Austen and Rowling: On the Virtue of Penetration in Life and Reading

In 2010 I wrote in response to Prof Baird’-Hardy’s third brilliant post on Jane Eyre that:

AustenDickens and Austen frequently discuss (through preferred characters) the virtue of “penetration,” i.e., seeing the ‘inside bigger than the outside’ of others, their virtues or vices which constitute character or the lack of it, rather than focusing on the surface. Georgian and Victorian writers, to include Bronte, understood that they were “instructing while delighting,” and instructive most especially in the virtue of “penetration.” Readers were exercising their powers of inner heart reflection and recognition as they entered into and experienced the lives of what were principally minor gentry and aristocrats. This is “manners and morals” fiction at its best.

Katy asks six years later:

Hi! This is so fascinating. I know I am years too late, but a hail Mary pass just in case: John, do you have a source for Austen and/or Dickens discussing the virtues of “penetration”? Where do they mention seeing “the inside bigger than the outside”? Thanks so much!

Austen EmmaI do not have a source “for Austen and/or Dickens discussing the virtues of ‘penetration,” alas. It is something that I have noticed in almost every book by these authors, however; they use the word and illustrate it as a virtue to cultivate and admire (and as a quality whose absence marks the stupid, dull, or wicked).

Take for example, Austen’s Emma, the book J. K. Rowling claims to have read twenty times in succession before writing Philosopher’s Stone, one assumes to get a grip on the narrative voice she adopts in Stone (third person limited omniscient) to set up the “biggest twist in English literature” at which she said “all authors aim” to best. Emma is loaded with examples of and references to the virtue of penetration.

I’d go so far as to claim, in fact, that the principal virtue in Austen’s Emma is this quality of ‘penetration,’ a mental vision that sees beneath the surface of individuals and their actions to see her character. I found on a recent re-reading seven instances of some form of the word in the book with several other passages in which the quality is described with other terms (cf., especially Emma’s discussion with Mr. Knightley about her feelings for Frank Churchill before Knightley’s proposal in which she chides herself for not seeing through him: “yet it may not be the more excusable in one who sets up as I do for Understanding;” Vol. 3, ch. 13).

Austen Emma 3The characters are easily known as they truly are in relation to their capacity for penetration: “Harriet had no penetration” (Vol. 1, ch. 4), “no denying that these [Knightley] brothers had penetration” (Vol. 1, ch. 16), Knightley “looked with smiling penetration” (Vol. 3, ch. 2), Emma believes she has this virtue but does not until her epiphany near book’s end (cf., Vol. 2, ch. 9, Vol. 3. Ch. 16), and Frank Churchill ironically credits Emma with “penetrating eyes” (Vol. 3, ch. 6; see also his letter in Vol. 3, ch. 14) as he deceives her about Jane Fairfax’s affections, a ruse Mr. Knightley perceives (Vol. 3, ch. 5). If Austen’s efforts in Emma are aimed at transforming the reader for the better, I think this virtue is the one she most wishes to foster.

The artistry of the book does this in at least three ways. Austen’s use of the 3rd person limited omniscient view, for one, masterfully deceives the reader into believing s/he has an objective view, because the story is not told by the heroine herself. Only seeing the events and persons of the narrative as Emma does, however, with frequent references to her own behaviors and observations, amounts to the reader’s elision with Miss Woodhouse’s experience. As unpenetrating and self-pleased as she is in her opinions, narrative misdirection is an easy consequence and we are caught as is Emma in Frank Churchill’s twist. The reader, one hopes, in this elision and deception learns to value true penetration a la Mr. Knightley and suspect our own misperception as does Emma by story’s end.

The second way Austen’s choices foster penetration is in her presentation of the foil character, Harriet Smith, a young woman whom Emma essentially adopts to ‘raise up’ and get her ‘a good match.’ Harriet, lacking penetration herself, accepts Emma as her best guide and, consequently, becomes enamored with every man that enters Miss Woodhouse’s sphere, from Mr. Elton and Frank Churchill to Mr. Knightley, the last infatuation finally awakening Emma to her own folly and conceit, not to mention love for her old friend. This pairing, I think, serves as something of a doppelganger and point of reflection for Emma and the reader as they learn about these men in the story.

Austen Emma 2Third, I believe Austen structures her story to invite the penetrating reader to find its hidden center. The book was first published, in conformity to publishing conventions of the time, in three volumes. Austen chose to write 18 chapters for the first two volumes and 19 for the last. As the climax of the drama, Knightley’s proposal, is in the last volume’s chapter 13, the extra chapter in that set is less a plot necessity than a pointer to a story-turn or center set with something like mathematical precision. 19 chapters in the last volume gives us 55 chapters altogether, which would make the 28th chapter of the work, Vol. 2, ch. 8, especially meaningful.

Austen alludes inside her narrative to this being the half-way mark of the book and, in chiastic fashion, an important pointer to its end and aim, in making the gathering at Mr. Cole’s take place at the center of Mr Churchill’s long awaited visit:

I have made a most wretched discovery,” said he, after a short pause.  – “I have been here a week tomorrow – half my time. I never days fly so fast. A week tomorrow! – And I have hardly begun to enjoy myself. But just got acquainted with Mrs Weston, and others! – I hate the recollection.

Austen Emma 1The reader learns in this chapter of the mysterious gift of a piano given to Jane Fairfax. Emma and Frank discuss this at length and the former shares her speculation that the giver is a married man who pines for Jane. Frank, the actual benefactor, encourages Emma in this error and in the belief that he is pursuing her affections. In Emma’s conversation with her former governess, though we see Miss Woodhouse’s strong feelings for Mr. Knightley. In her discussing the piano present with Knightley, his penetrating vision – that the giver is a person of poor judgment, to say the least, in evidence. The chapter closes with Frank making flattering comments to Emma at the expense of his real love, Jane Fairfax.

The penetrating reader, then, has at the story’s center chapter all the conflicts of the narrative to be resolved, with the exception of Harriet’s returning to her beginning and accepting the proposal of Robert Martin. The first half of the novel brings us to an appreciation of all the players, their feelings and failings, the center gives us a set piece of their relations to one another, and the return to “all’s well” at story’s end is accomplished in the second half. The novel’s geometry is a surface to be penetrated for perception of its meaning.

Reading Emma with an eye for ‘penetration’ is a humbling exercise.  I missed so much of the author’s artistry on previous readings just for pleasure! A new appreciation of her deft use of a very difficult voice, her subtle, almost unnoticeable placement of reminders about penetration in every encounter (the smart set affect the virtue while the few wise people practice it), her setting up reflective characters – Harriet and Emma as a pair, Frank and Knightley as contraries – for our unavoidable comparisons, and the three-act play with strong story turn in something like a masque or parade of the story’s key conflicts reminds me that ‘penetration’, i.e., ‘thoughtful reading,’ is a virtue always in need in cultivation.

f36752102Austen writes a novel essentially without plot or action scenes, no chases, fisticuffs, or raised voices, that was nonetheless humorous, engaging, and edifying. As C. S. Lewis wrote about the author whose manner and morals stories he re-read every year from the age of seventeen (no doubt to sharpen his own remarkably penetrating vision): “Austen’s novels have two faults, both of which are damnable: they are too short and too few.”

About the “inside being bigger than the outside,” Katy, please check out these HogPro posts on Coleridge and this subject. A much longer and detailed discussion is in Chapter 5 of The Deathly Hallows Lectures.

Thank you for the fun question. It’s never too late!

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