Richard Jenkyns is Professor of the Classical Tradition at the University of Oxford and a Fellow and Tutor at Lady Margaret Hall. His works include Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance, Virgil's Experience, and Westminster Abbey. His most recent book is a study of Jane Austen, A Fine Brush on Ivory. Here Richard talks about Jane Austen and Boredom.
This is the text of a lecture given to the Jane Austen Society in July 2006, and is posted here with Richard Jenkyns's kind permission. Because of its length I am spreading it over four posts.
Richard Jenkyns on Jane Austen and Boredom
I need hardly say that it is an honour to be asked to address the society at this its annual gathering. I have to admit that I am myself a fairly recent recruit to the society, but my father and mother were members, as was my grandmother, and I remember being first brought to a meeting here at Chawton as a guest way back in the time of Sir Hugh Smiley and Lord David Cecil. This society officially interests itself in Jane Austen's family as well as in herself, and that means that though I may doubt my credentials for addressing you about her, I can at least offer myself as a specimen, since as Richard Knight and Patrick Stokes have already mentioned, I am descended from her brother James. In my childhood my great-aunts sometimes seemed to speak about her as though she were a lately deceased member of the family whom they had known themselves; and as they seemed to me enormously ancient - and indeed they were fairly ancient - it took me a while to work out that the novelist had died a full 60 years before even the eldest of them was born. But there was a sense of her abiding presence. In the drawing-room of the house shared by two of those great-aunts sat Jane Austen's writing desk. After their deaths it passed to my cousin Joan Austen-Leigh, who later very generously gave it to the British Library. Many of us saw it when it came to Chawton for our annual gathering two or three years ago. I also attended the occasion at the British Library when the desk was formally presented, and I remember the sense of faint discomfort at realizing that I was no longer permitted to touch what had once been a friendly and familiar object.
A few relics remain in the family. My sister has what family tradition claims as Jane's prayer book, and another of my cousins has the painting from which was made what is, alas, the best-known image of the novelist: that familiar and deplorable engraving representing her as a pop-eyed cook-general. I now own some of her music books, as well as some silver forks and spoons stamped with the Austen crest, which I think from their date and provenance must have been in and out of the novelist's mouth. I mention these trivial things in the hope that if in 40 minutes' time you feel that you are no wiser about Jane Austen and boredom - or if, alternatively, you feel that you understand what boredom is as never before - I may at least be acceptable as Exhibit A.
My title fits a familiar pattern. There are books about Jane Austen in relation to all sorts of intriguing matters - books which shed fascinating lights not only on Jane Austen herself but on the culture and society of her times. Some of them are by people who are here today. There are Jane Austen and the Navy, Jane Austen and the Clergy, Jane Austen and Food, Jane Austen and the Theatre (two books with that title, in fact), Jane Austen and Crime, and notoriously Jane Austen and the French Revolution (not as slim a volume as one might expect). But I think that I have spotted a gap in the market. These works all examine Jane Austen in relation to interesting things; but what about Jane Austen and the uninteresting? So I follow in the steps of Pope in The Dunciad, and make dullness my theme.
Jane Austen could not herself have used the words 'boring' or 'boredom': they do not appear until near the middle of the 19th century. The verb 'bore' originates as aristocratic slang in the mid 18th century and it does appear in her books, but her usual word is the standard term of her time: 'dullness'. It is worth lingering on that word for just a moment, as its scope is, I think, somewhat wider than that which we would naturally give to boredom today. The invention of the word 'boredom' may indeed be the effect of a change in which certain forms of human unhappiness are understood and interpreted; or perhaps the appearance of the word helped in part to cause that change. 'How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable / Seem to me all the uses of this world,' says Hamlet; and in saying that he is saying, in the old parlance, that he is dull. But he is surely not saying either that he has been sated with so many pleasures that he has grown weary of them or that the world is intrinsically uninteresting or disappointing. For consider what he says to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a little later:
I have late - but wherefore I know not - lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me...
Hamlet is dull, but he sees no reason why he should be so ('wherefore I know not'). He recognizes that man and nature alike are wonderful, beautiful, fascinating; and yet he can take no delight in any part of it. I believe that this is a form of unhappiness that we can recognize, but we would not call it boredom; we would call it depression.
I bring depression into the picture partly because Jane Austen does, in one of her novels, explore the borderlands between boredom and depression: that is, in Mansfield Park. The child Fanny is depressed, or something close to it. That is a very unusual thing for Jane Austen to have done. I can think easily enough of suffering children in later fiction, from David Copperfield to The Water Babies, and for that matter in a number of fairy tales, but the listless child, indeed the listless heroine - that is surely a rare study. But I refer to depression also in order to remind us that the different forms of unhappiness have been differently analysed and categorized in other times. Let me bring another word into play: melancholy. Melancholy is an ambivalent term today, and it was an ambivalent term 400 years ago, but across a different range of ambivalence. In the 17th century Milton could write, in Il Penseroso, a great poem in praise of melancholy. But Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy, from the same century, is a vast compendium around the theme of depression. It is avowedly medical, and concerned with health of mind. But its final advice for the avoidance of melancholy is, famously, 'Be not solitary, be not idle.' That sounds much like saying, in our language, 'Make sure that you are not bored.' They had no word with the same boundaries as our 'boredom' and we have no word with the same boundaries as their 'melancholy', which for Milton at least included a quiet thoughtfulness and for Burton included religious and erotic obsession.
What then is boredom in our own understanding of the word? I suggest that it can be divided into the boredom of privilege, the boredom of circumstance and the boredom of temperament. Let me briefly describe what I mean. The boredom of privilege is the boredom that results from being spoilt for choice. When the Latin poet Lucretius describes the man who rushes from Rome to his villa on the Bay of Naples and as soon as he gets there becomes fed up and rushes back to Rome, he is describing a pathology of privilege. It is interesting that 'bore' derives from upper-class slang of the 18th century: it takes its origin from aristocratic disdain and foppishness.
The boredom of circumstance is the boredom which arises when people genuinely do not have enough to do, or lack the opportunity to pursue their interests and enthusiasms, or to discover them. Maria and Julia Bertram, in Mansfield Park, are not predestined to be bored: they are dull because their circumstances deny them the natural outlet for their ordinary, unintellectual interests - those interests that for example the young people in Northanger Abbey can enjoy in Bath.
The boredom of temperament is when a person's nature is such that he or she is quickly wearied of a particular interest, pleasure or pursuit. Emma Woodhouse is at risk here. As Mr Knightley tells her, she is a dabbler - a bit of reading here, a bit of music or drawing there - reluctant to concentrate on any one thing.
It is the boredom of circumstance that is most prominent in Jane Austen's books, but the other kinds have their part to play as well. Broadly, I offer two propositions: first, that boredom is a theme in all of Jane Austen's novels; but also that the novels of what one might call her second period - that is, the novels from Mansfield Park on - treat boredom somewhat differently and much more extensively than her earlier works.