian versions span half a
century: the earliest, by Mario Praz, was originally published in 1951 and has
been reprinted several times by Garzanti; the version by Pietro Meneghelli was
first published by Newton & Compton in 1996; the one by Anna Luisa Zazo is the
most recent, having been published by Mondadori in 2002. For the sake of brevity,
these three translations are labelled G, N and M.

For the implications of using the term bi-text, cf. Harris (1988).
It would be particularly interesting to study the three target texts from a (temporal)
locative point of view. The formal register and syntax in which all translations from
Austen (and most Italian translations from the classics) are written creates an archaizing
impression (Holmes 1971/1988) that the original does not justify. There appears to be an
unwritten translation norm (Toury 1995) that leads translators/editors/publishers to produce
versions which sacrifice liveliness on the altar of a stereotyped idea of classicality.


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

[ST] The interaction is initiated and conducted by Frank Churchill, who decides
to involve the others in his bantering flirtation with Emma, by means of an open
lie that Miss Woodhouse ... desires to know what you are all thinking of. At this,
some of the characters laugh and answer good-humouredly, while the reactions
of others (Mr Knightley, Mrs Elton) are not quite so favourable. Piqued at the idea
of Miss Woodhouses presiding over the conversation in her place (she, being
newly-wed, should have that honour), Mrs Elton swells, presumably with anger
and hurt pride (E 334). It is a case of constituent underdetermination, activating
what Bach (1994) calls implicitures, that is, inferences triggered by the lack of a
(syntactic, semantic) element which has to be supplied by the receiver. Bertuccelli
Papi (2000: 147) defines as subplicit all those implicit meanings which may
glide into the mind of the hearer as side effects of what is said or not said: the
narrator does not choose to tell us explicitly, but leaves us to infer, what it is Mrs
Elton is swelling with.
[TT] In all the translations, this impliciture is cancelled by the addition of the
missing constituent: the three translators write that Mrs Elton si gonfi di sdegno
[swelled with indignation], thus making the narrator speak more explicitly than
in the original, and narrowing down the readers scope for interpretation (G 276;
N 242; M 371).
[ST] Mr Knightley, for different reasons from Mrs Eltons, is as upset as the
latter is by Frank Churchills flirtation with Emma, and therefore reacts rather
strongly to the proposal by saying, Is Miss Woodhouse sure that she would like to
hear what we are all thinking of? (E 334). If one thinks of the conversation which
is taking place as a cooperative effort, where Grices Cooperative Principle and
its related maxims (Quantity, Quality, Relation, Manner) are generally respected
(Grice 1967/1991), one is faced here with a small breach of the maxim of Relation:
why, instead of voicing his thoughts as requested, should Mr Knightley ask whether
Emmas desire to know everybodys thoughts is genuine? The answer, of course,
is that Mr Knightley is not being literal, and that his answer sets up conversational
implicatures which might not be pleasant to some of the people involved
(everybody, Mr Knightley means, thinks that you two are behaving shamefully).
However, the fact that Mr Knightley does not choose to make his thoughts explicit
is itself significant: good manners (what Brown and Levinson (1987) would call the

Bachs implicitures and Bertucelli Papis subplicit meanings cover cases in
which the implicit part of discourse cannot be satisfactorily described as an implicature.
Implicitures are not implicated by what is said, but rather implicit in it. Subplicit
meanings are more general, and less intentional, than implicatures: Grice identified
as implicated only those meanings which derive from the reflexive intention that they be
recognized by the reader as intentionally meant by the speaker, thus leaving aside a host
of implicit meanings which I would like, on the contrary, to include in my definition of
implicitness. I will label them subplicit: the term is meant to suggest that they may glide
into the mind of the hearer as side effects of what is said or not said, and become the most
relevant information that is retained of a whole message or be used as premises for the
derivation of other implicated meanings (Bertuccelli Papi 2000: 147).

Winning the War of Conversation in Emma


rules of Politeness) require that unpleasant comments be shrouded, if possible, in

indirection. A number of off-record strategies are available which allow speakers
to make these comments without seeming to make them, thus avoiding open FTAs
(Brown and Levinson 1987: 211 ff.), which humiliate people and/or force them
to respond in the same vein. Therefore, Mr Knightley is not saying but hinting
(Brown and Levinson 1987: 213) that Emma and Frank Churchill are behaving
shamefully: the vagueness of the terms he uses (what we are all thinking of)
will allow Emma, in her answer, to laugh off the offensive implicature. Another
feature of indirection in Mr Knightleys speech is the fact that he does not choose
to address his addressee directly (Are you sure that you would like to hear ...): he
prefers to slightly displace his hearer (another strategy for off-record comments;
Brown and Levinson 1987: 226) by asking his question in the third person, perhaps
also in order to hint at the fact that it is not Emma but Frank Churchill, his rival in
the fight for Emmas love, that he is really addressing.
[TT] The three translators try different ways to keep the same balance between
what is said and what is meant in Mr Knightleys speech. A sensitive point
is the translation of what, the pragmatic force of which is kept more or less
unaltered by two out of three translators: while G and N translate it quite literally
with cosa (G 276) or che cosa (N 242), M chooses the word quello (E certa
la signorina Woodhouse che le piacerebbe sapere quello a cui tutti noi stiamo
pensando? [Is Miss Woodhouse sure that she would like to know the thing that
we are all thinking of?]; M 372), which, being more specific, implicates that it is
one particular thought that they all have in mind. Mr Knightleys comment, in this
Italian translation, becomes slightly less indirect, and as a consequence slightly
more offensive. Another point of some pragmatic relevance is the translation of
Mr Knightleys displacing technique, by means of which he addresses one person
while seeming to address another. G and M, in this case, preserve Knightleys
strategy, while N prefers to turn Knightleys question into a direct one (E proprio
sicura, signorina Woodhouse, che le piacerebbe sentire a cosa stiamo pensando
tutti? [Are you quite sure, Miss Woodhouse, that you would like to hear what
we are all thinking of?]). In this case, since as G and M show Mr Knightleys
indirect question can be reproduced in Italian, Ns choice must be interpreted as
pertaining to the realm of translational stylistics (Malmkjr 2004: 16; cf. also
Boase-Beier 2006): N chooses to make the exchange more straightforward than
it is in English.
[ST] After Knightleys slightly cross comment, and Emmas answer to the effect
that she had rather not hear their thoughts (Mr Westons and Harriets excepted),
Mrs Elton resumes her onslaught:
It is a sort of thing, cried Mrs. Elton emphatically, which I should not have
thought myself privileged to inquire into. Though, perhaps, as the Chaperon of
the party I never was in any circle exploring parties young ladies married
women (E 334)

Like Mr Knightley, Mrs Elton employs an off-record strategy in order to convey

her disapproval of Emmas behaviour, and, conversely, to stress her own (unfairly


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

neglected) social consequence. Brown and Levinson (1987) use the term
contrastive stress for the type of conversational technique that Mrs Elton uses
here. Contrastive stress is a variety of the strategy of presupposing which in
conjunction with a contextual violation of the Relevance maxim carries a criticism
(Brown and Levinson 1987: 217). Mrs Eltons slight violation of Grices maxim of
Relation (her statement does not clearly link up with Frank Churchills proposal,
Mr Knightleys question, or Emmas parry), together with the contrastive stress
emphatically expressed by her statement, combine in building up a criticism of
Emma and of the whole proceedings (Contrary to her, I would never dream of
asking such questions, though it is me, if anybody, as the chaperon of the party,
who should ask them). Once this contrastive stress, highlighted by the phonetic/
graphic emphasis on I, is caught, the mutterings that follow (as the narrator calls
them) are easily understood (I never was in any circle where young ladies behaved
in this way and robbed married women of their social rights).
[TT] In Italian, it is not as common as it is in English to highlight a point of
prosodic emphasis by the use of italics: therefore, all three translators decide not
to employ the graphic device. None of them, however, tries to compensate for the
loss by using analogous Italian techniques, e.g. by adding a reinforcing tag (di
mio, per conto mio, i.e., on my part), or by foregrounding the subject in final
position (Non avrei ritenuto di avere il privilegio dindagare, io). Two of them,
to preserve some contrastive stress, keep the subject explicit (G: E un genere
di cose ... in cui io non avrei ritenuto davere il privilegio dindagare [It is a sort
of thing ... which I would not have thought myself privileged to inquire into] (G
276); M: E un genere di cose ... che io non mi sarei sentita autorizzata a chiedere
[It is a sort of thing...which I would not have felt authorized to ask]; M 372); N,
while translating almost exactly like G, makes the subject implicit (E un genere
di cose ... in cui non avrei ritenuto di avere il privilegio di indagare; N 242). In
this case, all three translators have made Mrs Eltons disparaging comments less
explicit than they are in the original by erasing, or not reproducing, some of the
means by which contrastive stress is produced.
[ST] Mr Elton comes to his wifes aid, though he prefers to murmur (audibly,
we are given to understand) rather than voice his opinions loudly. He makes his
wifes comments more explicit (Exactly so, indeed quite unheard of but some
ladies say any thing), and reiterates her contrastive stress (Every body knows
what is due to you). It is also of some importance to note the title he uses to
address her: my love, rather than my dear, a small breach of the conventions
presiding over the small society of Highbury, signalling the couples bad manners
and vulgar taste (E 334).
[TT] As in the case of Mrs Eltons comments, of course, the three translators
disregard the phonetic/graphic emphasis on you, and do not provide compensations.
As regards the title used by Mr Elton, two out of three translators render it literally
(amor mio, G 276; amore mio, N 242), whereas one chooses to mute the social
implications of my love by the selection of a more socially acceptable term of
endearment (mia cara [my dear]; M 372).

Winning the War of Conversation in Emma


[ST] Frank Churchill understands that some of his fellow speakers are offended,
and decides to change his line of attack by lying (again, openly) that Emma
demands of you either one thing very clever ... or two things moderately clever
... or three things very dull indeed (E 335). At this, Miss Bates sees an opening for
a contribution to the conversation (the first one recorded by the narrator): she picks
up the third of Emmas/Churchills proposals and jokes that
That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as
soon as ever I open my mouth, shant I? (looking round with the most goodhumoured dependence on every bodys assent) Do not you all think I shall?
(E 335)

Miss Batess speech can be analysed by means of that Politeness Principle

(PP) which Leech (1983) has envisaged as complementing Grices Cooperative
Principle (CP) in directing face-to-face interaction. One of the maxims of
politeness making up the PP is termed by Leech modesty maxim, and can be
summed up in the twin imperatives (a) Minimize praise of self [(b) Maximize
dispraise of self] (Leech 1983: 132). Miss Bates is trying to maximize dispraise
of self, and in doing so she even seeks everybody elses approval through the
use of a tag question and a final request for confirmation. This is one of the
techniques described by Brown and Levinson as belonging to the category of
positive politeness, whereby the speaker claims common ground with the
hearer(s): Miss Bates wants to indicate that S [the speaker] and H [the hearer(s)]
belong to the same set of persons who share specific wants, including goals and
values (Brown and Levinson 1987: 103). Therefore, the tag question and the final
question, as well as the repetition of shall/shant I/shall, are the focal points of
her speech, the means by which she insistently seeks approval of her fool-role
within the company.
[TT] In Italian, in order to ask for approval/confirmation after a question, the
speaker has to append a tag phrase at the end of the sentence (vero? [isnt that
true?], giusto? [am I right?], non cos? [isnt that so?]). Two out of three
translators use some such tag, but only one of them tries to recreate the linguistic
means (the repetition of shall-questions) by which Miss Batess insistence is
realized. M loses Miss Batess certainty (I shall be sure ...) but reproduces her
insistence by a repetition-with-variation: dir tre cose sciocche appena aprir la
bocca, non cos? ... Non pensate tutti che sar cos? [I will say three foolish things
as soon as I open my mouth, isnt that so? ... Do you not all believe it will be so?]
(M 3723). G misinterprets, or interprets too literally the phrase I shall be sure,
and makes no attempt to reproduce the repetition of shall: Io son sicura di dire
tre cose scipite appena apro bocca, non cos? ... Non credete tutti che ci riuscir?
[I am sure I will say three dull things as soon as I open my mouth ... Do you
not all believe I will manage to do it?] (G 277). N, perhaps out of forgetfulness,

As seen in Chapter 1, confirmation tags are part of the bag of tricks of female
style (cf. Lakoff 1973, 1975).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

totally omits Miss Batess first question plus tag, and renders her final question
exactly like G (N 242). On the whole, Miss Bates is less good-humouredly insistent
in seeking agreement in the Italian versions than in the original: her style becomes
more formal than female.
[ST] Quite unprovoked (at least by Miss Bates), Emma commits the only open
FTA of the whole exchange by stating that Miss Batess only difficulty might reside
in the number of dull things allowed (only three at once). Miss Bates, according
to the narrator, does not immediately catch Emmas meaning, but when she does
it could not anger, though a slight blush showed that it could pain her (E 335).
Some implicatures are set off by that double could, because the narrator does
not explain why Emmas meaning could not anger Miss Bates, thus breaching,
or exploiting, one of Grices maxims of Quantity (Make your contribution as
informative as is required) or of Manner (Avoid ambiguity) (Grice 1967/1991:
267). The most likely meaning of could is that Miss Bates cannot be angry at
Emmas words because she is too good-natured to do so; but another implicated
meaning, caught by those conscious of social relationships in the novel, might be
that Miss Bates cannot be angry because she is not in a position to be. Thus, the
slight ambiguity of could activates implicatures which have to do with power
relationships in the small society of Highbury.
[TT] Two out of three translators keep the ambiguity (and the implicatures) of
could by the use of the analogous Italian verb potere (G: non pot farla stizzire,
sebbene un lieve rossore mostrasse che poteva addolorarla [it could not irritate
her, though a slight blush showed that it could pain her] (G 277); M: non avrebbe
potuto suscitare in lei collera, ma un leggero rossore mostr che poteva suscitare
pena [it could not have caused anger, but a light blush showed that it could cause
anguish]; M 373). The third, however, makes the narrators ambiguous description
of Miss Batess feelings more explicit: in this version, Emmas joke is not enough
to vex Miss Bates, though it may have been enough to cause her some discomfort
(N: non bast a farla irritare, anche se un lieve rossore fece capire che poteva
averle dato un po fastidio; N 242). In this Italian translation, the narrators hint at
the social and financial distance between the heiress, Emma, and the poor spinster,
Miss Bates, is suppressed.
[ST] Miss Bates expresses her pain through a veiled criticism of Emma,
preceded, however, by another illustration of the modesty maxim (I must make
myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend).
Mr Weston, apparently not having noticed Emmas FTA or Miss Batess pained
reaction, offers to make a conundrum (How will a conundrum reckon?). His son,
Frank Churchill, accepts the offer, though complaining about his fathers choice
of genre (Low, I am afraid, sir, very low, answered his son; but we shall be
indulgent especially to any one who leads the way.; E 335). Here it is of some
importance to note that Frank Churchill calls his father sir, rather than father
(or a more familiar daddy or papa): a title which reminds us of the different
conventions of address of Austens times, but also of the long severance between
father and son, due to Franks adoption by his mothers brother and sister-in-law
after his mothers death.

Winning the War of Conversation in Emma


[TT] The three translators react differently to Franks choice of title: M is the
only one who keeps the same distance between the two characters by the use of
a term with the same social value (signore; M 373); G halves the distance by
writing babbo (father; G 277); whereas N bridges the gap by writing pap
(daddy, papa; N 242).
[ST] Emma insists that Mr Westons conundrum will be very welcome, and Mr
Weston goes on: the conundrum consists of a compliment to Emma (What two
letters of the alphabet are there, that express perfection?...M. and A. Em ma.
Do you understand?), accompanied by another pair of implicit compliments to
the same. Before proposing the conundrum to the others, he complains that it is
not very clever because it is too much a matter of fact giving his listeners to
understand that it is too simple, but also hinting that Emmas perfection is not an
opinion but a fact. When Emma protests that she has no idea about the solution,
Mr Weston comments that you will never guess. You, (to Emma), I am certain,
will never guess (E 336) thus implicating not that Emma is too slow-witted to
understand, but that she is too modest to catch the compliment. In both cases, Mr
Weston breaches, and exploits, one or two of the sub-maxims of Grices maxim of
Manner (Avoid obscurity of expression, or Avoid ambiguity), thus activating
implicatures which become clear only when the solution is disclosed.
[TT] Of course, all three translators keep Mr Westons hint at Emmas modesty
(G, for instance: Ah, non lindovinerete mai. Voi, a Emma, son sicuro che
non lindovinerete mai [Ah, you will never guess. You, to Emma, I am sure
will never guess]; G 277). Mr Westons first reference to Emmas perfection,
however, is understood, or reproduced, only by one out of three translators (G: E
troppo una constatazione di fatto [It is too much the observation of a fact]; G 277).
The other two catch only half of Mr Westons meaning, and thus lose the hinted
compliment: in M, Mr Weston says that perhaps the conundrum is too facile
(easy; M 373), in N that it is too elementare (elementary, straightforward;
N 243). Once again, a thread of the fine, intricate web of covert compliments or
offences running through the grain of the conversation gets lost in translation.
[ST] Emma is of course gratified when she understands, but the others are less
enthusiastic: some look very stupid about it, and Mr Knightley comments:
This explains the sort of clever thing that is wanted, and Mr. Weston has done
very well for himself; but he must have knocked up every body else. Perfection
should not have come quite so soon. (E 336)

As for the first sentence, we are again faced with a case of constituent
underdetermination triggering an impliciture (Bach 1994): we might ask, wanted
by whom?, and the answer could be everybody, but, more likely, Emma, or
Frank Churchill, or both. Mr Knightley voices his irritation (caused also, we will
discover later, by Miss Batess humiliation at Emmas hands), and his jealousy,
while remaining vague enough not to be openly offensive. An important element
of Mr Knightleys very indirect criticism of the whole drift of the conversation is
the verb phrase knocked up: he means, literally, that after such a start nobody can

Jane Austens Narrative Techniques


hope to do better, but his lexical choice triggers subplicit meanings which are not
quite so flattering (this has exhausted all the others).
[TT] Two out of three translators render the first sentence very literally,
though the Italian verb form replacing is wanted does not presuppose a missing
constituent (G, N: Questo spiega il genere di cosa brillante che si desidera [This
explains the sort of witty thing that is wanted]; G 278; N 243). The third, however,
renders is wanted in such a way as to make Mr Knightleys speech more generic,
but also more suggestive of hidden, unpleasant meanings (M: Questo spiega
che cosa si intenda con qualcosa di intelligente [This explains what is meant by
something clever]; M 374). As for the subplicit meaning in knocked up, two
out of three translators lose it (M: non pu non aver messo fuori gioco tutti gli
altri [he cannot help having sidelined all the others]; N: ha messo nei guai tutti gli
altri [he got everybody else into trouble]), whereas one makes it Mr Knightleys
explicit meaning (G: deve aver sfinito tutti gli altri [he must have exhausted all
the others]).
[ST] There follows a rather long comment of Mrs Eltons, more or less on the
same lines as her previous contributions. She implicitly contrasts her behaviour
with Emmas, censures Mr Westons conundrum (Oh! for myself, I protest I must
be excused ... I really cannot attempt ... I am not one of those who have witty
things at every bodys service. I do not pretend to be a wit), relates an anecdote
aimed at showing she has admirers as well (I had an acrostic once sent to me upon
my own name, which I was not at all pleased with. I knew who it came from. An
abominable puppy!), and states the reasons for her disapproval of what is taking
place as a general rule (These kind of things are very well at Christmas, when
one is sitting round the fire; but quite out of place, in my opinion, when one is
exploring about the country in summer; E 336).
Her husband agrees with her, and proposes a walk. He also adds a covertly
offensive remark:
I have nothing to say that can entertain Miss Woodhouse, or any other young
lady. An old married man quite good for nothing. (E 336)

If understood literally, Mr Eltons remark means that he has, generally, nothing

entertaining to say but of course, one must suppose that he also is exploiting
Grices maxim of Manner, i.e., that he is being ambiguous in order to suggest
implicated meanings. Those implicated meanings, as set off by the first part of his
speech, would be very offensive (Someone praised Miss Woodhouse, which is the
way to entertain her: I have nothing to say in her praise, therefore, I can say nothing
This sense of knock up is now obsolete. According to the Macmillan English
Dictionary (2002), knocking up is currently used with the informal or slang meanings of
producing something quickly and easily, waking or calling someone by knocking on the
door, or making a woman pregnant.

State the FTA [face-threatening act] as a general rule is one of the strategies of
negative politeness as described by Brown and Levinson (1987: 2067).

Winning the War of Conversation in Emma


to entertain her): perhaps Mr Elton realizes he is in danger of committing a FTA,

because he immediately tries to cancel the implicatures he set off by adding
some additional premises to the original ones (or any other young lady; Levinson
1983: 114), and then makes use of the socially acceptable technique of blaming
himself (An old married man quite good for nothing; Leech 1983: 132).
[TT] The three translators, as on the previous occasions, mostly ignore Mrs
Eltons contrastive stress, which focuses on the repetition and highlighting of the
first-person pronoun. They reproduce, of course, both her anecdote and her remarks
on conundrums and summer excursions. A point of some interest, however, is the
translators rendering of at every bodys service a vague, ambiguous comment
implicating that one must be indeed ready to serve everybody if one chooses to be
at Emma Woodhouses service. Two out of three translators catch the implicature
and emphasize it almost to the point of making it Mrs Eltons literal meaning
(G: a disposizione di chiunque [at anybodys disposal] (G 278); M: a servizio
di chiunque [at anybodys service]; M 374); the third seems, instead, to have
slightly misunderstood Mrs Elton (Non sono di quelle che hanno battute su tutti
a disposizione [I am not one of those women who have jokes about everybody at
their command]; N 243).
As for Mr Eltons speech, a very subtle effect is obtained, in the original, by
the insertion of a comma between his initial disparaging comment and the clause
he adds in order to cancel the offensive implicature (..., or any other young lady).
Two out of three translators keep the comma (G: Io non ho niente da dire che possa
divertire Miss Woodhouse, o qualunque altra giovane signora [I have nothing to
say that can entertain Miss Woodhouse, or any other young lady] (G 278); N is
to all effects identical); whereas the third prefers to remove it (M: Non ho nulla
da dire che possa divertire la signorina Woodhouse o unaltra giovane signora [I
have nothing to say that can entertain Miss Woodhouse or another young lady]; M
374), thus making Mr Eltons evasive technique less evident.
[ST] Mrs Elton agrees with all my heart to walk with her husband, because,
she says, I am really tired of exploring so long on one spot (E 337). Since this
statement superficially breaches Grices first maxim of Quality (Do not say what
you believe to be false; Grice 1967/1991: 27), because in Mrs Eltons world and
ours one cannot be exploring while one is not moving, one must assume that there
is a non-literal, ironic side to her meaning (We are supposed to be exploring, but
we are not moving). However, given all that has just been said, one might also
catch in Mrs Eltons speech a subplicit strike at Emma: I am really tired of talking

Grice (1967/1991: 39) lists a series of features a conversational implicature must
possess in order to be what it is. One of these features is what Levinson (1983: 114) calls
cancellability or defeasibility: a generalized conversational implicature can be canceled
in a particular case. It may be explicitly canceled, by the addition of a clause that states or
implies that the speaker has opted out, or it may be contextually canceled, if the form of
utterance that usually carries it is used in a context that makes it clear that the speaker is
opting out.


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

so long about the same subject. In other words, Mrs Eltons exploitation of the
maxim of Quality, by leaving her primary meaning indeterminate, sets off more
than a single conversational implicature.
[TT] In Italian, the implicit and subplicit meanings activated by Mrs Elton
will conceivably be kept if her ironic statement is translated literally. Two out
of three translators, indeed, keep so close to the original that they formulate an
awkward sentence (G: Son proprio stanca di esplorare per tanto tempo uno stesso
posto [I am really tired of exploring so long one same spot] (G 278); N to all
effects the same). The third, however, turns Mrs Eltons paradox into a logical
statement conforming to the Cooperative Principle (M: Sono stanca di partecipare
a unescursione restando sempre nello stesso luogo [I am tired of taking part in
an excursion while always remaining on the same spot]; M 374), thus losing
the conversational implicatures which constitute Mrs Eltons last volley against
Emma before sounding the retreat.
[ST] The Eltons go for a walk, and as soon as they are out of hearing, Frank
Churchill makes an ironic comment on how well they suit one another, adding
that it is a lucky couple that can be said to have married happily on so short an
acquaintance in Bath or any public place, for many a man has committed himself
on a short acquaintance, and rued it all the rest of his life (E 337). He is hinting,
though only one person in the whole company can understand his covert meaning,
at his own attachment to Jane Fairfax, but he is doing so by stating his FTA as a
general rule.
Jane Fairfax responds, and her words are recorded by the narrator for the first
time in this conversation, in such a way as to alert us that what she is about to say
is of some moment:

Miss Fairfax, who had seldom spoken before, except among her own
confederates, spoke now.

Such things do occur, undoubtedly. She was stopped by a cough. Frank
Churchill turned towards her to listen.

You were speaking, said he, gravely. She recovered her voice. (E 337)

One thing must be noted in the narrators introduction of Jane Fairfaxs speech,
in connection with the fact that Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchills attachment
has not yet been disclosed (within a few days, and a few chapters, Emma and the
reader are going to learn that this conversation has helped precipitate events and
hurry that disclosure): it is the functional contrast placed upon that final spoke
now (which is also foregrounded by virtue of its position) in the first sentence: if
Miss Fairfax, who had seldom spoken before, chooses to speak now, there must
be some good reason to do so.
[TT] All three translators keep Frank Churchills hints, but they react variously
to the narrators introduction of Jane Fairfaxs speech. That final, foregrounded,
spoke now, is kept by one (G: Miss Fairfax, che aveva di rado parlato prima ...
parl adesso [Miss Fairfax, who had seldom spoken before ... spoke now]; G 278),
slightly modified by another (N: La signorina Fairfax, che fino a quel momento

Winning the War of Conversation in Emma


aveva parlato raramente ... ora parl [Miss Fairfax, who up to that moment had
spoken but seldom ... now spoke]; N 244), all but lost by the third (M: La signorina
Fairfax, che prima aveva parlato pochissimo ... ora disse: [Miss Fairfax, who had
spoken very little before ... now said]; M 375).
[ST] Jane Fairfax has perfectly understood Frank Churchills technique of
covering his meaning in general terms, and employs it in her turn in order to give
him to understand that, if he so wishes, he is free from all obligations:
I was only going to observe, that though such unfortunate circumstances do
sometimes occur both to men and women, I cannot imagine them to be very
frequent. A hasty and imprudent attachment may arise but there is generally
time to recover from it afterwards. I would be understood to mean, that it can be
only weak, irresolute characters ... who will suffer an unfortunate acquaintance
to be an inconvenience, an oppression for ever. (E 337)

A focal point in her speech is the verb phrase I would be understood to mean,
which may be said to amount to a breach of Grices second maxim of Quantity
(Do not make your contribution more informative than is required; Grice
1967/1991: 26). By using more words than are here necessary (I mean, What
I mean is), Jane Fairfax is indicating that her choice of words is meaningful: the
conversational implicature, here, is that she wants to be understood, indeed will be
understood, by someone in particular.
[TT] Two out of three translators render Jane Fairfaxs words by an expression
which conveys her insistence on being understood (Vorrei che si capisse [Id
like it to be understood]; G 279; N 244), whereas one employs a shorter, weaker
expression which does not activate as clearly the same conversational implicatures
(Quello che intendo dire [What I mean to say]; M 375).
[ST] Frank Churchill does not answer, but merely looked, and bowed
in submission (E 337), before turning to Emma for another flirting spell, and
virtually putting an end to the general conversation. What is significant is that
Frank Churchill, according to the narrator, does not merely bow, or make a
courteous bow, but bows in submission. Though no doubt signalling Frank
Churchills politeness, the narrators description of his motives for bowing seems
slightly exaggerated once again, a small breach of Grices maxim of Relation:
why should he bow in submission, if there has not been a struggle between him
and Jane Fairfax, and if he were not admitting that she won? The answer, of course
the conversational implicature activated by the narrators words is that there
has been a struggle, and that he is admitting that his lover/rival won.
[TT] None of the three translators renders submission literally as
sottomissione, or, also quite literally, as ubbidienza (obedience). Two of
them interpret submission as deference, thus highlighting Frank Churchills
good manners (G: sinchin con deferenza [bowed deferentially] (G 279); N to
all effects the same). The third translator interprets it as assent, thus
presenting Frank Churchills gesture as an acknowledgment that Jane Fairfax
is right (M: si limit a guardarla e inchinarsi in segno di assenso [He merely
looked at her and bowed in assent]; M 375).


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

The Final Score

The Italian translators often lose track of Austens fine balance between explicit
and implicit meanings. As a consequence, the Italian reader vaguely understands
that points are being scored and hits are being parried in a complex game of attack
and defense, but some of the actions become less clear, while on other occasions
the attack becomes too straightforward, too ingenuous (and the reader is left
wondering why nobody reacts more strongly).
However, if the interlingual passage tends to blur some of the points, the
final score is almost as indecipherable for the English pragmatician as it is for
the Italian reader. The game of conversation is much more complicated than a
tennis match. In a tennis match, the chair umpire determines the exact outcome of
every shot give or take a few balls near the lines and the final score is usually
not a debatable matter. In conversation, the goals of each interactant may not be
immediately clear, and every participant will have his/her own idea of the outcome.
In Austens dialogue, turn-taking and goal-seeking may be more formalized than
even in Austens own society: but while we understand that various characters are
trying to score points and/or to win the conversation, we remain in the dark as to
who actually won the narrator-umpire, as seen above, being of little help.
An attempt at assigning points, however, can and must be made, because
scoring points is clearly what this conversation is about. The one character who
attempts to score most consistently is Mrs Elton, twice backed by her husband. Her
target is Emma of whose position as everybodys favourite she is envious and
she manages to offend her chosen opponent while stopping short of committing
any open FTAs. Her gain in status, however, is doubtful: because after all, many
of her comments seem to be meant for her husband rather than for the whole group
(Her mutterings were chiefly to her husband; E 334), and the Eltons are covertly
made fun of by Frank Churchill (and shunned by Jane Fairfax) as soon as they go
for a walk.
Mr Knightley also has his own axes to grind. On a couple of occasions, he
attacks Emma and Mr Weston: whatever his primary target, his irritation seems
to be directed against Emma, though one suspects that the true goal of his
conversational moves might be scoring points against his rival, Frank Churchill.
If compared with Mrs Eltons, Mr Knightleys onslaught seems even more direct,
at least on one occasion (Is Miss Woodhouse sure that she would like to hear
what we are all thinking of? E 334). On the other hand, Mr Knightleys remarks
are perhaps heard more deferentially by the others (Emma, for one, answers his
rhetorical question): partly, this may be due to the fact that while Mrs Eltons
mutterings are peevish and self-centred, his are seemingly more dignified and
other-centred (at least grammatically: he never says I); but also, one must not
forget that Knightleys position of authority, of strategic dominance, ensures that
he is listened to when he speaks.
Other characters seem less intent on scoring points than on playing games,
complimenting each other, or simply listening. But even being playful or
complimentary can entail scoring points, because it calls for somebody elses

Winning the War of Conversation in Emma


contribution or reciprocation. And on a couple of occasions, points are scored by

unexpected players. When Emma commits a FTA against Miss Bates, she may
think she is selecting a soft target, but in the end it is perhaps only her victim who
gains status, while Emma gains Mr Knightleys censure (How could you be so
unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman
of her character, age, and situation? E 339).10 Another unexpected winner is Jane
Fairfax, who answers Frank Churchills general face-threatening remarks in the
same vein, thus obtaining his submission.
As noted above, it is very difficult, and perhaps meaningless, to decide who
won. In part, this is because while we can make surmises on the speakers goals,
and on the degree to which these goals are achieved, the narrator tells us little
about the listeners goals, or about their reactions and status points, in group
interactions, are often assigned by the audience.11 But above all, the difficulty is
due to the inherent complexity and ambivalent character of spoken interaction:
each participant can form a different judgment of what is going on; each may
convince him/herself that he/she has gained status, and his/her vision need have
no relation whatsoever with anybody elses.
In the end, one is tempted to look at how the novels unfold to distinguish
the winners from the losers: after her blunder on Box Hill, Emma submits to
Mr Knightleys superior judgment; after their envious mutterings, the Eltons are
definitively marginalized from the main plot (and Mrs Elton is made fun of by the
narrator just before the close of the novel); after her firm repartee, Jane Fairfax
manages to tame Frank Churchill and marry him. But after all, assigning points
in this way would mean judging the battle only by the outcome of the war: whereas
the battle, if seen from the ranks or from a neighbouring hill, remains a tale told by
an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying what little meaning the scholar manages
to find in it or invest it with.

In connection with this episode, it is interesting to mention Michael Burgoons
Language Expectancy Theory, according to which change in the direction desired by
an actor occurs when positive violations of expectations occur ... (1) when the enacted
behaviour is better or more preferred than that which was expected in the situation, or
(2) when negatively evaluated sources conform more closely than expected to cultural
values, societal norms, or situational exigencies (Burgoon 1995: 30). In this case, the
reverse happens: a positively evaluated source (Emma) conforms less closely than expected
to a societal norm, and the outcome is a change in an undesired direction (Knightleys
As Gillian Brown has noted, listeners may have intentions and goals in
listening which are, to a greater or lesser degree, independent of those of the speaker
(Brown 1996: 201).

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The War of Ideas and the Sea of Possibility
In Larkins poem The Old Fools, the oblivion incumbent on old age is contrasted
with the oblivion preceding birth, all the time merging with a unique endeavour /
To bring to bloom the million-petalled flower / Of being here (Larkin 1988: 196):
to exist is to solidify a sea of possibility into a beach of actuality, and with every
second of existence that beach loses a grain of sand, until it is a strip of land newly
surrounded by water. It is more or less the same with criticism, linguistic or of any
other description: when one merges the sum of ones insight into a unified analysis,
all the lost possibilities can at most be hinted at in passing; and in presenting itself
as the only true interpretation, every reading submerges or subsumes all the others.
At the end of this enterprise, it is time to reinstate all the remaining options:
The key to Jane Austens fortune with posterity has been in part the extraordinary
grace of her facility, in fact of her unconsciousness ... (Southam 1987: 230)
[Jane Austen] is, in English fiction, as Milton in English poetry, the one
completely conscious and almost unerring artist. (Southam 1987: 250)
The world of Emmas fancy fades in the clear, cool light of day. (Lascelles
1939: 76)
But the difficulty of Emma is never overcome. (Trilling 1957/1991: 122)
The thesis of Mansfield Park is severely moral: that one world, representing the
genteel orthodoxy of Jane Austens time, is categorically superior to any other.
(Mudrick 1952: 155)
In Mansfield Park, [Austen] examines the power relationships that develop
between women-as-writers and as-readers, and the institutions that reduce their
options and make them marginal, especially in the field of letters. (Gardiner
1995: 151)
Amelia and Mansfield Park highlight what was occluded in the earlier works,
more vociferously espousing traditional values yet more clearly exposing their
deficiencies. (Parker 1998: 14)
Whatever a reader thinks Mansfield Park is up to at any moment, it is all too
likely to do something different or, still more challengingly, to do nothing at
all. (Tandon 2003: 195)
The themes and techniques of Pride and Prejudice accomplish their eighteenthcentury didactic end, moral and emotional instruction, at the same time that they


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

create a degree of intimacy with the characters and an absorption in the world of
the novel surpassed only by the readers response to the novels which follow it,
Mansfield Park, Emma and Persuasion. (Fergus 1983: 9)
Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Maria Edgeworth, Ann Radcliffecalculatedly
devoted their fiction to challenging the repressive sexual politics promoted
by the conduct books of the day, a politics that erected a patriarchal domestic
ideology that demanded that the female be kept at home, educated only to be
sexually attractive and submissive to her husband. (Mellor 2000: 103)
... we cannot accept a version of Jane Austen of all people that characterises
her ... as a mere inert reflector of the commonplaces of her age as one who,
to take an example often trotted out, took the female conduct books of Gregory,
Fordyce, Gisborne etc. with a kind of paralysed seriousness. (Gard 1992: 6)
Yet Austens characters relentlessly seek that complete truth. ... Their attempts
to impose epistemological stability on their world mimic the readers own search
for determinate readings of the texts. That enterprise has never really succeeded,
despite the fact that Austens novels have long been considered classic in
Roland Barthes sense of the word. (Patteson 1981: 455)

While all these can be seen as alternative readings, and have been viewed in that
light throughout the present study, they can also be pieced together to form the
complete Austen jigsaw puzzle. At the very least, all of these perceptive critics
tell us something about reading Jane Austens novels, if not about the novels
themselves. Henry Jamess unconscious grace and facility reflect a typical first
impression elicited by Jane Austen though grace and facility are probably
obtained at the price of great labour, in a conscious effort of unerring art (Farrer).
Lascelless bright and sparkling reading of E reflects a quality which many readers
find in that most difficult and undecidable of novels (Trilling). MP can be read
as a paean for Old Tory England (Mudrick), as a manifesto of feminist subversion
(Gardiner), as both (Parker) or as a post-structuralist, slippery creature (Tandon).
Jane Austens novels are didactic, anti-didactic, and free from didacticism (Fergus,
Mellor, Gard). They contain a vast number of truths, yet none of these truths can
be finally relied upon (Patteson).
Even though Jane Austens Narrative Techniques stands in sharp opposition to
those studies that treat novels as if they were pamphlets, it does not wish to suggest
that there are no ideologies at war in Austens novels. The ideologies are there, the
war is there, but owing to Austens chameleonic ability, it is close to impossible,
in the end, to separate winners and losers, just as it is very difficult to decide who
wins the conversational tennis-match on Box Hill. Therefore, the analysis offered
in the present study supplements all preceding readings, rather than supplanting
them: it provides a (technical) framework which accounts for the existence of a
plethora of interpretations.
Plethora means fullness and fullness, in critical thought, is synonymous with
richness. The abundance of critical versions of Jane Austen is a good thing, not



merely because diversity of opinion is a symptom of intellectual vitality, but above

all because critical richness is (almost) always a mirror of literary richness of a
primary vitality engendering a secondary one. In other words, if there are so many
interpretations of Austens novels, it is because they are all contained, embedded,
envisaged as possibilities in the originals. Critics read the events of S&S like
Elinor or Marianne, judge the characters in E like Emma or Mr Knightley, watch
the theatricals in MP like Edmund Bertram, Fanny Price, Mary Crawford or Sir
Thomas. By so doing, they augment our understanding of Austens works, or, at the
very least, of the social and intellectual contexts in which they were conceived.
In this plethora of primary and secondary readings, Jane Austen that, when
all is said and done, is the ideological beginning and end of this study remains
in the background, hidden behind her characters and her narrators-as-characters.
Maybe because her fictional structures go against the grain of her ideological
purposes. Maybe because she feels a secret sympathy for the characters that she
ought to reprimand. Maybe because it is the nature of all fiction to dethrone the
author in the narrators name.
Or maybe but this is just one of many possible explanations because she
wishes to remain hidden. Because she prefers to leave the vulgar work of extracting
meanings from her novels to someone else. But then again, Katherine Mansfields
famous epistolary remark resounds as a final warning note:
The truth is that every true admirer of her novels cherishes the happy thought
that he alone reading between the lines has become the secret friend of the
author. (Mansfield 1928: 335)

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Note: The letter n following a page number denotes that the index entry can be found
in the footnote.
Abington, F. 26n
Addison, J. 90n
Anderson, L. 19
Appleton, M. 11
Arndt, H. 106n
Atkins, B. 94n
Austen, C. 70n
Austin, J.L. 11, 114n
Babb, H.S. 11, 107n
Bach, K. 132, 137
Bakhtin, M. 7, 24, 31
Bamford, J. 19
Battaglia, B. 6n, 29n, 41n
Bayley, J. 6n
Bell, D.V.J. 114n, 120
Berger, C.R. 109
Berger, D.A. 11
Bertuccelli Papi, M. 132
Billi, M. 57n
Black, E. 17, 30, 38, 40
Blair, H. 80n
Blake, N.F. 11
Boase-Beier, J. 133
Booth, W. 10, 2930, 35, 54
Bowen, P. 34
Brooke, C. 5n
Brown, G. 143n
Brown, J.P. 52n
Brown, L.W. 101n
Brown, P. 83, 87, 88, 101, 109, 110, 119,
1323, 134, 135, 138n
Bublitz, W. 87
Burgoon, M. 143n
Burke, P. 81, 85, 88, 93n, 101
Burney, F. 81
Burrows, J.F. 910
Butler, M. 25
Butte, G. 54n
Byrne, P. 45n

Cameron, D. 125n
Carroll, L. (C.L. Dodgson) 21
Carter, R. 101n, 125
Carver, R. 70n
Castiglione, B. 36
Chesterfield, Lord (P.D. Stanhope) 7980n,
82, 85, 87n, 92n, 99n, 101n
Coates, J. 85
Conrad, J. (Jzef Korzeniowski) 19
Copeland, E. 67n
Cortazzi, M. 19, 24, 43n
Coulthard, M. 86, 91, 100n
Cowper, W. 101n
Davidson, J. 11, 80n
de Marco, N. 40n
DeForest, M. 10, 31n
Dendrinos, B. 94
Devlin, D.D. 97n
Dickens, C. 2021, 23
Dilthey, W. 62n
Dossena, M. 18n
Douthwaite, J. 28n, 130n
Downes, W. 106n
Duckworth, A.M. 4
Dussinger, J.A. 82n
Eco, U. 17n
Edgeworth, M. 26n, 81, 146
Eggins, S. 18n
Ehrenpreis, I. 15
Eliot, G. (M.A. Evans) 6n
Evans, M. 4
Farrer, R. 2, 15, 16, 1456
Fawcett, P. 131
Fergus, J. 97n, 146
Fielding, H. 81, 82
Finch, C. 34
Firth, A. 95


Jane Austens Narrative Techniques

Flaubert, G. 2, 5
Fleischman, S. 17
Fludernik, M. 23n, 33n
Foppa, K. 84
Ford, F.M. (F.M. Hueffer) 20
Fowler, R. 16, 19, 35n, 61, 634
Fritzer, P.J. 11
Galperin, W.H. 53n
Gard, R. 2, 5, 146
Gardiner, E. 1456
Gay, P. 15n, 26n, 45n, 57
Genette, G. 19n
Gilbert, S.M. 25
Gilmour, R. 11, 80n
Goffman, E. 84
Graham, P.W. 6n, 312n, 72n
Grice, P. 11, 28n, 42, 87, 100, 112, 13241
Guazzo, S. 85
Gubar, S. 25
Halliday, M.A.K. 20n, 312, 71, 73
Harding, D.W. 2, 3, 95n
Harris, B. 131n
Hasan, R. 71, 73
Hatim, B. 131
Hobbes, T. 75
Hoey, M.P. 19, 86
Holly, G.I. 7, 23
Holmes, J.S. 131n
Honan, P. 37n
Hough, G. 8, 11, 33n
Hudson, G.A. 6
Hughes, T. 12
Hunston, S. 20, 22, 33n, 61
Hymes, D. 92
Inchbald, E. 15n, 26n, 678, 81
Iser, W. 17n
Ishiguro, K. 19, 53
Jakobson, R. 131
James, H. 2, 5, 6n, 19, 36, 46, 1456
Janney, R.W. 106n
Jaworski, A. 88
Jefferson, G. 83
Jin, L. 19, 24, 43n
Johnson, C.L. 4, 16n
Johnson, E. 10, 31n

Johnson, S. 108
Jordan, D. 26n
Joyce, J. 16, 20, 61, 63
Jucker, A.H. 18n
Kaplan, D. 4
Kelly, G. 81n
Kirkham, M. 4
Knox-Shaw, P. 6n
Konigsberg, I. 31n
Kotzebue, A. von 15n
Kroeber, K. 11
La Faye, D. 70n
Labov, W. 1718, 24
Lakoff, R. 934, 135n
Larkin, P. 145
Lascelles, M. 49n, 121n, 1456
Lawrence, D.H. 23
Leavis, F.R. 2
Leavis, Q.D. 2
Leech, G.N. 26, 27, 34, 613, 87, 88, 110,
116, 120, 135, 139
Levinson, S. 83, 87, 88, 101, 109, 110,
112, 119, 130, 1323, 134, 135,
138n, 139
Linell, P. 57, 84, 130
Locke, J. 31n, 75
Looser, D. 4
Lyons, J. 64
McCarthy, M. 83, 101n, 125
McIlvanney, W. 21
McMaster, J. 11, 69n
Malmkjr, K. 133
Mandal, A. 6n, 36n, 118n
Mandala, S. 9n
Mansfield, K. 147
Markova, P. 84
Marroni, F. 107n
Martin, J.R 24
Mellor, A.K. 146
Meneghelli, P. 131
Meyersohn, M. 11
Michaelson, P.H. 80n, 90n
Miller, D.A. 7, 15, 23, 29, 57n
Monaghan, D. 129n
Mooneyham, L.G. 97
More, H. 11718

Morini, M. 19, 33, 53, 131
Morris, C. 130
Mudrick, M. 35, 1456
Nardin, J. 15
Neubert, A. 131
OBarr, W. 94n
Oliphant, M. 53
Orwell, G. 72, 746
Page, N. 10, 11, 80n
Paris, B.J. 234
Park, Y.-m. 5
Parker, J.A. 1456
Pascal, R. 11, 33n
Patteson, R.F. 7, 8, 23, 146
Phillips, K.C. 10, 11
Poovey, M. 4, 72n
Pratt, M.L. 17
Praz, M. 131
Radcliffe, A. 41n, 81, 146
Ramus, P. (P. de la Rame) 63
Rand Schmidt, K.-A. 10, 94n
Reiss, K. 131
Ribeiro Pedro, E. 94
Richardson, S. 81, 127
Rosmarin, A. 23
Ross, A.S.C. 91
Sacks, H. 83, 100n
Said, E. 4
Schegloff, E.A. 83
Schleiermacher, F. 62n
Scott, W. 2, 26n, 53n
Searle, J.R. 125
Seeber, B.K. 7n
Semino, E. 35n
Short, M.H. 26, 613
Simpson, P. 19, 21, 24, 34
Sinclair, J.McH. 86
Slade, D. 18n


Sotirova, V. 33n
Southam, B.C. 2, 15, 16, 53, 145
Speer, S.A. 934
Sperber, D. 345
Spitzer, L. 62
Sprat, T. 75
Spring, D. 72n, 124
Stenstrm, A. 98, 104, 110n
Stockwell, P. 17n, 52n
Stokes, M. 10
Stout, J.P. 36n
Sulloway, A.G. 4
Sunder Rajan, R. 5
Sutherland, J. 28, 46
Tandon, B. 11, 1456
Tanner, T. 3n
Tave, S.M. 10, 11
Thompson, G. 20, 22, 33n, 61
Thompson, J. 26n
Toolan, M. 18, 23n, 33n
Toury, G. 131n
Trilling, L. 15, 1456
Trusler, J. 80n, 82, 83n, 85, 87n, 89, 90n, 91n,
92n, 100n, 101n, 105n, 120n, 122n
Vermeer, H. 131
Waldron, M. 56n
Wallace, T.G. 23
Watts, R.J. 98n, 129
White, P.R.R. 24
Wiesenfarth, J. 10n, 101n
Williams, R. 25, 6n, 11
Wilson, D. 345
Wiltshire, J. 88n
Winborn, C. 83n
Wittgenstein, L. 11
Wollstonecraft, M. 4
Woolf, V. 15, 20, 23
Zazo, A.L. 131
Zunshine, L. 54n