Jane Austen: Free indirect discourse

A post in the ongoing series Poetry in the Arts.


Jane Austen

In an earlier entry, on Emily Dickinson, I tried to focus on the way poetry arises by metaphor: the author introduces a beginning that demands an certain ending, but then replaces that ending with a different one that’s only partially compatible.

The incongruities between the two ideas surprise us — they make us see double.

This fits into my main theme in two ways.

  • The surprise — the apparent roadblock that we bump into — forces us out of our fascination with the content of the story to look at the author and at the surface of the story, as we try to puzzle our way through the impasse. This looking at the author and at the surface of the story (the way it’s told) is one of the criteria I’ve proposed for poetry.
  • The metaphor makes us learn to live with ideas that don’t seem to fit together, even though they individually report a valid aspect of the reality. We have to grow until we build a new idea that’s deeper, subtler, and more accurate. Poetry isn’t just information: it’s a process, an experience, for us. This is another of the criteria that I’ve proposed.

This mode of double vision is very close to the center of what poetry is, I think.

But metaphor isn’t the only way that it happens. It also results when the reader tunes in to multiple points of view within the same story.

The quotation below is from Claude Rawson’s Introduction to the Oxford World Classics edition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

Rawson’s discussion was a big revelation to me, and I love the passage of Austen that he cites as an example. Her virtuosity and her accuracy of vision seem incredible.

I’m not positive I understand it completely. If I were to put it into my own words, it would sound like this: Austen’s style changed from an earlier, satirical one utilizing metaphor to a later one utilizing multiple points of view.

This mode of reporting, neither in direct speech nor in any simple or conventional form of indirect speech, is nowadays often referred to as free indirect style. It is, in its most subtle versions, an important and relatively late advance in the technical repertoire of narrative, and Austen is rightly considered to have been a sophisticated and innovative practitioner, especially in her later novels. According to Norman Page, in his good book on Austen’s language, ’it is Persuasion that offers the fullest and most important use of free indirect speech in Jane Austen’s work, and represents a remarkable and fascinating step towards technical experimentation at the end of the novelist’s life’.

This ’modernity’ should not, however, be exaggerated. Some of its essential features are shaped by an older tradition of satiric narrative. If parts of the scene at Uppercross Cottage resemble Austen’s more usual satirical idiom, stripped, as I suggested, of part of its sting, much of the writing of Persuasion preserves all the sting, and this is especially true of passages sometimes singled out for their innovative qualities. The following example, cited by Page as showing ’the power of free indirect speech to embody dramatic elements within the flow of the narrative’, can also be seen as a reversion to a stylized Augustan satirical mode. Sir Walter has to be persuaded to rent Kellynch-hall:

How Anne’s more rigid requisitions might have been taken, is of little consequence. Lady Russell’s had no success at all–could not be put up with–were not to be borne. ‘What! Every comfort of life knocked off! Journeys, London, servants, horses, table,–contractions and restrictions every where. To live no longer with the decencies even of a private gentleman! No, he would sooner quit Kellynch-hall at once, than remain in it on such disgraceful terms.’

— Jane Austen, Persausion

The trick is to report actual phrases used, but ’indirectly’, so that the narration combines the voice and moral perspective of the original speaker with those of one or more reporting or narrating agents. The words within quotation marks are broadly to be taken as Sir Walter’s, though the syntax and grammar (verb tenses, the pronoun ’he’, etc.) indicate that he is not being quoted directly, but through the reporting voice of Lady Russell (as we shall see, however, the matter is less simple than this suggests). The same might be said of the two immediately preceding phrases, ’could not be put up with–were not to be borne’, which are not in quotation marks. But it is not true of the words preceding them, ’Lady Russell’s had no success at all’, which do not mimic Sir Walter’s exclamations but sound like a report by the narrator of what Lady Russell said in her own name. Though the various statements have various sources, however, all report Lady Russell’s difficulties with Sir Walter, and they are grouped in a formal set of three, comically highlighting the rush of activity and denial: ’had no success at all–could not be put up with–were not to be borne’. Such triadic arrangements are common in Austen’s novels and a familiar feature of eighteenth-century satiric style. They almost invariably signal a retreat from strictly ’realistic’ representation. People do not usually talk in triads, and there is a suggestion that absurdities are being anthologized. In Fielding’s satiric allegory Jonathan Wild (1743) a similar effect is created when the depraved Snap family discover that the young Theodosia is pregnant. Their hypocritical indignation takes the form of a catalogue of the cant of moral outrage: ’An Injury never to be repaired. A Blot never to be wiped out. A Sore never to be healed’. In both Austen and Fielding the impression emerges, not of an actual conversation faithfully recorded by a self-effacing narrator, but of a stylized anecdotal performance, bringing out the preposterous and the comically habitual, knowingly aware that all the usual sentiments were uttered in all the usual phrases.

There is a further complexity involved in this reporting style. This does not usually cause difficulties for readers, but it is useful to understand its nature. As we have seen, ’Lady Russell’s [requisitions] had no success at all’ can naturally be read in the context of the triad as the narrator’s report of Lady Russell’s phrases, alongside Lady Russell’s report of Sir Walter’s. But it is equally possible to take the words as the narrator’s factual account of Lady Russell’s failure, without implication of reported speech. A slight indeterminacy exists as to who is saying what. In the phrases in quotation marks we know the words to be Sir Walter’s, as reported by Lady Russell, and the same is true of the last two phrases in the triad: ’could not be put up with–were not to be borne’. The report is a satirical one, as we have seen, but Lady Russell is not normally satirical in this manner in her own direct speech, and there is a sense that her report is itself reported by a subtly interfering authorial voice. The punctuation reinforces this indeterminacy. Sir Walter’s phrases in the triad are outside quotation marks and linked to Lady Russell’s voice. But they are similar to the phrases inside quotation marks, and might just as readily have appeared there, and the presence of the quotation marks does not preclude Lady Russell’s input from being felt. The movement between the three main voices, Sir Walter’s, Lady Russell’s, and the author-narrator’s, is more fluid than the punctuation suggests. But if the punctuation fails to indicate a formal division of voices, it seems unlikely in this passage that any alternative punctuation would provide unambiguous clarification.

These fluidities and indeterminacies are manifestly under control. The essential distinction, between Sir Walter’s utterances and the judgemental ironies projected on to them by a reporting voice, is secure and sharply realized. What we are neither able nor invited to discriminate between at this particular point are the perspectives of Lady Russell and the narrating author. The effect of this, however, is to convey, not confusion, but consensual interplay. In some later novelists, and perhaps elsewhere in Austen, such discriminations are essential to an exact understanding. Even here, the consensus is hardly habitual. Persuasion is full of instances in which authorial sympathies and values are at variance with Lady Russell’s. The incentive to distinguish between them in this passage is withheld, not from any sense that there are no differences, but because the satirical description of Sir Walter is most effectively projected from an assumption of shared judgement as to its absurdity.

Rawson cites the following two books:

  • Norman Page, The Language of Jane Austen
  • Claude Rawson, Order from Confusion Sprung: Studies in Eighteenth-Century Literature from Swift to Cowper

A book I’ve read instead is:

  • Norman Page, Speech in the English Novel


I admire an art work — a film, painting, sculpture, music, fiction, or poem — that has structure and shows its story. But I love art that has “poetry.”

This series of posts suggests three criteria for poetry:

  • A poem is not an object you passively contemplate or an idea you learn: it’s something that you live through, that you experience.
  • A poem is a made object: it may bring you into a story or admit you to a world, but it also shows you itself and the person who made it.
  • A poem conveys emotion.

Table of Contents for this series: Poetry in the Arts

“Do you know my poetry”
— Johnny Depp as William Blake, in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man

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1 Response to Jane Austen: Free indirect discourse

  1. Tony says:

    Thanks a lot this is gold. Me and my Lit class found this and we think it’s brilliant, a big help on understanding free indirect discourse.

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