Faculty Bookshelf

The Historical Austen

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  • Author(s): Galperin, William
  • Publisher / Date: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003

Jane Austen, arguably the most beloved of all English novelists, has been regarded both as a feminist ahead of her time and as a social conservative whose satiric comedies work to regulate rather than to liberate. Neither of these viewpoints, however, takes sufficient stock of the historical Austen, whose writings, as Professor William H. Galperin shows, were more properly oppositional rather than either disciplinary or subversive.

Reading the history of her novels reception through other histories literary, aesthetic, and social Professor Galperin offers a major reassessment of Jane Austen's achievement as well as a corrective to the historical Austen that abides in literary scholarship. In contrast to interpretations that stress the conservative aspects of the realistic tradition that Austen helped to codify, Professor Galperin takes his lead from Austen's contemporaries, who were struck by her detailed attention to the dynamism of everyday life. Noting how the very act of reading demarcates a horizon of possibility at variance with the imperatives of plot and narrative authority, Professor Galperin sees Austen's development as operating in two registers. Although her writings appear to serve the interests of probability in representing things as they are, they remain, as her contemporaries dubbed them, histories of the present, where reality and the prospect of change are continually intertwined. In a series of readings of the six completed novels, in addition to the epistolary Lady Susan and the uncompleted Sanditon, Professor Galperin offers startling new interpretations of these texts, demonstrating the extraordinary awareness that Austen maintained with respect to not only her narrative practice notably, free indirect discourse but also the novel's function as a social and political instrument.