Intermezzo: The Genius Jane Austen
This was my response to Ms. Seymour's article on Jane Austen in The Times today:
Dear Ms. Seymour,
There are two reasons why Jane Austen is arguably a literary genius on the scale of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Proust, Joyce, etc. The definition of genius in this context is the ability to produce a work of art that achieves an ideal combination of form, content and time (a modification of Kierkegaard’s argument on Don Giovanni and Faust). The element of time, not included in Kierkegaard’s argument (as far as I know, although I am no expert here), is critical and has two key components:
a. the form must contain seminal developments that later become widespread
b. the content must be in harmony with the form and have relevance in a later epoch (although not necessarily throughout all epochs)
Many authors achieve b), especially with regard to “relevance in a later epoch”, but there is no other 18th/19th century author whose formal influence has been as great as Jane Austen’s. What does this consist of? Two things primarily:
a. the extensive use of indirect discourse (she was basically the first)
b. personal, colloquial narration in the idiom of discourse, primarily SVO/SP (subject-verb-object // subject-predicate) (again she was basically the first)
Not only did the employment of indirect discourse become extremely widespread in the 19th and 20th century, but Austen’s 9 different forms of it (forgot source, can search upon request) still today remains among the most diverse. Point b) can only be understood in comparison. Here you must read Austen against Walter Scott or Radcliff or Bachmann. Even in comparison to the Brontes, especially in comparison to Dickens, and staggeringly in comparison to German and Russian writers, Austen’s narration largely assumes the language that protagonists speak in novels and we use in real life today: subject-verb-object, subject-predicate, subject-verb-object. Austen’s idiom is the origin of this discourse of stimulus as I call it, and these two formal achievements, the universal adoption throughout English and American society place her in a position unique among writers.
I may as well add that it may also be possible to argue that by adopting transposition for indirect discourse, Austen shaped the English/American perception of the world (because, as in Russian, it is also possible for indirect discourse to not be transposed). Depending on whether a language and thus a people have transposed or untransposed indirect discourse has an impact on subjects ranging from subjectivity/objectivity and uncertainty about source (is it narration from the narrator or is it transposed indirect discourse from a character?) to the possibility of conceiving of a text without an author (if the present tense isn’t required for processing information, then a text can exist without an apprehender), etc.