Monday, January 28, 2013

This Day in Literary History (Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Published)

January 28, 1813—Advertisements first began to appear for Pride and Prejudice, noting only that they were written by the author of Sense and Sensibility. The only indication of the identity of the latter was that it was written “By a Lady.” Like the earlier title, this one earned positive reviews.

Although it would go on to become the most popular novel by Jane Austen (pictured)—as well as her own personal favorite-- Pride and Prejudice still only earned her £110. That would only have confirmed the author in her belief that the economic situation of women without support by a husband or brothers was precarious indeed.

It was Austen’s genius to turn that predicament into a rich comedy of manners and morals that sprang from, but triumphantly outlived, its Napoleonic Wars setting, starting with an ironic opening line that has become among the most quoted in literature: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." 

Its saucy heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, and the haughty Mr. Darcy have taken their place alongside Benedick and Beatrice of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing as verbal sparring partners who discover, to their mutual astonishment, that they are in love with each other.

I cannot think of a great work that does not spring, at some level, from the events and atmosphere of the time in which it was created, and Pride and Prejudice is no exception. Many might be reluctant to discuss anything that takes the reader outside the glittering text itself. 

But in a couple of respects, appreciation of the novel can be deepened through understanding the historical context:

1)      Marriage and money. This is the more obvious of the points, both because of feminist scholarship and the even more intensive exploration of this theme nearly a century later by Henry James and Edith Wharton. As Melanie McDonagh explained in a commentary last week in the London Evening Standard on a major difference between Austen’s time and ours: “Marriage is no longer the rationale of female life because we have other ways to earn our living, our place in the world. Because that’s so, the business of getting married loses its critical economic character and quite a lot of its dramatic and literary significance.” More than spinsterhood looms for the five Bennet girls if they don’t land husbands—they become, in effect, millstones dragging down their entire families. Well, they did have one other choice: becoming a governess. But, from Charlotte (Jane Eyre) and Anne (Agnes Grey) Bronte, we have a pretty good idea about the dangers in that, don't we?

      2) The presence of soldiers in provincial life. From the French Revolution to Waterloo, Britain’s constant state of war (or edgy peace) guaranteed that soldiers would constantly be passing through the English countryside. More than today, even, a man in uniform was magnetic, and someone fighting to defend the nation against Napoleon seemed impossibly charismatic to females barely beyond girlhood. Unfortunately, many of those soldiers were not all they seemed. They might be scapegraces no longer welcome in their aristocratic families, or those at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum with little prospect of moving up the class-dominated upper ranks of the military. Above all, the transitory nature of military life meant that soldiers' pasts could not easily be checked and that they could move on easily after having their way with local girls. With two brothers in the Royal Navy, Austen would have been under few illusions about such men, and she satirized their hold on the young and impressionable Lydia and Kitty Bennet, who were “well supplied both with news and happiness by the recent arrival of a militia regiment in the neighbourhood; it was to remain the whole winter, and Meryton was the headquarters.”

In this environment, wise parents were called for—not too moralistic, lest they be too easily dismissed by their iconoclastic children, but thoughtful and level-headed.  Neither Bennet parent measures up. Given her feverish attempts at matchmaking, it’s no surprise that Mrs. Bennett fails.

But it is that Mr. Bennet does. His constant stream of witticisms, more often than not directed at his flighty wife, rank among the best lines in the book (e.g., “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and to laugh at them in our turn?” he tells Elizabeth.) 

But for all his levity, he provides his daughters with no practical advice. The only male in the household, he is so overwhelmed by his wife and daughters that he, in effect, abdicates any interest in their outcomes. 

In his way, he is as thoughtless as his wife, since he saved no money when he was making a relatively comfortable living, believing that he would sire sons who could take up the economic burden of his daughters.

The result: Lydia, the youngest and most vulnerable, faces social ruin when she takes up with the rakish soldier George Wickham.

The Lydia-Wickham subplot goes a long way to establishing why Austen titled her initial version of the novel First Impressions. The latter title, though not as alliterative nor as binary as the eventual one used, neatly accounts for three instances of appearance vs. reality in the book:

*Mr. Bennet might be superficially amusing company, but he takes no effective interest in the welfare of his daughters;

*Wickham, good-looking, charming and mannerly on the surface, is, in fact, a seducer and snake who has left a trail of emotional destruction behind—and nearly does so again with Lydia; and

*Darcy might be stiff-necked, proud, and, as Sebastian Faulks argues, “a man suffering from chronic depression, dwelling on the past, but unable to take responsibility for his own actions.” But he proves himself upright and, before Wickham can run off, persuades him to marry Lydia.

As she wrote, nothing was lost on her, noted Alistair Cooke in a chapter on a TV version of Pride and Prejudice in a coffee-table volume Masterpieces: A Decade of Masterpiece Theatre

"Jane was an expert needlewoman; she played the piano, went to dances, flirted some of the time; but all the time she quite simply and systematically watched the fussies and follies of the people around her and intimate form of satirical novel."

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