Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Auntie-novel

You should read Colm Toibin's new LRB essay on "the importance of aunts" in the C19 novel. As it doesn't excerpt well I'll try to summarize Toibin's argument. He begins with the question of why heroines tend to be -- either actually or in effect -- motherless, why "the novel is a form for orphans." Toibin's answer is that this is structural:
Mothers get in the way in fiction: they take up space that is better occupied by indecision, by hope, by the slow growth of a personality, and – as the novel itself develops – by the idea of solitude. It becomes important to the novel that its key scenes should occur when the heroine is alone, with no one to protect her, no one to confide in, no possibility of advice.
Aunts are useful because they are surrogate mothers who can be introduced and removed at will, and also because the niece-aunt relation is partly volitional. This brings Toibin to a discussion of aunts and mothers in Jane Austen's novels, commenting briefly on the good and bad aunts in P&P and then turning to the role of Lady Bertram -- the indolent woman who fosters the heroine in Mansfield Park -- and what the character is for [my emphases]:
A novel is a pattern and it is our job to notice how the textures were woven and the tones put in place. [...] It is a release of certain energies and a dramatisation of how these energies might be controlled and given shape. Characters in fiction are determined by the pattern, and they determine the pattern in turn.

Lady Bertram in this context is easy to read; her role in the pattern of Mansfield Park is obvious. She is not good, she performs no good or kind act that matters; nor is she bad, since she performs no bad act that matters either. But she is there in the book, in the house, in the family. Fanny has already lost one mother, who has effectively given her away. Aunt Norris plays the role of the wicked aunt who appears now and then. Lady Bertram has four children of her own, and with the arrival of Fanny, she effectively acquires a fifth. Austen now has a problem. If she makes Lady Bertram merely unpleasant, Fanny will have to respond to her unpleasantness in scene after scene, because Lady Bertram is, unusually, an aunt in residence rather than an aunt who comes and goes. This will then become the story of the book: a simple story of cruelty and resistance to cruelty. And if Lady Bertram is actively cruel to Fanny, how will she treat her own children? If she treats them with kindness, then the intensity of their agency will be diluted and dissolved. If she is cruel to them too, then the singleness of Fanny, her solitude as a force in the book, will not emerge.

It would really make sense to kill Lady Bertram, or to have her not be there, allow her to be one of those unmentioned mothers in fiction, an unpalpable absence. But in that case, Fanny wouldn’t join her household [...] So Austen has to have Lady Bertram be there and not there at the very same time; she has to give her characteristics which are essentially neutral. [...] it must have been tempting to allow her to have some role, to be silly or irritating or amusing like Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. But Austen has the ingenious idea of making the sofa, rather than the household, the realm over which Lady Bertram reigns, and making sleep, or half-sleep, her dynamic. She is too sleepy to care.
This is the heart of the essay, and I find its nuts/bolts approach to literary analysis extremely refreshing. It is the sort of thing one wishes one had thought of. Toibin's overall defense of Mansfield Park is less compelling. ("She has a way of noticing and registering which has nothing to do with virtue, but everything to do with the novel’s pattern." Maybe, but this doesn't mean she isn't a bore. Toibin doesn't explain why Fanny couldn't have been made interesting, and in general his is a theory of aunts rather than nieces... An argument he hints at but doesn't make is that Fanny is dull to parallel Lady Bertram's dullness; this parallel is unlikely to occur to th reader, though.)

Toibin doesn't say much about Austen's other novels, which also contain aunts and quasi-aunts (Lady Russell in Persuasion, and Mr. Knightley is an aunt of sorts). Instead he returns briefly to the idea of aunts as plot device ("one of the other purposes of aunts is that they allow for dramatic entrances and departures. All through the 19th century, aunts breach the peace and lighten the load."), and then turns to Henry James as a later stage in the development of the aunt, viz. as the point at which a pattern has been established and can be subverted for effect -- for instance, the scene in The Portrait of a Lady where the heroine discovers that her husband and surrogate aunt are lovers. This is obvious, I think, but serves as an interesting confirmation of the existence of a tradition of aunts. Then he turns to The Ambassadors, which again has a sexually active aunt, and delivers the things-clicking-into-place paragraph:
And so once more James has sexualised an aunt. It is as though Henry Crawford had come to Mansfield Park in search of Lady Bertram rather than Fanny; or Mr Darcy was found in the countryside in his shirt-sleeves with none other than Mrs Bennet; or Mr Bingley was found in a carriage with Lady Catherine de Bourgh. In other words, James took what was necessary for a novel in his time to have power and weight – the replacement of the mother by the aunt – and then saw what was possible [...]

(In other words HJ invented the cougar.) And then, having run out of things to say about aunts, he turns to another aspect of the tension between the Victorian novel and the family, which is the presence of single men who are not looking for wives. This leads him, via bad-husband/oppressed-wife/single-man triangles in Trollope and George Eliot, to the character of the clever, generous, and manipulative invalid Ralph Touchett in The Portrait of a Lady. (Perhaps naturally for Toibin, all roads lead to Henry James.) What James does with the disruptive single man is, interestingly, the opposite of what he does with the aunt -- he desexualizes Touchett -- though what he gets out of this is a little unclear. (I think Touchett's illness is best understood as a necessary distinguishing feature, given that the book abounds in attractive single men; it also accounts for his death.)

So aunts are: (a) givers of advice etc., (b) excuses for the characters to be away from their parents when important things happen, (c) diverting. (They can be more than one of the above.) Mothers, if present, must be diminished like Mrs. Bennet. The novel must happen on neutral ground; plausibility, however, forbids a young woman of the appropriate social class from being alone, so the aunt is structurally necessary (b), and, like a spandrel, can accommodate additional decorative purposes (a, c). It's amusing to think of the structure of a novel as being constrained, almost overdetermined, by the stories you must exclude and the sympathies you must prevent from developing. A few further thoughts:
  • The queens in the two Alice books are aunts of a kind; they serve purposes (a) and (c). But purpose (b) doesn't exist: the aunt is an end rather than a means. On the other hand, the witch in Rapunzel is mostly (b). In general Toibin doesn't talk about aunts-as-witches, but there is an obvious similarity. One would suppose that, while (b) is somewhat specific to Victorian social structure, (a) and (c) are more durable archetypes.
  • Nor does Toibin talk about Dickens, and Betsey Trotwood in particular. Orwell notes, in his essay on Dickens, the importance of "that recurrent Dickens figure, the good rich man [...] who ‘trots’ to and fro, raising his employees’ wages, patting children on the head, getting debtors out of jail and in general, acting the fairy godmother." These figures imply a safety net for the hero/ine. One of the stories that have to be excluded is the precariousness of the individual's position in 19th cent. England; a coming-of-age novel, with its implicit individualism, must avoid this if it isn't to be a primarily social novel; sympathetic aunts are a way of heading off certain questions.
  • The afterlife of aunts in comic literature -- from Lady Bracknell to Wodehouse's Aunts aren't Gentlemen -- is another interesting adaptation of the template. Their demise in serious literature naturally has to do with the social changes that made it natural for single women to live apart from their parents. Where have functions (a) and (c) migrated, though?

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