William H. Galperin, The Historical Austen. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. viii + 286 pp. Illus.: 4 halftones. $39.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-8122-3687-4).
Mary A. Favret
Indiana University, Bloomington
In a recent profile in The New Yorker, Slavoj Zízek recalls the failed revolutionary rhetorics of the late '60s, insisting that they offered, at least, a sense of possibility, of alternative futures. Now, with the hegemony of American capitalism, he laments, we imagine no alternatives and have the bleakest sense of possibility. The probable is all too palpable: "[I]t is much easier for us to imagine the end of the world," notes Zízek, "than a small change in the political system." For all the differences between them, Zízek's stance nonetheless approximates that of William Galperin in his important, revisionary study, The Historical Austen. At the turn of the nineteenth century, when Great Britain was consolidating its empire, when the cultural norms of domesticity were pressing more forcibly upon women, when economic and political changes were sculpting a straitened version of the real, Galperin finds Austen simultaneously registering and resisting this reality. Acutely aware of the rise of the realistic novel, "in which she surely knew her own instrumentality," and alert to the "probabilistic" (215) and hegemonic world view it inscribed, Austen chafed, wrestled and devised experiments to distance herself from the probable and make space for the possible. Increasingly in her writing career, Austen broached the possible through a sense of belatedness, or, as Galperin sees it, through nostalgia for "a [lost] interval when other prospects were abroad" (215). In so doing the novelist becomes, in Galperin's hands, more Romantic, more historically-minded and more urgently contemporary than ever before.