Jane Austen in the South Seas
or, Centrifugal versus Centripetal Criticism

Folly by
Robert Wilfred Franson


June 2006

We may think of inward and outward looking approaches to an author. A pair of opposing forces applied to literary criticism of an author's work. In centrifugal criticism, everything outside the author's literary works flies off into deep space, and what remains is all interior; Athena springs purely from the brow of Zeus and nothing else is necessary to account for her. In the opposing centripetal criticism, all the history of the author's life and times is pulled into the literary works, biography and the exterior world and the kitchen sink; an exterior brawling crowd of gods and goddesses on Olympus signifies that anything that mortals do from impregnation to the Trojan War may be subject to their assistance and hindrance.

I was in a series of conversations the other day involving the English novelist Jane Austen among other topics, and I realized that my fund of ready knowledge was running dry. Now, I have considerable respect for Jane Austen, far more than in my teenage years when I figured that she wrote romances for girls. She is a very percipient and subtle writer as is obvious from the interior of her books' characters and plots; and I know a few interesting external facts such as her increased appreciation for the British Navy by the time of writing Persuasion; and how money from slave labor in the West Indies built fortunes in England, as in "the Silence of the Bertrams" in Mansfield Park.

Still, running out of Jane Austen conversational material is distressing, and risks social ostracism in great and small literary soirees. So in a muted flash of inspiration, I let my stream of unconsciousness flow inward, centripetally pulling in all sorts of biographical material that is not often applied to our author's writings, for the plain and simple reason that I made it up. The detailed application of this material to the writings is left as an exercise for the reader.

So here's a little about her that maybe you don't know —

When Jane Austen was twelve years old she disguised herself as a boy and stowed away on a South Seas trader sailing around the Horn and worked as a cabin boy until she jumped ship in Australia where she sold wallaby hides to newly arrived convicts and then she signed on to another ship which was shipwrecked on a coral reef near an obscure island in Micronesia where she was rescued by natives who worshipped her as the Spirit of the Reef and eventually the hijacked HMS Bounty came along and she went with the mutineers to Pitcairn Island where she ate abalone and invented many of the characters in English society that she would use in her novels until one day she was swimming beyond the rocks and another ship picked her out of the sea and they went to Japan and then China where she lived as a Mandarin diplomat for some time this being the stimulus for much of the subtlety of her story plots and eventually she met a literary agent who promised her fame and success in England but really he only was interested in her tea fortune so she had to begin writing in obscurity but never got around to telling in fictional form all the details of her years in the South Seas.

Centripetal criticism pulls it all in, history and biography and the kitchen sink. Now you know.


 © 2006 Robert Wilfred Franson

Thanks to JMF.

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