Austen hates a know-it-all

In delivering a decidedly off-the-cuff and mercifully perfunctory critique of what I am for the moment referring to as an accidental chapter of my so-called dissertation, one of my directors asked, in so many words, "what about Austen?"

By which she meant, how could I justify my argument that Sterne mocked the encyclopedical (a perilous neologism) projects of the Richardsonian and Fieldian novels with Tristram Shandy because by 1759 the novel was in danger of collapsing under its own weight? Given that--as is certainly the case--we so incontestably have Richardson and Fielding to thank for what did in fact become the novel as we now know it? And further, given that Austen just as incontestably carried forth a great many features of their novels? In short, she asked (thought not with hostility--she seemed rather pleased with the chapter), "are you quite sure you've not done something incredibly stupid? I ask because it's a question you're likely to get in a job talk."

And for the first time while under the lights of this particular examiner, I had a response.

Sterne, I said, declared the end of the encyclopedic novel (the nineteenth centuryists among you are lighting torches and sharpening pitchforks--I should say that "long" does not equal encyclopedic, that Moby Dick did not enjoy tremendous success in its time, and that rather than wipe the form from the face of the earth Sterne merely assisted in highlighting its inadequacies) by writing one that wonderfully fails to achieve what it sets out to accomplish. Certain features of the Richardsonian and Fieldian novels were perfectly valuable and durable--psychological complexity, moral ambiguity, intricate plots, what have you. But systematicity and epistemological comprehensiveness were untenable; complete knowledge was not to be had in any book, be it encyclopedia or novel. Things have to be left out.

Obviously Richardson and Fielding left out a great deal. Their texts weren't comprehensive--but they aspired to a kind of completeness that created a false epistemological totality that I think Sterne thought made them terribly dated and rendered them obsolete rather than immortal. Immortality, Tristram Shandy suggests, is in questions rather than answers; the possibility of further discovery rather than a complete record of the supposedly immutable. Sterne elevates the incomplete and the fragmentary in place of the complete and comprehensive because no work could ever be both comprehensive and complete.

What on earth has this to do with Jane Austen?

From a letter dated Tuesday 9 February, 1813:
Ladies who read those enormous great stupid thick Quarto Volumes, which one always sees in the Breakfast parlour there, must be acquainted with everything in the World.--I detest a Quarto. --Capt. Paisely's Book is too good for their Society. They will not understand a Man who condenses his Thoughts into an Octavo.
Austen is not commenting here on novels, of course--but she is remarking upon a taste for comprehensive knowledge. She had been applied to for information on the oath of Bell Book and Candle, and had none to give (the oath turns out to be part of an archaic excommunication ceremony of the Catholic church--this makes me think of the excommunication that takes place in Tristram Shandy, but of course there's nothing more there than coincidence). There's no need to be acquainted with everything in the world, Austen suggests, and I see no reason why that philosophy shouldn't have been carried over into the composition of her own works.

One might call this a stretch, but when one considers (as I asked my interrogator to do) the sheer tonnage of scholarship done on the significance of what Austen leaves out of her novels, taking this part of her letter for a statement of resistance against epistemological comprehensiveness might make a bit more sense. Austen's novels are very particularly about what they're about, and they're very consciously and, I think, comfortably not about everything. That time in the novel's history had passed; one could have one's sensibility without having to make sense of the Siege of Namur, a trip to Europe, a cyclopedia, or a treatise on the importance of names and noses.

Why my prof. didn't seem to think I should make this part of the chapter, I don't know; maybe it's part of the book that comes later. At least for now I have an answer to what she thought would definitely be a question.