On Partial Narration

Michael McCarrin, English 32 1988

Yes, yes, the past gets in the way; it trips us up, bogs us down; it complicates, makes difficult. But to ignore this is folly, because, above all, what history teaches us is to ignore illusion and make-believe, to lay aside dreams, moonshine, cure-alls, wonder-workings, pie-in-the-sky---to be realistic. (Graham Swift, Waterland [1983], ch. 10, p.108)

She could not imagine what business he could have in town so soon after his arrival in Hertfordshire; and she began to fear that he might always be flying about from one place to another, and never settled at Netherfield as he ought to be. Lady Lucas quieted her fears a little by starting the idea of his being gone to London only to get a large party for the ball; and a report soon followed that Mr. Bingley was to bring twelve ladies and seven gentlemen with him to the assembly. The girls grieved over such a large number of ladies; but were comforted the day before the ball by hearing, that instead of twelve, he had brought only six with him from London, his five sisters and a cousin. And when the party entered the room it consisted of only five altogether; Mr. Bingley, his two sisters, the husband of the eldest, and another young man. (Pride and Prejudice, Vol. I, Ch.3, p.7)

Swift -- Graham Swift and not his old namesake Jonathan -- debates reality. He questions its value, its existence. And though Austen shows little concern with this esoteric inquiry, she does share a notable interest in stories. Her stories, in fact, like those of the aging history teacher Tom Crick, reveal a deep understanding that people are as much affected by imagination as truth. And where Tom Crick ironically speaks of being "realistic," Austen's own sense of irony creates the humorous image of characters who are little daunted by any notion of what is real or true. More than an attempt to amuse, though, her depiction makes a judgement about the supposedly factual history of Professor Crick's textbooks. Her story -in a time when the novel was relatively new, when written prose fiction was just beginning to catch the attention of the people at large -represents a break from fact, and an idea of truth different altogether from that of biographers, historians, scientists and even the philosophers of the Age of Reason.

One of Crick's many dissertations on the nature of history, the passage from Waterland begins with an admission of the burden of a remembered past (and can it be an accident that he uses the phrase "bogs us down," so suggestive of the partially reclaimed fenland?). He claims that this difficulty is a cold hard fact of history and therefore foolish to ignore, as history itself teaches us -- a strangely circular argument. But this is only tongue and cheek, for the story soon reveals the realism cannot ignore fairytales, cannot "lay aside dreams." Such a history is as incomplete as one without facts. History is, as the story reveals, only another story, an anthology of stories that conflict and twist forever back into each other. The storyteller, in this instance, has complicated the tale with his own irony, which he uses to characterize some of the problematic views of his colleague and employer, Lewis.

Swift's cyclical view comes to us from the late twentieth century, after quantum physics and nuclear weapons, after two world wars, and after the decline of the glorious British Empire (still strong in Austen's day). It arrives at a time in which progress has lost its luster, has itself become an old idea, and many have lost faith in the pursuit of scientific fact and knowledge that was so predominant in the eighteenth century. In many ways it is the culmination of the tradition of prose fiction which in Austen's time was just beginning.

Her intentions, clearly, were not nearly so complicated by paradox, but bent more in the direction of witty characterization of a group of women. The comedy of the description, however, does not arise out of Mrs. Bennet's ignorance of Mr. Bingley's purpose in London, nor from the imagined fears and solutions that her lack of knowledge brings about. Rather, the humor comes out of the gravity with which the characters consider their fantasy (note Mrs. Bennet's fear, the girls' grief, and the ensuing comfort), out of the pretence of realism of which so many are guilty. (In fact, as Swift might argue, only those who are dedicated to the telling of fairy tales and make-believe are, if not realistic, at least not pretending at realism.) Once again the narrator's seemingly matter-of-fact tone contains a subtle irony which suggests the gap between the story told from the perspective of the women, and that tale which might be explained by Mr. Bingley himself.

Written before the drastic disillusionment of the French Revolution that Price protests against studying, when history was considered in many ways very much a forward march into the future, Pride and Prejudice boasts little in the way of Graham's Swift's postmodernist perspective on the past. Austen professes no revolutionary theories of history. Still, her decision to write, and more importantly to write fiction, reveals her as one of the founders of a tradition to which Swift is an heir. Perhaps begun with the notion of providing an escape from everyday life, the novel that Austen creates clearly has a strong and intentional bearing on a truth separate from documented fact.

The use of a narrative voice that does not tell all that it perceives, but instead speaks in a voice that is partial to the view of its characters, creates a tone of irony that enhances the expression of the author's thoughts. Whether these be about the silly seriousness of a few women or the nature of history, they point to a belief in the ambiguity of the facts on which daily action and emotion are based. In spite of the more than a century which separates the two novelists, each understand a common truth: what reality we can know, we know though stories.

Website Overview Screen United Kingdom Graham Swift Waterland Jane Austen