Character and caricature: Jane Austen and James Gillray.
The word "character," in its wonderfully multiple senses ranging from glyph to reputation, with moral substance or heft significantly in the middle, appears frequently on Austen's pages. Mr. Bingley denies having assumed '"the character of needless precipitance merely to shew off before the ladies'" (PP 49); a woman's face shows "the strong characters of pride and ill nature" (SS 232); Colonel Brandon concludes his account of Willoughby's misdeeds by saying, '"His character is now before you; expensive, dissipated, and worse than both'" (SS 210). Much more unusual is an occurrence of the less expansive--and etymologically unrelated--word "caricature," which turns up in this description of Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood, the selfish brother and sister-in-law of the Dashwood sisters, who inherit their home and throw them out of it:
He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed: but he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties. Had he married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable than he was:--he might even have been made amiable himself; for he was very young when he married, and very fond of his wife. But Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself;--more narrow-minded and selfish. (SS 5)
Mrs. John is a moral caricature, not a visual one: notoriously, Austen tells us very little about what her people look like. I propose to develop here one relation of character to caricature, taking off from D. W. Harding's 1968 essay "Character and Caricature in Jane Austen." My argument is that Austen, writing in what Diana Donald calls the Age of Caricature, saw caricature as a mode of characterization. Reading Austen side by side with her twenty-years-older contemporary, the caricaturist James Gillray, we understand (and share) her delight in Sense and Sensibility's Mrs. Ferrars (Mrs. John Dashwood's mother), whose "lucky contraction of the brow had rescued her countenance from the disgrace of insipidity, by giving it the strong characters of pride and ill nature" (232).
Harding argued--against the prevailing view that all of Austen's excellent characters are ultimately "round"--that caricatures like Mr. Collins live side by side in the novels with characters like Elizabeth Bennet; we would not be able to laugh at Mr. Collins, he suggests, if he posed any real threat to the heroine (88-89). I am interested in the function of monstrous and risible characters like Collins and also of moments when the narrator turns a character into a caricature--when sympathy for a person is deliberately and seemingly gratuitously withdrawn, as it is from fat Mrs. Musgrove, of Persuasion, and her dead, dumb son Dick, "whom alive nobody had cared for" (68). Anne and Wentworth share a silent giggle at Mrs. Musgrove weeping for poor Dick, and the reader is elaborately invited to join them:
Personal size and mental sorrow have certainly no necessary proportions. A large bulky figure has as good a right to be in deep affliction, as the most graceful set of limbs in the world. But, fair or not fair, there are unbecoming conjunctions, which reason will patronize in vain,--which taste cannot tolerate,--which ridicule will seize. (68)
The editorial aside is, I think, something other than an accidental glimpse of the putative hatred that Austen was careful to regulate: it offers insight into how she creates and manipulates a reader's sympathy for other people, in the novel and outside it. It is bracing, I suggest, to take a sudden dim or long view of the kind of person often called "a real character," to see her or him as a curiosity. Mr. Bennet's good question slyly recommends itself: "'For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?'" (PP 364). One reason for reading (and rereading) Austen's novels is to share her view of persons as caricatures as well as characters; arguably, maybe perversely, that perspective serves to create sympathy for others, even perhaps for one another, and for oneself. What a relief from the injunction to love and perhaps even to marry your neighbor, to pin him or her to the page like a specimen, flat and altogether legible!
In the second volume of Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwood sisters visit London, and the scene shifts from imaginary houses in actual counties--Norland in Sussex, Barton Cottage and Barton Park and Allenham, in Devonshire--to the streets and squares of the city, Portman-square and Harley Street and Bond Street, but the focus remains on character, and on the same characters. The important life is the social life of genteel ladies and gentlemen: except perhaps for the scene where Marianne collapses at an unpleasantly crowded big party, there are few peculiarly urban moments. (2) But as D. A. Miller has shown in a reading of a scene set in a jewelry shop in Mayfair, Austen's critique of people who only pretend to politeness and gentility and of the heterosexual social structure that "respectable" marriage sustains and supports comes to a head in an encounter between Elinor and a rival customer--a foppish male--in a shop in the city (9-20).
Bond Street in Jane Austen's time was, as it still is, a fashionable shopping street; she herself shopped there, and Marianne Dashwood looks around for Willoughby in "Bond-street especially, where much of their business lay" (164). More overtly commercial than the pleasure gardens of London--Ranelagh and Vauxhall, Kensington Gardens and St. James's Park--the shopping street was, like those leafy precincts, a public place where the classes and genders promiscuously mingled; elegantly dressed men and women walked there for exercise and amusement, to see and be seen, to shop and be shopped. It was the haunt of so-called "Bond Street loungers": Isaac Cruikshank's 1793 graphic satire "Peepers in Bond Street, or the cause of the Lounge!!" crudely diagnoses the cause of the lounge as men's desire to look up women's dresses. Shops on Bond Street sold millinery, books, and prints--Gillray's publisher Hannah Humphrey had her shop there for a time--but the street outside, according to numerous popular prints of the time, was a marketplace for "'human flesh,'" to borrow the phrase that the author of Emma uses, for shock value, to describe what she calls '"the governess-trade'" (300).
As every reader of Austen knows, trade was despised as vulgar by the polite classes: the author of Pride and Prejudice mocks the Bingley sisters for conveniently forgetting that their family fortune had been made, and recently, in trade. But trade in human flesh--the governess trade or the slave trade, or the exchange of money for sexual bodies on what was then and is sometimes now called "the meat market"--is not merely inelegant but humanly abhorrent. (All Austen's novels explore the relation of bad taste and real evils.) By linking the histories of the two ruined women named Eliza with the lovers of disinherited Marianne Dashwood, the plot of Sense and Sensibility suggests a connection between the genteel marriage market, where marriages were made for money, and less legitimate exchanges.
Marianne and her sister Elinor are invited to London by their neighbor Mrs. Jennings soon after the two eligible men in the neighborhood--first Colonel Brandon, then Willoughby--are summoned "to town" "on business" (63-64, 75-76). (Mrs. Jennings immediately suspects that that phrase is a euphemism for sexual scandal.) When the ladies follow the men to the city, they go on business as well: women's business. Having successfully married off her own daughters to wealthy, respectable men, Mrs. Jennings is now making it her business to marry the Dashwood girls; Marianne seeks her sometime suitor, the Willoughby whose name marks him as a romantic hero; Elinor's sisterly business is to look after and care for younger, more emotionally fragile Marianne. That the rake Willoughby lives in rented rooms on Bond Street ironically underscores the importance of his mercantile relation to the marriage market.
Even if she knew that Bond Street got its name from the Sir Thomas Bond who originally owned the area near Piccadilly, Jane Austen would have enjoyed the name's punning evocations of monetary, matrimonial, and other bonds (Cordelia tells King Lear she loves him "according to my bond, no more nor less"). A connoisseur of place names, Austen praises one name her novel-writing niece, Anna, made up: "The name of Newton-Priors is really invaluable!--I never met with anything superior to it.--It is delightful.--One could live upon the name of Newton-Priors for a twelve-month" (30 November 1814). One can only imagine her delight in hitting on "Combe Magna" as the name of the coxcomb Willoughby's estate. "Bond Street" has a truth-to-life that "Combe Magna" or "Newton-Priors" lacks.
For a sense of what Bond Street looked like in Jane Austen's day, a map of the period is less useful than James Gillray's large and novelistic print "High-Change in Bond Street." The fashionable figures recall paintings of high life as well as fashion plates of the time. Published in 1796, when Austen was drafting Sense and Sensibility, Gillray's print might be--but of course it was not--an illustration of the novel. Isn't the busy woman in the background plump Mrs. Jennings, holding up her skirt from the horses' dirt, with a riding crop in one hand and an opera glass in the other? And don't her slender companions resemble the Dashwood girls, both looking modestly (or carefully) down at the cobblestones? Surely Marianne, who'd been crying, is the veiled one with her hand tucked under Mrs. Jennings's supportive arm. And don't those strikingly ugly dandies caricature the likes of rakish Willoughby?
My fanciful questions are the playful conjectures of a make-believe-credulous novel reader craving pictures of people the novel barely describes. On the other hand, this caricature by an artist renowned for drawing identifiable, real public people raises honest questions. Who, for instance, are the strangely dressed female figures in the foreground, with their backs to us, the tall one so elaborately overdressed for the street and the smaller one in a hat reminiscent of a famous portrait of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft? The women are looking at the mostly male crowd from our angle: stand-ins for the viewer, they stare at the confident dandies in tight trousers, high neck-cloths, and curly-brimmed hats, who strut in a pack down the sidewalk, linking arms as ladies often linked arms then, with the result of ungallantly pushing the women into the street. Is this print all about gender differences and similarities? Do the two women represent the critical, the novelistic, female gaze? Are they being criticized as streetwalkers--which they literally are? Is there a complicated word-and-picture pun here?
Gillray's double title, "High-Change in Bond Street, ou, la Politesse du Grande Monde," likens this fashionable crowd to the socially very different crowd on London's biggest money market, the Stock Exchange. (At the time the Exchange was held outdoors, in the neighborhood of the Bank of England, on the other side of town from the West End and Mayfair. "High Change" was its busiest time.) The Stock Exchange, the acme and epitome of the soul-destroying "trade" that the landed English upper classes snobbishly looked down on, was peopled by a raffish, heterogeneous mix of speculators, foreigners, and Jews, probably disreputable women and Englishmen of dubious lineage. (Plans were afoot in 1796 to move the Stock Exchange indoors: there would soon be a building.)
The words are integral to the visual satire, as they often are in Gillray's pictures: the double title, English and French, accords with the general theme of excess as it emphasizes the lack, on Bond Street, of politeness or politesse, the genteel, civil, social quality that allegedly separates the beau monde or beautiful world of leisured and fashionable people from the lower realm where tradesmen competed on the Exchange. In England, French was the language of high style and pretension to style: a search of the Oxford English Dictionary shows that between 1750 and 1810, more than 1300 words from French entered the English language, many of them having to do with manners and social distinction.
Gillray enjoyed playing with words, including French words; here, either by mistake or design, he gives the French monde or "world," with its deceptive final "e," an adjective (grande) of the feminine gender. It serves to emphasize the point, that these members of the grand monde dressed in the height of fashion--the feathers are so high that this pun is impossible to ignore--see themselves as superior to vulgar tradesmen but are in fact hustlers selling their stuff on the street just like the crowd on the Stock Exchange, both the crude, rude, overdressed men and the absurdly tiny-headed woman with an only notional neck, who is at once enlarged and very nearly erased by the yards of fabric she wears and the ridiculous size of her tall Regency feather. Her clothes turn her into a material girl, a creature of costume and fabric. Gillray's view is of a fantastic surreal city, a fever dream of startling characters, ugly toughs, and implausibly fancy ladies.
In her invaluable encyclopedia of English prints, M. Dorothy George identifies one uniformed officer's shoulder and hat in "High-Change in Bond Street" as the Earl of Moira's; Gillray possibly alludes to Moira, who was connected with the Stock Exchange (7:305-06). But even if he does glance at the actual earl and other political figures, even as his print challenges a viewer to identify the people in it, "High-Change in Bond Street"--an elaborate, ambitious, and beautiful picture--is probably best described as a visual satire, not a caricature. For a caricature, surely, must be of somebody you recognize--as Mrs. John Dashwood is (involuntarily) a caricature of her husband, and perhaps, as some readers have suspected, the John Dashwoods and the Middletons are caricatures of particular narrow-minded and selfish, respectable couples Jane Austen knew. A caricature, usually, is a picture that depends on a prior or familiar character; it is the exaggerated image of a person whose image--less distorted, or simplified, or tendentious, or over-charged--we know.
But the distinction between "caricatures" and "visual satires" is vexed and complicated, partly because artists make caricatures of types as well as of individuals. Also, the negative connotations of "mere caricature," sometimes "vile caricature," persist.
Fifty years ago, it would have been unthinkable to speak in the same breath, or the same paper, of Jane Austen and caricature. Austen's six novels, literary classics, were then commonly considered evidence that the novel was a form of high art: the characters that peopled them were admired for being complex and round. Caricature, on the other hand, represented people in only two dimensions and was low, ugly, simple, nasty, popular, and ephemeral. Caricature was too closely tied to the world of politics and trade to be art. Famously, in his "Biographical Notice of the Author," Henry Austen wrote of his sister that "[s]he drew from nature; but, whatever may have been surmised to the contrary, never from individuals" (NA 7-8). The idea that Austen's fictional characters are intuitive inventions, altogether imaginary and therefore universal and immortal--like Shakespeare's--persists even today, when it is a commonplace to take her name in vain--in Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, for example.
But here I want to join the company of the recent Austen scholars--notably Jocelyn Harris, Janine Barchas, Margaret Doody and Douglas Murray, and Christine Alexander and Annette Upfal--who have made useful connections between the novels and the politics and gossip of Jane Austen's world, as well as with the visual artists of her time, including James Gillray. I agree that some of her early works read like caricatures--for example, this surrealistic description of a masquerade in "Jack and Alice": "The Company now advanced to a Gaming Table where sat 3 Dominos (each with a bottle in their hand) deeply engaged; but a female in the character of Virtue fled with hasty footsteps from the shocking scene, whilst a little fat woman representing Envy, sate alternately on the foreheads of the 3 Gamesters" (MW 14). Gillray's work abounds in louche (and worse) scenes of gambling and drinking and masquerade, and some fanciful elements in his caricatures are similarly surreal. It is easy to imagine the lady without a neck, in Bond Street, mingling with the fantastic likes of young Jane Austen's fat little Envy.
Austen's early fiction is outrageous, inventive, bumptiously irreverent, and even (as she herself might say) inelegant; most of Gillray's visual satires are all that and more, bloody and violent, scabrous and scatological and even revolting. But my aim is not to argue that the young Jane Austen--so much less decorous and properly ladylike than the great novelist she became--was indebted to the famous caricaturist, whose works she might indeed have seen early on. The similarity between Austen and Gillray that interests me, rather, is their shared interest in locating and representing moral character--or the lack of it--and the wit and elegance of their brilliant satires on pretentious but inadequate people and those who emulated them.
Despite the dramatic differences between their art forms and audiences, class and gender, family and education, Austen and Gillray were similarly keen, cold-eyed observers of a common culture, which--rather like Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood--kept congratulating itself on its uncommon, distinctively English civility, gentility, probity, and polish. Both enjoyed mocking the rich and powerful, and the rising classes of people who sought to emulate them. Gillray and Austen both had a knack for seizing the telling detail while staying aware of the big picture--noting, for instance, how a man's complexion gave away his distress, embarrassment, or habitual drinking. The novelist and the visual artist were masters, in their ways, of the graceful and authoritative line, and both spoke with special glee to those who would recognize the allusion and get the joke--people who recognized what tall feathers and bad grammar suggested about characters who used them, people who knew their Hogarth and Shakespeare, their Pope and Swift. Both Gillray and Austen borrowed techniques of satire from the past masters, never tiring of the comedy of sex and gender and delighting in comic pairings like those of the very different Middletons and the too similar John Dashwoods, the interchangeable (at least to some eyes) Ferrars brothers, and the less than sisterly Steele sisters. They relied on the play of opposites that visual and verbal satirists shared: large and small, fat and thin; comparison and contrast, balance and antithesis; subtlety and true wit. Fastidious artists, they relished the elegance of their time and deplored what it too often worked to conceal. At their most disturbing, they pair the organic with the elaborately artificial, the beautiful with the disgusting. As either Anne Elliot or the narrator reflects, some people--physically and/or morally--are sometimes simply comical. Gillray's portraits of the Prince Regent, Pitt, and Fox range from more to less vicious, but they are always amused and amusing.
I have confined myself, here, to Gillray's personal or social satires, but inevitably I've swerved into the political ones. "The Plumb-pudding in danger" is literally--that is, metaphorically--a picture of Jane Austen's world. It depicts the dire world situation in Jane Austen's domestic terms, that is, in an image of what we now call gracious living. Drawn, engraved, colored, and published in 1805, when Gillray was forty-nine and Austen was thirty, it is a scene of genteel dining, showing two men in uniform carving up a rich dessert that represents the world. The extravagance and ambition of the conception, the meticulousness of the details, the authority of the execution--those big hats!--are separately and together remarkable, and as in a novel by Jane Austen, the psychological and social commentary, the meaning of the complex whole, is subtle and layered.
"The great Globe itself"--Shakespeare's phrase, from a passage in The Tempest about its dissolution or destruction, written out in cursive and in quotation marks, on the upper right--is represented as a huge plum pudding with Europe and the Atlantic Ocean mapped onto it. The military men use their swords to cut themselves meaty slices; one hangs heavy off the whole the way a slice of ham might. (A recipe for a plum pudding serving twelve calls for a dozen eggs, a pound of suet, more than a cup of cognac, and lots of sugar, raisins, currants, and other candied fruits.) The two serious eaters here are surely intent enough on their job to manfully dispatch the whole thing.
Nobody who saw this delicious print in the window of Hannah Humphrey's shop in London would have had any trouble identifying the men: skeletal Pitt, Prime Minister of England, and tiny Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France. The warring leaders were among Gillray's favorite subjects. (Napoleon credited Gillray with getting the whole world to think of him as Little Boney when he was in fact of average height.) Here they are ironically identified as "State Epicures" enjoying a "Petit Souper," or little supper, in fancy French. Crazy-eyed Napoleon focuses on the food; icy Pitt looks down his pointed nose with detachment and disdain, the hilt of a second weapon meanwhile sticking up from his lap in the anatomically correct place. Childlike and attenuated, hot and cool, the two "state epicures" represent the neighbor nations France and England, each dead-set on getting all it can. Napoleon pierces Europe with a two-tined fork as Pitt takes the Atlantic Ocean (and presumably the rich West Indies) with one that may deliberately recall Neptune's trident. The passage from The Tempest laments that "the great globe itself, / Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, /And like this insubstantial pageant faded, / Leave not a wrack behind" (4.1). Gillray's burin has rewritten it into ordinary prose: the great globe itself is "too small to satisfy such insatiable appetites." The world is shrunk into a pudding, the imperialist project diminished into a petit souper, the warring rivals into dressy, greedy big eaters. This print falls into the category of political (as opposed to social) satire, but the political here (as elsewhere) is the social, therefore the personal.
Gillray's caricature of Pitt and Napoleon is occasional, political, journalistic, ephemeral, low not high, facetious not deeply probing, a mere caricature, as people say. Flat, two-dimensional, it is (or is it?) a work of nonfiction. We recognize these men, because they lived in Gillray and Austen's world and because versions of their types live in ours. Gillray's image is an imaginative, authoritative work--even, still, a stylish one. Brilliant and beautiful, it is also, in satire's way, truthful. It attacks the would-be masters of the universe for their selfishness and greed, contrasting their sartorial pretensions to elegance with their lack of civility and sociability. Both these arrogant men are real characters, odd specimens of human nature. Gillray's admirer has to marvel at the contrast between the great world itself (and its artists) and the cold-hearted, narrow-minded, comical, and petty little people who smugly imagine themselves as great and powerful, in possession and in charge of the world's riches.
Aside from confiding in a private letter that she hated the Prince Regent (16 February 1813), Jane Austen did not comment on the men engaged in moving and shaking the world of her time. Politics was outside the form of the novel as she conceived and wrote it. Nevertheless, there is ample evidence in her works of what she thought about the rich and powerful and self-important. Antisocial Mr. Palmer of Sense and Sensibility strongly intimates her dim view of politicians who vie with one another for popularity and votes. In Lady Catherine de Bourgh and General Tilney, Sir Walter Elliot and Sir Thomas Bertram, she makes her view of domestic bullies clear. (Mr. Price is a poor and impotent version.) They are narrow-minded and selfish people, like Mr. and Mrs. John Dash wood, who take it for granted that their own interests are the only ones that matter.
The social structure and social institutions that shape, alter, and inflect human nature--marriage and the family, primogeniture, assumptions about gender and rank--are also indicted in the course of Jane Austen's satire on selfishness and greed. When Mr. Woodhouse refuses to serve enough food to his guests, when Dr. Grant dies of gluttony, when Mrs. Norris steals away from Sotherton with a cream cheese for her own consumption, the dining room and the table are identified as the arena where gobblers give themselves away--as it so often is in James Gillray's satires. (See, for an astonishingly pretty but telling example, "A Voluptuary under the horrors of Digestion.") For a corrective view of genuinely civilized and gentlemanly behavior, the reader is advised to listen in to Mr. Knightley, offstage, as he gruffly refuses to be thanked for comforting the vulnerable Bates ladies with apples.
(1.) See two centuries of Austen criticism, adaptation, and imitation, and most recently E. M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel (1927), Deidre Lynch's The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (1998), Alex Woloch's The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (2003), and Blakey Vermeule's Why Do We Care About Literary Characters?(2010).
(2.) See Laurie Kaplan's "Sense and Sensibility: 3 or 4 Country Families in an Urban Village," Persuasions 32 (2010): 196-209, and "Sunday in the Park with Elinor Dashwood: 'So Public a Place,'" Persuasions 34(2012): 179-200.
Austen, Jane. The Works of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
--, Jane Austen's Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1995.
Donald, Diana. The Age of Caricature: Satirical Prints in the Reign of George III. New Haven: Yale UP, 1996.
George, M. Dorothy. Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires Preserved in the Department of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. 11 vols. London: British Museum, 1870-1954.
Harding, D. W. "Character and Caricature in Jane Austen." Critical Essays on Jane Austen. Ed. B. C. Southam. London: Routledge, 1968. 82-105.
Miller, D. A. Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style. Princeton: PUP, 2003.
Rachel M. Brownstein teaches at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of Becoming a Heroine: Reading about Women in Novels (1982), Tragic Muse: Rachel of the Comedie-Francaise (1995), and Why Jane Austen? (2011).
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|Title Annotation:||AGM 2015: Louisville|
|Author:||Brownstein, Rachel M.|
|Publication:||Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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