Category Archives: Romanticism

The Two Cultures

The Daily Duck wants to know why the seemingly perpetual interest in inter-disciplinary scholarship, especially when comes to jamming fields as disparate as the arts and sciences together.

More to the point, what’s the problem? Is literature suffering from it’s distance from science? Is science suffering? No. There is no magical middle ground between science and art where some mystical synergy kicks in to enable fantastic realms of new possibilities. Like most border areas it is a dead zone, a no-man’s land of barbed wire and trenches. That’s what keeps Germans in Germany and what keeps scientists productive.

Apparently C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures is being cited as an inspiration for this. This I think is highly ironic as I agree with F. R. Levis’s critique, that Snow was neither especially proficient in the arts or the sciences, and in any case most of the Two Cultures was poorly thought through, the Two Cultures being itself an illustration of why simply ramming the arts and sciences together is unlikely to produce much of lasting value.

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Baddiel on Austen

David Baddiel has an interesting take on both Jane Austen and the way she is being depicted in bioepics, slyly suggesting that they may have it about right for popular children’s entertainment, making a refreshingly bold case for her merit that avoids the usual apologetics and condescension.

Because here’s the thing about Jane Austen. She was a very great genius. She is possibly the greatest genius in the history of English literature, arguably greater than Shakespeare. And her achievement is not that much to do with love, although that was her subject matter. It’s to do with technique. Before her there are three strands in English fiction: the somewhat mental, directly-reader-addressing semi-oral romps of Nashe and Sterne and Fielding; the sensationalist Gothic work of Horace Walpole and Ann Radcliffe; and the romances of Eliza Haywood and Fanny Burney.

However great these writers are, none could be read now and considered modern. When Austen gets into her stride, which she does very quickly with Sense and Sensibility, suddenly, you have all the key modern realist devices: ironic narration; controlled point of view; structural unity; transparency of focus; ensemble characterisation; fixed arenas of time and place; and, most importantly, the giving-up of the fantastical in favour of a notion that art should represent life as it is actually lived in all its wonderful ordinariness. She is the first person, as John Updike put it: “to give the mundane its beautiful due”, and her work leads to Updike as much as it does to George Eliot.

I have no idea how a mainly home-educated rector’s daughter came by all that, but I know that imagining her as a kind of acerbic spinster flattens out this genius. It becomes all about the subject matter and not at all about the huge creative advance her work represents.

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The Romantics

“I did not know before,” continued Bingley immediately, “that you were a studier of character. It must be an amusing study.”

“Yes, but intricate characters are the most amusing. They have at least that advantage.”

“The country,” said Darcy, “can in general supply but a few subjects for such a study. In a country neighbourhood you move in a very confined and unvarying society.”

“But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them for ever.”

“Yes, indeed,” cried Mrs. Bennet, offended by his manner of mentioning a country neighbourhood. “I assure you there is quite as much of that going on in the country as in town.”

Pride and Prejudice (9.15)

It is difficult not to understand this interchange between Elizabeth and Darcy as an anticipation of the debate within Austen criticism as to whether the restriction of her range reflected a limitation of the novelist, and—more to the point—whether this limitation should be reflected in the novels’ status in the canon. This debate will no doubt run and run, but there can be little doubt that this was a choice of Austen’s, a reflection of the judgement that the middle-range rural domestic arena—the familiar and the universal—was the place to be. And it has provoked a reaction from the Romantics reminiscent of Mrs Bennet’s, Charlotte Brontë’s witty response to George Henry Lewes’s provocations speaking for many:

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