I don't know what the fashion is today, but in my youth it was widely supposed that a writer, to be any good, had to have "experience," and lots of it, usually of a proletarian nature, so book jackets claimed that the author had been a field hand, roustabout, gandy dancer, cowboy, bartender, fireman, used car salesman, smuggler, and so on. What would the composers of such fanciful biographies have made of Jane Austen?
One of eight children of a clergyman of gentle lineage and no fortune, living in the countryside with few diversions aside from family theatricals and reading, largely educated at home, she began to write in her early teens, and before she was twenty-five had completed three novels, unpublished for a dozen years. After the success, in 1811, of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice was published two years later, and then followed Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. It is an amazing career, especially considering the wit and sophistication of her work.
Her stories are romances in the sense that at their conclusion the hero and heroine, after grievous misunderstandings, finally come to terms and marry, but they are both more serious than the term suggests and more lighthearted, the former because Austen is a moralist of character, the latter because her vision of people is comic, and nothing is so fatal to romance as humor. As the characters converse and react to each other, they reveal themselves, and in the case of secondary characters the revelations are soon made obvious. For instance, on the first page of Pride and Prejudice, after the famous opening sentence:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
There follow two pages of colloquy between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet about Mr. Bingley, a well-off young man who has just moved into the neighborhood. She wants her husband to call on him, but he, fending her off with bland irony, pretends not to understand. We soon realize that Mrs. Bennet is silly, and her husband amuses himself at her expense. The last paragraph makes these judgments explicitly.
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.
For the rest of the book, these and other characters will enact and reenact their traits to comic and dramatic effect. But because Austen is a moralist of character and everyone's behavior has consequences, all will be judged by the end, even though our feelings about them will always be tempered by laughter. So the technique of the book, movement of plot and revelation of character by conversation, is clear at once, and the book's theme -- the nature of a happy marriage -- is hinted at. And, although it seems a joke at first, Mrs. Bennet is proved right: by the end of the book, three of her daughters are married, one to Mr. Bingley and one to his best friend.
Austen's handling of characters is brilliant. The physical scenes, the houses and grounds are hardly described, they are marked and varied by the characters in each place: the Bennets at Longburn, the Bingleys at Nethersfield, Darcy at Pemberly, and so on, and a change of place means a change of characters, hence progression in the plot. We are always looking forward to exchanges of gossip and comic displays of character. Our appreciation is enhanced by complicity. For instance, after reading Mr. Collins' letter of introduction, Elizabeth asks her father, "Can he be a sensible man, sir?" Which he answers:
No, my dear, I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him.
The only inferior novel Austen wrote was Sense and Sensibility, and by looking at it we can better see the excellence of Pride and Prejudice. In Sense she does not vary the characters enough, so when the scene shifts it does not change sufficiently to excite our interest -- the characters are too similar. And too many of them are disagreeable. Their speeches are often too long and too formal, so there is a stiltedness about them never felt in Pride, where rapid, often witty, exchanges are the rule. Finally, the good characters, the ones who achieve happiness in the end are uninteresting; no one has the liveliness of Elizabeth Bennet or the power of Darcy. Austen's improvement from one novel to the next is extraordinary, as her prose became smoother, surer, more pointed, and more economical. Nevertheless, Pride remains the favorite of most readers because she never again created such an appealing hero and heroine or assembled such an entertaining cast of characters.
If my readers will take up the June issue of the Review and look again at my essay on Henry James, I think we might learn something from a comparison of the two writers. Consider the passage I quoted from the novella Daisy Miller, Randolph's remarks and Winterbourne's revealing interpretation. It is realistic in a plausible sense -- people speak like that -- and it subtly tells us something important about Winterbourne. Now Austen has her subtleties, chiefly in nuances of personality, but her presentation of characters and appraisals of conduct are not subtle in the Jamesian sense, and the dialogue is hardly realistic. We accept them as real, just as we accept other fictions as real, but we know that no one quite talked like that, even in Jane Austen's drawing room. We can see, then, that genteel fiction in the course of the 19th century became more realistic, but what it became more realistic about was techniques of representation, imparting to that fiction the illusion of gravity, of substance. James was concerned with fine distinctions of conscience and consciousness, and these are not inconsequential, as we see in Daisy Miller: Winterbourne's fastidiousness leads him to misunderstand Daisy and so to remain a figure of futility. Austen, on the other hand, writes about broader questions that go beyond individuals, questions about how to live a useful, happy life, about the nature of marriage, and qualifications for a happy one, about the moral life and its obligations. Jane Austen is really a child of the tough-minded 18th century, a descendant of the same sturdy stock as Swift, Fielding, and Smollett, who looked at life in her restricted circle with their steady realism. You never feel, when you read her books, the Victorian missishness you often feel in James' work. What genteel fiction gained in technique it lost in substance, which is one reason it was pushed aside by the coarse naturalism of Norris and Dreiser. But that's a story from another opera.
Probably what most impresses a reader encountering a Jane Austen novel for the first time is the difference in manners, which must seem very distant and punctilious compared to ours. I have heard students express scorn for the "artificiality" of the characters' manners, implicitly contrasting them with their own "sincere" directness. But this is to misunderstand manners entirely. Politeness is way of keeping people apart or, to put it another way, bringing them just within hailing distance. It structures, provides a code for, encounters, and every society has its own tactics of politeness. We think of our own deliberate informality and seeming frankness as more honest than the constraining conventions depicted in Austen's novels, but in fact our ways are also rituals designed to maintain relations at a certain distance, and we adhere to them with strict conformity.
One of the benefits of reading a book like Pride and Prejudice is that it presents us with a culture different from our own so that we have to exercise our minds to interpret its codes. This is one of the justifications for the course of reading I have been proposing in this series of essays: that by meeting different minds at their most articulate (which is what good writers are), we expand our own minds and sympathies. We realize, long before the novel is done, that Austen is concerned with the same moral issues that confront us, and that the rituals of manners, fascinating in themselves, are only different expressions of the same humanity. *
"He is a man of sense who does not grieve for what he has not, but rejoices in what he has." --Epictetus
We would like to thank the following people for their generous contributions to this journal (from 11/13/2008 to 1/14/2009): Reid S. Barker, George D. Barrett, Carol & Bud Belz, Charles Benscheidt, C. W. Borklund, Jan F. Branthaver, William G. Buckner, Terry Cahill, Mark T. Cenac, Betty G. Davis, Peter R. DeMarco, Edwin J. Feulner, The Andersen Foundation, John B. Gardner, Robert C. Gerken, Gary D. Gillespie, Lee E. Goewey, Hollis J. Griffin, Alene D. Haines, Violet H. Hall, Anthony Harrigan, Bernhard Heersink, Richard L. Herreid, David Ihle, Burleigh Jacobs, Marilyn P. Jaeger, Robert R. Johnson, Michael Kaye, Margaret Kearney, John S. Kundrat, Allyn M. Lay, Alan Lee, Herbert London, Cary M. Maguire, Will K. McLain, Eugene F. Meenagh, Edwin Meese, Delbert H. Meyer, Robert P. Miller, John Nickolaus, King Odell, Michas M. Ohnstad, Harold Olson, Arthur J. Perry, Gregory J. Pulles, Richard O. Ranheim, Harry Richard Schumache, John M. Segal, Dave Smith, Carl G. Stevenson, Clifford W. Stone, Frank T. Street, Elizabeth E. Torrance, Jack E. Turner, Thomas Warth, Thomas H. Webster, James J. Whelan, Gaylord T. Willett.