Mozart's and Jane Austen's are the two lives to whose premature ends I will never be able to reconcile myself. Both died at the height of their powers - in Mozart's case, it was simply the latest peak, and there would have been more to come - and their deaths robbed posterity, with a certainty, of tremendous satisfactions. When she died in 1817, Jane Austen was turning out masterpieces on what was almost an annual basis, but because she didn't find her stride until she was about as old as Mozart was when he died, her output of finished novels amounts to no more than half a dozen. There is simply no reason to doubt that she would have doubled that number had she lived another ten or twelve years, and hardly any to doubt that the further work would have been, well, great. She had only a handful of themes, but like the similarly limited Anthony Trollope she was a keen observer of the differences that make interesting people palpably unique. So, while all of her heroines subscribe to the same moral precepts, they bring very different personalities to bear on them - and it is hard to imagine Fanny Price and Emma Woodhouse becoming really intimate. Austen happened to be writing, moreover, at the moment when the potential wealth and influence of the upper middle class began to be actualized. This meant, among other things, that she could write happily-ever-after endings that didn't involve princes or peers, or even, come to think of it, baronets.
While it would be an overstatement to claim that Jane Austen invented the novel as we know it, it is very easy to see that she reformed it - the way Mozart reformed the instrumental concerto - once and for all, with an elegance that would haunt all later practitioners. By 'elegance,' I don't mean the drawing rooms, country seats, and polite assemblies that constitute the bulk of her scenery, but rather the simplicity and dispatch of her storytelling. She discovered the form of the novel as we know it, the sequence of emotional signals that sustain a reader's steady engagement in her story as a whole. Brilliant and exciting episodes, never merely decorative, always advance the action and intensify the dramatic tension. The deftly alternating reflective passages convey an overall serenity, moreover, that is quite at odds with the uncertainties and anxieties that cloud moment-to-moment developments.
The forces that power Jane Austen's stories are, first, romantic attraction, and, second, working against this attraction, well-bred discretion. The novels would all end in their tenth chapters if the principal characters knew everything that they needed to know about one another at the outset. Distinguishing them from mysteries, the missing information is not hidden by malignant design but rather protected by the rules of social engagement. The breezy familiarity with which Americans form fast friendships in days, if not minutes, has always grated on European sensibilities; and to a person brought up as Jane Austen was raised it must be hard to decide whether to regard such behavior as barbaric or barnyard. During Austen's lifetime (and for several decades before she was born), members of the upper middle class found the assurance to adapt aristocratic manners, formed at the courts of Europe, to a broader, more secular sphere in which (never the case among aristocrats) one frequently met total strangers. It is difficult for Americans today to imagine what a 'total stranger' might be; thanks to a pervasive popular culture and a homogeneity of living conditions, two Americans of the same age are likely to build a mountain of inferences from a molehill of speech patterns, and there is also an American preference for seeing similarities where others might see differences. In Austen's day, good manners were designed both to smooth over and protect the differences between strangers, especially with regard to intimate details that were thought to be nobody's business but one's own.
To read Jane Austen is to send your mind to a spa. It returns refreshed, relieved both of excesses and of the consequences of excesses, and morally reset. All of this is achieved by the exposure to her almost miraculous writing. At heart, her style is Augustan, painstakingly clear most of the time, but the note of irony, sounded frequently, is all her own. Aside from those moments when Austen gives the reader a discreet, between-the-lines look of disbelief, the writing is free of ambiguity, and the narrative is altogether devoid of slang and vogue words. That's why, despite the complete disappearance of Austen's social milieu from the face of the earth, her books remain accessible to the general reader. You may be puzzled by the everyday routines of Regency England (ladies leaving the table after dinner, the dances at a ball, and so on), but such mysteries never make the stories unintelligible, and you eventually realize that, by taking the routine entirely for granted, Austen implies that an entirely different routine would serve just as well, so long as the men and women involved behaved themselves like ladies and gentlemen - to wit, undertook at all times to make their companions comfortable. She has not set out, as so many writers of historical fiction have done, to paint the portrait of her age.
Here is a paragraph from Pride and Prejudice, chosen almost at random.
She perfectly remembered every thing that had passed in conversation between Wickham and herself, in their first meeting at Mr Philips's. Many of his expressions were still fresh in her memory. She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before. She saw the indelicacy of putting himself forward as he had done, and the inconsistency of his professions with his conduct. She remembered that he had boasted of having no fear of seeing Mr Darcy - that Mr Darcy might leave the country, but that he should stand his ground; yet he had avoided the Netherfield ball the very next week. She remembered also, that till the Netherfield family had quitted the country, he had told his story to no one but herself; but that after their removal, it had been every where discussed; that he had then had no reserves, no scruples in sinking Mr Darcy's character, though he had assured her that respect for the father, would always prevent his exposing the son.
This passage comes from the middle of the novel (Chapter 36), and the exciting moment - really the crisis of Elizabeth's development - when the heroine finds herself obliged to reconsider everything that she has hitherto thought and felt about Darcy, Wickham, Bingley, her sister Jane, her family - about everything, in short. She will soon realize that it was her initial prejudice against Darcy that lowered her resistance to Wickham's 'impropriety,' and as her respect for Darcy increases (which it begins to do at this point), so does the shame of having been led by that prejudice. The beauty of the writing here is representative of the beauty of Austen's writing in general, but especially of those moments when an erring conscience rights itself. There is nothing sentimental or moralistic about such moments; they are, rather, marked by a sudden and breathtaking glimpse of the human nature of goodness, seen not as an ideal but as an earthbound fact. (April 2003)
Having realized that I'd gone a very long time without reading any of Austen's novels, I chose Pride and Prejudice, but not for the reason that would have prompted most readers to do so. I've always had something of a prejudice against it. I had to read it in ninth or tenth grade, when it was over my head in so many ways (what on earth was an entail?), Lady Catherine de Bourgh stuck in my head as a character out of Dickens, making lots of people really unhappy. In fact, she is nothing but a monumentally silly woman, and no more menacing to Elizabeth Bennet than barking dog. And her role in the plot is closer to deus ex machina than to evil witch. But even though Elizabeth's sojourn in Hunsford is more like a season at the circus than a term of imprisonment (with the ridiculous Mr Collins as constant clown), I have never warmed to Pride and Prejudice because it is too - allow me to strike, ahem, a pose of Darcy-esque hauteur - well, popular. It's not its popularity per se that I object to. But surely Emma ought to be the most popular, and Mansfield Park the most admired. These are truths that ought to be universally acknowledged. So I read Pride and Prejudice with its immense popularity in mind.
I also paid close attention to its contours. The novel seems to me to be composed of four roughly equal movements: Longbourn, Hunsford, Derbyshire, and a return to Longbourn. If I were to assign musical markings to these movements, the sequence would be allegro con brio, allegretto scherzando, largo, and molto agitato. The novel heaves into action with an appearance of miminal exposition, introducing a large cast of characters on the fly. We have hardly gotten to know the Bennets - Mr, Mrs, and their five daughters, before the new tenant of neighboring Netherfield Hall, Mr Bingley, shows up with his sisters and his best friend, Mr Darcy, at the Meryton assembly (0r ball), and before the candles have been snuffed Mr Darcy has been roundly denounced (not to his face, of course) as an unpleasantly arrogant man. He certainly insults Elizabeth Bennet, talking about her without care that she might overhear, and dismissing her as 'tolerable.' But Elizabeth has no idea as yet that she's the heroine of the story, and her inclination is to laugh at Darcy. Everything that follows in the opening movement feeds this contempt: Darcy's stiffness at Netherfield, when she spends some days there, assisting her sister, who has fallen ill in the course of a visit; the revelations (only later deemed improper) of the dashing Mr Wickham, who arrives in Meryton with his regiment; and Darcy's distance itself at the Netherfield ball (a much grander affair that the opening assembly). As I remarked earlier, the novel could almost come to a happy end, with Jane and Bingley married, by the tenth chapter, but by the twenty-seventh (in which Elizabeth sets out for Hunsford), the Bennet family is worse off than it was at the beginning. Bingley has decamped from Netherfield, perhaps never to return, and Mr Collins, to whom Longbourn will pass upon Mr Bennet's death, has been rebuffed by Elizabeth and, instead of proposing to another of her sisters, been snapped up by Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth's best friend. This marriage costs Elizabeth that friendship in two ways, for not only is Charlotte taken out of the neighborhood when Mr Collins brings her to 'his humble abode' at Hunsford, fifty miles away, but a bar has fallen on the girls' intimacy, as they can never frankly discuss Charlotte's ridiculous husband. (Why not? Jane Austen doesn't feel the need to explain. Discuss.) Completely distracted by the proximity of a regiment, Elizabeth's youngest sisters, Kitty and Lydia, are well on the way to becoming dreadful flirts.
The Hunsford movement is brief and fast-paced. There are plenty of laughs to start, as Austen chronicles the risible pomposities of Mr Collins and his august patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourg, chatelaine of Rosings Park and aunt to Darcy. Her experiences her will teach Elizabeth to have less, rather than more, respect for grand people. Other changes in outlook will be more dramatic. Darcy himself arrives, with a cousin, no less surprised to find Elizabeth in the neighborhood than she is to see him again, and the surprise mounts to flabbergasting heights when, a few days into his visit, Darcy rushes into the parsonage parlor and asks Elizabeth to marry him, doing so in language so disdainful of her family and so unwilling to be in love that only a person wholly lacking self-esteem could think of accepting him. In the heat of her outrage, Elizabeth tells Darcy very frankly what she thinks of him, with regard both to his treatment of Wickham, as she understands it, and to his role in separating Bingley from Jane, of which he himself has just apprised her. Her tirade prompts Darcy to sit up all night writing a rebuttal, which he hands to Elizabeth in the Park the next day. This boiling-over of events is not so much a climax as it is the kind of radical repolarization that so often occurs in the middle of Shakespeare's sonnets. When the principal characters quit Hunsford, the novel takes a turn for the darker.
Hitherto, Elizabeth's greatest care has been the frustration of her sister's affection for Bingley, which she has attributed to the interference of Bingley's haughty sisters. Everything now conduces to shut her off from her family. She tells Jane that Darcy has asked her to marry him, but she keeps what she knows about Bingley to herself. She and Jane decide not to pass on Darcy's version of the Wickham story, largely because Wickam and the regiment are about to leave for Brighton. Mrs Bennet and the youngest girls want to go to Brighton, too, and although Mr Bennet won't hear of such an excursion, he gives his consent - over Elizabeth's strenuous objection - to Lydia's accepting the invitation of one of the officers' wives to come along. Meanwhile, Elizabeth has the prospect of a tour of the Lake District to buoy her spirits. But even this is cut back. In the event, her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner can take her only so far as Derbyshire, Mrs Gardiner's birthplace and the county in which Darcy's great estate, Pemberley, is situated. Little by little, Elizabeth becomes more agitated about the possibility of running into her old sparring partner; for, little by little, she has swung round to his view of things. When she sees Pemberley (as she later tells Jane), her feelings for Darcy become unreservedly warm, but when Darcy himself appears unexpectedly, she can't get away from him fast enough, so keen is her shame. Darcy manages to soften her reserve, and things are going almost as nicely as they were in Chapter 10, when news of a terrible disgrace bursts upon them. Lydia has run off with Wickham, but she hasn't married him.
Elizabeth hurries home to Longbourn and what promises to be permanent spinsterhood - for who will want to marry into the Bennet family now? The roil of events approaches the melodramatic. Mr Bennet tries to find Lydia, but comes home empty-handed, and Elizabeth is sunk in a frantic agony that condemns her to pick at the sore of Darcy's undoubted disgust and contempt. Her anguish is not much relieved when Lydia and Wickham are unearthed, brought to the altar and married, and packed off to the North, paying a quick visit to Longbourn on the way. Lydia appears to have no sense of her own degradation; everything is a source of fun. But Lydia herself is the source of some astounding news. With characteristic indiscretion, she reveals that Darcy was present at her wedding. Armed with this information, Elizabeth extracts more, and soon learns that Darcy altogether rescued the couple, paid off Wickham's considerable debts into the bargain, and in short did everything possible to remove the tarnish from the Bennet escutcheon.
Notwithstanding all this storm and stress, Pride and Prejudice contrives to end on a comic note, struck by the surprise appearance of Lady Catherine de Bourg at Longbourn. In a dramatic exchange that begs to be staged, Elizabeth at first parries but finally refuses Lady Catherine demand that she deny that she would accept Darcy's proposal were he to make one. She does not wilt under the hail of Lady Catherine's insults (which echo the disparagements made by Darcy back in the parsonage parlor), but stands ever more resolutely, and in fact puts on such a great performance that the reader will be forgiven for not much caring whether she gets Darcy in the end. Of course she does get him, and Lady Catherine is the agent; the old dragon's account of the interview that she retails to her nephew convinces Darcy that Elizabeth must love him, and he pops up to renew his suit - promising that, if her feelings are what they were in Hunsford, he will never mention it again.
Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances. The happiness which this reply produced, was such as he had probably never felt before; and he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.
Thus Austen's very cheeky resolution of her cheeky heroine's romance.
A law of good behavior that few people will ever be called upon to observe ordains that, in conversations with the Queen of England, only Her Majesty ('Ma'am') can introduce topics. This necessarily means that she begins all conversations; if she remains silent, so must you. A very similar rule governed conversations between unmarried men and women in Austen's day (and long thereafter), with men in the sovereign's role (surprise). This is why Austen's heroines have such a hard time finding out what the men they're interested in are thinking, much less planning. They're forbidden to ask searching questions - and by 'searching,' I mean any question the answer to which a woman really wants to know. Women are forbidden to speak unless spoken to. (There were also questions that a gentleman ought not to ask an unmarried woman, but lapses, unless habitual, would be forgiven.) Beneath these rules, which might strike today's American as no more natural than the conventions of Kabuki theatre, ran a general suspicion that talk is cheap, and indeed we find that while Austen's cads are all great talkers, her leading men tend toward taciturnity. In this regard Darcy is archetypical. Not only is he a man of few words, but his self-possession is held against him, presented from the start as a character defect. Darcy appears to think himself too good for the society of Meryton and Longbourn; nor is this appearance misleading. Darcy is a terrible snob, although not an uncommon one, in that he doesn't see his own snobbery at all. His disinclination to launch interesting conversations, at any rate, irritates Elizabeth no end, because even though she doesn't like him (at the outset), she likes suspended conversation even less.
It emerges that Mr Darcy has his reasons for silence. What's really at issue between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy is the propriety of Elizabeth's world, and about this he naturally feels that it would be more polite to say nothing. Both agree that there is much about it that is far from proper - although, of course, they never actually discuss the matter until the end, and they're a couple. In fact, everything about Elizabeth's family (save Elizabeth herself and her older sister, Jane) is dubious. Her mother is a vulgar fool - again, her chattiness is a sign of poor breeding - and, as the daughter of a country solicitor, Mrs Bennet hardly comes from a good family. We can infer from what we learn of it that while her brother (a businessman in London) not only received some kind of education but also chanced to marry a woman of sense who, if not gently born herself, certainly knows how to pick up cues to correct behavior, Mrs Bennet and her sister (who married their father's partner) were taught little beyond the rudiments of housekeeping. It is from Mr Bennet, clearly a member of the gentry, that his older daughters have learned their well-bred reserve. But Mr Bennet has not imposed his standards upon his wife, and while today's American may not see any harm in this, the novel takes pains to present it as a lapse of duty. Mr Bennet's complacent enjoyment of the intelligent company of Jane and Elizabeth is offset by his complacent disregard for the silliness, and worse, of his wife and three younger daughters. At the story's opening, Elizabeth, who appears not to have given the matter much thought - she is, after all, only twenty-one - shares her father's bifurcated standard: while her mother and younger sisters may be tedious and vain, they're not wicked. Darcy's obvious disdain and disapproval have the immediate effect of exciting her family loyalty. But by seeing things through what she imagines to be his eyes, she changes her mind. So do events. Her parents' negligence exposes Lydia to the menace of her folly, and if Lydia is too gross to feel the shame of her elopement with Wickham, that is a fine testimonial to their failure.
What Elizabeth and Darcy disagree about - and on this point it is Darcy who changes - is the possibility that the Bennet milieu might conceivably produce a Jane Austen heroine: a lady of both refinement and sense, of both discretion and affection. Austen does not bother to explain how Mr and Mrs Bennet produced such excellent creatures as Jane and Elizabeth, but she takes care to avoid outright improbability. Neither Jane nor Elizabeth is at all perfect. Jane is naive, determined to think the best of everyone, and so passive that Darcy is able to persuade Bingley that she doesn't really care for him (when all the women in the story know otherwise). Neither girl is particularly accomplished. Elizabeth's sarcasm and domestic detachment prevent her from exerting a beneficial influence on her mother and younger sisters. She is enthusiastic, too, as her walk through the mud to Jane's bedside shows: ladylike only up to a point, she won't let propriety interfere with being a loving sister. The Bingley sisters are not altogether wrong to dismiss her as 'wild' - which is almost as bad as being common - for the impetuousness of her walk to Netherfield bespeaks willfulness. We admire Elizabeth's spirit, but spirit, after all, is the family characteristic that in her sister Lydia amounts to a vice.
While Pride and Prejudice tells the story of the checkered romance of Elizabeth and Darcy, what it shows is the maturing of the rather rough-edged Elizabeth of the opening chapters into the mortified mistress of her impulses, all under the pressure of Darcy's disapproval. This pressure operates in three stages. In the first, Darcy is the fly in the ointment, the only sour note in what seems to be the simple allegro of Jane's and Bingley's romance. Elizabeth's dislike of Bingley's proud friend inspires her to shower him with many small rudenesses, the memory of which hits her hard during the brief second phase, which follows Darcy's first declaration of love. Darcy's revelations haunt her through the tour of Derbyshire and her renewed contact with the man himself, but outwardly her life goes along smoothly. It's when disaster of Lydia's elopement strikes that the third stage begins; as if to compensate for Lydia's insensate shamelessness, Elizabeth feels thoroughly abased. It's interesting that none of these stages casts any light whatsoever on Darcy's motivation. What they reveal to Elizabeth is not the man's character but his virtue. Step by step, she teaches herself to look at the world as he does, and as she does so, he moves from being a figure of overweening pride to one of overflowing generosity. As he is quick to point out, his generosity is interested, because he has done everything for her, but by now Elizabeth sees herself exactly as he seemed to see her at the beginning of the novel.
A word about class: If the Bennets are upper middle class, then Darcy belongs to the lower upper class. Although he is not titled himself, he is the nephew of an earl, and apparently the grandson of a peer. (The father of his mother and of Lady Catherine de Bourgh is never named.) His vast wealth clouds his status further; Austen does everything but endow him with Chatsworth, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, mentioned by name in the text and an ornament of the Derbyshire in which Darcy's fictional Pemberley is located. The uncertainty of Darcy's rank is peculiarly English; on the Continent, people of equal wealth would invariably contrive to secure a title of some kind. Officially, he is no better than the Bennets, and yet he strikes everyone as coming from a considerably exalted sphere. There are even moments when he seems too good for his boon companion, Mr Bingley, of whom we learn quite soon that the fortune that he has inherited from his father comes 'from trade.' Indeed, Mr Bingley is not even a gentleman of Mr Bennet's stature, for he owns no estate. Gentlemen like Mr Bennet, of course, derived their entire income from the produce of their estates; newly-rich men like Mr Bingley purchased country seats in order to look like gentry. Aristocrat or not, Darcy has something that Bingley and Mr Bennet lack, 'extensive patronage.' This term didn't need to be spelled out for Austen's contemporaries, but it meant that Darcy could propose clergymen for parishes and politicians for Parliament, proposal in both cases being tantamount to appointment. When she sees his estate at Pemberley, she takes the full measure of his social superiority, only in the next instant to be humiliated by Lydia's disgrace.
As V. S. Pritchett writes, in his introduction to the Collins edition of Pride and Prejudice (1952), "The story of the very clever girl from a shamefully vulgar family who wishes to marry above her is an eternal English story..." Demonstrating that a model woman can emerge from an iffy background is certainly a big part of this novel's appeal. Austen would tell the story for a second and last time in Mansfield Park, but Fanny Price, whose background is far iffier than Elizabeth Bennet's, is the most difficult of Austen's heroines - many readers can't stand her. The heroines of Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion are all perfect ladies from unexceptionable families. The Cinderella aspect of Pride and Prejudice, moreover, is almost completely occult at the beginning of the novel; having its cake and eating it, too, the novel synchronizes the gradual revelation of its heroine's abasement with the manifestation of the not-so-charming prince's love, so that there is never a moment when one really fears for Elizabeth, as one does quite regularly for Fanny. (Is there anything more horrific in all of Jane Austen than Fanny's return to Portsmouth?) On mechanical grounds alone, it's easy to see why Pride and Prejudice is such a favorite. (April 2003)
Mansfield Park is unique among Jane Austen's six completed novels in having a heroine whom many readers dislike, taking her to be a prig, all conscience and no fun. Emma Woodhouse may excite disapproval, and even resentment, but she learns her lesson in a winning way and has almost everyone on her side by the end. Fanny Price has no lessons to learn. She would have plenty to teach if she were inclined to put herself forward, but her being Jane Austen's most retiring principal gives modern readers another reason to dislike her: she's not only a prig, but a passive prig. She resists. She's a literal drag on the high spirits of the other young people at Mansfield Park. When they want to put on a play, she refuses to take part, and tries to persuade anyone who will listen that the head of the household, Sir Thomas Bertram, would certainly disapprove (as indeed he does when he surprises his family with an early return from Antigua). Worse, she is sure that the rehearsals will foster inappropriate intimacies. She's right about that, too, but there's nothing particularly attractive about her being in the right.
Later, she comes under a cloud, and is thought to be in the wrong. When she refuses the suit of Henry Crawford, whom everyone in the novel except for Fanny regards as a great catch, she brings upon herself the wrath - august and moderate, but wrath nonetheless - of her protector, Sir Thomas. He dismisses her to her childhood home for a spell, to punish what he takes to be her perversity by reminding her of the impoverished life from which he has raised her provisionally - and Henry Crawford could raise her permanently. It takes a large dose of melodrama, albeit one that's well-foreshadowed, and not as eleventh-hour as it seems, to save the day for Fanny and her true love. As Terry Teachout points out in his Introduction to the Penguin edition that I'm reading, Fanny prevails by sitting still: the world comes round to her view of things.
What probably turns off readers who dislike Fanny is something fundamental about her predicament, something that readers don't expect to encounter in Jane Austen. Mr Teachout refers to what critic D. W. Harding calls 'the impossibility of being cut off from objectionable people.' Even in the silence of the monastery one will be sure to find characters that provoke one's righteous indignation, and Fanny Price, for all the hours that she spends in the old schoolroom at Mansfield Park, leads a life that is anything but cloistered. When her brother, a rising officer in the Navy (no small thanks to Henry Crawford, who pulls strings on his behalf on his behalf as a kind of extortion), visits Mansfield and remarks that he has never seen his sister dance, Sir Thomas resolves to throw Fanny a ball. She spends the evening, of which she is for the first time in her life the cynosure, and which ought to be carefree, trying to avoid dancing with Henry Crawford.
What's wrong with Henry? Although good-natured and eager to please, he is disinclined to look beyond the immediate future, and, more crucially, lacks the moral compass strong enough to guide him away from vain and wrongful desires. Fanny, herself a moral lodestone, immediately perceives this unreliable ambivalence through the mask of Henry's manners - manners that are perfect only by the worldly standards of London. Sure enough, when Fanny turns him down in a way that even he must recognize as final, he runs off with her cousin Maria, with whom he had flirted during the theatricals even though she was engaged to someone else - someone whom she has since married. This disgrace is the dramatic turn that precipitates Fanny's happy ending. Sir Thomas has to accept that Fanny was right to refuse Crawford, and Edmund, whom Fanny has loved for hundreds of pages, correspondingly wakes up from his dreams of Crawford's sister, Mary, a worldly young woman who has openly regretted, also for hundreds of pages, his career in holy orders.
The business of love and marriage has changed so drastically since Jane Austen's day that we often hear wistful regrets for the days when no proper lady could speak of love until spoken to - when women were fruit on a tree, obliged to wait either to be plucked by a man's hand or to fall to the ground unwanted. As Sir Thomas's anger demonstrates, a woman's right to refuse a 'suitable' suitor simply because she thought she couldn't love him was largely theoretical, not likely to be indulged by society. A conservative of Johnsonian stripe, Jane Austen had her reservations about this system but rejected the prospect of deliberate change. When I say that Fanny Price is her most serious heroine, I mean that in Fanny she proposes an ideal woman, a woman who is altogether good. (This is not the same as saying that Fanny is Jane Austen's ideal.) Unlike the interestingly similar Anne Elliot of Austen's last completed novel, Persuasion - in many ways even more of a Cinderella - Fanny makes no mistakes; she would not have turned down Captain Wentworth the first time, no matter how many Lady Russells urged her to hold out for better. The result is a novel that is simply not funny. We may smile at Lady Bertram's immobility and at Aunt Norris's self-importance, but we frown at the same time. From beginning to end, Mansfield Park relentlessly obliges us to remember that women used to be required to navigate the course of love with not much of a rudder and altogether without power.
Curiously, nobody has ever complained that Anthony Trollope rewrote Mansfield Park at least a dozen times.
In Puerto Rico last week, I read Emma for the sixth time. It is more than ever a beloved book. This go-round, the horrors of Mrs Elton came even more to the fore, while Emma's cocksure marital schemes for Harriet Smith and Frank Churchill seemed less gratuitous stunts than unavoidable hurdles to her own understanding of connubial love. When I got home, I slid the Douglas McGrath's 1996 adaptation (can it really be ten years old!) onto the tray, and was instantly reminded of Monty Python's "Summarize Proust" sketch. How the movie dashed about in mad abbreviation! One performance stood forth as immortal, Juliet Stevenson's as "Mrs E," and I only wished she'd been given more lines. Lots more lines. Such as the speech in which Jane Austen makes clear that "explore" is not a verb that becomes a lady's vocabulary - a nicety that I'd missed in earlier readings. (It is a bit overwhelmed by repetitions of "barouche-landau.")
What most caught my attention in this reading was the extent of the material that follows the happy ending. Emma and Mr Knightley finally reach their romantic understanding in Chapter 49. That leaves six more chapters for tying things up, and I suppose that that's how I've read those chapters in the past. This time, I savored them. Indeed, now that the principal matter of suspense had been resolved, I was in no hurry to get anywhere. I could appreciate how well Jane Austen brings her most beautiful project to a close.
First, there is Frank Churchill's very long letter of explanation. It arrives after Emma has spent a sleepless night thrilling to love and worrying about how news of it will affect Harriet and her father. She has addressed the first problem with a preliminary letter to Harriet, but has had no time to think about "anybody else" (her father), when Mr Weston walks on with Frank's letter to Mrs Weston. The letter - one long paragraph - is quite as satisfying as any letter that I have actually received myself. For the first time, Frank speaks without feint. He is, to be sure, rather too well prepared to forgive himself, but it seems ill-natured not to pardon his high-spirited, well-intentioned follies. It is sheer pleasure to read his words about Emma, to whom he had pretended to pay suit, now that her true affections have been established.
I cannot deny that Miss Woodhouse was my ostensible object; but I am sure that you will believe the declaration, that had I not been convinced of her indifference, I would not have been induced by any selfish views to go on. [Not an assertion, happily, that was put to the test!] Amiable and delightful as Miss Woodhouse is, she never gave me the ide3a of a young woman likely to be attached; and that she was perfectly free from any tendency to being attached to me, was as much my conviction as my wish. She received my attention with an easy, friendly, good-humoured playfulness which exactly suited me.
"Playfulness"! The word is perfect, but, my, it sounds free and even a little reckless in this context. Chapter 51 encompasses Mr Knightley's unsurprising critique of Frank's apology and the beginnings of a scheme to reconcile impossible Mr Woodhouse to his daughter's marriage. Austen has so steadily delineated the valetudinarian's fear of life itself that she is free to treat his horror of change as a burlesque of more conventional parental oppositions. When Mr Knightley proposes to move to Hartfield, so as to disturb current arrangements as little as possible, Emma "pretty nearly promised, moreover, to think of it with the intention of finding it a very good scheme." That is an amusing way of putting the matter, and it is followed by something frankly funny.
It is remarkable that Emma, in the many, very many, points of view in which she was now beginning to consider Donwell Abbey, was never struck with any sense of the injury to her nephew Henry, whose rights as heir expectant had formerly been so tenaciously regarded. Think she must of the possible difference to the poor little boy; and yet she only gave herself a saucy conscious smile about it, and found amusement in detecting the real cause of that violent dislike of Mr Knightley's marrying Jane Fairfax, or anybody else, which at the time she had wholly imputed to the amiable solicitude of the sister and the aunt.
In the next chapter, Harriet is dispatched to London, to stay with Isabella and to suffer the mercies of a dentist. Then it is time for Emma's call upon Jane. What might have been a tender, somewhat sentimental scene of reconciliation between the two proud, bright beauties is rendered wickedly diverting by the presence of Mrs Elton, who has called to let Jane know that she, Mrs Elton, has salved the ire of the mother of the children whom Jane so recently contracted to care for, a contract pushed by Mrs Elton and entered into by a very desperate Jane.
Mrs Elton can do nothing without parading herself. As a literary creation, she is a fine example of the interaction between fiction and morals. Other characters complain about Mrs Elton, but not often; Jane Austen seems determined to let revulsion with the woman arise spontaneously in the reader's mind. Having read Emma, you know once and for all that self-promotion on the Eltonian scale is absolutely unbearable and almost unforgivable. I have not counted words, but Mrs Elton's final parade seems longer than its predecessors - perhaps because it ought never have gotten underway in the first place. Having delivered her message, a sensible woman would have departed, but Mrs Elton's self-regard is fanned to tempest strength by Emma's arrival. She must hammer home that she is in on a secret of which (she thinks) Emma knows nothing.
'We can finish this some other time, you know. you and I shall not want opportunities; and, in fact, you have heard all the essential already [indeed!]. I only wanted to prove to you that Mrs S admits our apology, and is not offended. You see how delightfully she writes. Oh, she is a sweet creature! You would have doted on her, had you gone. But not a word more. Let us be discreet - quite on our good behaviour. Hush! You remember those lines - I forget the poem at this moment:
For when a lady's in the case,
You know, all other things give place.
Now I say, my dear, in our case, for lady, read - mum! a word to the wise. I am in a fine flow of spirits, an't I? But I want to see your heart at ease as to Mrs S. My representation, you see, has quiet appeased her.'
And again, on Emma's merely turning her head to look at Mrs Bates's knitting, she added, in a half whisper:
'I mentioned no names, you will observe. Oh no! cautious as a minister of state. I managed it extremely well.'
What's evil about Mrs Elton's impositions is their forcing her victims to decide between mute forbearance and outright rudeness; the good people of Highbury almost always chose the former. But as I relished this passage, I speculated on what might have happened had George Eliot undertaken to further the story from this point, in a novel about Mrs Elton's successful wresting of social leadership from Emma in the coming commercial onslaught.
Mrs Weston is delivered of her daughter at the beginning of Chapter 53, an event that clears the field for generally announcing Emma's engagement to Mr Knightley. "Mr Knightley" he will remain.
'I remember once calling you "George," in one of my amiable fits, about ten years ago. I did it because I thought it would offend you; but, as you made no objection, I never did it again.'
'And cannot you call me "George" now?'
'Impossible! I never can call you anything but "Mr Knightley." I will not promise even to equal the elegant terseness of Mrs Elton, by calling you Mr K. But I will promise,' she added presently, laughing and blushing, 'I will promise to call you once by your Christian name. I do not say when, but perhaps you may guess where - in the building in which N takes M for better, for worse.'
Some other details are tied up, concerning the John Knightleys, and then it is time to tell Mr Woodhouse.
Poor man! it was at first a considerable shock to him, and he tried earnestly to dissuade her from it. She was reminded, more than once, of having always said she would never marry, and assured that it would be a great deal better for her to remain single; and told of poor Isabella, and poor Miss Taylor. But it would not do.
Austen will subject the old ninny to one final turn of the spit in the final chapter, by scaring him into embracing the marriage. A thief steals eggs from Mrs Weston's hen-house, and Mr Woodhouse immediately clutches the protection of his future son-in-law's presence at Hartfield. A fine reason for marrying off his daughter! We are reminded of her laconic judgment on the novel's second page: "... and though everywhere beloved for the friendliness of his heart and his amiable temper, his talents could not have recommended him at any time."
There are two scenes in the penultimate chapter. The first is the gentle recapitulation and resolution of the very unpleasant scene in Chapter 8 in which Emma flabbergasts Mr Knightley by insisting that Harriet was right to turn down Robert Martin. Now, Mr Knightley announces the proposal as having been renewed, and although she can scarcely believe it, Emma accepts the good news and banishes her snobbery in one blow. She does not meet with Harriet until the final chapter, and it is that time that we're told about Harriet's antecedents. As Mr Knightley suspected, they are hardly aristocratic; Harriet is the natural child of "a tradesman, rich enough to afford her the comfortable maintenance which had ever been hers." But even without this information, Emma is prepared to declare herself to have been a "fool" to think that Harriet stood a chance of marriage or of happiness with Mr Elton.
The second scene takes place at Randalls, where Emma finds Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax passing the day. As Jane takes very little part in the conversation, it would appear that the purpose of the scene is to clear the air between Frank and Emma, who do indeed cement their fond friendship in a sage but gallant exchange. One feels that Emma and Jane are fated never to have been close, whether from rivalry, misunderstanding, or the fact that if there is one of Emma's qualities that Jane does not share, it is "playfulness." Jane Austen does not, however, comment.
And so the novel comes to a brisk close - I have already related the principal developments of its final chapter. There is only the elegance of giving Mrs Elton the last line to report. It is not the "shocking want of lace" of the McGrath movie, but it ends things with a smile. Certainly the most exceptional pleasure of Emma must be the extraordinarily relaxed quality of its opening and its close. (February 2006)
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