2/9: Tone and Texture in "Pride and Prejudice"


Tone is a set of feelings evoked by a novel and we have long established names for characteristic sets of feelings. These are the names of the genres: comedy, tragedy, melodrama, romance, and all those others, the hybrids, such as tragicomedy, referred to by Hamlet in his speech to the players. Texture, for its part, is the way these characteristic features are established through the stylistics of the text: how a text combines dialogue with description, how it leaves ironies hanging in the air; what it takes to be a joke or a resolution or even a mere development in a conflict. Jane Austen who, as the narrator of her novels, is a distant, jaundiced and amused authorial voice, works her will largely by how she structures her scenes so as to allow for verbal confrontations, a playwright as much as a novelist, which makes sense given her debt to Shakespeare.  But as a novelist, she was quite good at changing and managing different tones within the same novel. This is certainly the case in "Pride and Prejudice", where there is a conflict between two families that differ in much more than wealth. The Bennets and the extended family of Mr. Darcy differ in tone. The Bennets are comic, always being a bit silly, though not always as much as Mrs. Bennet. Elizabeth desperately wants to escape from that. The wealthy families, on the other hand, are given over to melodrama. They take themselves very seriously, and they exaggerate their emotions, as when Darcy finds the first ball he attends terribly dull. They are also touched by tragedy, which is what happens when Mr. Wickham ruins Darcy's sister, though the reader does not find that out until much later, when Darcy reveals his family disgrace to Elizabeth and so clinches the case that he really loves her by going into an intimacy that would be, at the time, truly shocking and from which his sister would not be expected to recover.

Darcy and his family also have the virtue of taking situations into hand when they need to with resolution as if a good deal depended on how you handled life rather than just responded to it. Darcy is not judgmental about Lydia falling for Mr. Wickham. Foolish girls will do such things. He just sets out to do the things that will make the situation right. He arranges for a marriage by paying off Wickham's debts and may have had a hand in seeing him assigned to a military post in the north where he and Lydia will be out of the way, seen only occasionally on visits. Darcy's first marriage proposal to Elizabeth may seem unromantic but it was full of good sense. There is a problem in the marriage of people of such different wealth and disposition and so his willingness to create structures that will help resolve the differences between the two shows just how much he loves her even if he cannot put it that way and comes over, eventually, to her view that a marriage must brook no such impediments: it must be done for purely romantic reasons and so Darcy puts aside his misgivings about how well Elizabeth will do as mistress of Pemberley. For her part, Elizabeth has to put aside her amusement at Darcy's haughty manner and take him to be the recently converted non-snob he now claims to be, knowing full well that he cannot give up that part of his character, nor would she want him to.

Texture, on the other hand, refers to the various techniques of writing that are used in moving ahead the plot through whatever tone or combination of tones the author chooses to engage. Texture is created by the balance between dialogue and narration, in the nature and type of authorial voice used in the novel, in the extent of the description of such atmospherics as furniture or architecture or countryside, in whether scenes are long or short, and on whether the author indulges in subplots to pass the time or give some relief from the central action of the novel. Dickens was long on subplots and atmospherics while having a strong authorial voice inclined to sympathy for the unfortunate lives being portrayed, while Jane Austen was short on subplots and atmospherics while also having a strong authorial voice inclined to a rational appreciation of the circumstances that drove her characters to have the deep emotions that they only sometimes expressed.

So how is it that these two people, Elizabeth and Darcy, being of such different temperments, of two different styles, come together? They are brought together by Mr. Binkley and Jane Bennet, Darcy accompanying Binkley on his visits to the Bennet household, events that seem deeply unpleasant to all concerned, even to Mrs. Bennet who so much wants to move them in the right direction. Binkley and Jane, it is pointed out over and over again, are simple souls who do not see the complications of themselves falling into a love match, while Elizabeth and Darcy, at the beginning of their love affair, can see nothing but the obstacles that stand in their way. That is the way, by coincidence, that their love affair is able to prosper.

Consider the way Jane Austen uses both tone and texture to distance the reader from the scandal of Lydia's elopement, which is not just a shame on the family but a disaster for it because it means that none of the young women will be able to make a suitable marriage. The incident is rendered comic because Mr. Collins, when he comes to console them, candidly speaks of the very bad news in just the condescending and censorious tone that is likely to make the family regain a sense of amour propre. Only Mr. Collins would be so full of gloom and doom, however much what he says is true. No politeness here. Small mindedness may be rampant everywhere, but nowhere so clearly as in Mr. Collins. And the texture of the novel also distances the rendition from the emotions conveyed by the events themselves. The story of the elopement is revealed through letters concerning Lydia's disappearance, then her location, then her marriage, and then her impending visit, when, only then, does Lydia let the cat out of the bag by referring to something she was not supposed to, which was Mr. Darcy's presence at her wedding. So all becomes clear to the discerning Elizabeth, as it never becomes clear, fortunately, to the obtuse Lydia, that Darcy had arranged it all, and so introduced himself back into the story of the lives of the Bennet family, and contributed to changing Elizabeth's mind to him--clinched it, really, in that Elizabeth had already softened to him. That prepares the stage for he and his friend, Mr. Bingley, to reappear in the neighborhood, and propose their respective marriages, never mind that Lydia and Mr. Wickham have been moved off the stage so that their very unpropitious marriage can work itself out. What will happen when Wickham runs out of money this next time is not discussed by Jane Austen.

The way Jane Austen organizes her dialogues is so characteristic that it can be abstracted out to be a principle of organization and so part of the texture of the work as a whole. We have already observed the way she manages the conversations that take place at Netherfield between Elizabeth and Darcy, others present in the room. The dialogue is abbreviated, a quick set of piercing exchanges that leave the others in the room far behind and so bored but the conversations themselves crackling with bon mots and devastating insights. In the last one of these, Elizabeth says Mr. Darcy is mean and Mr. Darcy says that Elizabeth deliberately misunderstands people. Both are correct. There is nothing more to be said because each has reduced the other to some basic insight about the person: an emotion that is core to their characters.

Ending a conversation after hitting some bedrock after the preliminaries are out of the way is not the way most conversations in the real world proceed. Rather, people return over and over again to old themes and insights, to digressions, to newly invented rejoinders and side issues. But it is the way in which Jane Austen conversations operate because she is a rationalist who thinks that conversations actually do something. They clarify issues, get down to axiomatic disagreements, and then there is nothing left to say and so they are over. That is very much in keeping with Jane Austen's view of the novel itself, each of her own not simply giving the reader a window into a way of life with which the reader is unfamiliar and delicious to savor, but so as to solve a problem that Jane Austen has set up in the early pages of the novel. "Pride and Prejudice" opens with two eligible gentlemen of means coming into the neighborhood doubtlessly in search of brides, and by the end of it have been married off to girls who are either early or late all too glad to have them. Similarly, "Mansfield Park" is about how a poor relative taken in by a wealthy family makes her way with the family, changing it more than changing herself, and "Emma" is about a busybody who finally has to grow up and cope with her own feelings rather than the feelings of others. How will she manage that? "Persuasion" is also simple and straightforward in its story. How does a romance get rekindled, if it can, some years later, between people whose prior romance had not worked out? That is an intellectual problem for Jane Austen to contemplate, even as it is an emotional one as well, "Persuasion" having the most poignant of all her plots.

That this is Jane Austen's approach to dialogue and to plotting--start with a problem and end it with a solution or at least a recognition that there is no where else to go--is telegraphed many times, perhaps most successfully in Mr. Collins' proposal to Elizabeth, which is farcical and always included in the movie versions of the novel because the irony of the scene is so readily grasped: that Elizabeth wants nothing to do with the man and that he persists anyway totally oblivious to her feelings. In spite of her not even wanting to be alone with him so he could propose, he clears the room, thanks to Mrs. Bennet, and then gives the rational basis for his decision--his comfortable position and the fact that his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, thinks he should marry--and when Elizabeth tries to let him down gently, he claims that is because girls are likely to turn down a proposal the first time out of modesty, and when she perseveres, saying that something as important as a proposal is not likely to be turned down a first time out of form lest the proposal not be repeated, Mr. Collins says right out loud why he thinks she should not turn him down: the family estate is entailed to him anyway and this is the only way for the family to get out of that difficulty, and that Elizabeth is not likely to attract another suitor. All of this is hardly gallant or likely to win over a girl. Elizabeth says her answer is final and flees the scene, but Mr. Collins will not accept that a conversation is terminated when it is over and so appeals to Mrs. Bennet to get Elizabeth to reconsider before he changes his mind, and so she appeals to Mr. Bennet to interceded, at which point, Mr. Bennet, fully aware of the disaster to his family that his judgment portends, says he will not speak to Elizabeth if she accepts the proposal, and Elizabeth, of course, is much more concerned with the judgment of her father than of her well-meaning but marriage obsessed mother.

The same principle applies to other instances of conversation in "Pride and Prejudice". There is a point to Lady Catherine de Bough's chatter, which is to intrude herself into everyone else's decisions about how they live their lives and even about things she knows nothing about, such as music, when she claims authority without being able to play herself, and people do not quarrel with her about that. She criticizes Elizabeth's family for having done without a governess and having introduced all the daughters into society, and is piqued at Elizabeth unwilling to declare her age, that to her an impertinence, however trivial a matter it is, so that Elizabeth complies by admitting to being twenty-one. So we know what conversations are about at Rosling: hearing what Lady Catherine has to say. Lady Catherine, however, is not Wilde's Lady Bracknell. She is neither wise nor witty; she is, instead, boring and boorish and no one should have to put up with her but they do simply because she is rich.

There is a different purpose in Elizabeth's conversation with Mr. Fitzsimmons, who provides crucial information to Elizabeth when she makes casual reference to the fact that Darcy seems to look after Bingley, perhaps trying to probe into a relationship where one seems so clearly the intellectual superior of the other. What Fitzsimmons reveals is that Darcy had helped Binkley by discouraging him from an inappropriate and unnamed relationship, which Elizabeth quickly enough recognizes to have been the one with her sister. So the exchange of gossip, as that takes place when any of us discuss friends who are not present, results sometimes in useful information, and that is the purport if not the intention of such conversation. Talk has purpose.

The reader has been so well schooled in Jane Austen's view of dialogue, which is that it is over when it is over, and that extending it is ridiculous and shameful, that we are prepared to see Elizabeth's rejection of Darcy's first proposal just as she perhaps did not mean it to be: categorical and final, the end of the matter. That is the person she is, not a dissembler in the manner of Mr. Collins. Darcy understands that and, given that he is not very articulate in person, sends Elizabeth a letter where he candidly admits to having intruded between Bingley and Jane, but defends his behavior towards Wickham. In a letter, Darcy can deliver an extended argument that makes clear that he is both candid, showing his real motives, owning up to those that the one who receives the letter will disapprove of, as well as feeling honorbound to explain what others might misunderstand. He does in writing what Elizabeth does in speech: make points.This theory of conversation is also why it is very brave of Darcy to raise the question of marriage one more time, much later, after the Lydia-Wickham marriage, and after Lady Catherine has already informed Elizabeth of Darcy's continuing interest in her. This time, true to form, she does not hesitate, but quickly gives her consent, which means that it is an actual and rational and fully emotional assent, true to both her own and Jane Austen's sense of dialogue.

The movie versions of "Pride and Prejudice" are not true to either the novel's tone or its texture. Elizabeth as played by Greer Garson is too regal and self-possessed to be Elizabeth, while Laurence Olivier has just the right tone of arrogance and even a bit of meanness, though he is made out to be more articulate than he is in the novel. That film becomes a romantic comedy where spats rather than issues are at stake, demonstrating only that these are independant and therefore well matched people, sort of like in Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy movies. The very well received, and deservedly so, multipart BBC production of "Pride and Prejudice" stars a much too beautiful Jennifer Ehle who is matched in her sweetness by a heartthrob Colin Firth, and so there is established a tone of not at all bittersweet romance, the emotions syrupy rather than rough. Keira Knightley, in the 2005 version directed by Joe Wright, is also regal and so self-possessed that no one could fault her virtues, thus betraying the real conflict that is going on in Darcy's soul, and which Jane Austen, who is no great fan of her heroines, is out to portray, while her soulmate, the most recent Darcy, is more moody than arrogant, a Heathcliffe without the moors, and so providing a drama that is deeply Romantic, full of feeling and poignant and pregnant expressions.

I much prefer the authorial voice of Jane Austen herself, which is clearly present in her narrative, ordering her story so that it is clear what happens first and what goes next and how complications ensue and are resolved, ever mindful, that voice, of how people respond to their good sense and not just their emotions, and come to decisions that are reasonable under the circumstances. Jane Austen is an Enlightenment, not a Romantic, writer, however much her sense of the thickness of custom and culture, in that it is real rather than imaginary obstacles that get in the way of our lives turning out as we would like, and that people are amazing in their ability to thwart what in other times would have been thought of as their fates, which, in the case of this novel, is that all of the Bennet girls would have been condemned to very unsatisfactory even if necessary marriages.

The third movie version takes an interest in the atmospherics of nature that is true to a Romantic consciousness but not to Jane Austen, who did not show much interest in descriptions of nature. Elizabeth stands on a bluff and Darcy arrives through a mist. In that movie, Elizabeth also lives in a house where pigs wander through, and so much too ramshackle for this respectable if not wealthy family. That a house befits your station is important to Jane Austen. Darcy's Pemberley is grand, while the Bennet house is not, although comfy enough, as in the Greer Garson version, and Mr. Collins' house is even more bare than that, with only a mere suggestion of a garden.

The movie versions are a backdoor way of making another distinction between tone and texture. Tone and texture are two characteristics of literature that are particularly relied on as resources for the novel, while structure and language are more important in lyric poetry and drama. The tone of a novel is front stage. It is what preoccupies the reader. How will the story turn out? What are the motives of the characters? The texture of a novel, on the other hand, is what is upstage, the scenery, as it were, of the novel, and so absorbed indirectly by the reader. The texture of a novel has to do with the social world it creates, the kinds of situations and social circumstances which people encounter. The costumes, manners, occupations, beliefs, institutions, of the society provide the texture of a novel, and the reader, like the audience to the movies that are the lineal descendants of the novel, is awash in that world which is an alternative to the present one for its vividness and its strangeness, but not so off as to be unrecognizable as the world of understandable situations that the reader does inhabit. In that sense, all novels are historical novels, in that they create a world just slightly different (and a bit before) the actual present, and embellish the setting so that it seems exotic and so sets off feelings which are perhaps more familiar to the time or setting of the reader than of the place and time described. That is one reason why the novel is told in the past tense: because it is a chronicle of what is past, although it contains information and characters new to the reader who has not heard this novel before. The reader wants to know what will happen to Elizabeth and Darcy but is also caught up, inevitably, in the manners and manors of Regency England: how people speak and how they live.