Saturday, August 21, 2010

the Lovely Lady Jane

Some are kept a very long time from reading Jane Austen's novels (including D.W. Harding) by the professed lovers of Austen (those that live for the bonnets and balls). Only when it is realized that her books are full of sharp remarks on the very people that set the tone of current admiration, are these cautionarians able to ease into her works. On the other hand, there are those who think of themselves as fans of Austen because they "saw the movie" yet have never read her novels. I read someone who said we would call her dear, dear Jane if we were to meet her at a dinner party. "She would be everybody's dear, dear Jane." On the other end of the spectrum we have Professor Mudrick who believes she should only be admired for her literary achievements - admired but not loved. It is not only possible, it is essential we do both. There is great pleasure in reading this wise woman. She is funny and witty, she delights in the ridiculous. John Wiltshire said she had
the gift of seizing on the pompous ("she is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me"), the pretentious, the cliched, or the transparently self-interested, and turning them to enjoyable effect, as Elizabeth Bennet herself does with Darcy's careless snub.
He points out JA's talent for "precise and economical expression". That she not only "pins down absurdity", but also possesses a "continuous expressive exactness." Those that admire JA for her literary talent are adamant on focusing on her irony (This word is so overused when referring to JA!), her satire, and her use of language. The other "we love Jane!" school adore all the parts where they can imagine themselves at Pemberly, next to tall Mr Darcy, giving Lady Catherine a piece of their mind. (Never mind that they posses none of Elizabeth's qualities.) It is to JA's credit that she really has amusement for this type of person rather than disdain. Which is why she is lovable. She loves Emma not just in spite of her faults, but because of them. She laughs good naturedly at heavy Mrs Musgrove's "large, fat sighings" over a son (Richard) who never "did more than to deserve the shortening of his name (Dick)." (Watch out for even the most innocent sounding sentence!) The two schools of thought are not the only alternative. W.H. Auden stated it well.
Does Life only offer two alternatives: "You shall be happy, healthy, attractive, a good mixer, a good lover and parent, but on the condition that you are not over-curious about life. On the other hand you shall be sensitive, conscious of what is happening around you, but in that case you shall not expect to be happy, or successful in love or at home in any company. There are two worlds and you cannot belong to them both. If you belong to the second of these worlds you will be unhappy because you will always be in love with the first, while at the same time you will despise it. The first world on the other hand will not return your love because it is in its nature to love only itself.
JA's readers wonder how admiration and love can ever be reconciled, how there can ever be a harmony between sense and sensibility, between happiness and moral duty. JA comes to our rescue, rejecting the excesses of both through combining the cardinal virtues with the christian ones, demonstrating that in order to have true happiness you must do your moral duty. (Who was 'happier' in the end in MP, Fanny or Mary?) Showing that without sensibility of any kind, you aren't sensible at all and vice a versa. Showing that admiration and love must be combined for Darcy and Elizabeth, Wentworth and Anne, et al.

The modern assumption is that in JA's novels the heroine's part to play is to get a good husband. (As Mrs Bennet says, "Jane would have got Mr Bingley if she could and nobody can do more than that.") In reality JA's heroines are faced with a much more encompassing issue. That is, "How should I live my life?" All throughout her novels are words and phrases like, self-knowledge, humility, self-command, just consideration of others, principle of right, elegance, propriety, regularity, harmony, peace and tranquility, cheerfulness, good breeding, manners neither shy nor affectedly open, sensible, well-informed, amiable heart, compassion, good-humored, lively, warm, delicacy, upright integrity, knowledge of the world, correct opinion, and sensibility to what is amiable and lovely. JA shows that while practicing the Virtues, one must keep one's head. Take Elinor's comment to her half-brother (who ignored their father's deathbed entreaty to help Elinor, her sisters, and her mother). John Dashwood suggests to Elinor that Mrs Jennings (a friend) may leave them a bequest. Elinor replies, "Indeed, brother, your anxiety for our welfare and prosperity carries you too far." Her femininely gloved hand sure packs a punch. Elinor insults him in the politest possible way without once having a lapse in manners.

JA's sense of moral duty can grate on our modern ear. "What kind of value system puts obedience before love?" As James Collins puts it, "The lesson that it is sometimes right to sacrifice something we want for the sake of our conscience is not altogether misplaced." Knightly said it even better when he tells Emma, when they are discussing Frank Churchill one day, "there is one thing a man can always do: his duty, not by maneuvering and finessing but by vigour and resolution." Collins explains that "Austen means the duty of self-knowledge, humility, and generosity, not the pointlessly self-denying duty required by 'insipid propriety.'"

Round about the time that Austen was writing there was a prevalent thought that females were not rational creatures and therefore not responsible for their thoughts and actions (they simply cannot help themselves, they don't know any better, they are not rational). JA waves this all aside with a smile. The women in her novels who refuse to practice the virtues, who do not do their duty, who do not obey their consciences; women like Lucy Steele, Fanny Dashwood, Mrs Clay, Mary and Elizabeth Elliot, Caroline Bingley, Lady Catherine, Aunt Norris, Mary Crawford, and Mrs Elton are not excused in the least. They are all held to the same high standard as the men, and just 'meaning well' is not enough (case in point, Lady Russell).

There are the JA heroines that never really make any big mistakes or miscalculations (Elinor, Anne, Jane, and Fanny), and the bit more spirited ones that do (Marianne, Elizabeth, Emma, and Catherine). All in all, though, the theme as C.S.Lewis states it is
The hardness is, of course, for oneself, not for one's neighbor's. It reveals to Marianne her 'want of kindness' and shows Emma that her behavior has been 'unfeeling.' Contrasted with the world of modern fiction, Jane Austen's is at once less soft and less cruel.


Anna said...

I think the reason you have had no comment on this one is because you blew us away w/ your Jane Austen knowledge. Loved it and might leave something more substantial if I think of it.

Esther said...

You are causing my head to swell up to a rather largish size. Thanks doll.

Lydia said...

In that case, I will be sure to send Lydia down with a rather sharp pin.
We must not forget the musings of Mark Twain who stated he wanted to hit JA over the head with her own shinbones.
By your show of knowledge here, you should have been teaching the JA class that Matthew took. The insights would have been much better and most likely much needed.
Well, careful not to fall over with that over-swelled bean old fruit and if you must, call out "TIMBER" first.

Esther said...

TIMBER! Wait - false alarm. I'm ok. It appears the ol' bean is just as rattled as it has ever been. Perhaps a stiffish b.-and-s. is what I need. But onto Twain...I believe what he said was, "I have to stop EVERY TIME I begin. EVERYTIME I read 'Pride and Prejudice' I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone." Which says he can't help but be funny about it, and yet...yet he can't help but read her again and again. Apparently, he had just as much trouble picking her books up as putting them down. And as much as he balked at her heroes and heroines, he couldn't help agreeing with JA on her antagonists. (And JA was harder on her antagonists than even Mark Twain.)

grace said...

I have realized that one of the reasons that I love Jane Austen is the same reason that I love Leo Tolstoy...their knowledge of different types of characters. They really seem to have a grasp of human nature, and I cannot say that of many authors. When I read Austen, I feel as though I know someone just like this character or that one. Even though her characters are fictional, they are at the same time very real, and teach me lessons. My favorite books are the ones that entertain me while teaching me to be better.

Esther said...

Well said, old fruit.

Esther said...

Grace, you've paraphrased Sir Philip Sydney (a Christian literary theorist), who said that good books both instruct and delight.