Chapter 2: ‘The Author’s Pale Virgin Cheek’: Nabokov on Austen

in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature
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In the lecture on Jane Austen, Nabokov’s negative judgments about structural aspects of Mansfield Park are clearly enhanced by the fact that Austen is a woman. What is more, Nabokov’s patronizing attitude toward female authors leads him to an interpretive mistake. When Austen’s protagonist Fanny condemns a play for its dangerous morality, Nabokov all too rapidly decides that Austen disapproves as well. As it happens, there is no reason at all why Fanny’s reaction (in free indirect discourse) should coincide with the author’s, but Nabokov is only too happy to let his image of the character overlap with that of the author. When discussing Austen’s famous irony, Nabokov describes one of her ironic sentences as ‘the dimpled sentence, a delicate ironic dimple in the author’s pale virgin cheek.’ As a pale virgin, occasionally capable of delicate ironic comment, Nabokov’s Austen embodies Fanny’s innocence and finesse, and so they simply must think the same about the potential performance of an allegedly scandalous play.

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