Free speech: Jane Austen, Robert Bage, and the subversive shapes of dialogue

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Toner, AC 

On receiving her published copy of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra, on 29 January 1813, the much-cited words:

“I do not write for such dull Elves” “As have not a great deal of Ingenuity themselves” (Austen 2011: 210).

Austen’s rejection of “dull elves” has become in many ways the manifesto of her precocious talent and, indeed, of her challenge to the contemporary reputation of the novel, by deeming it a form that demands of its readers “ingenuity”, which as the OED tells us is “High or distinguished intellectual capacity; genius, talent, quickness of wit” (4.a) or “Capacity for invention or construction; skill or cleverness in contriving or making something (material or immaterial)” (6.a). That Austen rewrites here Walter Scott’s couplet in Marmion “I do not rhyme to that dull elf, / Who cannot image to himself” (Scott 1992: 244), makes even more evident the emphasis she puts on intellectual work as opposed to the immediacy of Scott’s pictorial imagining. In Northanger Abbey, Austen provided an explicit defence of the novel and a rebuttal of the commonplace diminishment of its value:

—there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them (Austen [1818] 2006: 31).

Austen’s letter to Cassandra on the publication of Pride and Prejudice provides unique, explicit evidence as to her own belief that her fiction demanded of its readers a significant intellectual input. And it is in this general sense that Austen’s reference to “dull elves” is commonly interpreted: the rejection of “dull elves” is repeated by critics to endorse the multiple complexities and subtleties of her writing.

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Textus: English studies in Italy
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Associazione Italiana di Anglistica