Regarding yesterday’s quiz, the quote continues like this:
…Who among novelists ever more instantly recognized the absurd when she saw it in human behavior, then polished it off to more devastating effect, than this young daughter of a Hampshire rectory, who as she finished the chapters enjoyed reading them to her family, to whom she also devoted her life?
So yes, as many of you guessed (and some tracked down via Amazon’s Search Inside), the subject is Jane Austen. The author was trickier, but a couple of readers knew: it’s Eudora Welty, from her 1969 essay “The Radiance of Jane Austen.” Most interestingly, one correspondent guessed that Welty was the subject of the passage! Showing, perhaps, that whatever we’re writing about, we’re also writing about ourselves.
I urge upon you the entire essay, which leads off this collection. I love Welty’s canny use of Austen’s biography in this passage:
Reading those chapters aloud to her own lively, vocative family, on whose shrewd intuition, practiced estimation of conduct, and seasoned judgment of character she relied almost as well as on her own, Jane Austen must have enjoyed absolute confidence in an understanding reception of her work. The novels still have a bloom of shared pleasure. And the felicity they have for us must partly lie in the confidence they take for granted between the author and her readers–at the moment, ourselves.
Just one more taste:
Think of today’s fiction in the light of hers. Does some of it appear garrulous and insistent and out-of-joint, and nearly all of it slow? Does now and then a novel come along that’s so long, arch, and laborious, so ponderous in literary conceits and so terrifying in symbols, that it might have been written (in his bachelor days) by Mr. Elton as a conundrum, or, in some prolonged spell of elevation, by Mr. Collins in a bid for self-advancement? Yes, but this is understandable. For many of our writers who are now as young as Jane Austen was when she wrote her novels, and as young as she still was when she died, at forty-one, ours is the century of unreason, the stamp of our behavior is violence or isolation; non-meaning is looked upon with some solemnity; and for the purpose of writing novels, most human behavior is looked at through the frame, or the knothole, of alienation. The life Jane Austen write about was indeed a different one from ours, but the difference was not as great as that between the frames through which it is viewed. Jane Austen’s frame was that of belonging to her world. She could step through it, in and out of it as easily and unselfconsciously as she stepped through the doorway of the rectory and into the garden to pick strawberries. She was perfectly at home in what she knew, as well as knowledgeable of precisely where she was on earth; she even believed she knew why she was here.
The beginning of that makes me laugh: Just put the pen down, Mr. Collins, and nobody will get hurt. And makes me wonder just who deserves the Mr. Collins Award for Recent Long, Arch, and Laborious Fiction. The rest is a nice refinement of the notion that the past is a foreign country, with the point about different frames driven straight home by the paragraph’s last line–an understatement in good aim, one might call it.
Thanks to everyone who wrote in about the quiz! The stream of mail really enlivened my workaday day.