My rediscovery of Jane Austen continued with a reading of possibly the best loved of her novels – possibly, even, the best loved of all novels.
A rum lot, the British. They have built themselves a reputation for the stiff upper lip, for decorous emotional detachment; and yet, possibly the three most archetypal love stories – Romeo and Juliet, certainly, and also, I’d argue, Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre – were all written by British writers. I’m not, admittedly, very well read in the area of romantic fiction (that’s “romantic” without a capital R) but I do get the impression that most romantic novels owe at least something to at least one or other of these three works. Or possibly even to all: those better versed in this area can correct me if I am wrong.
Not that everyone would agree that Austen was particularly romantic – with or without that capital R. The author of Jane Eyre was particularly severe, describing Austen’s novels as “bloodless”; and I, being by temperament more at home with the Gothic blood and thunder of the Brontës than with the cultivated elegance of Austen, was happy to agree, going so far as to say in an earlier post (to which, out of embarrassment, I will not link) that Austen had not a Romantic bone in her body. I am happy to admit I was wrong – very wrong: but at least, I console myself, I was in good company in being wrong.
For there is, indeed, much depth of feeling and of sensibility in Austen. It is true, I think, that Austen’s temperament was more Classical than Romantic: she tended, I think, to mistrust sensibility when not accompanied by at least some modicum of sense. But the fact of sense accompanying the sensibility does not in itself diminish the sensibility, and that’s the point. What Elizabeth and Darcy feel for each other is a passion, no less in intensity than the passion Jane Eyre and Rochester feel for each other; what is different is not the nature of the emotions, but their expression. In Jane Eyre, the passions are out in the open, and are set against a turbulent background of Gothic halls and of tempestuous skies; in Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, we are in the world of elegant balls, and of well-maintained ornamental gardens. The emotions may not in this decorous environment be out in the open, but they are there nonetheless.
Of course, Austen was keenly aware, as ever, of social status, and of money matters. It is often pointed out triumphantly by those who refuse to see anything of the Romantic in Austen that Elizabeth, when asked by her sister Jane when she first realised that she loved Darcy, replies : “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” But of course, Elizabeth is joking: like her father, she finds it hard to resist a good gag. And Jane knows this: she entreats her sister that “she should be serious”. However, we have to ask ourselves, I think, why Elizabeth should make this particular joke. We have to bring to bring to mind as well Elizabeth’s feelings when she first sees the grounds at Pemberley:
She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!
This is not to say that Elizabeth is a vulgar mercenary: she had, after all, turned Darcy down knowing full well how wealthy he was; and even though she fantasises about being mistress of Pemberley, she does not at the time regret having turned down the opportunity to be so. But what her joke to her sister does indicate is that human motives are not always easy to disentangle; and that Elizabeth, intelligent and self-aware, is aware of this, and not entirely sure of the extent to which her love is properly disinterested. She makes this particular joke, I think, because she has at the back of her mind the worry that she may indeed be, at least in part, mercenary.
Such subtlety and intricacy place Pride and Prejudice in a very different psychological world from that of Jane Eyre, and certainly from that of Wuthering Heights – a novel in which the darkest and most intense of our desires are terrifyingly out in the open. Here, human minds are extremely complex things, and, unless one is an airhead such as Lydia or Mrs Bennet, there can be no feeling, no emotion, no sensibility, that can be so pure as to be unmixed with other matter. Not even love. This is not to deny the validity of love, or even of its overriding importance in our lives: indeed, so far is Austen from the hard-headed cynic she is often taken to be, Pride and Prejudice can easily be seen as a depiction of the transforming power of love. But it cannot override everything else: the world here is too complex for any one thing, even love, to override all other considerations. And if this means that a Heathcliff or a Captain Ahab is beyond Austen’s range, it may just as well be argued that Elizabeth and Darcy are similarly beyond the range of Emily Brontë or of Herman Melville: no work of art, no matter how vast in scope, can hope to encompass the whole truth about ourselves.
The principal plot, as is well-known, is, effectively, the story of Beatrice and Benedick: a young couple take a dislike to each other, and squabble and bicker; but even as they squabble and bicker, they are in love; and while, in terms merely of the events of the novel, misunderstandings are cleared up, at a deeper level, the characters come to discover themselves, learn to see with clearer eyes, and, finding themselves in love, find themselves ennobled by being so. As a summary, this is crude – far cruder than is warranted by the extreme elegance and subtlety of the writing; but it is easy to see why such a novel should be so well-liked: for it is hard to escape the conviction, or at least the hope, that human love has, at least, the capacity to ennoble; and never has the capacity of love to ennoble been presented with greater conviction than it is here.
But for Austen, sensibility has to be balanced with sense. As in her previous novels, this question of balance is rarely far from the centre of the work. Elizabeth’s airhead sister, Lydia, has not the slightest vestige of sense, and she is perhaps the only person in the entire novel (apart from her equally airheaded mother) who does not seem to realise that her unfortunate marriage to the rascally Wickham is bound to end in unhappiness. And Elizabeth’s beloved father had displayed more sensibility than sense in his own marriage, and is, as a consequence, desperately unhappy. He hides himself away in his library, and takes refuge in barbs of sarcasm; and, apart from his love for his two eldest daughters, he has, effectively, washed his hands of his family. As he himself concedes after Lydia’s elopement, he has been a failure as a father. Austen had a marvellous Mozartian facility of switching for the briefest but most poignant of moments from the major to the minor, and it is hard not to be affected by the lightning modulation into the minor when, in the midst of the celebrations following Elizabeth’s engagement to Darcy, Mr Bennet tells his daughter how important it is for one’s happiness to have a life-partner whom one can respect. The tonality immediately turns to the major again, but that single minor chord so deftly placed leaves behind the saddest of impressions.
And despite Elizabeth’s love for her father – or, rather, because of her love for him – she can find herself pained by his witticisms. Mr Bennet is a man so habituated to sarcasm that he finds it difficult to adopt any other tone; so when Mary is making a fool of herself in public by her singing, and Elizabeth indicates to her father that he should put a stop to it, he says in his accustomed manner “You have delighted us long enough”. Mary is, we are told, “disconcerted”, and Elizabeth is hurt that her sister, foolish though she is, should be so humiliated by her own father in public:
Mary, though pretending not to hear, was somewhat disconcerted; and Elizabeth was sorry for her, and sorry for her father’s speech, was afraid her anxiety had done no good.
And later, when Mr Bennet reads Elizabeth the letter from Mr Collins speaking of rumours about Elizabeth and Darcy, and unthinkingly makes light of feelings that should be treated with greater respect, Elizabeth finds herself feeling that “never had his wit been directed in a manner so little agreeable to her”; indeed, we are told a few paragraphs later, “her father had most cruelly mortified her”. (Memo to Charlotte Brontë: could creatures who are “bloodless” really be mortified?) It is because she so loves her father that her feeling of mortification is so very strong.
There are other dark clouds as well in the novel. Sometimes, when reading certain works, I wonder whether one could write a different novel focussing on some characters who, in these particular works, are peripheral. I couldn’t help feeling this about Charlotte Lucas, an intelligent person, and not deficient in feeling, but who, for the sake of her future security, quite knowingly sacrifices herself by marrying a man she knows to be an idiot. What’s her future? I couldn’t help wondering. Would a novel with Charlotte Lucas at the centre be another great 19th century novel of adultery? Or can she remain resigned to her fate and fade sadly into an unfulfilled old age? Either way, it is hard to envisage for her a happy ending.
But the tragic elements – or, rather, elements that have the potential to become tragic if further developed – are kept well in the periphery. For, as with Fielding’s Tom Jones – a very different work in virtually all other respects – this is the sunniest of novels. Indeed, Austen herself worried whether it was not too “light”. Generations of those who have been captivated and enchanted by this novel will hardly complain, but it is noticeable that in her very next novel, Mansfield Park, Austen produced her most sombre work, with a heroine as unlike Elizabeth Bennet as is possible to imagine. It is almost as if, having produced Pride and Prejudice, Austen wanted to explore perspectives as far removed from it as possible. (Similarly, I think, Fielding wrote the very dark Amelia immediately after Tom Jones almost as a direct counterpart to the earlier work.) In the three novels that followed Pride and Prejudice, Austen addressed moral ambiguities and psychological intricacies in comparison to which Pride and Prejudice seems, if not slight (I hesitate to describe as slight any work that treats seriously, without sentimentalising or deriding, the theme of human love), then, at least, straight-forward, and relatively uncluttered by the messiness of our human lives – “all mere complexities”, as Yeats put it. But of course, it is this uncluttered directness that makes Pride and Prejudice so well-loved a work. At its heart is the happiest of stories – the story of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. It is a story of two people who, at the start, do not really understand themselves, let alone each other: one is proud and the other prejudiced. However, unlike the two abstractions in the title of her previous novel, the pride and prejudice are not unmixed here in either character: the proud Darcy can also be prejudiced, and the prejudiced Elizabeth proud. But by the end, the two understand each other so well, that Mr Darcy does not even need formally to propose, nor Elizabeth formally to accept. The stages of this progress are depicted with the lightest, deftest, and most accomplished of touches.
It is not that all my own former prejudices against Austen have entirely dissipated: I still get the impression that, on the whole, Austen did not really like people very much. And it does still does worry me a bit that her laughs – for she is, indeed, a very funny writer – are always at someone’s expense: there is rarely an open, hearty laugh, as there is so frequently in Dickens. But whatever prejudice I may still harbour, I am not so proud that I can’t concede that, in view of the achievement, these reservations do not weigh anywhere near so heavily for me as they had formerly done. For all her often coruscating wit, Austen, unlike Mr Bennet, knew when not to exercise it. And so, by the end, does Elizabeth: she has at the tip of her tongue a waspish comment concerning Mr Bingley propensity to be easily led, but she bites that wicked tongue of hers:
Elizabeth longed to observe that Mr Bingley had been a most delightful friend; so easily guided that his worth was invaluable; but she checked herself.
Sometimes, it is worthwhile suppressing even the most elegantly phrased of barbs for the sake of simple human kindness.