WHY WE READ JANE AUSTEN:
YOUNG PERSONS IN INTERESTING SITUATIONS
"Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of."
So said Jane Austen in Emma in the early 1800s, and for the rest of the nineteenth century novelists got a lot of mileage out of young persons who either died or married. Dickens excelled at the young persons who died, Austen did the ones who married.
Stories about love and marriage are full of the good stuff: romance, sexual attraction, jealousy, suspense, misunderstanding. But in the early nineteenth century they had another dimension. All of a woman's
Future—her happily-ever-after or lack of the same—was implicit in her choice of husband. Such, at least, was the conventional wisdom of the age, and whether or not it was entirely true, clearly many things did depend on whom a woman married-her income, her status, her home, perhaps even her occupations.
If the female characters in Austen's novels sometimes give the impression of considering potential husbands rather dispassionately, there is good reason for it. In many ways they are not only choosing a husband, they are also choosing a career. By their marriage Austen's heroines may become a parson's wife (Elinor, Fanny, and Catherine), a landowner's wife (Elizabeth and Emma), or a ship's captain's wife (Anne). With the exception of Emma, marriage holds out to them not simply a more financially secure life, but the opportunity for a more active, socially responsible one.
Today the idea of marriage is a loaded one; at best it's a closing down of options. Austen's women saw things differently. For them life opened up at the point of marriage. The married state, not the single state, meant liberation. Marriage offered freedom from the confined life of a girl at home. In Mansfield Park Maria Bertram marries to gain "Sotherton and London, independence and splendour"-two houses, worldly status, and independence from her parents.
Of course this bid for freedom only worked if you married the right person. Maria did not and found in marriage a prison at least as confining as her father's house. For both sexes, marriage to the wrong person could have disastrous consequences-not simply unhappiness and financial precariousness, but worse still, moral degradation. If you were led to marry someone small-minded, mean, or coarse (whether by your own faulty judgment or the faulty judgment of your friends and relations), you risked those qualities rubbing off on you. It was a danger Austen seems to have felt men were particularly prone to. Of Mr. John Dashwood she says: "Had he married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable than he was:-he might even have been made amiable himself." Similar things are said of Frank Churchill's uncle, who is married to the perennially disagreeable, ill- tempered Mrs. Churchill: " . . . he would be the best man in the world if he were left to himself . . ."
Even if you somehow proved immune to your partner's vices and you didn't actually acquire them yourself, your personality might be warped by trying to accommodate them, as with Elizabeth's father, Mr. Bennet. Twenty-something years of his wife's nonsensical conversation seem to have given him a faintly masochistic turn: he takes a strange pleasure in never giving her a straight answer, thereby making some of her imaginary frustrations real and provoking her to exclaim even more. These two do not act pleasantly on each other.
With stakes as high as these it's hardly surprising that the action of Jane Austen's six novels so often turns on character. The author, her readers, and her heroines all set themselves to decipher the personality of this attractive young man, that newly arrived young woman, not as an abstract exercise in aesthetics or moral judgment, but because these young people form a significant part of the available marriage pool and the
future happiness of someone-usually someone dear to the heroine- depends on it. Marriage is rarely far from the thoughts of an Austen heroine, but much of the time it is not her own marriage that occupies her.
Elizabeth Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Anne Elliot, and Fanny Price are all, in their different ways, inveterate people-watchers. When Darcy asks Elizabeth Bennet, "May I ask to what these questions tend?" she replies, "Merely to the illustration of your character? . . . I am trying to make it out." Nor is it simply the pressure of finding a suitable partner that makes them so curious about other people.
In our largely urban culture we choose those to whom we belong: our friends are likely to have interests and opinions similar to our own. Other family members may live some distance away, and we have a degree of control over how often we see them. Austen's women-and most of her men-don't have this freedom. They live in small, clearly defined societies-a village or country town. Even Emma Woodhouse, who is wealthy, hasn't much choice of companions; she cannot avoid Miss Bates who irritates her, Mr. and Mrs. Cole who bore her, or Jane Fairfax whom she dislikes. In fixed societies it becomes a matter of some necessity to understand one's neighbors, to seek out those most likely to contribute to one's comfort and to learn how best to get on with the rest.
Often there is a newcomer whose character becomes a sort of mystery that requires unraveling. In Sense and Sensibility it is Willoughby, in Emma Frank Churchill, in Persuasion Mr. Elliot, while Pride and Prejudice has three: Bingley, Darcy, and Wickham. Darcy has somehow been redefined in recent years as a dark, brooding, romantic hero. I've seen him mentioned with Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester as if they were all points on the same spectrum. But that's not how Elizabeth or Jane Austen sees him. When Elizabeth thinks Darcy is arrogant, she isn't attracted to him. She turns him down. It's only when she sees him as a kind friend, a caring brother, and a good master that she begins to fall in love with him. If he makes other people happy, then he is capable of making her happy too. I doubt that Elizabeth is secretly or subconsciously attracted to a "dark" Darcy. Twenty-first- century women (and men) can afford to romanticize dark heroes because their fates and futures are in their own hands-Elizabeth didn't have that option.
As in a detective story where a tiny detail may hold the key to a murder, some small action may turn out to be a clue to a man's personality. Halfway through Emma Frank Churchill goes to London to get his hair cut, and it promptly becomes one of the most overanalyzed haircuts in English literature:
There was certainly no harm in his travelling sixteen miles twice over on such an errand; but there was an air of foppery and nonsense in it which she could not approve. It did not accord with the rationality of plan, the moderation in expense, or even the unselfish warmth of heart which she had believed herself to discern in him yesterday. Vanity, extravagance, love of change, restlessness of temper, which must be doing something, good or bad; heedlessness as to the pleasure of his father and Mrs. Weston, indifferent as to how his conduct might appear in general; he became liable to all these charges . . .
And these, it ought to be said, are just Emma's first thoughts on the haircut. Of course she is right and the haircut is a clue-but not in the way she thinks.
Austen's liveliest and most articulate heroines (Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse), who congratulate themselves on their superior knowledge of people, are the ones who get it spectacularly wrong. Elizabeth misjudges Darcy, Wickham, and Bingley; Emma goes one better and misjudges everybody including herself. ("With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body's feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body's destiny.") But the quiet heroines, the women whom circumstances have conspired to humble (Fanny Price and Anne Elliot) see and understand perfectly. I suspect that "humble" is the key word here. There is a logical connection for Austen between clarity of vision and true humility (a virtue so unfashionable nowadays that we scarcely believe it exists and use it as a synonym for "hypocrisy"). If you no longer believe that you can control a situation or have anything to gain from it, then your chances of perceiving it clearly are much improved. Not that this is a particularly pleasant gift: Fanny and Anne are both cruelly hurt by what they see. Each endures the heartbreak of watching the man she loves court someone else.
Film and television adaptations have misled us into thinking Austen wrote about something called "the Jane Austen world"—a world of picturesque houses, romantic landscapes, carriages, placid servants, candlelit ballrooms, bonnets, and costumes. But these things belong to costume drama; they are what give it visual impact. Austen wasn't a visual writer. Her landscapes are emotional and moral-what we would call psychological; they are not physical.
There is always more negative space around Austen than we think. We know that she did not address social problems, criticize political or social institutions, delve into the lives of the working class, or rise to describe the aristocracy. In fact the list of things Austen didn't write about is much longer than that. She has little to say about dress; even less about landscape. The servants, who must play an enormous part in the daily lives of her characters, are rarely named. How many of the most important houses in her fiction are described? Not Longbourn. Not Hartfield. Even Mansfield Park is barely sketched in ("an handsome house") until Mary Crawford contemplates marrying Tom Bertram in Chapter 5. Then we learn it has: "a park, a real park five miles round, a spacious modern-built house, so well placed and well screened as to deserve to be in any collection of engravings of gentlemen's seats in the kingdom, and wanting only to be completely new furnished . . ." The liveliest, most revealing description of property in Austen generally comes at the point at which some young woman is thinking of marrying the owner, because then it ceases to be part of the physical landscape and takes on an emotional significance; it is part of her possible future (perhaps, as in Mary Crawford's case, the most important part).
What looks like physical description in Austen often turns out to be something else entirely: " . . . Mr Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features; noble mein . . ." This is a curiously opaque set of adjectives. If the police tried to find Mr. Darcy based on this they wouldn't get very far. The truth is that it is not really a description of Darcy at all; it is a description of the effect he had on other people. Most important of all, it is the setup for a joke. At the beginning of the paragraph the people in the ballroom are impressed by what they hear of Darcy's large fortune and attribute every physical perfection to him. By the end of the paragraph he has snubbed them and "not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance . . ." Wealth and novelty have a bewitching effect on the inhabitants of Meryton, but can easily be trumped by their sense of their own importance.
Take another quintessential Austen scene-the Netherfield ball from Pride and Prejudice. It takes up all of Chapter 18 and feels as if it should be a set piece. Any television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice will certainly make it a set piece; there will be shadowy rooms, candlelight, flowers, beautiful dresses, lovely girls, and officers' uniforms. But Austen barely touches on the physical aspects of the ball. We get an admission that Elizabeth "had dressed with more than usual care" (in what we do not know) and that she "entered the drawing-room at Netherfield"; later there's a mention of the cold ham and chicken they had for supper. That's it. Austen's ball, the ball of the novel, is all emotion (Elizabeth's humiliation and anger, her surprise at Darcy's unexpected attentions, Jane and Bingley falling quietly in love in the background), comedy (Mrs. Bennet's triumphing over her neighbors, Mary Bennet's cringe-making piano playing), and shaky moral judgments (Darcy's contempt for Elizabeth's family, Elizabeth's increasing anger toward Darcy). No candles, no dresses, scarcely any dancing.
We have such a strong visual image of the Regency period, and such a strong association of Austen with costume drama, that we barely notice that the bonnets and gowns, carriages and servants-all the Regency paraphernalia-are what we bring to Austen, not the other way round. Generally speaking, one of the pleasures of reading a nineteenth- century novel is crossing over into a world quite different from our own-think of Oliver Twist's vividly imagined criminals, undertaker's shop, and workhouse with its arcane set of parish officials. But the pleasure of reading a Jane Austen novel is like that in only a superficial way. She chose a small canvas-"3 or 4 Families in a Country Village" was how she put it. The "3 or 4 Families" are arranged in the foreground and middle ground. The background (the "Country Village") is sketched in with a few light strokes. But because the humanity of her three or four families-their sufferings and pleasures, their good qualities and bad-is so recognizable to us, so familiar, the veil between her age and ours grows very thin.
THE RADIANCE OF JANE AUSTEN
Jane Austen will soon be closer in calendar time to Shakespeare than to us. Within the reading life of the next generation, that constellation of six bright stars will have swung that many years deeper into the one sky, vast and crowded, of English literature. Will these future readers be in danger of letting the novels elude them because of distance, so that their pleasure will not be anything like ours? The future of fiction is a mystery; it is like the future of ourselves.
But, we ask, how could it be possible for these novels to seem remote? For one thing, the noise! What a commotion comes out of their pages! Jane Austen loved high spirits, she had them herself, and she always rejoiced in the young. The exuberance of her youthful characters is one of the unaging delights of her work. Through all the mufflings of time we can feel the charge of their vitality, their happiness in doing, dancing, laughing, in being alive. There is always a lot of jumping; that seems to vibrate through time. Motion is constant- indeed, it is necessary for communication in the country. It takes days to go some of the tiny distances, but how the wheels spin! The sheer velocity of the novels, scene to scene, conversation to conversation, tears to laughter, concert to picnic to dance, is something equivalent to a pulsebeat. The clamorous griefs and joys are all giving voice to the tireless relish of life. The novels' vitality is irresistible for us. Surely all this cannot fade away, letting the future wonder, two hundred years from now, what our devotion to Jane Austen was all about.
For nearly this long already the gaiety of the novels has pervaded them, the irony has kept its bite, the reasoning is still sweet, the sparkle undiminished. Their high spirits, their wit, their celerity and harmony of motion, their symmetry of design appear still unrivaled in the English novel. Jane Austen's work at its best seems as nearly flawless as any fiction could be.
Copyright © 2009 by Susannah Carson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.