Reading Jane Austen

16 Apr


Pride and Prejudice is celebrating two hundred years of publication. Everyone’s been talking talking about it: The Listener Book Club where they were self-declared ‘Jane Austen virgins’; The Slate Book Club where someone was reading it to his daughter, and in The Telegraph, a video clip of Chawton where Jane Austen wrote it. ‘I think if there were to be a fire, we’d all rush to save the table,’ says the curator, and the camera moves slowly towards a demure round table and a quill pen.

The quill makes me think of a blotter – according to Jane Austen’s nephew [1] she hid her writing beneath her blotting paper – only her family knew she was writing novels; she had to be prepared for all kinds of interruptions – no room of her own, but consequentially perhaps, a porous ear for every conversational nuance.

Another woman on the video reads from a letter to her sister Cassandra: ‘“Today, I want to tell you that I’ve got my own darling child from London.” Her own darling child,’ the curator intones, ‘is of course her book.’ Someone else says how simple her plots are and how relevant. ‘Look at how they’ve taken to Jane in Bollywood.’

Jane Austen is always ‘Jane’; her devotees are ‘Janeites’; you wonder how she’d feel to be ‘Jane’ to these long-range adorers, considering how important names are to her. Even the disingenuously named Frank Churchill, in Emma, one of the few men always to be called by his whole name, is offended by the way Mrs Elton addresses Jane Fairfax: ‘“Jane,” indeed!’ he says to Emma. ‘You will observe that I have not yet indulged myself in calling her by that name, even to you.’

I didn’t know this was the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice, but in January I was driving to Auckland from Hawkes Bay and listened to it in the car. I’ve won two things in my life – a block of dairy milk chocolate in standard six (for getting the Catechism questions right) and a tin of assorted classics on CD a few years ago. The CDs are good when you’re crawling behind cattle trucks on winding roads.

‘I dearly love a laugh,’ Lizzy Bennet says to Miss Bingley and Darcy in the drawing room at Netherfield. I do too. Pride and Prejudice is very funny. I thought it was funny when I first read it at school, when I discovered the obvious comics, and over the years, others have amused me as much as walking, witty Lizzy. But the more you read the other novels, the more you realise that even though fun and being ‘diverted’ is a constant seam throughout them all, there is a corollary to that sentence: ‘I hope I never ridicule what is wise or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.’

I suppose the pleasure I get from reading the novels now is cumulative. It’s hard now to think of one without remembering the others, and sensing a pattern at work, sometimes apparent, sometimes veiled, but always present. Her sentences are perfectly formed and perfectly in tune – they’re like the music of Mozart where you might be seduced by the ripple of the piano and miss (at first) the oboes wailing beneath. There is humour and delight but there is also sadness, grief and criticism, and within the exploration of emotional states, artistry: the ‘fine brush’ on ‘two inches of ivory.’

Miss Bates in Emma is one of my favourite characters. Each time I read her, I want to be her – want to read her words aloud because they are so funny, and at her dottiest, I know we are rather alike – I have an inordinate capacity for trivia.

Here she is preparing to read a letter from Jane Fairfax to Emma in Chapter XIX:

And since you are so kind as to wish to hear what she says – but, first of all, I really must, in justice to Jane, apologize for her writing so short a letter, only two pages, you see, hardly two, and in general she fills the whole paper and crosses half. My mother often wonders that I can make it out so well. She often says when the letter is first opened, ‘Well, Hetty, I think you will be well put to it to make out all that checker-work’ – don’t you madam? And then I tell her I am sure she would contrive to make it out herself, if she had nobody to do it for her, every word of it; I am sure she would pore over it till she had made out every word. And, indeed, though my mother’s eyes are still not so good as they were, she can still see amazingly well with the aid of spectacles. It is such a blessing! My mother’s are really very good indeed. Jane often says when she is here, ‘I am sure, grandmamma, you must have had very strong eyes to see as you do – so much fine work as you have done too! I only hope my eyes may last me as well.’

We never get to hear the letter, although throughout the chapter Miss Bates tells us we are about to: ‘I am going to have the pleasure of reading it to you’, ‘but we shall presently see in Jane’s letter’, ‘as you will hear presently’, “as I am going to read”, and finally, and brilliantly: ‘Well, now I have just given you a hint of what Jane has written about, we shall turn to her letter.’ But Emma has had enough and off she skips.

I think it’s possible to argue that of all Emma’s failings in the novel, her ridicule of Miss Bates at the picnic is the one we can’t laugh at. Snobbish Emma for discouraging Harriet from considering Robert Martin, blind Emma for not realising Mr Elton really fancies her or that Frank Churchill is using her as a front for his secret wooing – all these situations have elements of humour which Jane Austen exploits remorselessly, but cruel Emma for exposing Miss Bates at the picnic:

‘Oh!’ exclaimed Miss Bates… ‘I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?’ looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on everyone’s assent.

Emma could not resist.

‘Ah!’ ma’am, but there will be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be limited as to the number – only three at once.’

It is such a loaded occasion – has been much looked forward to but from the start everything goes wrong – there was ‘a languor, a want of spirits, a want of union which could not be got over.’ It’s this sense of separateness and boredom which makes Emma behave so badly.

Miss Bates is Emma’s opposite: ‘poor, sunk from the comforts she was born to; and if she live till old age, must probably sink more.’ No wonder Mr Darcy rebuked Emma. No wonder Emma ‘felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates?’


I’ve recently read an essay by Virginia Woolf about films, or The Cinema as she entitled it. It was written in 1928 when you could say film had far to go, but much of what she wrote then seems still to hold true. She writes of the disjuncture between eye and brain when we watch a film: ‘The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things without bestirring itself to think.’ She uses Anna Karenina as an example of what happens. The eye says, ‘Here is Anna Karenina.’ A voluptuous lady in black velvet wearing pearls comes between us. But the brain says, ‘That is no more Anna Karenina than it is Queen Victoria.’ For the brain knows Anna Karenina almost entirely by the inside of her mind – her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema upon her teeth, her pearls and her velvet…Eye and brain are torn ruthlessly asunder as they vainly try to work in couples.’

So when I read the title of Tim Upperton’s article (Listener Mar 2:) entitled Fortune Hunter: The soundtrack throughout Pride and Prejudice is the jingle of pounds, shillings and pence I thought of Virginia Woolf’s essay. Apart from fortune hunter, soundtrack jangled – was this going to be about the novel or the movie? The piece was accompanied by three photographs from the BBC series.

He begins with that famous opening sentence, so we know he means the novel, and swiftly declares that ‘all of Pride and Prejudice – all of Jane Austen, in fact – is contained in it.’ He builds a case for Elizabeth’s underlying motives: even though she’s funnier, cleverer, more aware than her mother, her sisters or her friend, it’s actually seeing Pemberly that makes her change her mind about Darcy, and she admits as much to Jane after she and Darcy have married[2]. He concludes by arguing that Elizabeth, and by extension, Jane Austen, believes that ‘in matrimonial affairs, there is no difference between the mercenary and the prudent motive’, and that this attitude has formed the basis of every Mills and Boons novel ever after.

His summary is perfectly compatible with what happens to our judgment when a novel becomes a film. Indeed, he blames Colin Firth for not allowing us to see what a ‘complete arse’ Darcy really is. Perhaps when he was writing, he glanced at the film again and his ‘eye and brain were torn ruthlessly asunder as they vainly tried to work in couples.’ There was Colin, brooding, wet and irresistible in the water. Was this really the same man who said there was no one in the room tolerable enough for him to dance with?

These days we can’t read Pride and Prejudice without having the film in our heads. But, films and television series are finished within a few hours, and off we go to have a latte. We can’t do with them what Elizabeth does with a letter (and by extension a book): ‘When she had gone through the whole letter, though scarcely knowing anything of the last page or two, she put it hastily away, protesting that she would not regard it, that she would never look at it again…But it would not do. In half a minute the letter was unfolded again.’ Elizabeth walks in the grove for two hours ‘reading and rereading’ (my italics), and how her responses change. At first she reads ‘with a strong prejudice’, ‘an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension’, but then ‘she began the mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham and commanded herself to examine the meaning of every sentence.’ She ‘reads and rereads with the closest attention’ and becomes ‘absolutely ashamed of herself’ until finally acknowledging that she had been ‘blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.’ ‘Til this moment I never knew myself,’ she declares. The tenor of Darcy’s letter might not reflect well on him, but its sentiments act upon Elizabeth’s heart and mind – they cannot be denied.

I suggest that both her and Emma’s moments of self-awareness are as profound as Hamlet’s, ‘There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow…the readiness is all’, or Macbeth’s, ‘I am in blood / stepp’d in so far that, should I wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er.’

In fact, Virginia Woolf links Jane Austen and Shakespeare in A Room of One’s Own: she writes that ‘the minds of both had consumed all impedients; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare. If Jane Austen suffered in any way from her circumstances it was in the narrowness of life that was imposed upon her…it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not. Her gift and her circumstances matched each other completely…’

I wonder if Jane Austen was as serene as Virginia Woolf would have us believe, or that Tim Upperton’s suggestion that her attitude to marriage beats to the jingle of pounds, shillings and pence. Yes, Elizabeth marries Darcy and yes, she is charmed by Pemberley. But Darcy’s letter changes her; reading and reflection deepen her – she becomes less judgmental, more insightful. She is rewarded, but not just because she is lively, but because she has arrived at a moral and emotional maturity, crossed a moral river unaided – she was certainly not helped by her feckless parents, but that’s another story.

Darcy too has altered. For someone as disdainful of the Bennets as he undoubtedly was at first, he spares no effort in tracking down Lydia and Wickham, pays off the latter’s debts, buys him a commission and forces them to marry. And this achieved so discreetly that Elizabeth’s uncle must pretend to have effected the couple’s social restoration. If this is accomplished as a prelude to another proposal to Elizabeth, it is hardly from a mercenary motive: ‘Her heart did whisper that he did it for her.’ Tim Upperton wishes we see more of Wickham, but no matter how beguiling he appears, Wickham is, to borrow Tim’s own phrase, ‘a complete arse.’ He lies about his past, almost seduces Darcy’s sister, actually seduces Lydia – ‘Tell Sally [the maid] to mend a great slit in my muslin gown’ – and must be frog-marched into marriage which was never his intention.

The jingle of coinage is undoubtedly heard, but consider life if you were a poor eighteenth century woman. Miss Bates is in Emma not just to make us laugh. Jane Fairfax’s future is decidedly uncertain. Mrs Smith in Persuasion is an impoverished sick widow who can’t walk, never goes out and is reduced to making pin cushions for those poorer than herself. In Sense and Sensibility Mrs Dashwood is thrown out of her house because of a legal entailment – no wonder Mrs Bennet is worried about her daughters’ futures, Mr Bennet being too inert to leave his library to find a way of augmenting his income. Similarly, the wages of sin are high. Once Mr Collins hears about Lydia, he writes to Mr Austen advising him to cast her off forever – the man’s too comical to be a complete arse, but his views were commonplace. In Mansfield Park, Maria Bertram is banished by her family to ‘another country’ for living with Henry Crawford, and let’s not forget Mrs Clay, another impoverished solitary woman in Persuasion who will probably be cast off once William Elliot tires of her.

Happy marriage is rare in Austenland. The Bennets, the Bertrams, the younger Dashowoods, the older Knightleys all have shrivelled relationships. It is possible, however, as we see with the Crofts in Persuasion and the Gardiners in Pride and Prejudice  whose marriages are based on esteem or respect – two of Jane Austen’s favourite words. Elizabeth’s father, speaking from experience says to her, ‘I know you could never be happy or respectable unless you truly esteemed your husband…let me not have the grief of seeing you not able to respect your partner in life.’

If you consider Jane Austen’s own aim for her writing: ‘two or three families in a country village – the very thing to work from,’ it is social cohesion that interests her as much as financially bolstered love. Her genius lies in the way she continues to show us who we are as we negotiate our fragile and comical lives. Virginia Woolf says, ‘Jane Austen is a mistress of a much deeper emotion than appears on the surface…a trifle which expands in the reader’s mind. She stimulates us to supply what is not there…Think away the trifle, the surface animation, the likeness to life, and there remains an exquisite discrimination of human values.’

This is the joy and satisfaction of reading Jane Austen. The novels have the quality of ‘two inches of ivory’; they repay ‘earnest perusal’, their trifles expand in our minds in a way no Mills and Boon story or a film of a novel can ever achieve. Pride and Prejudice was originally entitled First Impressions. Tim Upperton’s response to Pride and Prejudice may in fact be compared with Darcy’s first impression of Elizabeth: ‘tolerable.’  But Darcy observes and considers: he perceives her uncommon intelligence and revises his ‘insufficient pretensions.’

[1] James Austen-Leigh

[2] In fact, she also considers how much she could have loved him the day she hears news of Lydia’s elopement when he comes unexpectedly visit her at the inn: ‘Never had she felt that she could have loved him as now, when all love should be in vain.’ Chapter XLVI.


7 Responses to “Reading Jane Austen”

  1. Tim April 28, 2013 at 8:34 am #

    Catharina, I’ve just discovered your blog, and I really enjoyed this post. In my defence, I didn’t choose the headline for my Listener article, or the illustrations. But really, I agree with you. The dramatization of motive in Austen is more complex and nuanced than I allow in the article (and more, obviously, than the TV mini-series could possibly convey). I do think Fifty Shades and Mills & Boon depend on the Austen plot model, but one can’t be held responsible for the sins of one’s degenerate offspring. You note the repeated terms, ‘esteem’ and ‘respect’ – to which I’d add, ‘civility’ – a word that has a peculiar force in Pride and Prejudice. There’s a delicate play of intelligence in Austen’s novels that is hard to capture in a short review article – I’d have appreciated space for lengthy quotation.

    • sightbyte April 28, 2013 at 9:54 am #

      Hi Tim,
      Thank you so much for such a generous and thoughtful response. Yes to civility indeed, although this time round, I was struck by Lizzy’s fearlessness when addressing Darcy You’ve made me do a great deal of rereading and thinking about Jane Austen again – which I loved, so thank you! Of course you didn’t choose either the title or the images, and word limits are constraining. That’s the beauty of the (self-indulgent) blog. Hope all is well with you

  2. Tim April 28, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

    Yes. It doesn’t seem long ago that we were both teaching that travel-writing course, but I guess it’s a few years now. I should add that the Listener asked for an adverse review of P&P – to stir things up, I guess – and I’m more an admirer of Austen than it may appear!

  3. lovelifeloavesandfishes September 10, 2013 at 2:17 am #

    Thank you for a beautifully written blog! I will enjoy following you in the future, having spotted you as an Artzone contributor.

    As someone who has loved reading Austen, I had the rather unique experience (during 10 years of living in Germany) of viewing Colin Firth et al in the Beeb’s Pride and Prejudice in English, German, Flemish, French and goodness knows what else in assorted motel rooms across Europe. Jane’s choice of words still stands in a class of its own. Even if they chop and edit for the TV screen, who could fail to howl with pleasure at the greasy Mr Collins assuring Lizzie of the violence of his affections?!

    • sightbyte August 20, 2014 at 2:03 am #

      Hello, Hello,
      Please excuse this extremely tardy response and thank you so much for your kind words. I got rather disheartened for a bit last year and decided to put the blog on hold blog on hold, and it was only that some Spanish real estate site wrote something for me to delete today that I came back and found your lovely message. I continue to be a Jane Austen obsessive – have just written another essay about why one should read her (!) and there’s a bubble of another idea percolating. In the meantime more work for Artzone which is always interesting.

      Best wishes, Catharina

      • lovelifeloavesandfishes September 3, 2014 at 11:26 pm #

        Never mind the apology – though it was kind of you to! Goodness knows when I last blogged – life and our business caught up with me too 🙂 Returning to blogdom with new enthusiasm myself, and will keep an eye out for you….

  4. sightbyte September 10, 2013 at 2:42 am #

    Thank you so much for your kind words. Sometimes I feel as if I’m on a JA mission – astonishingly, not all my friends like her a much as I do! I look forward to reading your blog. Best wishes,

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Steph Matuku

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