Brittle walls that expose the secret griefs of character

Eavesdropping in the Novel from Austen to Proust

May 30, 2003

The "eavesdrop" is the area under a building's eaves, and so we get "eavesdropping", which ranges from the physical lurking of a snooper to a more metaphorical encroachment on private space. And focusing on this activity in a literary study is a shrewd choice by Ann Gaylin, associate professor of comparative literature at Yale University. For eavesdroppers have much in common with readers - especially readers of novels, which seem to let us listen in on the private thoughts of their protagonists.

Gaylin devotes two chapters of her book to the work of Jane Austen, in which the action hinges so much on these small changes in the interior lives of her characters - thinking and feeling, judging and doubting - and the discovery of those changes by others. But eavesdropping is presented in Austen's novels (and in psychological studies that Gaylin introduces alongside them) not always as the privileged access to the truth that it might seem. Indeed, with overhearing we are particularly prone to error, interpreting partial or equivocal information out of context.

The subject of eavesdropping also highlights the physical confines of our daily lives. Gaylin places the descriptions of interiors in Balzac and Dickens alongside the history of domestic architecture, to show how both writers treat the theme of privacy and its violation. The atmosphere of aural paranoia is pervasive in Dombey and Son ; the walls are "brittle and thin", and characters live in the world with their "ears cocked". The introduction of the bell-pull system and back stairs (to keep servants at a distance) were relatively recent architectural developments, reflecting the concern with the uncomfortable proximity of unknown secret-sharers.

What separates us, though, are not just walls of buildings. As isolated individuals we are kept from any easy understanding of other people. We want to know their "many secret griefs" (Thackeray), their "secret reasons". Perhaps that is the best way, as Proust says, of learning about ourselves: "It is only with the passions of others that we are ever really familiar, and what we come to discover about our own can only be learned from them." Yet we want to control what we give away, maintain our privacy and keep ourselves from being fully known.

Sadly, Gaylin sometimes writes as if the main value of literature lay in its providing evidence to support the ideas of literary theorists (Mikhail Bakhtin, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault in particular). Nevertheless, there is much of interest in this book, for social historians as well as for literary enthusiasts.

The theme of eavesdropping is traced to its most recent manifestations ( Big Brother for example), still with a slightly shameful air. But then, we have always been interested in knowing what is going on in the next room.

Matt Shinn is a speech writer for a cabinet minister and has a PhD in 19th-century literature.

Eavesdropping in the Novel from Austen to Proust

Author - Ann Gaylin
ISBN - 0 521 81585 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 241

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