Jane Austen’s Experiments

On Radio 4’s In Our Time in November, John Mullan described Jane Austen as ‘one of the great experimental writers of European fiction’. I agree, and I also think that this assessment can be taken more literally than Mullan perhaps intended. In a recent essay in the journal Nineteenth-Century Literature, I argue that Austen’s Sanditon, her final novel which remained unfinished at her death, presents a new style of fictional narrative which borrows from the empirical and observational practices of nineteenth-century science. As I wrote in a previous post on Sanditon, this novel adopts a forensic and objective narrative stance, through which the narrator bestows a sceptical and impartial attention on the fragment’s various characters. In this post, I want to argue that the methods of scientific experimentation also help to inform the literary experiment that Austen conducts in Sanditon.

As Charlotte Heywood, Sanditon’s heroine, promenades along the terrace of the eponymous seaside resort, she meets Sir Edward Denham coming out of the local library. In an effort to impress her, Sir Edward boasts of his credentials as a discerning reader of novels:

‘The mere trash of the common circulating library, I hold in the highest contempt. You will never hear me advocating those puerile emanations which detail nothing but discordant principles incapable of amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary occurrences from which no useful deductions can be drawn.—In vain may we put them into a literary alembic;—we distil nothing which can add to science.—You understand me I am sure?’

‘I am not quite certain that I do’, replies Charlotte. Her hesitant response isn’t surprising, because Sir Edward’s account of his tastes is bafflingly inconsistent. Despite borrowing several novels from the circulating library, he dismisses such novels as trash, contributing nothing to ‘science’. He uses this word in its traditional sense, meaning general ‘knowledge or understanding acquired by study’, but his identification of the novel as a ‘literary alembic’, an instrument of experimentation, also points to a newer definition of science as a methodology, concerned ‘with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less comprehended by general laws, and incorporating trustworthy methods’ of verification (Oxford English Dictionary, ‘science’, definitions 2 and 4b).

But while Sir Edward implies that the novel should be capable of reaching conclusions through experimental methods, he contradicts himself by casually dismissing the relevance of ‘ordinary occurrences’, the observable and repeatable events on which scientific knowledge depends. Sir Edward is an object of ridicule in Sanditon: here, Austen’s satire is targeted not at his use of the alembic metaphor but at his failure to grasp its significance for the novel as a form. Perhaps even more in this fragment than in Austen’s other novels, everyday occurrences, and the ‘discordant principles’ of the characters involved in them, constitute the raw materials which, distilled and analysed by the impartial narrative voice, form the basis of a kind of literary experimentation.

This method of objective experimentation is directly discussed, at times, by the novel’s characters. For instance, Mr Parker, the financial speculator who befriends the Heywood family, starts to describe to Charlotte his relationship with his business partner Lady Denham, but then pauses: ‘Those who tell their own story you know must be listened to with caution.—When you see us in contact, you will judge for yourself’. Parker’s statement is significant for two reasons: first, because it shows that the importance of evidence-based judgement and knowledge is recognised by Sanditon’s characters; and second, because it suggests that, both for the characters and the readers of fictional narratives, such knowledge must be founded on the observation not of individuals but of characters ‘in contact’ with each other.

James Chandler has argued that characterization in the novels of Austen’s contemporary Maria Edgeworth can be read as a scientific process, structured on the methodological model ‘that forms the basis of all experimental knowledge: the capacity to compare observations across a range of similar scenarios or objects, where the registered difference among isolated variables enables a causal analysis that facilitates discovery’. A similar argument can be made about Sanditon: narrative and characterization depend in this text not just on observation but on a form of active experimentation, which brings characters into contact in order to compare their differing perspectives. In Sanditon Austen aims to establish an impartiality of form: the objective stance of the novel’s narrative voice offers a kind of unbiased knowledge that is based on observation and experimental comparison. Sanditon constitutes evidence for the close connection between the developing definitions of ‘literature’ and ‘science’ in the early nineteenth century, and it suggests that scientific methods played a significant part in Austen’s understanding of the novel as a form.


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