A critical yet teasing tone

Jane Austen?
A putative Jane Austen portrait

Jane Austen Pride and Prejudice Everyman 1993

To my deep shame I have never before now read this classic (and I’m not counting skimming pages, nor watching the TV and film versions). I’m not sure whether it was false pride or male prejudice that stopped me (the label ‘romance’ would have been enough to put me off when I was younger) or simply laziness (most probably this), but I now know what I’ve been missing: a witty but perspicacious novel, not as hard to comprehend as parodies suggested, and, though set in a period of history I’m not over-familiar with, a primary social document on manners and presumptions in the Napoleonic era.

Set in rural Hertfordshire, Kent and Derbyshire as well as in London, the familiar plot focuses on the characters of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, not so distant in class that they can’t mix socially but far enough in birth and finances that the idea of Darcy marrying Elizabeth is anathema to Darcy’s snobbish aunt Lady Catherine. Against a wider background where the French Revolution and European wars has upturned conventions and unsettled certainties Austen’s novel is no less revolutionary in its own way, where an intelligent woman might make her way in the world due to her personal character and intelligence rather than through her potential dowry and social standing.

Critical thinking about Austen’s writing is so deep in terms of research and wide-ranging in terms of discussion that I can’t even begin to add anything new or insightful; I can only make observations about features that have particularly struck me. For example, Austen’s abandonment of First Impressions as a title for the novel adds complexity to any consideration of the novel: who exactly is exhibiting pride and who suffers from prejudice? At first it seems, from Elizabeth’s viewpoint, that Darcy’s manner indicates the insufferable pride of his class and prejudice against her humbler origins; in time, however, we see that Elizabeth has unfounded prejudices of her own, having made presumptions about his actions and his motivations, and entertains overweening pride in regarding herself as morally and intellectually superior to him. By the end of the novel we hope that the personal prides and prejudices of each are dissolved without their losing essential virtues such as charity and forgiveness and wit.

But of course these twin vices are not confined to the two main protagonists: there is a supporting cast of well over thirty characters, many of whom exhibit pride or prejudices of their own. Surprisingly perhaps, with such a number of players it is still relatively easy to identify and keep track of them all: by their actions you will know them, even if Austen is relatively economic with physical descriptions. Some, like Mr Collins and Miss Darcy, are described as tall, while Elizabeth’s main distinguishing features (Miss Bingley’s bitchy comments aside) appear to be her eyes. This reticence in giving visual clues has of course the advantage that it makes casting for screen adaptations that much easier. It’s not only the ‘monsters’ that stick in the mind – Elizabeth’s hysterical mother, her vapid sister Lydia, her insensitive suitor Mr Collins, the blackguard Mr Wickham – but also the quiet ones – Darcy’s housekeeper at Pemberley, Elizabeth’s uncle Mr Gardiner, her sister Jane. Austen also creates memorable characters who have a moral ambiguity, such as Mr Bennet, who neglects his paternal responsibilities while retaining Elizabeth’s and the reader’s sympathy, or Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas, who marries for security and not for love, despite the blatant hypocrisy of her husband.

This is a novel rich in language. Individuals talk at length, their circumlocutions a sign of a more leisured way of life. Occasionally there is confusion as to who is speaking, especially when there is a group conversation, but Austen generally gives her creations voices unique to each. The omniscient narrator never interposes herself except briefly and for just one instance, at the beginning of the final chapter, but largely tells the story through Elizabeth’s eyes. Relationships are expressed in subtle ways, such as when the heroine is addressed as Eliza, Lizzy or Miss Bennet, depending on the speaker; however, she is always Elizabeth to the author.

This Everyman edition was edited by Pamela Norris, who provided helpful notes, a survey of Austen criticism in the 19th century and in the later 20th, a chapter summary, reading suggestions and a chronology. The 1978 introduction by Peter Conrad focuses on Austen’s skills as an ironist, perhaps overstating his case, but he certainly contextualises the novel in illuminating ways, underlining aspects such as Regency society’s tedium, claustrophobia and mercenariness. 2013 is the two-hundredth anniversary of the first publication of Pride and Prejudice, so we may expect lots of tributes and controversial claims about the author, presumed portraits and the like. However, the principal impression that I will retain about the novel is one of the final views we get of Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship, one where Elizabeth ceaselessly but affectionately teases him; somehow this critical yet teasing tone is one that I shall forever associate with Austen and her attitude to her readership.

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5 thoughts on “A critical yet teasing tone

  1. A good review indeed, in the sense of being informative and well written rather than that it praises the book – although that, too, you have rightly done.
    I have, strangely, found the circumlocutions in the speech endearing – perhaps I secretly long for an age where that sort of leisure and carefully measured wording could exist.

  2. Thank you for your kind words! The most obvious themes, such as (Relative) Rags to Riches or the Course of True Love Never Running Smooth, are what at first attract the casual reader, and of course whether or not we find the protagonists sympathetic.

    But those ‘difficult’ aspects – the circumlocutions, the social dances of etiquette and conventions, the narrative of the poor Rich White Girl – which can put some readers off, those are just some of the features that you and I may find adds to the deeper enjoyment of P&P. But of course I mustn’t put words into your mouth…

  3. Oh, I love that observation about Elizabeth’s name “changing” to reflect each of her relationships.

    And yes on it being Darcy’s pride and Elizabeth’s prejudices.

    I haven’t read it yet but Longbourn by Jo Baker is an interesting take on Pride & Prejudice–the same set of events viewed from the perspective of the invisible servants.

    I also very much enjoyed Pemberley Digital’s modern retake on Pride & Prejudice, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (in the form of vlogs): https://www.youtube.com/user/LizzieBennet –I’d love to know what you think of it if it interests you!

    1. Thanks, Juhi! I’ve read good press about ‘Longbourne’ too, and it’s on my longlist (a very long list!) of books to read. 😦

      Pemberley Digital looks fascinating, certainly worth following up, thanks, and I’ll let you have my thoughts when I do!

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