On Being a Reader – Even of Scripture

Pride and Prejudice - PenguinIn 1972, Tony Tanner’s introduction to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice notes:

For during a decade in which Napoleon was effectively engaging, if not transforming, Europe, Jane Austen composed a novel in which the most important events are the fact that a man changes his manners and a young lady changes her mind… Jane Austen’s book is, most importantly, about pre-judging and re-judging. It is a drama of recognition – re-cognition, that act by which the mind can look again at a thing and if necessary make revisions and amendments until it sees the thing as it really is (368-369).

Tanner’s introduction (see Austen, J. Pride and Prejudice, Penguin Classics edition, 1996), provides a psychological reading of Austen’s masterpiece, using the work of Hume as a lens. In his view, Pride and Prejudice deals with issues of character, decisions and “first impressions” (Austen’s working title for the book before its publication).

In the same edition an updated introduction is provided by Vivien Jones, who notes:

Written in a period of political crisis and social mobility, [Austen’s novels] are strategic critical analyses of the moral values and modes of behaviour through which a section of the ruling class was redefining itself … She writes, therefore, about femininity and about class: about forms of identity and about marriage as a political institution which reproduces – symbolically as well as literally – the social order. …

Selfconscious, rational, sceptical: Elizabeth is an Enlightenment figure skilfully integrated, through the mechanisms of romantic comedy, into the traditional Burkean hierarchy which Enlightenment values sought to dismantle…

Romantic love makes individual happiness both the motivation and the goal of moral and social change. … So the power to motivate and reward change, both personal and social, lies with the woman. … This plot formula seems to give women, and the values they represent, a lot of power and responsibility. But it is power of a carefully circumscribed kind. The social order has been modified, not radically altered. Austen’s post-revolutionary achievement in Pride and Prejudice is to put Wollstonecraft’s revolutionary femininity at the service of the Burkean ‘family party’ by writing what is still one of the most perfect, most pleasurable and most subtle – and therefore, perhaps, most dangerously persuasive – of romatic love stories (xv, xxxii, xxxv).

Jones and Tanner are two very different readers of the same story, and provide an excellent example of the reality that who the reader is and what they bring to a text makes a decisive difference to the way they read the text and what they see in it.  Tanner sees a wonderfully written romantic comedy devoid of political significance, while Jones sees a wonderfully written romantic comedy that serves as a vehicle for a sophisticated political vision that fuses elements of early feminism and conservative Burkean hierarchy, against a backdrop of revolutionary France.

It is likely that Tanner was unable to even see what Jones has seen in the story. It is not simply that Jones reads as a woman, though I suspect that is part of it. She is also schooled in feminist literature and history and so is alive and sensitive to issues in Austen’s context that Tanner simply did not see. Is Jones over-reading the novel, seeing in it things that are not there? This is a danger confronting every reader, and could legitimately be asked of Tanner as well. But no, her reading of Austen is insightful and well-supported. Both introductions are excellent and well worth reading, and Penguin is to be commended for keeping them both in their revised volume. They highlight development in Austen scholarship between the early 70s and mid 90s, and feminist contributions to literary study.

They alert us also to the significance of the reader¬†which has evident implications for readers of Scripture. We do not simply read the biblical text in some kind of unfiltered way, gaining direct and unmediated access to “the truth.” Every act of reading is also an act of interpretation, and we interpret what we read according to the frameworks of understanding we bring to the text – whether consciously or unconsciously, whether well or ill-informed.

What has shaped you as a reader?

4 thoughts on “On Being a Reader – Even of Scripture

  1. That’s a good illustration; great to have that tension within the text itself. Did Tanner’s ‘intro’ get moved to the back (p. 368!)? An interesting place for an introduction. More a reconsideration, an afterword.
    What shapes me as a reader? I wish I knew better. I realised recently that after spending a lot of time thinking about and studying narrative, I was reviewing every novel I read almost purely in terms of narrative design. Our obsessions start to show pretty quickly.

  2. Thanks Nathan,
    Yes, Tanner’s is moved to the back, but retained rather than replaced, which I think was a good move by Penguin. They have done the same with his (now superseded) intro for Sense and Sensibility in the new edition. Whether it is an overall editorial policy, or reserved for particularly fine introductions, I don’t know.

    I am trying to learn to read simply again. I tend to “study” every book I read lately, which makes my reading frustratingly slow…

  3. There is so much packed into your comments and the introductory quotes. I wish I could just internalise it all and just have it as part of my available repertoire of thoughts.

    1. Thanks David, for dropping by, and I am glad it’s helpful. I also wish I could just internalise it all! That’s a major reason I am trying to “capture” some of this stuff in writing. I felt the two scholars introducing Austen’s book epitomised the point in a far better way than I could ever express it.

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