Plain Jane? Plain Wrong

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‘I haven’t any right to criticize books,’ wrote Mark Twain in 1898. ‘I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shinbone.’

Fifty years earlier, in 1848, Charlotte Brontë expressed the same sentiment rather more genteelly, in a letter to G. H. Lewes. She characterized Pride and Prejudice as ‘an accurate, daguerreotyped portrait of a common-place face; a carefully-fenced, highly cultivated garden with neat borders and delicate flowers – but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy – no open country – no fresh air – no blue hill – no bonny neck.’ ‘I should hardly like’, she continued, ‘to live with her ladies and gentlemen in their elegant but confined houses.’ ‘Why’, she demanded, ‘do you like Miss Austen so very much?’

Both Twain and Brontë express opinions which are at odds with a truth universally acknowledged, namely that Pride and Prejudice is one of the best-loved novels in the English language. For this reason, it is rather a daunting book to write about, and I suspect fellow ‘Janeites’ reading this will have their own clearly defined ideas about both Pride and Prejudice and its place in a hierarchy of Austenian perfection. I should say at the outset, therefore, that although I am by trade an academic with a specialism in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature, I feel no more qualified to write about Pride and Prejudice than any other reader of the novel. Like Mark Twain, ‘I haven’t any right to criticize’, although, unlike him, I don’t feel inclined to hit Austen over the head with her own shinbone. Instead I present here a partial, prejudiced and ignorant account of why I think Pride and Prejudice is about as perfect as it is possible for a literary work to be.

***

So ‘why do [I] like Miss Austen so very much’, and why do I think Pride and Prejudice perfect? Because it is, quite simply, magical. Charlotte Brontë was wrong, Mark Twain was wrong, and anybody who has ever written arrant nonsense about the circumscribed scope of Austen’s world is wrong. There is nothing ‘common-place’ about Pride and Prejudice. It has a tightly woven, seductively intricate plot, which unfolds so delicately that the reader falls blindly into the traps of imperception set by the author, alongside that most perfect of imperfect heroines, Elizabeth Bennet. It has dialogue which sparkles and sings in the most extraordinary way, so that characters come alive in only a few words. It has a hero and heroine who fence and fight and fall in love, and who, in the process, bring out the best in each other. And it has a uniquely happy ending, in which Jane Austen takes pity on her smitten readers, and allows us to see past the church door to Elizabeth and Darcy’s future life at Pemberley. What more could a person want from a novel?

Action, reply Austen’s critics. Militia men who are soldiers instead of young men who merely dance and smile and set susceptible hearts aflutter. ‘Something unconnected with the story’, Jane Austen herself suggests, in a letter to her sister Cassandra. ‘An essay on writing; a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte’. More of a sense of the landscape, and of characters who are passionate rather than polite, counters Charlotte Brontë, that great exponent of untrammelled Romantic engagements with nature.

Actually, if you look closely at Pride and Prejudice, all these elements are there. The Meryton Militia are encamped in the south-east of England to defend the country against French invasion, the threat of which was particularly acute when Jane Austen drafted the first version of Pride and Prejudice in 1797. Wickham and Lydia are banished to Newcastle because the Regular Army (in whose ranks Darcy purchases Wickham a commission) are stationed throughout the industrial north in order to stamp out popular unrest. Jane Austen paints a picture of a world which would have been familiar to many of her original readers. This world appears undisturbed by a war raging on the European continent, or by the plight of the growing ranks of urban poor. But it is a world filled with reminders that all is not as serene as it seems.

Nor is it accurate to claim, as Brontë does, that Pride and Prejudice takes place within a series of polite, claustrophobic interiors. Elizabeth Bennet is innately aware of natural beauty, and, in her own way, is just as much a creature of the outdoors as Jane Eyre. She may not receive a marriage proposal underneath an oak tree which is then symbolically blasted by lightning, but she experiences her most powerful revolutions of feeling, and is at her most alive, when she is outdoors. She is forced to confront her foolish regard for Wickham in the park at Rosings; she realizes how mistaken she has been in her prejudice against Mr Darcy in the gardens at Pemberley, and she agrees to marry him during the course of an autumnal walk. Elizabeth rambles, walks, runs and gets muddy, and it is this that makes her so alluring, both for the reader and for Mr Darcy. Darcy himself gives the lie to the suggestion that Austen’s characters are passionless figures who care for little other than their elegant houses. The depths of his feelings for Elizabeth are slowly revealed over the course of the novel, as he struggles first to overcome these feelings and then to learn new powers of emotional expression. He is no Rochester, crying his passions to the world, but is instead something rather more sympathetic: a man of rigid self-control who is floored by the strength of his feelings for an independent, spirited woman.

There is much else to love about Pride and Prejudice although, in a short essay, it is only possible to gesture feebly in the direction of its gems. Who could forget the way that Mr Bingley’s silly sisters are hoist by their own petard? Or the ponderous pronouncements of the unfortunate Mary Bennet who, like her father, takes refuge from the joys and sorrows of real life in books? Above all, who could forget the devastating portrayals of the novel’s central comic trio: Mrs Bennet, Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mr Collins? All three are ridiculous, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mr Collins downright venal, but Jane Austen is too subtle a writer to criticize them directly. Mrs Bennet’s folly is evident every time she opens her mouth, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh is pilloried by both her interference in the lives of others, and the way in which she surrounds herself with sycophantic acolytes.

Mr Collins is the most sycophantic of them all, a hanger-on with a matchless lack of self-awareness. He is certainly not much of a clergyman, despite his self-important references to his Christian calling. Perhaps the genius by which Jane Austen lets him condemn himself is best illustrated by the letter he writes to Mr Bennet after Lydia’s elopement. ‘The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this. And it is the more to be lamented, because there is reason to suppose, as my dear Charlotte informs me, that this licentiousness of behaviour in your daughter has proceeded from a faulty degree of indulgence.’ However, he notes consolingly, ‘I am inclined to think that her own disposition must be naturally bad.’ A darker, crueller side of his nature is revealed in the letter’s conclusion, in which he congratulates himself on Elizabeth’s refusal of his hand in marriage. ‘And this consideration leads me moreover to reflect, with augmented satisfaction, on a certain event of last November, for had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace.’ Mr Collins’s letter needs no authorial interpretation, and Jane Austen wisely provides none. In this, as in everything else, it seems sensible to follow her example.

***

Pride and Prejudice is, of course, no longer merely a novel. Alongside Austen’s other works it is an industry, a cultural idea; a begetter of countless academic studies, and of plays, films and television adaptations. Mr Darcy is Colin Firth; Elizabeth a slightly alarming amalgamation of Jennifer Ehle and Keira Knightly. Pride and Prejudice has been transmogrified into fodder for Bollywood (Bride and Prejudice) and chick-lit (Bridget Jones’s Diary), and Austen’s own life has been re-imagined for the purposes of Hollywood romance in Becoming Jane. What on earth would Austen herself make of all this? Since she was rather critical of her own work, she might well not approve. She told Cassandra in 1813 that Pride and Prejudice was ‘too light, and bright and sparkling’ and that ‘it wants shade, it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense’. And her notebooks demonstrate that she enjoyed collecting the views of her more censorious friends and neighbours, including one Mrs Augusta Bramstone who ‘owned that she thought S[ense] and S[ensibility] and P. & P. downright nonsense, but expected to like M[ansfield] P[ark] better, & having finished the 1st vol – flattered herself she had got through the worst.’ It all suggests that Austen would take a dim view of the obsessive devotion now accorded to her work.

At first glance, the two authentic portraits painted during Austen’s lifetime appear to support this view. Both are watercolours by Cassandra, and in the later image the subject looks sternly away from the viewer, her expression and posture emanating disapproval. In the earlier picture (painted between 1802 and 1804) Austen sits with her back towards the spectator, her face obscured by her bonnet. She looks slightly disdainful, as if she isn’t inclined to pander to our fascination with her life and work. What would she say if she turned round to find us staring at her, agog for tidbits of information about her creative process, or for snippets of gossip about her love-life? She’d probably announce that she thought the subject matter of Becoming Jane distinctly unbecoming. And how would she react to ecstatic declarations of Pride and Prejudice’s perfection? Perhaps she would reprimand us for our lack of seriousness, with words taken from Northanger Abbey: ‘it is only a novel’. Then she’d cross her arms, avert her gaze and purse her lips, to become the stern Aunt Jane of Cassandra’s second portrait, painted around the time of Pride and Prejudice’s publication.

But then again, perhaps not. Because, after all, the putative reader in Northanger Abbey who protests ‘it is only a novel’ is well and truly squashed by her creator. ‘It is only’, the narrator counters, ‘some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.’ This seems to me to be an entirely accurate description of Pride and Prejudice itself. And it confirms what any lover of Austen’s novels knows to be true: that behind the bonnet, and in spite of crossed arms and pursed lips, stern Aunt Jane is laughing.

© Daisy Hay 2009, Slightly Foxed Issue 24


About the contributor

Daisy Hay is a writer and an academic, and is proud to call herself a Janeite.

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