Sunday, September 1, 2013

Jane Austen, Subversive

Jane Austen certainly doesn’t look like a political Radical to me. Her novels center on characters from the landed gentry, and the final happiness of the books’ heroines always includes an income derived from the labor of others. But she doesn’t just accept the social structure and morality of her times, either. Her subversive streak, in fact, shows through in several places in Pride and Prejudice.

Austen’s criticism of her world can sound quite gentle at times, as when she pokes fun at her characters’ narrow field of interest. When Charlotte Lucas suggests that the four evenings of social interaction shared by Elizabeth’s sister and a visiting man may well have started a real romance, Elizabeth replies, “Yes; these four evenings have enabled them to ascertain that they both like Vingt-un better than Commerce.” In other words, agreeing on the game that will accompany typically insipid conversation hardly assures a lifetime of wedded bliss.

Elizabeth is, of course, a reader. Austen’s lead characters usually are readers, and their friends usually don’t understand it, and Mr. Right usually reveals himself to the reader by being the one person (other than, perhaps, the heroine’s father) who appreciates the mind of the central female character. In one scene, Mr. Bingley outlines the standard view of an “accomplished” woman:
A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half-deserved.
But then Mr. Darcy, as early as the 11% mark (thank you, Kindle!), seals his fate as hero of the novel and complements both Elizabeth and all his female readers by responding, “And to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” To declare education an essential point of an accomplished woman does a lot more to overturn early nineteenth-century convention than an observation on games. But I don’t suppose it caused too much of a scandal at the time: certainly all the contemporary women who read the passage agreed that contemporary women should have education sufficient for reading.

Even more bold is Austen’s declaration of the fallibility of the aristocracy. Lady Catherine de Bourgh struts through the pages expecting everyone to show her the deference due to her noble nature. But even her own nephew sees her flaws. Lady Catherine, knowing that la noblesse oblige, invites Elizabeth to come every day and play the piano, but only in a back room where she will “be in nobody’s way.” The author tells us that Mr. Darcy looked “ashamed of his aunt’s ill-breeding.” Ill-breeding? Doesn’t the aristocracy define themselves precisely as people of pure breeding?

Austen hints at undermining a point of morality in Elizabeth’s reaction to her sister Lydia’s upcoming marriage. Lydia, enamored of every man in a military uniform, finally runs off with one, to the dismay of everyone else in her family, including Elizabeth. We don’t know what outcome Elizabeth would prefer, but when the unscrupulous officer agrees to marriage two months later, she comments on the irony that she perceives:
“And they are really to be married!” cried Elizabeth, as soon as they were by themselves. “How strange this is! And for this we are to be thankful. That they should marry, small as is their chance of happiness, and wretched as is his character, we are forced to rejoice. Oh, Lydia!”
In some of my favorite moments, Austen turns on her own kind to overturn literary assumptions. When Mrs. Bennett tells a story of a man who dropped his suit for Jane after writing her some verses, Elizabeth explains, “And so ended his affection. . . . I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!” So much for that romantic cliché. Austen even reveals twice that she may be damaging her own book by not following the usual course of a novel’s stream. When Elizabeth starts to feel love for Darcy after a long bout with prejudice, the narrator admits that love at first sight is a more interesting “mode of attachment.” Okay, obviously Austen says it tongue-in-cheek, knowing full well – and knowing that we know that she knows – that Elizabeth’s drawn out story is much more interesting. Elizabeth herself gets a chance to criticize her creator in a conversation with Mr. Darcy near the end of the book. The two have finally found the freedom to profess love for one another, but only because Elizabeth has brought up a subject she had said she wouldn’t speak about. And “what becomes of the moral,” Elizabeth asks, “if our comfort springs from a breach of promise?” What! A mere lifetime of happiness between two people of education and good character bound by love based on kindness, gratitude, and esteem comes at the expense of a breach of minor etiquette? Jane Austen, you’re really playing with fire now!

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