Posts Tagged ‘Pride and prejudice’

How I came round to liking the novels of Jane Austen

For my posts on individual novels of Austen, see here.

Not that long ago, I used to find myself frankly puzzled by the high regard, indeed, by the reverence, in which Jane Austen was held. And this reverence was discernible not merely in the casual reader, or in those who, influenced no doubt by various lightweight adaptations, saw her novels as essentially chick-lit in fancy costume: those whom I admired for their taste and for their critical judgement seemed also unanimous in their regard for Austen.

So I had a choice of three options: I could claim that those who enjoyed Austen were fools unable to see through the hype, and that I, possessing superior discernment, knew better (this is the default position on the internet in such matters); or I could shrug my shoulders, and accept that we all have different perceptions, and that not everyone can take in everything; or, thirdly, I could have another go, and see if, this time round, I could at least see something of what her admirers clearly see. Now, there are many things about my former self that I find myself disliking, but I am glad this former self of mine eschewed the first option, found himself dissatisfied with the second, and went for the third. For now, having re-read all six of her complete and full length novels (the shorter and unfinished works are still waiting in the wings), I can not only see why her admirers admire her so, I have come to share much of that admiration myself. I won’t claim to be a fully paid-up Austenite: our individual temperaments inevitably lead us in different directions, after all; but now, when Austen is praised as a novelist of the foremost rank, I find myself inclined to agree, and to join in the praise. Is not our capacity to change over time quite wonderful?

Of course, this is all very inconsistent in me, but consistency is not really, I think, something to be praised: a mind and a soul impervious to change bespeak a spiritual dullness and an inability to look beyond our immediate horizons – as if these horizons of ours encompass all that need be encompassed. Change is not merely to be welcomed, but to be actively sought – change in our thinking, our tastes, our critical judgement; change in our moral and aesthetic values.

Towards the end of Antony and Cleopatra, Antony, who had thought that he knew himself, discovers to his surprise that he doesn’t. He looks at a cloud, and its shape seems to him constantly to change:

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.

He wonders at this, and finds his own self just such an amorphous body:

… here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape …

This is the self-knowledge he acquires in the course of the drama: he comes to know that he doesn’t really know himself at all; there is nothing solid that he can grasp, and all is as water is in water.

Antony is overstating, of course: we need not take this as Shakespeare’s own view. It is a mistake to take the thoughts of a character at the edge of human experience as representative of authorial wisdom. For, whatever Antony may think at this point, there is clearly a continuity between what we are now, and what we used to be; the human personality, for all its multiple facets that so puzzle Antony, retains a unity amidst the diversity. But it’s this diversity that makes humans so endlessly fascinating – a diversity the nature of which is so mysterious, even to ourselves, that it becomes impossible to say whether any change we undergo over time is the acquiring of new characteristics and the discarding of old, or whether it is, rather, the emergence to the fore of existing but previously unobserved elements.

If any reader who has stuck with me so far into this post is worried that I am now about to launch into intimate autobiography, and detail how I have changed over the years, please rest assured that nothing could be further from my intention: this blog is not, thankfully, a confessional. However, it has long struck me that the books that I value or have valued highly in different periods of my life, and my reasons for valuing them, do constitute an autobiography of sorts. And my progress, within a mere few years, from a dislike for Austen, or, at best, a grudging respect, to an unfeigned and unalloyed admiration, very possibly marks out in me new ways of looking at things, new perspectives. Which would give me cause for introspection were I given to navel-gazing.

Perhaps I hadn’t paying sufficient attention in my previous readings. I tried to interrogate my old self: what was it about these novels that I disliked? I don’t think I ever bought the view of Austen as a purveyor of chick-lit in fancy dress, even though legions of her fans did: she was quite clearly a far more serious writer than that. But I did, I think, find her very formal and decorous, and, as a consequence, distant; I formed the impression of her as detached, as lacking in passion; I saw her as looking down censoriously on her own creations from a moral high-ground; I found her too severe, too cold, too unwilling to sympathise with the common flaws and weaknesses of our shared humanity; I found a lack of warmth; and it seemed to me frankly worrying that her laughs were always at the expense of others: never was there an open and generous laugh – what I’d describe as a Dickensian laugh – in which we may all join.

All this seems damning. In some of them, I had been simply mistaken: for instance, Austen is certainly not short of passion – as is surely obvious from even the most cursory reading of Mansfield Park or of Persuasion (and how that insensitive oaf that was my former self could have missed this I really cannot imagine). As for my other criticisms, there is more than an element of truth to them, but they are not the whole truth. What I failed so dismally to see, I think, was that major works of art are not restricted to a single tonality; that what they present merely on the surface can be deceptive. Why, I had asked myself in my previous reading, is Emma Woodhouse to be taken to task for being unkind to Miss Bates when the author herself had presented Miss Bates in precisely the terms in which Emma had seen her – as no more than a tiresome old bat? I think I can now answer that question: Miss Bates is a tiresome old bat, and Austen sees no reason to present her otherwise; but she was wise enough and compassionate enough to know that even tiresome old bats have feelings, and that these feelings are sacrosanct. To have presented Miss Bates as anything other than the tiresome creature she is would have been merely pious and sentimental; Austen does better – much better: she allows us to think of Miss Bates in the same way that Emma does, so that when Miss Bates’ feelings are hurt, we find ourselves every bit as mortified as does Emma. And as a consequence, if we had looked down on Miss Bates before, we feel ashamed for having done so; and if we had looked down on Emma before, we no longer can; for how can we consider ourselves to be above that in which we find our own selves implicated? Far from looking down from remote heights on the flaws of humanity, Austen involves us in them.

The key to my greater understanding – for such, I hope, it is – came when a friend referred to Austen’s novels as “Mozartian”. Now, as a fully paid-up member of the Mozart fan club, I am constantly surprised when people pronounce his music to be twee, lacking in passion, shallow, and all the rest of it; for, underneath the elegant perfection of his surfaces, there seem to me to lie inexhaustible depths of passion. Was I being similarly obtuse, I wondered, in failing to look beyond the formal and decorous surfaces of Austen? Having now re-read these six novels, I can only conclude that such was precisely the case. Not that Austen is now an author close to my heart: she isn’t. Nonetheless, I did find myself charmed by Pride and Prejudice; I found myself utterly absorbed in the sombre drama that is Mansfield Park; I found myself quite swept along by the passion – yes, passion – and the eroticism of Persuasion. Emma, I confess, I found hard work, but its artistry and its seriousness of purpose are in no doubt. Even the two earlier works, Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, though novels of somewhat lesser substance than the masterpieces that followed, remain remarkable works.

So, while our substance may not be of infinite plasticity, while we may not quite be, as Antony had thought, as water is in water, we do have the ability, I think, to look beyond our own individual horizons, and see what we had not previously been capable of seeing. Not that we’ll give ourselves the opportunity to do so if we keep on simple-mindedly rating works in terms of “Like” or “Dislike” as we do Facebook posts; nor if we do as Goodreads urges us, and fix works produced by minds greater than our own on some insipid scale from one to ten. And it may sometimes be the case that one’s temperament is so far removed from that of the author, that not even the greatest willingness, open-mindedness and flexibility on the part of the reader can quite reconcile one to the author’s artistic vision. But it sure is worth a try!

On Jane Austen, love, and instant erections

Pardon me, gentle reader, for the coarseness of the title, but the coarseness isn’t mine. I am merely quoting Andrew Davies, who dramatised the phenomenally successful mid-90s BBC production of Pride and Prejudice :

“Pride and Prejudice is all about sex and money, about young people with pumping hormones,” explained Davies, who has cornered the market in TV and film adaptations of classic novels. “Darcy is supposed to marry this sickly aristocrat, but as soon as he sees keen-witted, rosy-cheeked Elizabeth Bennet panting from a walk, he gets an instant erection.”

I have not seen the adaptation, and so will refrain from commenting on it. But, despite being only a relatively recent convert to Austen, and yet to count myself a fully paid-up Janeite; and despite Mr Davies having no doubt lived with this novel for far longer than I have; it seems to me that his assertion that Pride and Prejudice is “all about sex and money” (my italics) could do with some scrutiny. For if this is indeed what Pride and Prejudice is all about, my own reading of the novel is quite considerably wide of the mark.

That Austen was keenly aware of the significance of money and of the social status it confers is a commonplace observation. And yes, Austen was also keenly aware of, and depicted (albeit with the utmost delicacy), sexual attraction. One may say that this delicacy on her part was dictated by the conventions of her times – conventions that didn’t allow her to write of, amongst other things, instant erections; and that, indeed, if she could, she would, but she couldn’t, so she didn’t. And further, that had she had the good fortune to live in our own less squeamish times, when talk of “instant erections” raises not even the most conservative of eyebrows, she would eagerly have ventured into areas that had in her own time been closed to her. For, as we all know, Austen was, like all others whom we see fit to admire, modern: and so far in advance is modernity in all respects from what had come before, there can surely be no greater praise than that.

An enterprising publisher is even now making available works from the past as their writers – unimpeachably modern  as they were in outlook – would no doubt have wished to write them, and would have done  if only they could. In these re-writes, Catherine Morland is introduced by Henry Tilney to “a whole new world of eroticism … where sex knows no boundaries”; the mutual passion of Holmes and Watson is at long last realised; and what Mr Rochester says to Jane Eyre about his own instant erection, dear reader, I blush even to acknowledge.

The idea behind these re-writes, I must admit, I find quite funny – but that’s only because I retain still an immature, schoolboy sense of humour. I don’t know, though, that I find the idea so funny as to want to read these re-writes: the joke would wear out pretty damn quick, I imagine. But I doubt the publishers are being serious. I doubt also whether Martin Amis is being entirely serious when he writes:

These days, true, I wouldn’t have minded a rather more detailed conclusion–say, a twenty-page sex scene featuring the two principals, with Mr. Darcy, furthermore, aquitting (sic) himself uncommonly well.

At least, I hope he isn’t being serious: I’d hate to imagine the man who declared war against cliché endorsing the clichéd perception that physical representation of sex can adequately represent the reality of love. For, pace Andrew Davies, Pride and Prejudice is not all about sex and money: central to the novel is the theme of love. Sex and money, yes, are present; and yes, these things are important. But when Elizabeth asks Darcy towards the end of the novel why he had admired her, he does not reply – and nor would he have replied even if the conventions of the time had allowed it – that he loves her for her body, and that he finds her “hot”: he replies: “For the liveliness of your mind”. He loves her for her personality; he loves her for being for the person she is. And if we in our enlightened modern times find this merely soppy; if we feel that there can be nothing beyond the physical, and that love can be nothing more than instant erections; then, it seems to me, Jane Austen, living though she did in her benighted times, was wiser by far than our modern selves.

“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen

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.