“This is the first of a set of nine essays that will appear weekly to show some of Jane Austen’s complexity, her charm, her never failing realistic evaluation of the human condition, however much she may seem to be showing only the most obvious of conflicts and resolutions, although that too was a part of her irony: to show what might seem obvious to be very complicated indeed. I do so by engaging in close textual analysis of the text, which is a technique not usually applied to the novel because it is such an ungainly form, and going into detail about only two of her novels: “Pride and Prejudice” and “Mansfield Park”. That analysis is set in the context of sociological observations that will show what she has to say still bears learning. The reader of the series should come away resolute in a desire to plunge even more deeply into Jane Austen, even beyond what had been thought a sufficient understanding of her novels.”
George Saintsbury, a most neglected early Twentieth Century literary critic, ranked Jane Austen, along with Charles Dickens, as the most distinguished of the English novelists. I would go much further than that and assign to her the title of greatest novelist I have ever read. That is because, when it comes to technique, she can organize a gigantic set of characters into a plot that moves at the pace of a play, and write dialogue that both crackles with wit and complexity, revealing levels of character it takes a lifetime of study to fully appreciate, and she also evokes a social ambiance that is fully aware of the historical and economic forces at work, all this while seeming only to offer up an amusing diversion about the restricted lives of the country gentry in Regency England. Moreover, while her novels may all involve courtship as the defining feature of their plots, each novel is different, exploring different aspects of the nature of life, such as the nature of the past in “Persuasion” and, in “Pride and Prejudice”, the very difficult to access aspects of class differences that lie beneath the obvious ones, such as wealth and manners, which are so easy to ridicule-- something which Austen is by no means reluctant to do. Fun is to be had, but there are more serious issues afoot which are ubiquitous and yet amorphous. Jane Austen’s themes are universal and as deep as it gets. I sometimes wish that Jane Austen were used to train Senators and diplomats and psychoanalysts in how to do their jobs. Rereading Jane Austen shows her to be even better than we remember her to have been.
This is the first of a set of nine essays that will appear weekly to show some of Jane Austen’s complexity, her charm, her never failing realistic evaluation of the human condition, however much she may seem to be showing only the most obvious of conflicts and resolutions, although that too was a part of her irony: to show what might seem obvious to be very complicated indeed. I do so by engaging in close textual analysis of the text, which is a technique not usually applied to the novel because it is such an ungainly form, and going into detail about only two of her novels: “Pride and Prejudice” and “Mansfield Park”. That analysis is set in the context of sociological observations that will show what she has to say still bears learning. The reader of the series should come away resolute in a desire to plunge even more deeply into Jane Austen, even beyond what had been thought a sufficient understanding of her novels.
A first cut at establishing the greatness of Jane Austen as a novelist can be done by comparing her to another great Nineteenth Century novelist, Leo Tolstoy, who also describes courtships that take place at balls and large social gatherings where people who are largely strangers to one another converse, flirt, and dance with one another. Leo Tolstoy is a describer. A central moment in “Anna Karenina” occurs when Anna dances with Vronsky at the ball. They have flirted with one another, but that is all. Something happens during that dance that moves them into being potential lovers. Tolstoy decided not to let the reader hear what it is that they said to one another, like a movie director who shows an argument or some other impassioned conversation taking place behind a window or a glass door, the lips moving, but not letting the audience know exactly what is being said, only indicating its purport. So is conveyed the information of a death or other bad news or the particularly good news of the declaration of peace after a war.
Why did Tolstoy do what he did? It is not that he does not have the talent to do conversation. He does many conversations between Pierre and Andre, between Levin and Kitty. But he hides the most important conversations because they are not the active forces in moving along the narrative. The actions that would be enunciated in words are already established, predetermined, by the characters and the circumstances of the people involved. We know why Anna would fall in love with Vronsky, and we know why he would fall in love with her to the extent he could. Words do not make things happen; they only can be used, therefore, to describe feelings and thoughts that are there for otherwise established reasons. Tolstoy is less concerned to explain what happened between Anna and Vronsky then to investigate its causes and consequences, even to her humiliations and eventual suicide. Indeed, one of the few times words count in “Anna Karenina” is when Anna’s husband speaks overtly to her about what is going on and gives a cynical account of how he will hide her secret for the sake of propriety. He reveals to the reader what had not been known to the reader before: how callous a man he is, one who took out the insult to his self respect by a refusal to acknowledge even his own feelings, not even willing to tell Anna how hurt he had been in his own soul by her action. It makes the reader think about what their personal life had been and whether that had not provided reason enough for Anna to look elsewhere for male companionship.
But that pulling back of the curtain on the intimate life of a Russian Victorian couple is used only to suggest what had already happened, not what was made to happen in the words, however much words had sealed the doom of the relationship. The words made neither of them free. This strategy of Tolstoy’s, to shroud pivotal conversations, is used in “War and Peace” and in “Resurrection”, and even in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, where there no conversation about death but only an internal monologue. That fact suggests Tolstoy’s sense of how alone people are at the time of their deaths, as well in the lives they lived before that.
Jane Austen, for her part, is a writer of dialogue, perhaps because she was so influenced by Shakespeare and Milton, neither of whom had much time for description but a lot of time to have their characters wax on at great length about one thing or another, some of those words, amazingly many of them, crucial for the movement of the narrative. Consider some scenes from “Pride and Prejudice” that serve the same function as the dance scene in “Anna Karenina”.
Elizabeth later admits to her sister and father that it was not love at first sight between herself and Darcy. Indeed, most of her early encounters with Darcy had been contentious. But over the long run, she had so grown on him that she says to her sister, when she does not think he will ever call on her again, that she very much regrets that he may be out there in the world thinking poorly of her. That is as fine a declaration of love as there is.
The long courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy over the course of years, takes place at occasional meetings that are remarkable for the slow pace of the developing candor between them. In fact, at first they barely speak to one another. Elizabeth overhears Darcy making a disparaging comment about her looks. At subsequent occasions, he finds himself trailing her and thinking more kindly of her looks, Jane Austen catching on to the fact that men who begin to think about a woman seriously gradually find her to be more attractive than they originally thought, their sense of a woman’s character informing their perception. Elizabeth notices that he has been overhearing her conversations and calls him on it, and he does not respond, but Darcy’s sister notices what is happening, and jumps ahead to tell Darcy that he should expect Mrs. Bennet to be a mother-in-law who is constantly visiting.
The first extended contact between the two takes place when Elizabeth walks three miles through the mud to visit her ailing sister at Mr. Bingley’s estate, and the women of the family comment on how much worse for wear Elizabeth looks, Darcy keeping to himself his admiration for Elizabeth’s devotion to Jane. That evening, in response to Mr. Hurst’s platitude about how accomplished women are, Jane downplays her own education and remarks that it is not much of an accomplishment to do the things that women do (or as we might say today, are allowed to do), such as stitching screens, and when Elizabeth leaves the room, the woman think it rude for Elizabeth to have disparaged her own sex, Darcy again left to cultivate his own thought that what Elizabeth said constituted an insight, allowing himself only to say that women who do something that is cunning, which is to say, requires some mind, are thought despicable, a remark that leaves others troubled for reasons they cannot say, perhaps because it is too foreign a thought for them to consider. Both Darcy and Elizabeth are caught up in a world of philistines, men and women who are devoted only to card playing and eating and gossip when they are in one another’s company.
Next day, Mrs. Bennet, another uninvited guest, shows up to see how Jane is doing and manages to be provincial enough to defend country living over town living, which even Elizabeth thinks is going too far, but that does not keep Elizabeth from offering another original thought, which is that love poetry puts an end to love because it substitutes for it and serves as a way to end a relationship. Darcy finds this piquant observation amusing rather than just contrarian.
And so the days pass while Jane convalesces. As if to outdo herself, or merely because she cannot resist the urge, Elizabeth does indeed turn rude in dealing with her host, Mr. Bingley, when he remarks that he dashes off his own correspondence while Darcy labors over his. Elizabeth says that he claims a false modesty because, in fact, he is proud to do things quickly, even if thoughtlessly, and so to say he would leave this estate if he took a mind to, it would mean he would neglect whatever business had been left undone, and so leave his life to chance. Darcy enters the conversation to say that a friend who asked someone to leave their estate to immediately attend upon him had offered no reason and so such a request should not be honored, to which Elizabeth replies, raising the moral stakes, that a friend need have no reason to make such a request, friendship sufficient reason to honor the request. Bingley is getting hot under the collar and Elizabeth plunges the dagger in all the way when she says that being simple does not mean being of bad character, something Bingley cannot take as a compliment. Bingley will have no more of arguments, and one wonders whether Darcy has no other friends that he spends so much time consorting with a person who is so much his intellectual inferior.
It is out of such conversations that a courtship is constructed: talk that is abbreviated, elusive, about apparently more general matters such as what is the meaning of friendship, and usually in the presence of others so that Darcy and Elizabeth do not have to confront or contend with one another, especially since their obviously growing interest in one another meets with the disapproval of all those around them. That has not changed by the time Darcy makes his first proposal to Elizabeth. He blunders about it, as if there could not have been a way to refer to their difference in positions in a less insulting way, though he is so conflicted about it, so much a prisoner of convention, that it would have been difficult for him to form a better way of saying it even if he had been much more clever than he is or nearly as clever as Elizabeth, who is able to meet not just him but Lady Catherine on equal rhetorical terms.
Early on in the novel, Jane gives forth with a sententious statement, something unusual for her, as the narrator notes, but which is key to understanding the novel. Jane says that pride is a belief in one’s own powers, while vanity is a concern with what other people think of you. Darcy is guilty of both. He is so prideful that he remains mute before most of the people with whom he associates, while he is overly concerned with the prejudices of his relatives about Elizabeth as ungainly, unmannered and overly intellectual and what they will think of her should she become his bride and so someone who has risen far above her station. So he is the one who has to overcome pride and prejudice while Elizabeth is not particularly prideful, but rather dismissive of her own accomplishments, and is not vain in that she is unmindful, to a fault, of how she might come off to other people. It is up to Darcy to see the diamond in the rough and attend to it accordingly, invoking and transforming his own feelings and beliefs. That is the gravamen of the novel: it is up to the man to be up to the task, even for an Elizabeth worthy of his love.
This point is more than adequately made by the last of the conversations at Bingley’s estate, which again takes place with others in the room. Miss Bingley asks Elizabeth to stroll around the room with her and Darcy declines to draw them insisting that there are only two reasons the two woman would do that, and he is prompted by Miss Bingley to name them: either to share a confidence or else to show off their figures. Noone is shocked, however candid Darcy may be, and Elizabeth enjoins Jane’s distinction between vanity and pride to get Darcy to say that pride will get a man to control his vanity, which leads to something of a direct confrontation, Elizabeth saying that makes Darcy perfect, if he says so himself, which brings Darcy out enough to defend himself by saying that he does not trust his own temper and that a bad opinion once formed is not likely given up. Elizabeth does not give up in spite of the fact that such self-deprecation on Darcy’s part might be thought a way to make peace. She finishes him off by saying that his propensity is to hate everyone, and the best he can reply to that is that her defect is to misunderstand him, which is true enough. Darcy emerges from the encounter warning himself that he will never get the better of her and so pursuing her is a dangerous thing to do. Elizabeth and Jane return home in the next chapter. The couple, not yet a couple, know well enough what they are each about, though they have not yet learned to see what they take to be vices are also virtues.
The pace of a Jane Austen novel picks up as it reaches its end. What had been told at a leisurely pace, as we shall see again when considering “Mansfield Park”, turns feverish or even operatic. What that means in the case of “Pride and Prejudice” is that the quality of the many important conversations that take place towards the end of the book change from being stilted or out of control to being eloquent, each character coming to say exactly what they want to say, nothing more and nothing less. This happens when Lady Catherine confronts Elizabeth and tries to get her to promise never to marry Darcy, which, as Elizabeth notes in her response, must be a prospect more real than she would have thought it to be for otherwise Lady Catherine would not be here to get a denial and a promise. Elizabeth does not go further than she wants to, as she often has before, especially as she had in denying Darcy’s first proposal, because all she says is that she is not engaged to Darcy but will not promise what will happen in the future. So Elizabeth is forewarned of what will happen when Darcy does show up again, he clearly having discussed what a marriage to Elizabeth would mean for his family, his sister already thinking well of her, whatever Lady Catherine might think. So she can accept his apology for her having treated him so badly after he first proposed, even if he had very clumsily though not untruthfully put the question of the differences between their stations in life. She had over-reacted then, but not this time, accepting him for the snobbish and proud man that he is because he is also a person of depth and integrity who seeks to right wrongs, very much a knight who had embarked on a quest to save the honor of Lydia through the means appropriate in Regency England: no duels, just payoffs.
And then Elizabeth handles her father in just the way he has to be handled to give his consent to the marriage, as if he could do otherwise even if he does not want to lose the apple of his eye. Elizabeth treats his permission as something that is freely given, not just to secure a fortune that would get his family out of hock, by declaring, truthfully, what her feelings are, which is that she truly loves Darcy. A father would not be fooled by a false declaration. As Jane Austen well knew, that scene brings a tear to every reader’s eye, and is a meaty scene for whomever plays Mr. Bennet, whether it is Edward Gwenn, Benjamin Whitrow, or Donald Sutherland. Mr. Bennet is shown to have deep feelings rather than just the avoidance of feeling that might come from having been cooped up in his library to avoid the nagging wife he must have found charming twenty years before. And so the next generation embarks on its life journey, as that is always measured by the circumstances of courtship and marriage, which may seem to be and are rendered comic, but is for most people the dramatic highpoints of their life, when they themselves become heros and heroines rather than character actors who fill up the background.
I have been told that Jane Austen’s portrayal of the courting dynamics of two hundred years ago do not hold up for the present generation which is given up to a “hookup” culture where a series of one night or abbreviated sexual relationships do not provide the basis for a long term relationship because the premise of long term relationships is that there is a process of delayed gratification whereby people try to come to understand one another before they become committed to one another and so afterwards become sexual familiars. But people can engage in sex while still holding in abeyance whether they want to have a long term relationship. People can start a new relationship, as Madonna puts it, “for the very first time”. Romance is possible even after previous sexual experience. Courtship is the process of making up one’s mind about having a stable rather than a temporary relationship. The point about stable relationships is that they are stable. People know who they are sleeping with every night, what their habits are like, what they smell like. There is less tension than there is in unstable relationships. People fall into an emotional division of labor as well as a financial one that suits their personalities and capacities. Couples become codependent. The desire to do that does not seem to have changed even if circumstances present different difficulties in Jane Austen’s time, when there were not enough eligible men in the neighborhood, and so one would have expected any girl to take up the first offer, which Elizabeth does not do, though it is suggested to her that she ought to, and the circumstances in our own time, where there is a plethora of men to pick for one night stands and therefore girls have to use other criteria to decide whether one of these or a man drawn from another pool is a subject for courtship.
The insight Jane Austen has is that courtships are conducted through conversations in which people either explain who they are or give off who they are through their words. Not everyone is equally articulate. Elizabeth pays an unwarranted compliment to Jane when she says her sister always reports what she thinks, which is perhaps because Jane is so pure so as not to be able to lie, but may also be because Jane does not have the mental equipment to dissemble. Her courtship with Mr. Bingley is an easy one because they are so well suited to one another’s personality that they cannot but be candid, while the courtship between Elizabeth and Darcy is fraught with difficulty because both of them have their reasons not to be candid: he to protect his wealth and the feelings of his family a well as his own privacy, she to overcome the embarrassment of her family. But most of us communicate well enough to engage in courtship, to plight our trow, according to the customs of the time, and that is the drama of courtship that remains fascinating whether in romantic comedies or in farces or in romances or in the serio-comedies and tragedies of Jane Austen.