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Re-reading Box Hill: reading the practice of reading everyday life

Introduction to the Forum on the Box Hill

William Galperin, Rutgers University

  1. The idea for this forum on the Box Hill episode in Emma came almost immediately in the aftermath of a meeting of the Washington Area Romantics Group, where I had just read a portion of my ongoing study on Jane Austen. As I recall, the choice of the Box Hill episode as an object of inquiry—as something that critics with a more-than-casual interest in Romanticism might be interested in exploring—was Neil Fraistat’s and Orrin Wang’s and not mine. Nevertheless, the identification of Austen as a topic for a volume in the Romantic Circles Praxis Series seemed sufficiently useful in the wake of disciplinary initiatives and transformations, following which British “Romanticism” has increasingly stood poised between a movement, with constitutive parameters and orientations, and a period or time line, in which crucial distinctions are dissolved or revised in the welter of contemporaneity.

  2. The issue for me, then, in assembling this group of diverse yet strangely cooperative readings, was not the one that I’ve been pressing students at all levels with for nearly twenty years: namely the bearing of Austen on Romanticism and of studies in Romanticism on Austen. If anything, the motive behind the solicitation of six interpretations of this most Austenian of all moments in Austen’s fiction, effectively presupposed that the question I have been asking throughout my career had proceeded in that time from being a real problem in literary history to essentially a non-problem or something sufficiently contained by the state of the discipline that a presentation on Austen to a group of Romanticists was altogether plausible and suddenly meaningful. I am not suggesting, of course, that Austen’s relationship to her (predominantly) male Romantic contemporaries, along with Romanticism’s place in a larger discursive formation to which Austen’s works are equally apposite, are issues that no longer warrant scrutiny. Nor am I discounting the fact that to virtually any group of students of literature Austen’s relevance—following her still-representative function as the sine qua non of the literary per se—is happily a moot point. What I am suggesting is that with the ongoing dilation of Romanticism into other genres and writers, along with the “deep background” that these previously contiguous phenomena both demand and provide, a discussion of the Box Hill episode either by or for a group of romanticists seems completely justified.

  3. I had no idea what the contributors whom I contacted would produce and certainly no idea what I would deduce from their contributions. My only motive—with the question of Box Hill as a “Romantic Praxis” provisionally settled—was to assemble a group of scholars from various generations and with a range of critical predilections, knowing only that something useful and interesting would presumably emerge even if it might not cohere, particularly as a forum for romanticists. I had no idea, for example, that George Levine, whose foundational work on realism receives an impressive amendment in his consideration of Knightley and the countervailing forces of indeterminacy that that character’s “getting it right” only partly mitigates, would find a useful counterpart in Michael Gamer, who comes at the episode from an altogether different angle of vision. In Gamer’s accounting, which bears the marks of the historicizing methods that he deploys elsewhere, the guides to legibility or to understanding human character in the late eighteenth century, specifically class and countenance, fail in this occasion to anchor any stable or consistent sense of what is transpiring here. Thus, while the episode operates as a scene of instruction for the eponymous protagonist, the particular and necessarily stable sense of things on which Knightley’s instructions are predicated, is ultimately insufficient in dispelling a “social density that is unsortable, unexplainable, and [. . .] unanswerable to any discursive formation.”

  4. Nor had I anticipated that Deidre Lynch, who reads the episode as an acting out of the various and contradictory imperatives of nationhood and British identity, would find a powerful accomplice in Susan J. Wolfson. In her characteristic close reading of the episode and of its ramification in the novel as a whole, Wolfson demonstrates the manner and degree to which the abject Miss Bates, who doubles here and throughout the novel as an object of both loathing and reluctant identification, is instrumental in an idea of community that shifts uneasily between a self-satisfied solidarity on the one hand and a pervasive fear and loathing on the other.

  5. I thoroughly expected—and indeed had hoped—that Adam Potkay would situate the Box Hill episode within a decidedly eighteenth-century context. And he does this quite effectively, responsibly tracking Austen’s stated proclivities for Cowper and Johnson in pursuing issues of theatricality and display here, particularly as they are alleged to dissipate under the corrective and essentializing ministrations of Mr. Knightley. But what I did not expect—though it accords all-too-seamlessly with at least one notion of Romantic praxis—is the ultimately deconstructive yield of Potkay’s inquiry. For, as Potkay sees it, there is, even the wake of the humbling correctives to which Emma tearfully submits, no escape from performance and thus no way, in Austen’s calculus, to make ethics and interiority sufficiently commensurate for there to be an entity on the order of an ethical—or dare I say it romantic—subject.

  6. This de Manian tack is equally evident in the last of the contributions here, that of William Walling, whom readers of the Romantic Circles Praxis Series will remember as one of the distinguished Romanticists who initially wrestled with the question of Austen’s “Romanticism” in the Wordsworth Circle devoted to that topic. Walling begins by broaching and then wrestling with the problem of anachronism, particularly as it bears on presentist accounts that marshal the wisdom of hindsight in either valorizing Austen’s progressivism or bemoaning her containment by various cultural vicissitudes. But his conclusion follows Potkay, and the deconstructive legacy that he and Potkay draw alternately from de Man and from the Romanticism to which de Man was necessarily drawn, in echoing what readers, regardless of the interpretations they have offered, have long intuited. And this quite simply is the degree to which Austen’s irony and her “engagement with the putative reality of her narratives” are sufficiently at crosspurposes that any attempt at “reduction” or understanding is met ultimately by a “remarkable resistance.” The critical complement to such resistance at Box Hill and elsewhere—indeed the only criticism adequate to what all of the essays underscore in one way or another—is a forum of this nature and at this level.

Published @ RC

April 2000