In the Paradox of the Actor, Denise Diderot wrote an allegory of philosophy as a beautiful woman, awake late at night, her hair a mess as she ponders the great questions of life. I flatter myself than never a better description of me has been made. I am a night owl, and quite proudly so. What I like about late nights and going to bed when the world wakes up is that the city sleeps. It’s quiet, and you’re alone. It can be, at times, scary, especially if you are trying to sleep and have all sorts of paranoia to go with it, but it is also a fascinating time. There is no busyness and no people making claims on your time. I must admit, I am way too successful at being in a long distance relationship. I love to get my bed back after sharing it, maybe more than my boyfriend would like. (To my defence, it’s a trying thing to have a lot of time with someone in a short space of time, and then go for weeks having my space back. Couples who live nearby or don’t spend their time together as holiday have ways to be alone together that aren’t really possible when your time together is limited).
I have talked before about how Jane Austen was a woman of her age, even in those aspects in which she was the most progressive, but one aspect that is less talked about is solitude. Her character enjoy many important times of solitude in which they think things through and discover more about themselves. Her best characters are broody and self-reflective, while the most annoying ones are boorish and fill the space with empty chatter. Solitude and taking time to slow down and think is a very Romantic characteristic. It’s not just Mr Knightley and his famous quote about not being able to express feelings so great. Anne Elliot retires to herself after Captain Wentworth rescues little Walter. Elizabeth Bennett ponders Darcy’s letter in her own heart before she ever confides in anyone. Elinor Dashwood is the keeper of a secret she has no one to share with. Fanny Price stands out among her wealthier relations for her quiet and shy demeanour. And, possibly, no novel embraces the Romantic idea of the Bildungsroman as the satire of the age that is Northanger Abbey, although the character’s growth of Marianne Dashwood is rather stereotypically a tale of maturation. What brings trouble to Catherine Morland is how she is too quick to speak or act without reflecting.
All of the heroine’s inner lives are vividly present in the novels, to keep in touch with the focus on the inner life of the Romantic poet and the emphasis on individualism of the age.
Her novels also contain the examples of the dangers of too much self-determination and solitude, in her antagonists, just like Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner or Shelley’s Alastor, or Wandsworth’s Elegiac Stanzas Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont. She is a champion of the virtue of moderation, something that may be less palatable to the Romantic poets than the rapture of feelings, but all the poets seem to have reached, at some point, the realisation that too much solitude can lead to emptiness and loneliness, like Keats in his Ode to a Nightingale and Ode to a Grecian Urn. Another characteristic that links her work to the Romantic poets is the exaltation of the ordinary. A key aspect of Romanticism is finding the poetic in what is ordinary, as much as in what is sublime. Silence and contemplation is a big part of how we stop seeing the ordinary through the lenses of our business and start to appreciate its innate qualities and even its beauty.
Five years have past; five summers, with the lengthOf five long winters! and again I hearThese waters, rolling from their mountain-springsWith a soft inland murmur.—Once againDo I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,That on a wild secluded scene impressThoughts of more deep seclusion; and connectThe landscape with the quiet of the sky.The day is come when I again reposeHere, under this dark sycamore, and viewThese plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves‘Mid groves and copses.
– William Wandsworth, Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798