The Anthropocene as Capitalocene: How Eighteenth-Century Novels Help Us Answer the Problem of Infinite Economic Growth

The Great Hall Bank of England (1808) by Augustus Charles Pugin and Thomas Rowlandson

With the exception of Donald Trump and a few others, most of us agree that human use of the earth’s natural resources has caused environmental effects extreme enough to require their own era.  But what to call it?  The term “Anthropocene” has been used by environmental scientists and scholars to designate a new epoch, but does the term have the force to name the political critique of climate change that such a moment demands?  Jason W. Moore introduced the term “Capitalocene” to provide more analytical focus, arguing that “Anthropocene” does not name the system that produces modern environmental catastrophes:  capitalism [1].  By focusing on the “anthro,” we maintain the delusion that all humans are equal participants in this global change, ignoring the way that human-caused climate change is largely driven by the consumption of resources within developed nations, fed by an economic system structured around compounding economic growth.  Thinking about eighteenth-century British culture helps to frame why “Capitalocene” may be the better term and why the story we tell about our environmental crisis matters.

Gross domestic product (at purchasing power parity) per capita between 1500 and 1950 in 1990 International Dollars for selected nations [2]

Our culture’s addiction to ostensibly infinite economic growth, with its optimistic fantasy of universal upward mobility, is what needs to change, and naming our era the “Capitalocene” helps do that [3].  Many scholars trace the beginnings of human-caused climate change to industrialization, with some, like Andreas Malm pointing the finger at James Watt’s pivotal 1775 iteration on the steam engine [4].  The engine behind the engine is the circulation of capital, in particular, capital’s reliance on the production of surplus value to feed its monstrous appetite for economic growth.  The economic form that is specific to capital is precisely its turning money into more money through its circulations of financial and commodity exchange.  Without money breeding money, without the 4 or 5% return on investments, those of us lucky enough to have pensions, won’t be able to retire.  I am vehemently opposed to building the Trans Mountain pipeline that will bring more of Alberta tarsands bitumen to market; yet, teaching at a public university in Alberta, I know that we will only hire more Humanities faculty if that oil gets to market and thus, I sometimes feel a dirty secret of relief when pipelines are built and Alberta’s wealth grows.  We are all embedded in compounding growth.  But maybe we need to break the addiction and embrace downward mobility to shape a different relation to our world.  Here, the eighteenth-century novel rather than political theory or economic history can help us think it through.

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) best captures the eighteenth-century’s reimagining of the world as having the capacity for infinite economic growth.  For Smith, the expansion of wealth existed in global commerce which led him famously to claim that “[t]he discovery of America, and that of a passage to the East Indies by the Cape of Good Hope are the two greatest and most important events recorded in the history of mankind” [5].  Economic historians have the evidence to suggest Smith was right; foreign trade did increase wealth in the late-eighteenth century.  This period sees the momentous shift to a constant growth economy as Britain’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) began its annual increase around 1760 and, with the exception of the World Wars, has largely not stopped since [6].  Where does the “more,” the surplus value, come from?  Marx tells us that there are three areas that such growth can emerge from commodity production:  cheaper labor; access to new natural resources; and technological efficiencies.  From African slave labor in the eighteenth century to Bangladesh sweatshops today, from stealing Indigenous North American lands to the Alberta tarsands in my backyard, from Watt’s steam engines to today’s automated factories, history shows us the myriad ways we have wrung more wealth out of the living planet.  To give Smith credit, he did note with regret the genocide of Native Americans in the European land grab which he describes as caused by the “misfortunes” of violence, attributable to the “accident” that the “discovery” of America occurred at a particular time when “the superiority of force happened to be so great on the side of the Europeans.” We now understand that the violent exploitation of peoples and land is not a mere “accident” of the system but a requirement of capitalism [7].

“A new map of the British colonies in North America” (1777) by John Andrews

Knowing the historical details and political theories of the origins of economic growth, however, does not draw an end to the logic of its thinking, especially given its inflationary feedback loops.  To make a cultural shift away from infinite growth today, it might help to understand the cultural shift that took place in the eighteenth century, an intellectual revolution as important as any political one:  how did people come to believe that economic growth was continuous, desirable and natural?  Antony Brewer, notes the significance of this new belief:  “The idea that (capitalist) economies normally grow over time was a major change of perspective, part of a wider change in which people ceased to think of past, present, and future as essentially alike” [8].  How did people cease to think of past, present and future as essentially alike?  By reading novels, or, at least, such changes in phenomenological time become visible through narrative fictions of social mobility.

We most often link the rise of the novel–with its shift in temporal orientation through unique individual plots–to the myth of upward mobility, paradigmatically illustrated by Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719).  But when we look closer at the late eighteenth-century novel, we find, instead, story after story of economic loss.  From The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) to David Simple (1744), downward mobility is the dominant myth circulating in the sentimental novel.  Everyone is only ever one bad investment away from being out on the street.  That the dominant story in the novel is one of loss at the identical time in history when economic growth becomes the regular state of affairs is striking.  Why the seeming contradiction?  On the surface, stories of downward mobility betray an empathy toward the victims of a market economy and present a challenge to capitalism.  Harley in The Man of Feeling (1771) or David Simple in Sarah Fielding’s eponymous novel are victims of an emerging commercial marketplace based on anonymous and financial exchange.  For this reason, Janet Todd has called this literature “ardently anti-capitalist” [9].  On the level of content, downward mobility tales solicit sympathy for the losers of speculative capital.  We feel for the unfortunate Vicar of Wakefield who is forced to leave his home when the merchant with whom he has invested his life savings runs off with the money.

“The Departure from Wakefield” (c. 1817) by Thomas Rowlandson

But on the level of form, I argue, these stories are doing something else.  My own reading concentrates on the narrative form of capital, not the thematic representation of capitalism, and reads narrative dynamics within plot, characterization, and voice for their rendering of capital’s temporal and foundational contradiction.  For instance, Goldsmith’s use of ironic characterization in his novel shares a homologous form with capital’s circulation of debt as a financial instrument.  Thinking about capital’s form in downward mobility narratives suggests that the relationship between economic and literary history is less about content and mutually reinforcing discourses of empiricism, bourgeois individualism, and progress, and more about the emergence of new forms of understanding and new experiences of time that the speculative marketplace requires.  Downward mobility tales participate in rendering comprehensible the epistemology of compound economic growth and help to manage what David Harvey calls its “foundational contradiction” through their rendering of time [10].  In my larger book project, I argue that “riches to rags” narratives are not simply sympathetic tales about the losers of early capitalism, and neither do they function as cautionary fables to warn readers against speculative risks.  Stories of downward mobility in the eighteenth-century novel shape meaning to conform to the contradictory logic of infinite economic growth.  What’s interesting about The Vicar of Wakefield is that the ironic characterization allows Goldsmith to tell a story where the Vicar is released from debtor’s prison without paying his debts, a narrative logic akin to how buying and selling debt anonymously within capitalism allows for the speculative growth where some people (like Lehman Brother’s traders post-2008) get away without paying their debts and others lose their homes.  It is Goldsmith’s use of novelistic characterization that allows the reader to overlook the missing plot point of who pays the owner of the debt [11].  In other words, the stories we narrate may change our experience of the world not only on the level of what they tell but how they tell it, the narrative form the story takes.

“The Prison Scene — A Rake’s Progress” (1732-1735) by William Hogarth

When we think about the form of the eighteenth-century novel–how it textures time and molds character–we start to see how culture makes socially comprehensible something like compound economic growth.  Such thinking does a few things.  First, it suggests that our contemporary climate crisis requires more than scientific knowledge or economic theories to effect change:  it will require a large-scale epistemological shift in our collective imagination in order to inhabit a world without growth.  Second, it reminds us that cultural forms are the primary place such collective imaginations emerge, though such change often happens not on the level of representational content (this is perhaps why ‘raising awareness’ through didactic environmental documentaries doesn’t do much to effect change).  We need to change our experience of time, and, as Paul Ricoeur has taught us, narrative is fundamentally about time.  Stories embody the temporal dynamics that give life its texture and meaning.  Perhaps thinking more about narrative form and less about CO2 levels will help end our addiction to growth.  While some still believe technology will save us and that solar or biofuels will produce more energy so that we will not have to give up spring vacations in the Caribbean or 2,000 square foot houses, many others are now wondering if we need to embrace downward mobility as a way to save the planet.  Our biggest hope for a reduction in CO2 comes from a financial crash:  the only time in recent history when CO2 levels have decreased is following the 2008 crash [12]. But the eighteenth century teaches us that we also need a different way of telling stories.  If the novel is the revolutionary narrative form of the eighteenth century that allows people to comprehend infinite economic growth, even when it tells stories of financial failure, what will be the narrative form of a post-Capitalocene zero-growth era?

Notes

[1] James W. Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part I:  On the Nature and Origins of our Ecological Crisis.”  The Journal of Peasant Studies 44.3 (2017):  594-630 and Anthropocene or Capitalocene?:  Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism.  Ed. James W. Moore.  (Oakland, CA:  PM Press, 2016).

[2] Angus Maddison, Contours of the World Economy, 1–2030 AD.  Essays in Macro-Economic History.  (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2007):  382, Table A.7.

[3] For a discussion of our addiction to upward mobility, see Jeff Rubin’s The End of Growth.  (New York:  Random House, 2012).

[4] Andreas Malm, Fossil Capital:  The Rise of Steam-Power and the Roots of Global Warming.  (London:  Verso, 2016).  See Kent Linthicum’s article in this collection for a description of a steam engine predating James Watt’s machine (“Austen and the Anthropocene”).

[5] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.  Ed. R. H. Campbell and A.S. Skinner.  (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1976):  II: 626.

[6] Phyllis Deane and W. A. Cole were the first to date the origins of continuing economic growth to the 1760s.  See their British Economic Growth, 1688-1959.  (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1967).  In “The Industrial Revolution, ” Nick Craft overviews the historical work on economic growth and revises down the rates of growth to 1.4% for 1780-1801 and 0.6% for 1760-1780.  See The Economic History of Britain Since 1700.  Ed. Roderick Floud and Donald McCloskey.  (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1994):  44-59.  It must be noted that an increase in overall wealth does not necessarily mean an increased standard of living for all.  Wealth distribution is a separate matter.

[7] Eric Williams’s classic study Capitalism and Slavery was one of the first critical texts to demonstrate that capitalism requires violence.  See Nick Allred’s article in this collection for a further discussion of eighteenth-century political theory and the colonialization of North America (“Locke’s American Wasteland”).

[8] Anthony Brewer, “The Concept of Growth in Eighteenth-Century Economics.”  History of Political Economy 27.4 (1995):  609-638.

[9] Janet Todd, Sensibility:  An Introduction.  (London:  Metheun, 1986):  97.

[10] David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism.  (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2014).

[11] The novel has earlier told the reader that the evil villain, Ned Thornhill, sold the Vicar’s debt to his attorney and thus the attorney owns the debt contract.  The Vicar is released when Thornhill is revealed to be a fraud, but that does not invalidate the debt contract between the Vicar and the attorney.

[12] “Global Emissions of Carbon Dioxide Drop 1.3%, Say International Scientists,” The Guardian.  (21 November 2010).

Locke’s American Wasteland

Portrait of John Locke (1697) by Sir Godfrey Kneller

There’s a curious line in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689):  “Thus in the beginning all the world was America, and more so than that is now” [1].  The extra fraction of a second we readers take to pin down the antecedent of Locke’s “that” makes us into momentary rubberneckers at a linguistic and conceptual fender-bender.  America serves Locke throughout the Treatise as a distant place through which to imagine a distant past.  Because America offers “a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe,” accounts of the New World can stand in for a conjectured past when the whole world was new (58).  And yet where that substitution–America as a proto-Europe–becomes most explicit, it runs aground:  the image of America proves not to coincide with the continent itself, as the primordial fantasy he wants us to imagine becomes “more so” America than the one that actually exists in Locke’s own “now” of the late seventeenth century.

The term “Anthropocene” (and likewise its restive offspring:  “Capitalocene,” Donna Haraway’s “Chthulucene,” and so on) identifies the planet as a final limit to the way we live–simply put, the modern era (led by Western capitalism) has treated the Earth as inexhaustible and proceeded to damn near exhaust it, taxing the planet’s capacities beyond recognition and perhaps beyond repair [2].  This essay turns to Locke’s America in order to understand how the world came to be imagined as inexhaustible in the first place, how one of the earliest theorists of property accumulation managed to sidestep the problem of a finite planet.  I want to suggest that this doubled America, this America that can be “more so” itself, serves Locke as a crucial site of waste, both in the eighteenth-century technical sense of unclaimed or untilled land and in the metaphorical sense of a spillover valve that the system he envisions can’t do without.

That technical sense of waste as unowned or unimproved land may be unfamiliar today, but it’s the key to understanding both Locke’s natural law of property and that spillover valve that America provides [3].  Before the social contract, Locke claims, there are only two moral provisos on property rights:  any property claim must leave “enough, and as good” for others in the unclaimed wasteland; and any property that would “spoil,” lie fallow, or otherwise go to waste reverts to the universal free-for-all, like uneaten French fries at a ravenous lunch table (21, 20).  With this in place waste and property are opposed by definition; anything in my possession that would go to “waste,” or spoil, reverts to the ownerless “waste,” the pool of the available land and goods.  The problem, however, is that England has no such wastes left.  Money, which never spoils and never lies fallow if duly invested, has permitted so much property accumulation that what little open space remains must be understood as unclaimed by tacit consensus, public property rather than waste (22).  With the spoilage proviso rendered obsolete, what happens to the “enough, and as good”?  What waste is left over for England’s dispossessed, the surplus of people to available property that threatens property’s very legitimacy?

“America with those known parts in that unknowne worlde both people and manner of buildings” (1626) by John Speed

Here America becomes Locke’s alibi–in the term’s literal Latin meaning, an “elsewhere” as well as an excuse–for private property in England.  There’s still a primordial waste out there, Locke says, in the New World:

The same measure may be allowed still without prejudice to any body, as full as the world seems:  for supposing a man, or family, in the state they were at first peopling of the world by the children of Adam, or Noah; let him plant in some in-land, vacant places of America, we shall find that the possessions he could make himself, upon the measures we have given, would not be very large, nor, even to this day, prejudice the rest of mankind.  (23)

America takes on the duty of “enough-and-as-good” for England, available because it was supposedly lying waste. By absorbing England’s surplus population, America recalibrates the balance between private property and potential owners.

As a deus ex machina for the “enough-and-as-good” conundrum, Locke’s fantasy of America displaces the actual continent.  Elsewhere in the Treatise Locke uses indigenous Americans to illustrate the property restrictions outlined above, and even refers to wampum as a form of money not so different from European coins–but at this crucial moment they are eerily absent, an erasure of the imagination with a grimly self-fulfilling history to follow.  We should further note that America seems here like an exception to history and geography both.  Locke’s imagined homesteaders are “in the state they were at first peopling of the world” but “allowed still” in “this day” to stake out land there, in an inviting vacancy located eternally beyond the “corners” of a world that has filled up considerably since its “beginning.”  It’s a space of fantasy, impossibly larger (to borrow Slavoj Žižek’s formulation) on the inside than the outside, like Narnia behind the wardrobe door [4].  Here that space of fantasy becomes a fantasy of space; the Narnia-quality of fantasy architecture–an infinite world in a finite package–gets localized, stitched to a spot on the map like a bottomless imaginary pocket.

“A Brazilian Landscape” (1650) by Frans Post

That elastic fantasy sewn into Locke’s America, “more so” America than the continent itself, makes a finite planet seem to hold an infinite reserve of property–the illusion that Anthropocene accumulation both clings to and makes untenable.  The particular site of that fantasy in Locke’s Treatise, finally, is not a historical accident:  a landmark recent study identifies the colonization of the Americas as a key point of departure for the Anthropocene era [5].  Instead, perhaps it’s more on the order of a supreme historical irony that the nation that took up Britain’s mantle as the driving force behind Anthropocene extraction, a nation founded on Locke’s ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of property, was founded on the continent whose fantastic afterimage had underwritten those ideals from the very “beginning” [6].

Notes

[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government.  Ed. C. B. Macpherson.  (Indianapolis, IN:  Hackett, 1980):  29.  Future references to this text will be cited parenthetically.  Work on America’s importance for Locke is relatively scarce.  Key sources include:  Herman Lebovics’s “The Uses of America in Locke’s Second Treatise of Government,” Journal of the History of Ideas 47.4 (1986):  567-81; chapter 5 of James Tully’s An Approach to Political Philosophy:  Locke in Contexts (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1993); Barbara Arneil’s John Locke and America:  The Defence of English Colonialism (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1996); and Jimmy Klausen’s “Room Enough:  America, Natural Liberty, and Consent in Locke’s Second Treatise,” The Journal of Politics 69.3 (2007):  760-9.

[2] The bibliography on the Anthropocene is vast, interdisciplinary, and constantly growing; for a good point of introduction, see Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “The Climate of History:  Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35.2 (2009):  197-222.  For competing terms see Anthropocene or Capitalocene?  Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism.  Ed. Jason Moore (Oakland, CA:  PM Press, 2016).

[3] See Vittoria di Palma’s Wasteland:  A History (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2014); also see the OED entry for “waste.”

[4] Looking Awry:  An Introduction to Jacques Lacan Through Popular Culture (Cambridge, MA:  MIT Press, 1991):  15.  My thanks to Sean Silver for reminding me of this formulation in a recent talk.

[5] Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene.”  Nature 519 (2015):  171-80.

[6] Katherine Binhammer’s article “Anthropocene as Capitalocene” in this collection continues the analysis of imagined economic infinities in the eighteenth century and their relationship to the Anthropocene.

Napoleon, an English Poet, and the Gas Lighting of London

“Chinese Pagoda and Bridge, in St James’s Park” (1820) by Edward Wedlake Brayley

Almost before the ink was dry on the Treaty of Fontainebleau in April of 1814, people of all stations and occupations—including allied generals, monarchs, and heads of state—converged on London to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat with a panoply of special events:  processions, dinners, balls, performances, worship services, and much, much more.  As Edward Orme reported in his souvenir Historical Memento, especially creative were the uses of light [1].  Illuminations were staged in a wondrous variety of places, from banks and parks to the Houses of Parliament; amid the countless candles, oil lamps, torches, and fireworks blazed the efforts of the Gas Light and Coke Company.  This young enterprise had just launched an ambitious and truly transformative infrastructure project:  installing gas lights on the streets of London.  Seven years earlier, Pall Mall had been the first street anywhere in the world to be lit with gas, and now, with legislation permitting bold and extensive excavation, the company eagerly contracted with the government to participate in the grand celebrations of Napoleon’s exile (Conlin 7) [2, 3].  Undaunted by issues of scale, their pièce de resistance was the Chinese bridge and pagoda erected in St. James Park, which included 10,000 gas flames.  Within a year the company had laid thirty miles of gas pipe in the city (Conlin 7) [2].  By 1826, “fifty-three British cities had gas mains,” and the pace picked up from there (Flanders 219) [3].  It’s hard to overestimate the impact of gas lighting on London, “the first city to establish uniform lighting as a civic obligation” (Flanders 219) [3].  After all, as Jonathan Conlin reminds us, lighting was not simply an incidental feature of the public sphere; it actually helped to create the public (13) [2].

Felicia Hemans’s poem “The Illuminated City” (1826) is said to have been inspired by just this coincidence:  the celebrations of 1814 and the installation of gas lights in London [4, 5, 6].  Although Hemans’s body of work fell out of favor at the end of the nineteenth century, during her lifetime this enormously popular poet was understood to speak for all of England.  As scholar Tricia Lootens has put it, “[f]ew poetic careers can have been more thoroughly devoted to the construction of national identity than was that of Felicia Hemans” (239) [7].  So it’s not surprising to read her poem “The Illuminated City” as referencing the incorporation of gas lighting into a civic celebration that helped recalibrate English identity for a post-war paradigm.  While the text does not name London (opting instead for allusion, which is typical of Hemans’s work), the spectacle of the “royal city” evokes a key moment in English national, imperial, and even (we inhabitants of the Anthropocene might say) planetary history.

In a sensory-rich opening stanza, fire blazes from an array of sources.  In the hills, hamlets, forests, and especially the city, “festive light” shines from “lamps [. . .] upon tower and tree”; pillars are “wreath’d with fire”; spires resemble “shooting meteor[s]”; silhouetted buildings sparkle in “the clear dark sky.”  Through its comprehensive reach, this vista takes in and stabilizes all the varied elements of the landscape; thus, the glow of victory unifies.  Soon, however, the poetic speaker realizes that these illuminations might succeed too well.  The “bright lamp’s glare” is so “dazzling” that he becomes blinded, and so light itself casts a figurative shadow.  As the poem explains, these many forms of light prevent us from apprehending vital truths about the cost of war.  Life’s “deep story” can only be encountered in those places beyond the glare of gas lamps and fireworks.  A foreshortened line of sight replaces the vista, and we are denied access to scenes that the poet values as true.  Elaborated through five stanzas, the play of light and dark insists on the limits of vision.  Thus, in the end, Hemans’s poem resists any straightforward reading of brightly lit pageantry the likes of which the summer of 1814 offered.  Her rendition of the spectacle suggests an attendant crisis of perception, an intimation of persistent illegibility—blind spots, as it were.  Occlusion becomes an important dynamic in her poem of post-war illumination.

Felicia Hemans (1837) by W. E. West

A similar crisis of perception also operates in a second, admittedly minor Hemans poem, “The Curfew Song of England” (1834) [8].  This text memorializes a much earlier iconic moment in English history, when William the Conqueror decreed that all his subjects return home at the sound of the bell and extinguish every light.  Here the affront is not the blaze that prevents perception, but instead the prohibition against candle, lamp, rushlight, and most importantly the fire in the hearth.  In “The Curfew Song,” the fire doused on the order of a foreign oppressor becomes part of the nation’s cultural inheritance.  Here, once again, the effect is to obscure the sight the poet claims to want to illustrate, for the text peremptorily snuffs out several scenes in quick succession.  As in “The Illuminated City,” then, the obstructed view is integral to the telling of the national tale.  Both texts present moments around which English identity is presumed to cohere, and in both cases, representation is compromised through an important point of tension:  artificial light and its control.

“A Peep at the Gas Lights in Pall Mall” (1809) by Thomas Rowlandson

So the centrifugal force in Hemans’s body of work—her thematic interest in emigration and military service, her popularity at the farthest Anglophone reaches—is complemented by this additional dynamic.  Illumination and its opposite (extinction) are expressions of power with rather complex implications.  In “The Illuminated City,” even with lamps and pillars and spires aflame, the full truth of national life remains obscured.  New technologies might well overreach, unintentionally limiting the vision of the poetic speaker.  Left unacknowledged are the vulnerabilities of the nation that the blaze is meant to celebrate.

Plate V from A Practical Treatise on Gas-Light (1815) by Fredrick Accum

Susan Wolfson has recently explained that in the work of Lord Byron, the Shelleys, and other Romantics, the “macro-discharge of lightning communicated the bold, risky spirit of the age” (757) [9].  That Promethean spark offered a kind of electrical sublime.  In fact, the image was current enough that Byron’s imitator William Sotheby described Napoleon’s first defeat as Britain’s “lightning stroke” (as cited by Wolfson, 760) [9].  Quite differently, in “The Illuminated City,” light is neither natural nor instantaneous.  Thus, perhaps it presages a much more sustained and comprehensive gamble.  On the occasion of Napoleon’s exile to Elba, when England stood at the verge of its fossil-fueled acceleration, the woman whose “mind [was] national property” reckoned with the promise and failings of the moment [10].  Hemans, who, according to her contemporary Jane Williams, unified readers “in the most distant and alienated colonial settlements and in the old home of the British race” (Wolfson 602) [11], anxiously assessed the implications when bright lights obscure sober reflection—when the spectacle of national belonging overpowers and occludes.  In both “The Illuminated City” and “The Curfew Song of England,” describing what cannot be seen certainly poses a compositional challenge for the poet, but how she stage-manages sources of light is far more than an aesthetic concern.  In these texts, Englishness is associated with the coercive control of artificial light.  The expanding networks of gas evoked by “The Illuminated City” reify a pervasive alienation and displacement that have become ever more symptomatic of the Anthropocene.  Speaking of our own day, Jonathan Crary has argued that we in the twenty-first century encounter increasing “institutional intolerance of whatever obscures or prevents an instrumentalized and unending condition of visibility” (5) [12].  It would seem that Felicia Hemans has foreshadowed this state of affairs.

Notes

[1] Orme, Edward.  Historical Memento Representing the Different Scenes of Public Rejoicing, which took place the first of August in St. James’s and Hyde Parks, London in Celebration of the Glorious Peace of 1814, and the Centenary of the Accession of the Illustrious House of Brunswick to the Throne of these Kingdoms.  London, 1814.

[2] Conlin, Jonathan.  “Big City, Bright Lights?  Night Spaces in Paris and London, 1660-1820.”  La Sociabilité en France et en Grande-Bretagne au Siècle des Lumières:  Modèles et Espaces de Sociabilité.  Ed. Valerie Capdeville and Eric Francalanza.  Editions Le Manuscrit, 2014.

[3] Flanders, Judith.  The Making of Home:  The 500-Year Story of How Our Houses Became Our Homes.  Atlantic, 2014.

[4] Susan Wolfson, for example, makes this connection in her edition of Hemans’s work.  See Felicia Hemans:  Selected Poems, Letters, Reception Materials.  Princeton UP, 2000.  420.

[5] Gary Kelly associates illuminations in the poem with a different expression of power, when mobs would coerce homeowners to light their windows to show partisan support.  See Felicia Hemans:  Selected Poems, Prose, and Letters.  Ed. Gary Kelly.  Broadview, 2002.  345.

[6] “The Illuminated City” was published first in Monthly Magazine as part of a new series in November 1826 (515).

[7] Lootens, Tricia.  “Hemans and Home:  Victorianism, Feminine ‘Internal Enemies,’ and the Domestication of National Identity.”  PMLA 109.2 (March 1994):  238-253.

[8] Hemans, Felicia.  “The Curfew Song of England.”  The Poetical Works of Felicia Hemans Complete in One Volume with a Memoir, by Mrs. L. H Sigourney.  Phillips and Sampson, 1853.  613-614.

[9] Wolfson, Susan J.  “‘This is my Lightning’ or; Sparks in the Air.”  SEL 55 (Autumn 2015):  751-786.

[10] Review of The Siege of Valencia by Felicia Hemans.  See British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review 20 (July 1823):  53.

[11] Jane Williams wrote an entry on “Felicia Dorothea Hemans” for The Literary Women of England, published in 1862.  Wolfson includes extensive passages in her collection (602).

[12] Crary, Jonathan.  24/7:  Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.  Verso, 2013.

“Roguish Passions”: A Conversation About The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee

Scholars Joe Drury and Danielle Bobker discuss how a recent novel — The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee — evokes an “engagingly louche” eighteenth century for young adult readers.

Joe Drury: I’m not a great reader of historical fiction nor of YA fiction, so I felt some trepidation accepting your invitation to co-write a review of The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue. But the title and the blurb were just too delicious to resist: the protagonist and narrator, Henry “Monty” Montague, Viscount of Disley (why “of” I’m not sure), is the troubled son of an earl recently expelled from Eton and is now setting off on his Grand Tour with his friend Percy and sister Felicity, eager to indulge his “roguish passions” for gambling, late-night drinking, and philandering with both women and men.

Danielle Bobker: These premises are pretty compelling, I agree. As is Monty himself, right from the start. He’s on the top of my list of the book’s virtues.  I did some googling and it turns out this is Mackenzi Lee’s second novel. Her first book, This Monstrous Thing, a steampunk retelling of Frankenstein, won her a lot of fans. Monty’s voice makes it easy to see why she’s been so successful with YA readers.

Joe: Yes, he’s engagingly louche, isn’t he? One part witty Restoration libertine and one part James Boswell of the journals. I was interested to see that Lee cites Boswell’s journals as an influence in a note at the end and, as a Boswell fanboy, I couldn’t help but enjoy the moment when his travelling effects showed up in the second half of the novel.

Danielle: At the same time, Monty’s campiness belongs very much to our own moment: I mean in his attitude as much as his language. For instance, when he watches his best friend stretch himself in bed in the opening pages: “Percy’s showy about so few things, but he’s a damned opera in the mornings.” Or, when the two of them are actually at an opera house half way through and Percy needs help but Monty is stunned: “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I’m fishing bare-handed in my stream of consciousness for some way to take charge of this situation and be what he needs, and I’m coming up empty.”

The style of Monty’s wanting is not that of any seventeenth- or eighteenth-century rake that I know. He’s more in the mold of the eminently likeable, and eminently marketable, Hollywood romcom rake: Hugh Grant as Daniel Cleaver in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Or whoever the genderqueer boycrush of the hour is (I wish I knew).

On second thought, Monty’s really more like a typical romcom heroine. He loves Percy right from the beginning and waits in agony for signs that the feeling is mutual.

Joe:  The fresh diction and familiar teen angst are great, I agree—and essential to Lee’s whole project of inviting young readers to imagine their way into the lives of the eighteenth-century elite. Interestingly there are good eighteenth-century literary precedents for this kind of approach. For instance, as many critics have pointed out, Ann Radcliffe’s novels are set in late-medieval continental Europe, but feature heroines with the values and sensibility of eighteenth-century English women. The historical dissonance between characters and the world through which they move is part of the fun in a Gentleman’s Guide too.

Danielle: Pointing to Radcliffe is especially apt—because when Monty, Percy, and Felicity find themselves in Venice, this travelogue / picaresque / coming of age story becomes a Gothic novel too.

Lately I find myself wondering about the ongoing appeal of the eighteenth century, both to academics and in the popular imagination. Seeing it through Lee’s eyes reminded me that at least one answer lies in the variety of interrelated escape fantasies that the period so readily supports. The fantasy of adventure, of novelty and discovery, definitely. But also the fantasy of total entitlement encapsulated in the figure of the irresistible young rake.

I like how Lee’s all-you-can-eat approach to eighteenth-century literary genres seems to amplify the energy and rashness of adolescence that the novel captures so well in other respects too. (Even if adolescence wasn’t really invented until the nineteenth century.)

And Lee gives us a nice point of reference for making sense of the novel’s generic wildness in Monty’s sister Felicity: Felicity initially appears to be to a female Quixote, but in fact she’s just put the covers of romance novels over the many other books, including medical treatises, that she really wants to read.

Joe: Yes, that bit was great. But there are other kinds of anachronism I found more jarring, only because they seemed unintended. The novel sometimes seems to be set in the early 1720s, or some point during the Regency in France. But other details—such as the reflections on the slave trade and the abolition movement—imply a much later setting. I found the descriptions of eighteenth-century fashion, carriages, and clothing delightfully vivid, but the portrayal of eighteenth-century institutions rather sketchier: Felicity appears to be on her way to some kind of late nineteenth-century European “finishing school,” while Monty is able to walk into the branch of a “French partner institution to the Bank of England” in Marseilles, though he does at least flirt with a male bank clerk to get his cash rather than use an ATM machine.

Danielle: And other things point back several centuries: the alchemy, for instance, which is especially focused around a mysterious ebony box that Monty steals from a duke’s chambers at Versailles, and the notion that people having epileptic seizures have been possessed by the devil.

Joe: Yes, although Lee would probably argue that many of those kinds of “pre-modern” or “superstitious” beliefs would have persisted into the supposedly enlightened eighteenth century. We have never been modern and all that.

And I wonder about Felicity as a character as well. She seems to be symptomatic of an annoying school of thought that assumes that for a work of art to be feminist, it has to depict “powerful,” ultra-capable women doing kick-ass things like Wonder Woman or Angelina Jolie in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, whereas I’m always trying to convince my students that a work of art can be just as, if not more, effective as feminist critique by representing women who are completely deprived of power and the capacity to act because of their circumstances and the society in which they live. Think of Clarissa or Calista or, even a character from a comic novel like Marianne Dashwood. In these stories, patriarchy isn’t so easy to overcome as it is for lucky Felicity. I’ve nothing against kick-ass women (and there are plenty of great ones in eighteenth-century literature, of course), but I felt Lee missed an opportunity with Felicity to give her readers a richer, darker, less comfortable view of what it would have been like to be a woman in eighteenth-century Europe.

Danielle: I see what you mean about Felicity. She is a composite ideal of Lee’s liberal feminist femininity: intellectually autonomous; literary; career-minded; not particularly invested in male sexual approval yet also attractive—above all, highly competent. The character of Percy, a stoic and unassuming person of color, is burdened with blandness in the same way.

Joe: Yes, it is just as easy for Percy to move through this world, even though he is an epileptic of mixed race who is in love with a man. People notice that he is not white and he and Monty have the occasional discussion about the difficulties of the closet. But these difficulties never become more than just opportunities for the expression of a rather pious liberalism. Why not show us what it would have been like to be the victim of homophobia or racism in eighteenth-century Europe rather than just have people talk about it?

Danielle: Although Lee plays with lots of genres, her attachment to the moral promise of sentimental fiction is quite rigid, especially to its central promise to punish or reform vice and reward virtue. Maybe this is the kind of reassuring moral universe that Lee believes YA readers prefer? (My six-year old children certainly do.) But the title makes it sound like vice and virtue will be embraced equally—like in Casanova’s autobiography or Dangerous Liaisons. It’s false advertising.

Joe: Yes, totally. There is, alas, far more virtue than vice in this book.

Danielle: And, ironically, by presenting Felicity and Percy as morally flawless, Lee actually recapitulates Monty’s basic socioeconomic, racial, and patriarchal privilege: only the rich white guy has the right to be complicated.

Hearing from Felicity and Percy as narrators would have gone a long way to redressing this imbalance, I think. I don’t necessarily agree that their suffering more would have made them better vehicles of critique. But I do think that Lee could have shown that, like Monty, but for good reasons often much more than him, these characters also have to learn to navigate, skirt around, or, occasionally, go head to head with dominant power structures. Even Pamela Andrews has edges.

Joe: Fair enough, although just as he is the only one who is allowed to be complicated and flawed, I’d argue that Monty is also the only character who really suffers and the only one as a result who undergoes any kind of moral development. The ending reminded me a bit of Game of Thrones, where unsympathetic characters like Jaime and Theon only begin to acquire moral feeling and complexity once they’ve been disabled or mutilated in some way. But George R. R. Martin and co also show us what it feels like to be a dwarf or a bastard or a woman in Westeros. In this novel, it feels as if the woman and the black man are just there to be props for the white male protagonist’s liberal moral awakening. Why couldn’t Felicity actually behave like one of Haywood’s heroines instead of just pretending to read about them? My understanding is that YA fiction often goes to these darker places these days—I’ve seen The Hunger Games!—so I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of audience. And as you say, eighteenth-century literature often has a harder, Hobbesian edge so it’s not a question of period authenticity either.

Danielle: Yes, it’s disappointing that, rather than using the past as a pretext to explore ongoing ethical dilemmas, Lee simply encases her fixed contemporary moralism into this vaguely historical package. So, ultimately, I guess we suggest enjoying The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue, then chasing it with something a little stronger.

Further reading recommended by Joe and Danielle:

Literature of libertinism

  • John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Poems
  • Eliza Haywood, Love in Excess, Fantomina, The Masqueraders, Anti-Pamela, The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless
  • Casanova, Memoirs
  • James Boswell, The London Journal, The Grand Tour
  • John Cleland, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure
  • Choderlos de Laclos, Dangerous Liaisons
  • George Etherege, The Man of Mode
  • Aphra Behn, The Rover
  • William Wycherley, The Country Wife
  • The Libertine Reader: Eroticism and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century France
  • When Flesh Becomes Word: An Anthology of Early Eighteenth-Century Libertine Literature

Other literature of the period

  • Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Italian, The Romance of the Forest
  • Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote
  • Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
  • Samuel Richardson, Pamela

Relevant academic studies

  • George Haggerty, Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century
  • Susan Lanser, The Sexuality of History
  • Alan Bray, The Friend
  • Randolph Trumbach, Sex and the Gender Revolution
  • Rictor Norton, Mother Clap’s Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830
  • Karen Harvey, Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century: Bodies and Gender in English Erotic Culture

Jane Austen, the Prince of Wales, and Mr. Trump

What would Jane Austen say about Donald Trump? Easy to answer, because she had seen it all before. A Regency girl in a golden age of satire, she attacked the Prince of Wales for his much-lampooned appearance, his lewdness, his licentiousness, his instability, his outrageous spending, his fondness for over-the-top building ventures, his implicit treason, his desire for absolute power, his vanity, his braggadocio, and his love of holidays and sport. Throughout her entire writing career, she kept close watch on the extravagant, dancing prince. At a time when most people were poor, and black lives didn’t matter, she satirized the vulgarian whose wish to become a second Sun King was bringing the country down. In 1813, she would write that she hated him.

Austen was never more than a few degrees of separation away from Prince George. When she was young, he lodged at Kempshot Manor, only three miles from Steventon, and her brother James went hunting with him. At the Wheatsheaf Inn, Basingstoke, where Jane and Cassandra collected the mail, the prince held riotous Hunt Club dinners. As they walked back through those green and leafy lanes, they must have marvelled at the latest excesses of the boorish young man.

At Kempshot, Prince George entertained Mrs. Fitzherbert, and appalled the county with his wild parties; at Kempshot, on honeymoon with Princess Caroline, he reluctantly sired Princess Charlotte. His cohort of “very blackguard companions” were “constantly drunk and filthy, sleeping and snoring in boots on the sofa,” said the Earl of Minto, so that the whole scene “resembled a bad brothel much more than a Palace.” Austen was not prudish, but patriotic, and the prince’s behaviour threatened the nation. She would satirize him through avatars: John Thorpe in Northanger Abbey, Tom Bertram and Henry Crawford in Mansfield Park, Frank Churchill in Emma, and both Sir Walter Elliot and William Walter Elliot in Persuasion.

Like the prince, Thorpe is a “stout young man of middling height,” with a “plain face and ungraceful form.” Like the holiday prince, he lies, boasts, swears, hunts, and talks of nothing but his horses and his rides; like the royal voyeur, he utters “a short decisive sentence of praise or condemnation on the face of every woman they met”; like the prince jeering at his parents, he asks his mother, “where did you get that quiz of a hat, it makes you look like an old witch?” Austen’s lacerating portrait suggests close knowledge of the prince’s vulgar ways.

Even palace insiders said that the heir was unfit to rule. In 1811, just as Austen was revising Pride and Prejudice, he was widely mocked for spraining his ankle while teaching a courtier the Highland Fling. If Austen found that as funny as I do, she may have inserted Mr. Bennet’s exclamation about Mr. Darcy, “For God’s sake, say no more of his partners. Oh! that he had sprained his ancle in the first dance.”

The matter was not trivial. Overweight and overwrought, the regent had gone to bed for ten days. Some said he was avoiding hard political decisions, others that he was going mad like his father. In George Cruikshank’s Princely Agility or the Sprained Ancle (1812), doctors prepare a strait waistcoat; in his Merry Making on the Regents Birthday (August 1812), the regent prances on a petition for the poor. As Austen once wrote, “How much are the Poor to be pitied, & the Rich to be blamed,” and in 1811, at a time of severe economic hardship, he had celebrated the inauguration of his regency in ludicrously opulent style. As Percy Shelley wrote wearily, this entertainment would not be “the last bauble which the nation must buy to amuse this overgrown bantling of Regency.” When the prince became regent, Austen anticipated the king’s death by buying mourning clothes instead.

The prince spent staggering amounts of money on Brighton Pavilion and the Royal Lodge at Windsor. With instability at home and peril abroad, he supported dead Bourbons, hosted exiled French royalty and nobility, bought up their gilded furniture for Carlton House, and planned a second Versailles at Buckingham Palace. Many called his obsession with all things French treasonable; others accused him of coveting the absolute power of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

In newspapers, journals, and cartoons, “the rising sun” went viral as code for the king’s son/sun. Even the title of a scurrilous magazine, The Rising Sun, signalled his obvious impatience for power, and in Persuasion, Charles Musgrove refuses to meet with Sir Walter Elliot’s heir, William Walter, crying out, “Don’t talk to me about heirs and representatives.” As he says to Anne, “I am not one who neglects the reigning power to bow to the rising sun. If I would not go for the sake of your father, I should think it scandalous to go for the sake of his heir.”

Like Thorpe, William Walter resembles the prince, for he is all too keen to claim the titles and privileges he once despised. The sick king was pitied and loved, but not his impatient son. In a bitter jest about her brother James inheriting many beloved possessions before the family left Steventon for Bath, Austen wrote, “My father’s old Ministers are already deserting them to pay their court to his son: the brown Mare, which as well as the black was to devolve on James on our removal, has not had patience to wait for that, & has settled herself even now at Deane.” In Persuasion, Austen would explode the patriarchal hierarchy that privileged her oldest brother and the prince. Snubbed by powerful but ridiculous others, Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth simply walk away from society’s toxic obsession with “rank, people of rank, and jealousy of rank.”

To judge from Persuasion, Austen was alarmed that the prince, now regent, was spending a large proportion of the national income on high living and ostentatious parade. Beau Brummel had taught him the importance of elegance, just as in Persuasion, “Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation.” Surrounded, like Prince George, by mirrors, he finds it not possible to spend less, “given what Sir Walter Elliott was imperiously called on to do.” His failure to economize gestures to the regent, whose refusal to retrench was threatening the nation.

“Retrench” became another code word for the regent. In Cruikshank’s Economy of 1816, Lord Chancellor Brougham warns him, in an obvious allusion to the French Revolution, “Retrench! Retrench, reflect on the distressed state of your country, & remember the Security of the Throne rests on the happiness of ye People.” In Persuasion, however, Anne and Lady Russell are on “the side of honesty against importance.” To clear Sir Walter’s debts, they urge “a scheme of retrenchment,” and Lady Russell sheets Austen’s satire home by asking, “What will he be doing, in fact, but what very many of our first families have done––or ought to do?”

Personal as well as patriotic reasons fuelled Austen’s loathing of the prince, for he borrowed from the Earl of Moira, who borrowed £6000 from Jane’s brother Henry. Moira defaulted on his debts by becoming Governor-General of India. Thus the regent was partly responsible for Henry’s bankruptcy and consequent heavy losses for other family members, as E. J. Clery explains in Jane Austen: The Banker’s Sister. No wonder that Austen hated him.

In Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram’s absence in Antigua, like the absence of the sick king, allows his pleasure-loving son to take charge. Like the regent, Tom Bertram wastes both his health and his wealth, and occupies himself mainly with the theatricalities of his position, such as miniature battles in the Serpentine. Henry Crawford provides yet another proxy for the regent, for his “freaks of a cold-blooded vanity” never receive the punishment they deserve, while in Emma, the light-minded Churchill rids himself of his money and his leisure “at the idlest haunts in the kingdom.” The prince’s beloved Brighton, perhaps.

Three days before she died in Winchester on July 17, 1817, Austen wrote an odd little poem about Winchester races. The regent attended them every July. Here St. Swithin accuses “the Lord & the Ladies” all “sattin’d & ermin’d” of being his “rebellious subjects,” rebukes them as “depraved,” and announces that “By vice you’re enslaved/ You have sinn’d & must suffer.” To punish them, he vows to bring down regular rain showers on “these races & revels & dissolute measures/ With which you’re debasing a neighbouring Plain.” It was the satirist’s last fling at a regent who was dissolute, depraved, and a danger to the nation.

Jane Austen’s in-jokes demonstrate her worldliness, her fascination with celebrities, and her relish of rumor. She criticized the Prince of Wales in the only way she could, through her characters and plots. In her resistance to corruption and perversions of power, this savvy, brave, and thoroughly modern woman would have had plenty to say about Mr. Donald Trump.

 

 

 

Theory of Mind, Cognitive Cultural Studies, and Eighteenth-Century Literature

Henry Robert Morland, Woman Reading by a Paper-Bell Shade (1766), Credit: Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

In 2012, literary scholar Natalie Phillips and a team of scientists at Stanford published the results of a study in which they used fMRI to track brain activity in subjects reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) in either a leisurely or a critical, attentive manner.  Their innovative research, which prompted a flurry of provocative “This is Your Brain on Jane Austen” headlines, demonstrated that close, attentive reading activates different regions of the brain than leisurely reading and engages parts of the brain far beyond those responsible for executive function.  These findings, in turn, led Phillips to conclude both that “paying attention to literary texts requires the coordination of multiple complex cognitive functions” and that “teaching close, critical reading could serve – quite literally – as a kind of cognitive training, teaching us to modulate our concentration and use new brain regions as we move flexibly between modes of focus.” [1]

Phillips’s multi-disciplinary research grew out of her study of Enlightenment writers who address theories of attention and distraction and who explore what neuroscientists call “cognitive control,” the ability to control and order attention in responsive, context-dependent ways in order to meet specific goals or draw logical conclusions.  In Distraction:  Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature (2016), Phillips analyzes the eighteenth-century cultural preoccupation with distraction and attentiveness and challenges our assumption that distraction is a uniquely twenty-first-century problem.  She also suggests that the eighteenth century’s “competing theories of attention . . . transformed the shape of eighteenth-century literature” and require a modified and more complex understanding of the genesis of the novel genre (9). [2]  Phillips employs a cognitive cultural approach to literary texts, an interpretive method that applies findings from the fields of cognitive psychology and neuroscience to explain how readers interpret literary texts and to understand how literature can provide valuable insight into human cognition, emotion, and social behavior.

My own research examining literature in light of recent findings in cognitive psychology and neuroscience arose out of my persistent sense that eighteenth-century writers seem stubbornly preoccupied with describing and representing the human brain in the process of interpreting, understanding, and evaluating its own thoughts and the thoughts of others.  Eighteenth-century writers’ attention to literary texts’ emotional and moral effects on readers; awareness of the “embodied brain”; exploration of psychological interiority; and preoccupation with what cognitive psychologists call “Theory of Mind,” or the ability to “explain observable behavior in terms of underlying thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions” (Zunshine 195) all attest to the relevance of cognitive cultural studies in analyzing eighteenth-century literary texts. [3]  Indeed, I would argue that eighteenth-century literature cannot be fully understood or appreciated without a consideration of shifting Enlightenment concepts of cognition, consciousness, self-fashioning, and social awareness.

Phillips’s research, part of a growing body of scholarship that examines eighteenth-century literary texts through the lens of cognitive neuroscience, reflects the fact that, roughly around the publication of John Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), literary texts began to display and represent layered, complex depictions of Theory of Mind and to rely on the assumption that readers must interpret both written texts and physical bodies for information about “underlying thoughts, feelings, desire, and intentions” (Zunshine 64). [4]  I argue that eighteenth-century literature is a particularly rich and fertile field to explore for information about how the human brain interprets itself and the behavior of others, and offer here four characteristics of the period that intersect with or require the concepts, aims, and practices of cognitive cultural studies:

(1.)  The period’s awareness of and deliberate focus on the written word’s cognitive, emotional, and moral effects on the reader.

Self-reflective and self-referencing prologues, epilogues, dedications, periodical essays, treatises, and letters from the period reveal a persistent eighteenth-century assumption that literature can induce powerful cognitive and moral effects on readers.  In addition, many writers from the period display a remarkably sophisticated understanding of the cognitive process of the act of reading, a common area of inquiry within the field of cognitive literary and linguistic studies.  For instance, Joseph Addison’s thoughtful investigation of the intricate relationship between pre-existing cognitive constructs (“Ideas”), linguistic signs (“Words”), and mental images (“Scenes”), closely parallels the research of cognitive linguists such as Joseph Grady, Gillis Fauconnier and Mark Turner, and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who assert that the mind creates meaning through systems of conceptual and analogical mapping or blending. [5]

(2.)  The period’s growing awareness of the reality of the “embodied brain,” or the close association between mental and physical states.

In their text Brain, Mind and Medicine:  Essays in Eighteenth-Century Neuroscience (2007), Harry Whitaker, C. U. M. Smith, and Stanley Finger delineate the gradual shift from the simple “clockwork,” “animal spirits,” and “hollow conduit” models of brain and nerve function to more sophisticated models, first posited by Thomas Willis in 1672, which locate “spirit” in “matter” (17 – 18). [6]  One of the most striking features of the late-eighteenth-century preoccupation with sensibility is its underlying assumption that the physical body directly, immediately, and intimately reflects states of mind, including emotions, thoughts, and levels of consciousness, an assumption shared by cognitive cultural critics who accept the concept of the embodied brain.

(3.)  The period’s cultural and literary shift toward the exploration and representation of psychological interiority.

In Before Novels:  The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction (1990), J. Paul Hunter asserts, “The crucial difference between individuals in romances and novels involves the degree and quality of self-consciousness in novels, a strikingly different awareness of the processes of thought and feeling that affect individuals in relation to their world and their experiences in it” (24). [7]  This highly-refined sense of subjectivity and self-conscious awareness, frequently noted by readers and critics of eighteenth-century novels, depends upon and reflects an increasing interest in psychological interiority, or an awareness both of one’s own private, embodied, cognitive space and one’s reflection in the minds of others.

(4.)  Finally, the period’s preoccupation with what cognitive literary and cultural critics call “Theory of Mind.”

The concept of Theory of Mind seems particularly relevant to analyses of eighteenth-century novels.  Indeed, most cognitive literary critics accept that the period represents what Blakey Vermeule calls “the beginnings of . . . the high mind-reading tradition in the English novel” (129). [8]  Eighteenth-century readers accepted fictional characters as realistic representations of human thought and behavior, revealing their willingness to draw conclusions about the psychological interiority of fictional characters and practice and refine their own Theory of Mind, a set of interpretive skills equally useful in both real and literary contexts.

If recent publication history provides any insight into future trends, the marriage between cognitive cultural studies and eighteenth-century literary scholarship will not only persist but will thrive and prompt further innovative literary exploration.  For instance, Karin Kukkonen’s A Prehistory of Cognitive Poetics (2017) uncovers and examines a neoclassical equivalent of cognitive poetics and demonstrates how eighteenth-century writers constructed a “principled, multi-faceted account of how literature entangles and delights the mind” (xi). [9]  And Wendy Jones’s Jane on the Brain:  Exploring the Science of Social Intelligence with Jane Austen (2017), written for a popular audience, offers an engaging and accessible exploration of Austen’s novels through the lenses of cognitive, social, and evolutionary psychology. [10]  Ultimately, scholars of eighteenth-century literature are drawn to the discipline of cognitive cultural studies not simply because it offers innovative approaches literary analysis but because the period’s writers themselves are preoccupied with and fascinated by the way the human mind interprets and makes sense of the world.  Eighteenth-century authors depict in explicit and complex ways the cognitive processes by which we strive to understand others and ourselves.

[1] Corrie Goldman, “This is Your Brain on Jane Austen, and Researchers are Taking Notes,” The Humanities at Stanford, September 7, 2012.

[2] Natalie M. Phillips, Distraction:  Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature.  Baltimore:  John Hopkins University Press, 2016.

[3] Lisa Zunshine, “Theories of Mind and Experimental Representations of Fictional Consciousness.”  Introduction to Cognitive Cultural Studies.  Ed. Lisa Zunshine.  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010:  193 – 213.

[4] Lisa Zunshine, “Theory of Mind and Fictions of Embodied Transparency.”  Theory of Mind and Literature.  Ed. Paula Leverage, Howard Mancing, Richard Schweickert, and Jennifer Marston William.  West Lafayette, IN:  Purdue University Press, 2011:  63 – 92.

[5] Joseph Addison, The Spectator.  No. 411 and No. 412.  “The Pleasures of the Imagination.”  The Commerce of Everyday Life:  Selections from the Tatler and The Spectator.  Ed. Erin Mackie.  Boston:  Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, 1998:  387 – 393.

[6] Harry Whitaker, C. U. M. Smith, and Stanley Finger, eds.  Brain, Mind and Medicine:  Essays in Eighteenth-Century Neuroscience.  New York:  Springer Press, 2007.

[7] J. Paul Hunter, Before Novels:  The Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth-Century English Fiction.  New York:  W. W. Norton, 1990.

[8] Blakey Vermeule, Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?  Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011.

[9] Karen Kukkonen, A Prehistory of Cognitive Poetics:  Neoclassicism and the Novel.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2017.

[10] Wendy Jones, Jane on the Brain:  Exploring the Science of Social Intelligence with Jane Austen.  New York: Pegasus, 2017.

The Making of Jane Austen: Going Behind the Scenes of the First Hollywood Pride and Prejudice (1940)

As a Jane Austen scholar, I get to go to some pretty incredible libraries—The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, The Morgan Library in New York City, The British Library in London, the Chawton House Library at Jane Austen’s “Great House” in Chawton among them. But an amazing library with Austen riches in Beverly Hills? Yes, believe it or not, there is one. I spent several happy days there researching for my book, The Making of Jane Austen (2017). The glamour quotient of that trip might seem lower to you, however, when you learn that I arrived via city bus.

It was a pretty great bus ride, all in all. The bus inches along Sunset Boulevard (yes, that Sunset Boulevard) to a stop at Vine (and yes, that Vine!), passing Chateau Marmont and some seriously upscale shopping. I felt pretty much the opposite of the beautiful people, carrying an enormous computer bag, wearing a dowdy sweater, and facing the prospect of spending several sunny California days entirely indoors. For a library rat, it’s absolutely worth it.

The Margaret Herrick Library, also known as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library, or the Oscars Library, holds countess papers and files that document Jane Austen’s afterlife in Hollywood. I made an appointment to see their unpublished materials on the making of MGM’s Pride and Prejudice (1940), that much loved or hated (and sometimes both loved and hated!) film starring Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennet and Laurence Olivier as Mr. Darcy. I knew from the online catalog that the library held production files, publicity photographs, and many scripts, but I had little idea what was in them. Only a handful of scholars had ever described this material. Even those few treated these materials rather briefly. I figured that even if it turned out to be a lot of junk, I could describe that. I needed to see it all for myself, in order to cover the stage-performance-turned-into-early-film part of Austen’s afterlife.

Arriving at the Herrick Library turns out to be a rather grand event. The place may look like a church, but it’s locked down like a bank. I had my identity checked by the security guard, stowed most of my possessions in a locker, noticed the familiar names engraved on the walls, walked up the staircase, checked in with the librarian, and found a desk. Then I got my first look at the files. I started with the glossy, black-and-white publicity stills for Pride and Prejudice taken by MGM. There were hundreds of gorgeous shots. Unfortunately, researchers aren’t allowed to take their own photographs of anything at the Herrick, even for personal research purposes. The library also has a strict policy on the small number of paid photocopies a researcher is allowed per year. This is a big scholar-bummer, but knowing those constraints made me focus differently. These images are still seared into my memory, because it seemed my only option.

The shots of the set were stunning. To see them up close made me reimagine the amount of expense and care that went into designing details large and small, from the walls to the furniture to the props. The photographs of the cast wearing those oh-so-wrong Victorian costumes were also riveting, even if they are cringe-worthy examples of historical research gone wrong. It was clear from the production files that the costumers thought that lumping together fashions from 1810s, 1820s, 1830s or even the 1840s couldn’t make all that much difference. (One wonders how any Hollywood costume designer thinking through the amount of fashion change that was seen from through 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s could possibly think so.)

What I remember best from the production photographs, however, are the casual shots taken on set during filming. There was an arresting photograph of Judy Garland “stopping by” oh-so-casually—and coincidentally with a photographer on hand!—to visit Garson in her Pride and Prejudice dressing room. Another photo shows Garson reading an enormous nineteenth-century volume—a book prop—between takes, as she sits on a director’s chair near the set’s unintentionally hilarious “Rare Books” storefront. I suppose one could argue all books were rare in the eighteenth century, when buying even one volume was something out of the reach of most regular people, but “rare books” was not yet a commercial term.

A photograph of the outdoor table from the film’s famous archery scene between Elizabeth and Darcy shows that someone had delicately taped over a naked putto’s nether regions. A casual photo of Garson in costume as Elizabeth, getting an archery lesson from a man in a white undershirt, was terribly funny in its sartorial and historical contrast. A shot of Olivier and Garson in costume, receiving dance instruction from a modern-dress husband-wife team, was similarly amusing but at the same time surprisingly moving. A dedication to the study of movement—for teachers and students—was well captured in this photo.

Another shot of two men, Olivier, dressed as Darcy, and the film’s director, Robert “Pop” Leonard, in his Colonel Sanders-like outfit, playing badminton together in between outdoor takes was priceless. A shot of the English members of the cast, in a down moment, enjoying a tea break, seemed both staged and true-to-life. It made visible the trans-Atlantic elements of the production very clearly, too.

But the best photo of all is one of the Bennet sisters posed at the edge of the set. The five actors are standing together, in a costumed line, in front of doors with signs above them. The doors presumably lead to a women’s dressing room. The largest sign reads, “Thru These Portals Pass the Most Beautiful Girls in Meryton,” with smaller letters below that warn, “Positively No Admission,” and “The Little Girls Club.” There is also an obscured notice that seems to advertise an on-set knitting club.

The photos definitely whetted my appetite to learn more about the making of this film, but it was the typescript files that turned out to be an absolute feast. I moved from the production stills to the print files. I knew the rough outlines of the agonizingly slow play-to-film journey of MGM’s Pride and Prejudice, which had its start in Helen Jerome’s 1935 Broadway hit play and was rewritten by a series of screenwriters for Hollywood. It’s a story that has been told many times before, and I won’t repeat that five-year odyssey here, except to say that it involved not only predictable casting changes but a premature and unexpected death. (If you want to learn about why the story of Harpo Marx’s role in it all is greatly exaggerated, you’ll have to check out my book.)

What I got to read in those Herrick Library script files were drafts that few have had a chance to digest before. There were dozens of Pride and Prejudice screenplays—“failed” scripts–with Austen-inspired scenes and dialogue never brought to life. Some of these scripts were truly dreadful. It was all I could do to stifle my laughter as I read these preposterous scenarios, from the full-on mud-splashings proposed for Elizabeth and Darcy (two different versions had each of them successively doused in mud) to the heart-of-gold neighborhood gypsy named Tony. Obviously, though, laughing out loud would not have been okay, as sounds of any kind are frowned upon in libraries in general. The Herrick especially inspires silence and awe, with its spotless, white Bob Hope Lobby and its elegant, olive-green Katharine Hepburn Reading Room. I tried to limit myself to broad smirks. Believe me, it was a challenge.

You can read more of the gory details of these ridiculous failed scripts in my book’s chapter seven, but I can’t resist sharing one more tidbit. In one early version of the screenplay, Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, and Colonel Fitzwilliam go off on a crazy bachelor weekend to London. In one of their misadventures, they end up wagering on a dog versus monkey fight. Colonel Fitzwilliam bets on the monkey, but Darcy’s money is on the dog. And it turns out that that bit, at least, was vaguely historically accurate! There was a fighting monkey, Jacco Macacco, that fought in the Westminster Pit in London and was made famous by Pierce Egan in his Life in London (1821). It’s the book that gave rise to the characters Tom and Jerry, so it’s especially amusing to think of Darcy, Bingley, and the Colonel as precursor bro-friends transposed into those roles. Whether you’re a fan of the 1940 Pride and Prejudice or not, the final version of the film will rise in your estimation once you realize just how much worse things might have been.

I also came away from reading these scripts doing more than laughing. Reading them makes one realize how these screenwriters were really in a tough place. They were trying to find—they were no doubt being charged to create—ways to make Austen seem fresh to millions of late 1930s moviegoers who may never have heard of her or who knew of her only glancingly. Screenwriters were throwing whatever they could think of at Pride and Prejudice, including the conventions of Westerns and screwball comedies. In the end, I thought, we should probably be more generous in assessing their attempts, even if you feel, as I do, quite relieved that most of these ideas never saw the screen.

I came away from the library thinking, “Long live Jane Austen in popular culture, whether in Beverly Hills or London or Chawton—whether in enough mud for a full-body wrestling match or with just a few glorious inches of it worn around the ankles—and whether you are cheering for the dog or the monkey.”

P. S. The Herrick Library was very generous with me during my visit, providing access to a lot of material and invaluable research assistance. I’m especially grateful to librarian Jenny Romero, who helped me find just the right things to read. I’m also thankful to the staff there, who never raised their eyebrows too high, even if an audible laugh or two may have escaped from me unawares.

You can read more about The Making of Jane Austen, watch a book trailer, see additional images, and order your own copy at makingjaneasten.com.

Keeping Marriage Spicy With Jane Austen

Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan

“It can be a pleasure to meet one’s wife as a stranger.”

When friends and colleagues heard that I was reporting on the eccentric world of Jane Austen superfansone question was uppermost: Do people hook up at Jane Austen camp? At first, I grew irritated at these inquiries, which seemed to assume that Austen cosplay is somehow centrally about sex. (It’s not, really; it’s mainly about books, and only a little about sex.) Still, as I spent more and more time in the world of the Janeites, I came to meet quite a few older couples for whom the Jane Austen summer camp doubled as a romantic getaway—a chance to rediscover the pleasures of flirting with one’s spouse.

Some, in the tradition of R.W. Chapman and Katharine Metcalfe, had fallen in love with each other in part through discovering a mutual love for Austen, and there are various academic power couples across the world whose unions owe their beginning to an indiscreet moment at an Austen conference; as Kipling’s narrator says in his 1924 short story “The Janeites,” Austen remains a “bit of a match-maker” even in death, and at the larger conferences I occasionally met a child conceived (the parents told me) with the aid of Austen’s prose as aphrodisiac.

Read the rest of this excerpt on Slate, and buy Camp Austen: My Life as an Accidental Jane Austen Superfan from your local independent bookstore, or from Amazon.

Jane Austen Summer Program Presents “Northanger Abbey and Frankenstein: 200 Years of Horror”

This summer more than 100 people, from readers to writers to scholars, will gather at the sixth-annual Jane Austen Summer Program to celebrate the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Attendees of “Northanger Abbey and Frankenstein:  200 Years of Horror” will have the opportunity to hear expert speakers and participate in discussion groups on the gothic-inspired novels.  They also will partake in an English tea, dance at a Regency-style masquerade ball, attend Austen-inspired theatricals, and visit special exhibits tailored to the conference.

Hosted by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and JASNA-NC, the events will take place from June 14 to 17, 2018 at the Hampton Inn in Carrboro and at various locations on the UNC campus in Chapel Hill, NC.  The program discussions will consider the two classic novels in their historical contexts as well as their afterlives in fiction and film.  Program Director Inger Brodey notes, “both Austen in Northanger Abbey and Shelley in Frankenstein react eloquently to the gothic taste in literature and have similar commentary on the frightening results of the French Revolution.  Bringing the authors’ works together will allow us to explore their revolutionary legacy, both in terms of literary innovation and social change.”

Participants old and new praise the program’s educational mission, along with its innovation and focus on community-building.  “The conference on Mansfield Park was my first experience of JASP—and now I’m hooked!,” says Vicky Brandt.  “It’s a wonderful idea to open up an academic conference to the interested public:  everyone should be able to experience the loving inquiry that is the heart of scholarship.  All the presentations were enlightening; the small group discussions lively and insightful; the Saturday evening Regency ball almost as beautiful to watch as the ones we see on film.  In short, I can think of no better way to describe it than with Austen’s own words:  ‘the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation.’”  Pamela Martin, a recipient of the program’s teacher scholarship, adds, “I found the Jane Austen Summer Program to be one of the most inspirational events I have ever attended.  It was refreshing and rewarding to be a part of an academic exchange of ideas for a bit, and bask in the glory of just learning for learning sake!”

For more program information, to see comments and photos from previous programs, or to register, please visit the program’s website janeaustensummer.org or follow the program at facebook.com/janeaustensummer or via twitter, @JASPhotline.  You may also contact us at [email protected]

Middle- and high-school teachers are encouraged to visit the website for information on available scholarships and continuing education credits.

Media interested in attending the program and interviewing the participants should reach out to Suzanna Geiser at [email protected] or (919) 848-3454.

(Original piece provided by Carlie Wetzel, SITES Lab, UNC-CH).

Austen and the Anthropocene

“Jane Austen Populaire 3” (2016) by Eymery. Wikimedia Commons.

Modern adaptations of Jane Austen’s works rarely emphasize climate change.  The intrigues of Austen’s protagonists are capacious enough to accommodate murder mysteries, high school dramas, and even zombies.  Yet climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” has yet to re-imagine Longbourn, Mansfield Park, or Donwell Abbey.  While those adaptations would be welcome, they may not be necessary, as Austen’s works might already show the traces of the human modification of climate.  Austen’s fictions and, more broadly, works of British literature from the long eighteenth century come from a significant moment in history:  the start of the Anthropocene.

Since at least the early twentieth century, scientists and scholars have noted the increasing ways humanity has altered the environment.  In 2002, Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen argued,

It seems appropriate to assign the term ‘Anthropocene’ to the present, in many ways human-dominated, geological epoch, supplementing the Holocene — the warm period of the past 10–12 millennia.  The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane.  This date also happens to coincide with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784.  [1]

Crutzen is not the first scholar to call for a geologic period defined by human activity.  He is not even the first person to coin the term “Anthropocene.”  But Crutzen’s call galvanized scholars and the public.  Now a piece of geologic jargon is a growing field of study across disciplines and even has entered the public sphere, earning attention from The Economist, The Guardian (twice), and The New York Times.

The dating of the Anthropocene (i.e., when this new epoch begins) is a point of disagreement among scientists, social scientists, and historians.  Crutzen argues that 1784 should be considered the inception of the epoch.  Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin argue that the beginning of the Columbian Exchange, in the 1600s, should mark the start of the Anthropocene [2].  Recently, Colin N. Waters and his colleagues have argued the starting date for the Anthropocene should be in the mid-twentieth century because of the dramatic evidence of humanity’s effects on the environment, such as a radical increase in carbon emissions and the traces of nuclear weapons use [4].  Unsurprisingly, the dating of the Anthropocene is a political act:  who is to blame for the widening gyre of climate change? [5].  Is the developed world to blame?  The West?  The United States of America?  The wealthy?  Those question are significant, but for The 18th-Century Common let us focus one suggestion put forward by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz in The Shock of the Anthropocene (2016).  These authors wryly note that the Anthropocene might be better labeled the “Anglocene,” given that the United Kingdom and the United States together produced more carbon dioxide than the rest of the world combined before the twentieth century (116) [6].  The United Kingdom, and England specifically, are a significant locus for the Industrial Revolution and therefore carbon dioxide production.  As E. A. Wrigley shows, the English and Welsh consumption of energy, especially coal, increased rapidly from the mid-seventeenth century until the mid-nineteenth century [7].  The advent of steam engines, thanks to efforts of engineers like Thomas Newcomen and James Watt, help drive this widening hunger for coal.

An Atmospheric Engine from A Course of Experimental Philosophy (1734) by John Theophilus Desaguliers, vol. 2, Plate 37. Wikimedia Commons.

The Newcomen atmospheric engine was one of the first successful steam engines.  Invented by Thomas Newcomen in 1712, the engine was both simple and complex.  Water was heated with coal to create steam.  The steam would rise, entering the chamber under the piston and pushing the piston up.  Then the steam was cooled rapidly, creating a partial vacuum, causing the atmospheric pressure to push the piston down.  The Newcomen engine was primarily deployed to pump water out of mines although it was used in a few other industrial and civic applications.  At coal mines the Newcomen engine facilitated a positive feedback loop:  miners could mine coal to fuel the engine, which allowed them to drain inaccessible areas of the mine, which allowed them to mine coal to fuel the engine, and so on.  Coal became self-propagating as burning coal allowed the mines to extract more coal.  And even though the Newcomen engine was quite inefficient, the collieries used coal they would otherwise be unable to sell.  The Newcomen engine helped make coal even more accessible to both miners and consumers.

Extracting the coal was not enough though; it needed to be moved to the consumer.  Coal was transported by roads, then ships, then canals, then railroads.  Turnpikes made it easier to transport coal overland, ultimately to rivers or the coast.  Ships moved coal from the north of England towards the south, although threats from foreign navies and privateers made overland transport more attractive.  Some of the first canals were built to facilitate the movement of coal, like the Sankey Canal, which connected collieries in St Helens with the River Mersey and thus manufacturers in Lancashire.  In some cases the infrastructure started at the pit mouth and extended out, like the first railroads.  This is not to suggest that all infrastructure served coal, other commodities and people also drove these innovations.  Eventually though infrastructure, especially the railroad like its progenitor the Newcomen engine, became inextricably linked to coal.

“Viaduct across the Sankey Valley” (1831) by Thomas Talbot Bury. Wikimedia Commons.

At the same time, manufacturers were beginning to adopt new mechanical modes of production.  Famously, Richard Arkwright helped create a new system of water- then steam-powered textile manufacturing.  James Watt’s improvements upon Newcomen’s engine, specifically adding a separate condenser, greatly improved efficiency.  These revolutions in industry do not indicate the embeddedness of coal in British society though; Newcomen and Watt merely found a new way to utilize a fuel that was already in widespread circulation.  Due to a perceived wood scarcity in the Early Modern period, inhabitants of London began burning coal to heat their homes (Cavert 18-22) [8].  Additionally, even though most coal use was domestic in the Early Modern period, it was burned for a range of industrial applications:  iron, salt, glass, bricks, pottery, beer.  Coal was important enough that as the British fought in the War of Spanish succession, Queen Anne articulated only two significant policy positions for the new session of Parliament in November 1703:  a further recruitment of sailors for the Royal Navy and a reduction in the price of coal to keep London from experiencing unrest (Cavert 143).  Coal was increasingly integrated into the British economy throughout the long eighteenth century.

Coal does not seem to play a large role in any of Austen’s works, although I would suggest the fossil fuel is like Sir Bertram’s plantation and its slaves in Antigua:  unseen but still significant.  Coal does make a brief appearance in Mansfield Park (1814).  Late in the novel, when Fanny has been sent back to her parents, she is welcomed by Mrs. Price, who understandably wants to make her daughter comfortable after her long journey,

“Dear me!” continued the anxious mother, “what a sad fire we have got, and I dare say you are both starved with cold.  Draw your chair nearer, my dear.  I cannot think what Rebecca has been about.  I am sure I told her to bring some coals half an hour ago.  Susan, you should have taken care of the fire.”  (Austen 257) [9]

Mrs. Price’s request for coal is innocuous:  the fire is low and needs more fuel.  But Austen does not often mention what is being burned in the fireplaces her protagonists gather around.  Her acknowledgement of coal here is telling.  The mention of coal is likely not to highlight that the Prices are using coal.  Coal was burned at all social strata.  The wealthy just burned more coal, burned less noxious coal, and burned other fuels too (Cavert 26-27).  Rather, Austen likely is drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that the Price’s daughters have to attend to the fire, rather than the servants at Mansfield Park, and that the daughters have failed in that task, again unlike the mostly unseen servants.  In twenty-first century terms, Mrs. Price is telling her daughters to turn the thermostat up now that company is over.  This moment is one of Fanny’s many significant interactions with fire throughout the novel.  The warmth of a fire or the lack thereof is a metonym for her feelings of comfort:  the excitement of planning the Lover’s Vows in a cozy fire-warmed room (Austen 101), the sadness of being denied a fire in her room by Mrs. Norris (106), the joy of being granted a fire by Sir Bertram (202), and ultimately sitting without a fire in Portsmouth (270).  Her relationship to warmth, fuel, and heat—an aesthetic motif which coveys her social desires—is predicated on a developing carbon infrastructure, an infrastructure that was already obscured because of how commonplace it was.

“‘Am I to understand’ said Sir Thomas, ‘that you mean to refuse Mr. Crawford?’” (1908) by C. E. Brock. Wikimedia Commons.

Jane Austen’s works ultimately are not climate fiction.  Her novels and the works of other British writers in the long eighteenth century though do merit examination as existing among the first texts of the Anthropocene or proto-Anthropocene.  Those works are the product of British cultures which were being transformed by the expansion of coal usage.  Concurrently, these British cultures were impelling and impeding the expansion of coal use:  driving miners deeper into the ground while also decrying the costs to the environment and people.  The ultimate definition of the Anthropocene will likely rest with future geologists and stratigraphers.  The evidence for an Anthropocene that begins in the middle of the twentieth century is fairly persuasive.  Although, as Matt Edgeworth and his colleagues argue, selecting a single moment of time for the inception of the Anthropocene is difficult due to the ways that sediments are deposited, shifted, and altered over time through geologic and anthropomorphic forces [10].  But in Jane Austen’s world, England and zones connected to England through political, military, or commercial reach were already dependent on fossil fuel use.  Now is the time to re-evaluate the ways eighteenth-century cultures and peoples acknowledged or ignored this energy transition, the promethean steps of a species-cum-geologic-force.

Notes

[1] Crutzen, Paul J.  “Geology of Mankind.”  Nature 415.6867 (2002):  23.

[2] Lewis, Simon L. and Mark A. Maslin.  “Defining the Anthropocene.”  Nature 519.7542 (2015):  171–80.

[3] Waters, Colin N. et al.  “The Anthropocene is Functionally and Stratigraphically Distinct from the Holocene.”  Science 351.6269 (2016).

[5] Malm, Andreas, and Alf Hornborg.  “The Geology of Mankind?  A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative.”  Anthropocene Review 1 (2014):  62–69.

[6] Bonneuil, Christophe and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz.  Shock of the Anthropocene.  Trans. David Fernbach.  London:  Verso, 2016.

[7] Wrigley, E. A.  “Energy and the English Industrial Revolution.”  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A:  Mathematical, Physical, and Engineering Sciences 371.1986 (2013).

[8] Cavert, William M.  The Smoke of London.  Cambridge:  Cambridge UP, 2016.

[9] Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. Claudia Johnson.  New York:  Norton, 1998.

[10] Edgeworth, Matt.  “Diachronous Beginnings of the Anthropocene:  The Lower Bounding Surface of Anthropogenic Deposits.”  The Anthropocene Review 2.1 (2015):  33–58.