Saturday, March 17, 2007

Austen-tation

In a piece a couple of weeks back, Kathryn Hughes over at the Guardian argues that Jane Austen's books are not about love, but about money. Ms. Hughes is exaggerating, I think, but only a little. It's hardly coincidence, after all, that the men Austen's heroines eventually end up with are always men of significantly greater income than the rivals they upstage. They are also, to be fair, men of superior character and moral worth, so that it isn't just money that Austen's heroines are marrying for, but her reluctance to ever put her heroine in a position where she has to choose between true worth and net worth speaks to her general disdain for what we now call romance. The thrill we feel at Elizabeth's achievement of Darcy is as much the excitement of love accomplished against all odds, as it is the thrill of a venture capitalist who sees her daring investment pay off. Darcy's proposal to her is the ultimate IPO, and vindication enough for not investing in the Mr Collins Savings Account.

Austen's stories are not so much about love as they are about revealed eligibility. Nowhere is this clearer than in Mansfield Park whose conventional, lifeless ending, coming at the conclusion of such a breathlessly dramatic work, is both a tragic failure of literary courage and a testament to Austen's dogmatism in placing logic over feeling. Austen's heroines have two key tasks: they must identify a man they can be happy with, and having made that discovery, must somehow secure him - and the former often takes a lot longer than the latter. Love is irrelevant here, or rather, it plays a role only as a wilful puppy who must be patiently trained to recognise its true advantages.

As I said in my comment to DoZ's post about the proliferation of Pride & Prejudice spin-offs, I'm always surprised by the way popular imagination seems to privilege Pride & Prejudice over all other Austen novels. Don't get me wrong, I adore Pride and Prejudice, but if I had to I'd still pick Emma over it any day, and I enjoy Sense and Sensibility as much as I do P&P.

But the thing that really bewilders me is the seemingly widespread notion the Austen's novels are about Love. Personally, I've always found the romantic bits of Austen the most plodding. What makes reading Austen a pleasure, aside from the sparkling miracle of the prose itself [1], is the acuteness of her social observation. We love Austen's characters not for the depth of their emotion, but because they are silly like us - because they are obtuse and idiosyncratic, largely well-meaning but frequently misguided. Far from being stodgy archetypes or symbols of some idea, her characters are deliciously real - the kind of people we, centuries later, can see reflectd in our neighbours and relatives, their stories played out among the delicate bric a brac of the everyday, the mundane gossip of living. This is social comedy at its finest - a body of work that turns the domestic into epiphany, makes us see the patterns of social posturing and self-deception that we all live by.

The truth is, Austen has no ability to write about love revealed or accomplished - an actual declaration almost always spells the death-knell for her books and happily ever after is never a state actively portrayed in her work. Her real interest is in the delicate negotiations by which people exist in society, the politics of interpersonal relationships. Because romantic relationships often require the most secrecy and delicacy she chooses to focus on them, but they are far from the only form of social manouvering her novels explore. What Austen is particularly good at is showing us how the most ordinary social interaction can take on the dimensions of pitched battle. Her most emotionally charged scenes are models of scrupulous politeness, her most dramatic plot developments occur in seemingly casual conversations. This is the chessgame of human relationships in all its fraught and intricate brilliance, and it is a sport made all the more compelling by the fact that we all continue to play it.

For me, the best chapter in Pride and Prejudice, perhaps the best chapter that Austen ever wrote, doesn't involve Darcy at all, or only at second hand. It's the scene between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine where the latter, suspecting her nephew's interest in Elizabeth, tries to warn her off. It's a savage, savage conversation - a verbal duel unmatched for the briskness of its thrust and parry, the intricacy of the little feints and stabs each adversary takes at the other, the clash of steel clearly audible behind the politeness of the words. Yet it has a formality that is almost musical in its flow and elegance. You could score this conversation for piano and cello and it would sound exactly the same, except that you would lose the impeccable logic of the arguments being made. It is her ability to write like this that makes Austen one of our finest novelists - not the silly excuse of a plot that Hollywood and the publishing industry seem hell bent on celebrating.

[1] I've never understood the whole notion of Austen adaptations. Without the verbal magic of her writing, without the precision and meticulous wit of her descriptions, there is, it seems to me, no Austen left worth adapting. Doing Austen in some hack script writer's words is like performing Don Giovanni with music by Elton John.

11 comments:

Revealed said...

Oh yeah! I so agree. Have you read the P&P sequels?? Like what were they thinking? They take Austen and write M&Bs with her characters. Most depressing.

Also the other telling scene in P&P is that she spends as much (if nor more) time describing Darcy's possessions and holdings (when Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle visit his house) as she does his appearance! I love that she never makes her heroines choose. If I had to live in a book it would definitely be in an Austen :)

losrojillos said...

Agree with your comments on Austen - however, some of her "romantic" scenes are actually compelling. One that comes to mind is the romance between Marianne and Willoughby in 'Sense and Sensibility' - it's another matter altogether that Willoughby proves to be utterly unsuitable and it never works out.

Falstaff said...

revealed: Yes, the comments to the Hughes article I link to actually talk about that.

What's nice about that whole section is the way it's all these different things coming together to change Elizabeth's mind - it's not just Darcy, or his house, or the desire to punish his aunt - it's all of that together.

That said, the bit I love is the testimony of Darcy's housekeeper - how can you not love a writer whose heroine gets a reference from her beau's domestic help before deciding to get together with him.

losrojillos: True. I wasn't saying Austen's 'romantic' scenes aren't compelling - just that her other scenes are more so. Also, it's not really another matter that Willoughby turns out to be a loser, is it? It's a deliberate and splendidly executed ploy - that the most sweeping, dramatic love scene is entirely fake. It's the point of the book. Which only goes to show, in my mind, that it isn't that Austen's incapable of writing 'romance' when she wants to - just that she doesn't really believe in it.

Aishwarya said...

There's a standard DU exam question about the first line of P&P in which one is expected to talk about love and money in the book.

(Emma's good, but I think I'd pick Persuasion as a favourite)

Oh, and you must read Emma Tennant's Pemberley (an attempt at a sequel) if you ever find it. One of the more surreal reading experiences I've had.

Cheshire Cat said...

Quite well-argued on the whole, but you don't credit Austen as much as she deserves for her variety. "Pride and Prejudice", which manages to be funny despite (or because of) its sententiousness and cardboard characters; the superbly achieved psychological realism of "Emma"; the solipsism and barely repressed hysteria of "Persuasion"... Chronologically, there is a definite move towards interiority. "Emma" is her most polished work, one that rewards any number of re-readings, but I agree with Aishwarya that "Persuasion" is the most interesting... And critics have found "Mansfield Park" most convenient as a catalyst for their witless speculations.

Also the juvenilia are under-appreciated. "Love and Freindship" and "The History of England" would be enough to make the reputation of a minor writer; I think of Joe Orton as a Jane Austen who never grew up.

sb said...

Nice analysis! If you haven't seen it, I would strongly recommend the BBC miniseries of P&P. The argument between Elizabeth and Lady CdB is a treat; so is the part where Lizzy confronts Wickham after his marriage.

Szerelem said...

It's all because of that BBC series I tell you.

DoZ said...

Szerelem - couldn't agree more with you. As much as I like that old series, it is the root cause of evil - we'd have never known Bridget Jones otherwise, or more importantly Colin Firth, who's made a career out of playing Darcy...

Falstaff - No wonder Austen appeals - it's not the romance, but the sheer level-headedness of her heroines, which makes Austen's novels such fun - they allow you to day dream, but fool you into thinking that by taking the right risks, you too can have Pemberly. If you can't win the likes of Pemblerly, never fear - even ending up with a Col Brandon is a pefectly workable solution.
And yes, the scene between Elizabeth & Darcy's aunt is one of my favorites too.

Falstaff said...

aishwarya: Ah, one more reason to be thankful for not studying English at DU.

cat: How do I love Austen? Let me count the ways. Agree that there's a lot more to Austen than I give her credit for here - I wasn't trying to provide a comprehensive list of reasons to love her work - that would take too long.

sb: I think I'll stick to the book, thanks.

szerelem: if you say so.

doz: True. Though it's interesting how no one ever imagines themselves as Lydia - people do end up married to the Wickham's of the world, you know.

Swathi said...

give me Sense and Sensibility to PnP anyday.
The tactful mix of Elinor's prudence over Marianne's passion and of course Willoughby is the gold-digger in question here.

Spunky Monkey said...

If Jane Austen existed in today's times, she would have a different name.
She would be called Candace Bushnell.