We often treat Jane Austen's narrative economy as a truth universally acknowledged. For that reason, criticism tends to weave this feature of Austen's writing into studies focused on other topics, rather than making style itself the main event. The most prominent exception is D.A. Miller's Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style (2003). But Miller's main quarry is the idea that Austen's style, and indeed Style writ large, is impersonal, devoid of either any body or the specific, socially marginalized body that belonged to Austen the spinster. In other words, Miller aims to theorize Austen's style more than to identify its formal components, perhaps because the fact of her economy seems so obvious. This omission, as well as the problematically gendered terrain onto which Miller's idea of impersonal style leads, leaves ample room for new contributions to the study of Austen's stylistic economy. Surprisingly, then, Anne Toner's book makes us reconsider what we assumed was obvious--what, exactly, makes up Austen's famous narrative economy.
Toner's introduction foregrounds two of the book's major strengths. Besides reviewing the history of critical praise for Austen's narrative economy, Toner argues that Austen's key stylistic concerns develop from her teenage writings, or juvenilia (25). Regarding the first point, Austen's narrative economy won praise from specific critics. In 1859, Toner notes, George Henry Lewes observed that Austen's writing displayed "economy of art" (qtd. 5), and Mary Augusta Ward is said to have made the "next major assessment" of this art (8). While Toner is certainly not the first scholar to cite these early accounts, her treatment of them highlights the process by which the economy of Austen's prose became something taken for granted by those who study her work.
Not yet taken for granted is the primacy that Toner gives to Austen's juvenilia. In arguing that Austen's teenage writings are no less than the formal "foundation for all that she writes" (14), Toner is in part preceded by Claudia L. Johnson's afterword to her edition of The Beautifull Cassandra (2018), where this parodic miniature novel is said to "anticipate" the uneventfulness of Austen's mature fiction (not paginated). Toner's analysis of "The Beautifull Cassandra" would have benefited from Johnson's deft reading of it. But in drawing a connection between the juvenilia and the mature novels, Toner's book also contributes to a larger critical effort to draw the former from the margins of Austen studies to the center. In particular, the evidence of Austen's "radically contractive thinking" (14) that Toner finds in the juvenilia suggests the larger political stakes and potentials of Austen's early formal experiments.
Yet even while reading the juvenilia along with the novels, readers may wonder what new can be said about Austen's interest in polarity: in the way, as Toner writes, that "one spatial extreme" is "inevitably productive of another," as when contraction produces expansion and vice versa (12). This seems, after all, like something we have heard before, and no doubt we have. But this book sheds new light on the specific details of Austenian economy: details often overlooked but nonetheless key to explaining how and why the contraction and expansion of Austen's novels works. According to Toner, Austen's economy includes three main formal components that are treated in each of the book's three chapters: the concision of Austen's plots, which Toner connects to picturesque aesthetics; "reductions of narrative description" through the use of the rhetorical figure apophasis; and the "omission of attribution" in free direct speech (25).
First, Toner asks us to reconsider some familiar elements of Austen's narrative economy--its selectiveness and connectedness, and the exclusions and reductions that these entail (30-31). These elements of her style, Toner argues, "enacted a new aesthetic appreciation of the novel" that we can also see in the formalist turn of contemporary criticism (31). Grouping these formal techniques under the heading of what she calls "narratological picturesque" (60-61), Toner links them not only to the picturesque theories of William Gilpin and Uvedale Price, but also to the critical theories of Anna Letitia Barbauld in her preface to The British Novelists (1810) and to Oliver Goldsmith's attempts to abridge English history. Toner's later chapters trace further links between Barbauld's criticism and Austen's practice, and this uncovering of an indirect conversation between two of the era's most prominent female literary figures is another of the book's strengths. In discussing historical abridgements, however, as well as Austen's contrast between the "cohesive and sustained novel" and the "abridgement, the anthology, and the periodical" (47), Toner could have drawn upon Leah Price's The Anthology and The Rise of the Novel (2000), which would have enabled her to more fully and explicitly discuss the gendering of these forms.
Turning from the most obvious hallmark of Austen's economy, the last two chapters discuss formal strategies that readers routinely take for granted. While it's often noted that Austen denies readers scenes of marriage proposals or romantic avowals, Toner's second chapter has more to say about this denial. Instances of apophasis--a rhetorical figure that "denies what it does in fact declare"--are said to be often part of a "dynamic of denying and disclosing" (83-85). Apophasis, Toner argues, shows that style "provoked [Austen's] thinking" (83), not just about the technique of free indirect discourse (84), but also about questions of "language and its ethics" (88), the (im)possibility of expression itself (96), and the "knowability of other people" (102). In briefly linking Austen's thinking to that of the Romantic poets, especially Wordsworth's theories of language, Toner might have questioned--rather than simply accepting--Paul de Man's idea of a Romantic obsession with the "failures of language." But Romanticism and language is not her main quarry and, to her credit, she does not find Austen suffering from linguistic failure. According to Toner, Austen believes that "[e]xpression is within our 'reach'" through the apophatic "not telling and telling" of free indirect discourse (130, 108).
Toner's last full chapter magnifies the under-observed phenomenon of Austen's free direct speech--in other words, the author's pattern of quoted, direct speech "without a he said or she said" (132). Austen's predilection for free direct speech, Toner explains, can be traced to her mockery of its opposite in her juvenilia, where she parodies the excess of unnecessary attributions in sentimental fiction. Toner then shows what Austen learned about dramatic presentation from the novels of Samuel Richardson and Frances Burney, as well as from Barbauld's emphasis on the dramatic as a formal strategy for the novel. Thus schooled, Austen subtly heightens the contrast between unattributed and attributed direct speech. In Pride and Prejudice, for instance, she shifts from the former to the latter to stress the "distance and anxious formality" between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy (146). By contrast, Toner writes, she cuts attributions as well as the space between lines from the manuscripts of Persuasion and Sanditon, giving readers a sense of proximity to the characters' speech (151-54).
At times, Toner argues, the unattributed speech of Mansfield Park and Emma acts like a chorus of voices (166-69), and Toner is particularly engaging on the blend of individual speech and thought with group conversation in the strawberry-picking scene of Emma (176-81). Toner links these experiments with Robert Bage's radical novel Hermsprong (1796), which Austen owned, and since Toner reminds us that "another name" for unattributed speech is "free speech," (161-66) Austen's experiments with it gain radical potential. Though Toner admits that Austen's writing "disallows unambiguous political messages" (165), this discussion of what she does with "free speech" picks up on the promise of Toner's earlier claim for the juvenilia's "radically contractive thinking." If Toner had more fully pursued this line of argument, might it not shed new light on the political stakes of Austen's style? I would have loved to read Toner's answer to this question.
Toner ends where Austen does--with the author's last unfinished novel, Sanditon. Here Toner provocatively shows how the process of composition may have enhanced the development of Austen's free speech forms. In this way, as in each of her chapters on the formal features of Austen's style, Toner demonstrates how the effort of writing small worked to inspire some of Austen's biggest ideas and thus to shape nineteenth-century fiction. The beauty of Toner's book is that she repeatedly makes the most of this move, delivering big ideas about Austen's narrative economy through attention to its smallest, and most often overlooked, parts.
Megan Quinn holds a Ph.D. in English from Princeton University.