Diolog[ue]s and Conversations

September 18, 2014

Emma (1814) was the only work Jane Austen (1775-1817) to be published in the United States during her lifetime. Austen’s romantic fiction remains more popular in the United States than the work of gritty bestselling American female authors of the same era including Susanna Rowson (1762-1824) and Hannah Webster Foster (1758-1840). Austen merged several female literary genres including the fable, the dialogue, and epistolary fiction to create conversations that women could emulate. The semantics of conversation in the context of Austen’s work refers to “behavior; manner of acting in common life (Johnson 1785, 2: CON).” American publishers did not embrace Austen’s work until the 1830s, and the choice of Emma as her introduction to American readers creates a curious subtext of changing women’s roles that came with the emerging American nationalism between 1790 and 1820. Sensibilities of disenchantment run throughout Austen’s plots creating adult exemplum without fairies. The enduring American fascination with Austen’s character, as well as the authoress herself, has lingered with the excitement of a meeting between two cousins long-separated by a family dispute; it reveals an inclination of American readers to read about domestic conflicts in the private sphere abroad rather than public conflicts mirrored in the familial sphere at home in the United States.

Women were generally self-taught and garnered intellectual access to male-dominated fields through the genre of the dialogue or conversation. The dialogue provided a non-threatening literary mechanism so women could read about science without drawing attention. Austen would have been familiar with Sarah Fielding (1710-1768), the younger sister of novelist Henry Fielding, who wrote the first full-length novel for adolescent girls The Governess, or, The Little Female Academy (1749), which was noted for its innovative adaptation of John Locke’s educational theories. The Governess utilized literary devices innovated by Henry Fielding (1707-1754) but it lacked plot complexities found in novels written for adults. Its frame story centered on the daily activities in a boarding school for adolescent girls – it presented a familiar conversation going on between students and their teacher and among each other.

British editions of The Governess could be found in affluent colonial households and the first American edition was published in Philadelphia in 1791. Its lessons would have been familiar to American girls, but culturally and economically a great divide existed. The vast majority of American girls would have little need to attend to a “female academy” unless their families were affluent enough to pay for finishing schools, they would have been modestly educated at home by mothers using primers that might use fables to inculcate very distinct behavior. Fables and fairy tales in Fielding’s story were repeated as mnemonic devises built upon themes of how passion, lying, and cunning adversely affected a girl’s chances for happiness (Fielding 1968: 280). Fielding employed neither “high-sounding Language, nor the supernatural Contrivances” to tell stories, suggesting to readers that great care be taken not to be “carried away, by these high-flown Things, from that Simplicity of Taste and Manners which is my chief Study to inculcate (Fielding 1968: 166).”

Austen’s characters, like Fielding’s, were seldom elegant, but she resolved plotlines with the moral precision characteristic of didactic fairy tales. Austen’s greatness came from embedding themes utilized by Sarah and Henry Fielding in characters that were placed in conversations familiar to readers in the growing middle-class in an industrializing British society. At a time when every girl had little chance for social advancement beyond her choice in marriage partner, Austen mastered a realistic fairy tale where fantasy was spun into reality transposing ordinary into extraordinary. Austen promoted the notion that a girl’s indigenous goodness in any circumstance would bring goodness into her life, and her success in asserting this logic was that she wrote about conversations that were very familiar to her. Austen would later advise her niece Anna Austen Lefroy, an aspiring novelist; against including desultory conversations in her stories, “You will be in danger of giving false representations. Stick to Bath… there you will be quite at home (Austen 2003: 101).”

Bibliography

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s letters. Philadelphia: Pavilion Press, 2003.

Fielding, Sarah. The Governess, or, Little Female Academy. London: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Johnson, Samuel. A dictionary of the English language in which the words are deduced from their originals and illustrated in their different significations by examples from the best writers. London: J. F. and C. Rivington, l. Davis, T. Payne and Son, T. Longman, B. Law [and 21 others in London], 1785.

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