How Jane Austen’s Emma changed the face of fiction

John Mullan in The Guardian:

Images In January 1814, Jane Austen sat down to write a revolutionary novel. Emma, the book she composed over the next year, was to change the shape of what is possible in fiction. Perhaps it seems odd to call Austen “revolutionary” – certainly few of the other great pioneers in the history of the English novel have thought so. From Charlotte Brontë, who found only “neat borders” and elegant confinement in her fiction, to DH Lawrence, who called her “English in the bad, mean, snobbish sense of the word”, many thought her limited to the small world and small concerns of her characters. Some of the great modernists were perplexed. “What is all this about Jane Austen?” Joseph Conrad asked HG Wells. “What is there in her? What is it all about?” “I dislike Jane … Could never see anything in Pride and Prejudice,” Vladimir Nabokov told the critic Edmund Wilson. Austen left behind no artistic manifesto, no account of her narrative methods beyond a few playful remarks in letters to her niece, Anna. This has made it easy for novelists and critics to follow Henry James’s idea of her as “instinctive and charming”. “For signal examples of what composition, distribution, arrangement can do, of how they intensify the life of a work of art, we have to go elsewhere.” She hardly knew what she was doing, so, implicitly, the innovative novelist like James has nothing to learn from her.

There have been scattered exceptions. The year after he published More Pricks Than Kicks, the young Samuel Beckett told his friend Thomas McGreevy, “Now I am reading the divine Jane. I think she has much to teach me.” (One looks forward to the scholarly tome on the influence of Jane Austen on Samuel Beckett.) Contemporary novelists have been readier to acknowledge her genius and influence. Janeites felt a frisson of satisfaction to see that the most formally ingenious British postmodern novel of recent years, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, opens with a lengthy epigraph from Northanger Abbey. McEwan alerts the reader to the fact that his own novel learns its tricks – about a character who turns fictional imaginings into disastrous fact – from the genteel and supposedly conservative Austen. Emma, published 200 years ago this month, was revolutionary not because of its subject matter: Austen’s jesting description to Anna of the perfect subject for a novel – “Three or four families in a country village” – fits it well. It was certainly not revolutionary because of any intellectual or political content. But it was revolutionary in its form and technique. Its heroine is a self-deluded young woman with the leisure and power to meddle in the lives of her neighbours. The narrative was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions. The novel bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind. Though little noticed by most of the pioneers of fiction for the next century and more, it belongs with the great experimental novels of Flaubert or Joyce or Woolf.

More here.