|A 19th-century engraving of|
the pivotal "letter scene" by
artist C.E. Brock
Jane Austen has the distinction of being a classic author who's exceptionally fun to read. This makes some critics dismissive of her merits, but I beg you not to sell her importance in the literary world short just because she only wrote romantic comedies. Her works both transcends that genre and in doing so becomes its canon to the point that most romances today are just different iterations of the plots she formed. To use a food analogy, if ordinary romantic comedies are like Dreyer's brand ice cream, full of artificial flavors and high-fructose corn syrup, then Jane Austen is two scoops of organic Sicilian lemon cheesecake gelato.
Popular but never wildly so in her day, Jane Austen would win respect among the literati for her realistic depictions of characters and situations as well as her creation of the "free indirect" narration, in which the omniscient narrator melds with the character's thoughts to form a semi-unreliable representation or reality presented as fact (a technique which gets perfected in Mansfield Park and Emma). That respect for Austen's innovation remains firmly in place today, but there is a deep gulf between those who appreciate Austen on an intellectual level and those who look at her just for her considerable entertainment value.
But why does it have to be that way?
Austen has had a huge impact on my life. Her humor and grace went a long way to keeping me sane during six long years of illness, so I have a deep appreciation for her charms. At the same time, however, I am passionate about sharing parts of her genius that take study and critical thinking to uncover. This not only stems from the fact that I am an aspiring novelist myself but also from my longing for the correct historical and cultural context in which to view her novels. It's precisely because Austen's novels are so wonderful that it becomes imperative to understand them as best we can. The best way we can pay homage to Austen's genius is to attempt to find their original context, to see as much as her vision as possible even 200 years after the fact.
Of course Pride and Prejudice remains my undisputed favorite, as it does for most people on this earth. As a woman, I cannot help but admire Elizabeth Bennett for several reasons. It's not just that Lizzie is an intelligent, outspoken woman, it's that she finds a way to live up to her considerable potential with grace, love, and prudence, even in the restricted circles of Regency England. At the beginning of the novel, Elizabeth is charming but flawed. She her acute perception has led her to see all too well the many hypocrisies and foibles in her society, and she is in great danger of becoming jaded by them: "There are few people in the world I love, and even fewer of whom I think well. The more that I see of the world, the more I am dissatisfied by it," she tells her sister Jane, highlighting the depth of her cynicism: it means that she has affection for people due to family ties, but still doesn't respect either their personalities or mental faculties, and thus had less people about whom she "thinks well" than people she loves out of familial duty and friendship.
Lizzie is teetering on the brink of becoming another Mary Crawford, a character who possess Lizzie's wit and vitality but is jaded into moral apathy. Although Elizabeth's quickness in judging character is usually spot-on, it almost proves to be fatal when she misjudges Mr. Darcy. Lizzie has the opposite problem of her sister Jane, who would rather come up with a convenient way to excuse people's questionable behavior than to think critically about their motives. As befits for a child of the Enlightenment, however, Austen tries to suggest something in between those two extremes. The way Lizzie turns out in the end of the novel represents those two elements thoughtfully combined. We see Lizzie's change not only in her attitude towards Mr. Darcy but towards many people in the end of the book. Instead of blindly condemning she learns to temper her judgments with compassion and prudence. So while she can still tell off Lady Catherine in spectacular fashion, she's also able to be reconciled with that formidable lady along with Miss Bingley in the final chapter. That makes her one of the most ideal heroines in fiction and truly worthy to be mistress and co-runner of one of the greatest estates in England.
One of the things that makes the book so funny in terms of plot is the dramatic irony of knowing that Mr. Darcy is in love with Lizzie while she herself is completely unaware of this. It makes some of the moments when she tries to assign motives to his actions absolutely priceless. Austen's works deal a lot with the disconnect between what we can tell about people and how they really are. This difference was especially heightened in Austen's day when society people pretty much only spoke in niceties to each other, and most of their feelings had to be decoded by tone and body language. Of course this trait would be exploited to the fullest in Emma, where the protagonist constantly miss-assigns her friends motives in order to conform with her hopes and wishes, but it remains a source of humor in all of her works. Consider Mr. Collins' mistaking Elizabeth's motives for turning him down, everyone's trust of Wickham, Jane's misconstruing Miss Bingley's friendship, Mr. Darcy not being able to see that Lizzie's impertinent remarks are displays or contempt, not flirtation. Nearly everyone in the book is a victim of this sad truth that people tend to be inscrutable.
Austen is a very terse writer. She doesn't do much physical descriptions at all--in fact Lizzie's "fine dark eyes" are about as specific a detail about someone's looks as she'll give you--preferring instead to concentrate on emotion and dialog, two things she does exceptionally well. She also is not a didactic writer, going off for pages at a time on treatises on morality or a diatribe on farming conditions in Russia. Everything she puts on the page is important to the plot, which holds the reader's interest like nothing else. Nowhere, moreover, is this more apparent than in Pride and Prejudice where she drops us down in media res (Latin for "in the middle of things"), and fills in the history of the Bennett clan as she goes along. I remember distinctly reading the book for the first time when I was fourteen and being immediately ensnared by the hilarious situation, and wanting to learn more about the characters from seeing them in action instead of being introduced to them in a dry page of prose. Austen was way ahead of her time in that regard.
These are just a few of the comments I could make about P&P, but I don't want to keep you here all day. I may write some more by popular demand, but for now think of this as something to whet your appetite for Austen scholarship.