Literature in Its Context

Our word “text” comes from Latin textus, or web, an image that seems particularly appropriate to the nineteenth-century English novel, which interweaves character, story, language, and context into intricate, self-reinforcing patterns. By “context,” which itself originally referred to a weaving together of words and sentences into a coherent structure, BookDoors means the relevant history of the time, the political, religious, economic, cultural, and moral forces, as well as the nature of daily life in that place and time. For today's readers much of the context's hum and buzz is apt to be unheard. The authors took for granted their audience's familiarity with the context. After all their contemporary readers inhaled it with every breath and knew it so intimately that the authors could use a shorthand of allusion to evoke it.

Familiar as Austen’s, Mary Shelley’s, Charlotte Brontë’s, and Dickens' novels feel to us, we are visitors in a foreign land. Centuries of accelerating change have eclipsed much of a novel's context, and the lack dulls the work's incisiveness, dilutes its meaning, and often blunts the humor and irony. Of course none of these authors could possibly have imagined our world, but it’s mistaken to believe that coming after allows us to know theirs. History leaves in obscurity vastly more than it preserves.

BookDoors’ In Context  series takes for its standard what an informed reader of that day knew and hopes to convey it to today's readers. Literature in Its Context dwells on three aspects of the novel: the meanings and overtones of the language; the novel’s historical background, including when useful the relevance of the author's life; and explication and commentary of salient moments.

Austen writes to a nephew, “What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?” Her art is narrow in scope but exquisitely drawn, the detail so fine as to be barely legible without the magnifying lens of commentary. The social stratum she depicts—the landed gentry almost exclusively—is thin but historically pivotal. She narrows the focus even more by generally excluding the city and politics (but she makes both a discrete foil to the events on a country estate) and confining her fiction mainly to their dining and drawing rooms (yet she quietly intimates the nature of the bedroom), with some occasional gambits beyond the shrubbery surrounding the manor. Her piece of ivory is small but its details evoke large shadowy forms of national import. To see them, we must register the subtleties in her diction and recognize the innuendo in a casual remark or someone’s choice of a card game or what to read.

Austen’s readers knew what fraction of the English population the landed gentry represented, their disproportionate possession of the nation’s wealth and political power, the social gradations revealed in the order of the guests going into dinner, and what they ate. Though Austen pays scant attention to servants and the nature of their lives, her audience knew how the meal was prepared and served and can surmise the attitude toward the lower classes. They knew what constituted a “gentleman” and what was contained in such words as “character” and “respectability” and when someone transgressed in conversation with an inappropriate word. They knew the laws of inheritance (often central to the dynamics of an Austen novel) and knew could decode the characters' attitudes towards money, the body, and landscape. They knew the gentry's religion and the differences between Whig and Tory. And they knew the differences between men and women, legal, moral, and intellectual, the strands woven into an Austen plot.

They understood how much education and money a man must possess to qualify as a gentleman, how large were the gentry’s estates and their manors, and what £1 could buy. (Knew what a good horse cost to buy and maintain and what a barouche or curricle was and what each told us about the owner.) Matters of primogeniture, entail, and jointure, the legal and moral foundations of the landed gentry, comprise her novels' weather.

The emphases differ but the context remains vital to our appreciation of Fanny Burney's Evelina (Burney influenced Austen), Frankenstein, especially the extensive scientific understanding and the literature that shaped Mary Shelley's vision, and Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and Silas Marner, each with its own distinctive context.