I like to bake bread, but there is something about baking bread that I do not understand. I can assemble all the ingredients—the yeast, the flour, the salt, the sugar, the water—and I know how to mix them, how to knead them, how to let the dough rise, and how to bake it. But I do not feel that I totally understand how those ingredients and those processes combine to make bread. Somehow all those separate ingredients, each of which I can hold in my hand, combine to create something totally different and more delicious than each of them can be individually. I find the same “mystery”—if I can call it that—in literature. I think that I understand words and sentences, characters and plots, but I am not sure that I understand how an author combines those elements to create a world that I can visit and that comes to have a special reality for me. I have never actually lived in a world like the one that Jane Austen describes, and I am pretty certain that I would not particularly want to live there, but when I read her novels, I like visiting that world, and I enjoy being in the company of her characters, or at least of some of them. But I do not understand how Jane Austen, or any other great writer, actually achieves that effect.
I am also fascinated, as I said in the introduction to this book, at the feeling we have that we really “get into” a novel, especially the first time we read it. We read as quickly as we can, all the while knowing that the faster we read, the sooner we will have to leave the world of that novel. Our feeling that we have “gotten into” the novel is, of course, an illusion. The truth is that the novel “gets into” us, that the words on the page enter our consciousness, where they are transformed just as the ingredients of my bread are transformed. An author creates a novel, but that novel only comes alive through its interaction with a reader’s mind. And here we encounter another interesting problem, this time from physics. If I understand this point correctly it is very difficult to make empirical studies of electrons, because to do so we would have to bounce light off of the electrons, and the force of the light would alter what the electron is doing. In other words, in attempting to study the electron, the attempt itself alters the subject of study. The same phenomenon, though in different ways, applies to literature. There can be no such thing as an objective view of a work of literature, because the work must be affected by the mind that is perceiving it. The interactions among the author’s mind, the reader’s mind, and the work itself are complex, but they can be analyzed fruitfully. Nevertheless, I am still awed by whatever force there is that transforms the words written on a page into a world that we can imagine, that we can see, that we can feel ourselves be a part of.
Jane Austen created such worlds—or such a world, if we think of her six major novels as all part of a continuum. We will never know how genius develops in certain people. We will never know how Shakespeare became Shakespeare or how Jane Austen became Jane Austen. She was an unmarried, middle-class lady who lived with her family, as unmarried, middle-class ladies used to do. She was well read, but so were many people, and she wrote six wonderful novels that give us insight into how a particular class of people lived at a particular time and help to deepen our understanding of what it means to be a human being.
And it is significant that the Jane Austen who accomplished these things was a woman. Austen was hardly the first important female writer. There was the Greek poet Sappho, there was the Japanese writer Murasaki Shikibu, there were Marie of France, Christine of Pizan, Margaret of Navarre, Mary Sidney, Mary Wroth, and many others whose works in recent years are becoming better known. But when we compare these names to the names of male writers, we can see that the pre-nineteenth-century female writers are far fewer and generally less well known. In many times and places, of course, women were either not encouraged to get an education or were actually forbidden to be educated, which meant that there were likely to be fewer female writers. Furthermore, when women did write, it was more difficult for them to be published, since, in the days before literacy became common, male-dominated publishers were reluctant to publish the works of women for their male-dominated readership. And when women’s works did find a publisher, they were often overlooked because, after all, they were only by women, the theory being that women’s writing would only appeal to other women, while men’s works have a universal appeal and applicability. The whole scheme sounds so silly when we say it, but this system prevailed for centuries and in some ways still prevails. I often ask my students how many of them have read Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and most of them raise their hands, because Huckleberry Finn is frequently taught in high schools. When I ask how many of them have read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, however, the only hands that go up are those of the women, because Little Women is not part of most curricula. (Recently, I must add, some of the men have been assigned the book in their college classes.) The lesson seems to be that in nineteenth-century American novels about adolescence, the adventures of Huck Finn apply to everyone, but the experiences of Meg, Jo, and their sisters apply only to other “little women.”
Jane Austen lived in an age that showed this same attitude but in an even more pronounced form, as we can see from the experiences of two eighteenth-century novelists. One of these novelists was Fanny Burney, whose novel Evelina was published in 1778 to much critical acclaim. Although there were other eighteenth-century British female novelists, Burney is undoubtedly the best known for her serious work. Far more widely read in her time, however, was another eighteenth-century British female novelist, Anne Radcliffe (who is often known as Mrs. Radcliffe, though we would never call a writer “Mr. Fielding” or “Mr. Shakespeare”). Mrs. Radcliffe wrote a number of Gothic novels (or Gothic romances) such as The Romance of the Forest and The Mysteries of Udolpho. These works are still fun to read, and they were very influential in their time; but one of the reasons that Mrs. Radcliffe was able to publish so many of them is that they were regarded as “women’s works,” much the way that soap operas, at least in their early days, were regarded as programs for women. It is hardly a surprise that Jane Austen relied on the popularity of such Gothic novels in Northanger Abbey.
Anne Radcliffe could publish her novels by ostensibly directing them to a female audience, though they were actually popular with men as well. Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre listed Ellis Bell and Currer Bell respectively as their authors on their original title pages. As we will see, Mary Ann Evans published her novels under the name George Eliot. This situation must strike us as extraordinary. Under such circumstances, the success and popularity of Austen’s novels—Sense and Sensibility cites as its author “A Lady,” while Pride and Prejudice cites as its author “the Author of ‘Sense and Sensibility’”—indicate that the reading public could perhaps find something valuable in the work of a female writer.
Of course, we know that Austen’s works were written by a woman, and so we might be inclined to see those works as dealing with “women’s concerns.” Many male writers, however, have dealt with women’s roles in society. We need only think of Samuel Richardson and his influence on the development of the English novel. But Austen has special insight into these matters, not only because she was a woman but because she was a genius. She was capable of looking at the complex societal structure in which she lived, with its rigid rules of behavior and expectations, and seeing beneath the surface appearances to the realities that supported the whole structure. Furthermore, she could convey what she saw with wit and in the most delicate language. I must confess that sometimes when I read Austen, I lose the sense of what I am reading and get caught up in the sound of her sentences, in the balances she creates and in her careful use of rhetorical tropes. Almost every one of her sentences could serve as an example, but here is a particularly nice one from Sense and Sensibility: “With regard to herself, it was now a matter of unconcern whether she went to town or not, and when she saw her mother so thoroughly pleased with the plan, and her sister exhilarated by it in look, voice, and manner, restored to all her usual animation, and elevated to more than her usual gaiety, she could not allow herself to distrust the consequences” (II.4). The way the sentence focuses on Elinor, with subordinate clauses devoted to Mrs. Dashwood and to Marianne, is wonderful. Austen is a marvelous writer. I once bought a bumper sticker for a friend that read, “I’d rather be reading Jane Austen.” A good deal of the time, that is an appropriate sentiment.
I have chosen in this chapter to look at two of Austen’s novels, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. These were the first works that she published, though not the first she wrote, and there is evidence that, between writing and rewriting both works, their composition overlapped. Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1811 and Pride and Prejudice in 1813. Her later works, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion, investigate in more depth some of the issues that she raised in her earlier novels, and it is interesting to wonder where she might have gone had she not died at the age of forty-one. Austen wrote during the period we think of as the Romantic Age (she died just four years before Keats), but her novels, although they betray the influence of Romanticism, seem more closely tied to the eighteenth century. She was not a revolutionary writer, nor did she “pour out her soul” on paper. Her novels lack the overt passions of the Brontes’ novels, for instance. Instead, she took the novel form as it had come down to her and made it her own. She puts her characters, especially her female characters, in situations that are interesting and challenging but not extraordinary, and then she carefully watches them react. She has no Heathcliffs or Mr. Rochesters to terrorize or fascinate her characters. She has ordinary human beings, who must learn to negotiate the world, though the heroine of Northanger Abbey does imagine that she lives in a Gothic novel.
Austen’s novels are not difficult to read. Her language is beautifully used, though not complex. Occasionally she writes something that may strike us as ungrammatical, but generally she is simply following the usage of her time. An important exception in Sense and Sensibility is the case of Lucy Steele, whose letters contain enough errors to confirm our suspicions about her vulgarity. It may seem unfair to base such a judgment on grammatical errors, but this phenomenon brings us to an important aspect of the novels. The most difficult thing about reading them is becoming accustomed to their heavy emphasis on the forms of proper behavior, of which correct grammar is only one small example. We must realize that while the contemporary United States has a class system, that system fades to invisibility in comparison to the class system in Austen’s England. In her novels, everyone belongs to a clearly defined class, and even within the classes there are clear distinctions of level. We may use terms like “upper-” or “lower-middle-class” and then argue about what they mean, but in Austen’s England, such terms were clearly understood. Furthermore, those terms created expectations about behavior. We may bemoan the disappearance of manners in our society, but in Austen’s society a code of manners dictated what could and could not be said. Occasionally in these novels the reader may be inclined to think, “If these characters could only talk to each other honestly and openly, the difficulty could be solved.” But if we could say such things to these characters, they would not understand what we mean. There was proper behavior and improper behavior, and though there may be some instances of ambiguity, generally the lines between them were clearly drawn.
We must also remember that Austen is describing almost entirely a largely middle-class world. The families that she describes may not always be wealthy, but they always have servants—and we must not think of servants as slaves. They were paid employees from the lower classes. What is a bit remarkable is how seldom we see these servants in the novels. There are occasional references to cooks and maids and butlers and people who take care of the horses and carriages, but such people do not play a role in the stories. They keep the households running and their lives are not Austen’s concern. Her focus is on the men and especially the women of a class that has rigidly defined roles and rules, whose men may once have been in trade but are now freed of that burden, though they may occasionally join the clergy, and whose women are never expected to be employed, though they must have such accomplishments as music and drawing. Occasionally we may feel that if these people had something more productive to do to fill their days, they would not have so many problems, but our own experiences can tell us how foolish that sentiment is.
Given what seems the financial independence of her characters, they spend a great deal of their time thinking about financial considerations. When we first meet characters, we are often told of their financial condition—“Mrs. Jennings was a widow, with an ample jointure” (S&S i.8)—and characters talk about each other in the same way:
“Who is Colonel Brandon? Is he a man of fortune?”
“Yes; he has very good property in Dorsetshire.”
“I am glad of it. He seems a most gentlemanlike man; and I think, Elinor, I may congratulate you on the prospect of a very respectable establishmentin life.”
“Me, brother! What do you mean?”
“He likes you. I observed him narrowly, and am convinced of it. What is the amount of his fortune?”
“I believe about two thousand a-year.”
“Two thousand a-year;” and then working himself up to a pitch of enthusiastic generosity, he added, “Elinor, I wish, with all my heart, it were twice as much, for your sake.”
This emphasis on fiscal health strikes us as crass, and Austen frequently satirizes her characters’ obsessions with each other’s “worth,” but in this society, the actual earning of money was looked down on. A family whose level of wealth put them lower on the scale could not hope to increase their wealth through hard work because such work, if it were available and they were capable of doing it, would make them ineligible for the society that they desired to remain part of. Consequently, what seems like financial independence often verges on being an illusion. Most of Austen’s families exist on relatively small incomes and it is no wonder that they frequently are obsessed by financial considerations. One of the major ways for such families to increase their wealth was to be sure that their children married wealth. That is why John Dashwood, thinking that Colonel Brandon wants to marry Elinor, congratulates her not for the possibilities of love or companionship or because Colonel Brandon is a fine man but because he has about two thousand a year. If she marries such a man, or, more precisely, such an amount of money, she, who has no other way of making money or ensuring her fiscal stability for the future, will be settled for the rest of her life. Of course, John Dashwood is also relieved, because if she marries Colonel Brandon, John Dashwood will not have any responsibility for helping to support her (not that he has taken that responsibility at all seriously up to this point).
An extended quotation from later in the same chapter provides an even better sense of how this society operates, and again the speaker is John Dashwood:
“I shall have a charming account to carry to Fanny,” said he, as he walked back with his sister. “Lady Middleton is really a most elegant woman! Such a woman as I am sure Fanny will be glad to know. And Mrs. Jennings too, an exceeding well-behaved woman, though not so elegant as her daughter. Your sister need not have any scruple even of visiting her, which, to say the Truth, has been a little the case, and very naturally; for we only knew that Mrs. Jennings was the widow of a man who had got all his money in a low way; and Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars were both strongly prepossessed that neither she nor her daughters were such kind of women as Fanny would like to associate with. But now I can carry her a most satisfactory account of both.”
Mr. Dashwood, of course, is not only a snob but a very shallow person (actually quite a common combination). Many of Austen’s characters are shallow and therefore willing to accept society’s judgments and conventions, as Mr. Dashwood does here. He is bound to like Lady Middleton just because she is “Lady” Middleton, and he is also willing to approve of Mrs. Jennings, even though her money was earned in “a low way,” that is, through her husband’s trade. Since she is “well-behaved,” however, she is good enough for his wife to associate with.
If Mr. Dashwood were alone in seeing the world in this way, he might be a caricature, but his attitude is all too typical, and while Elinor is often too polite to mention all of her judgments of such people, Austen’s narrator is not: “Lady Middleton was equally pleased with Mrs. Dashwood. There was a kind of cold hearted selfishness on both sides, which mutually attracted them; and they sympathized with each other in an insipid propriety of demeanour, and a general want of understanding” (II.12). When we read this statement after having met both Lady Middleton and Mrs. Dashwood, we know that it is completely accurate. These two ladies, along with so many other characters in the book, have mastered all the forms of what passes for courtesy but are totally devoid of substance. Just as Mr. Dashwood can speak of nothing but money and hunting, so these ladies are restricted to the most superficial of topics. Nevertheless, they consider themselves, and are considered by others, to be arbiters of taste and behavior, while those who have real taste and discernment, like Elinor, are regarded as being far lower on the social scale.
Elinor is young, and she makes mistakes, but she is intelligent. Readers must be aware from the very beginning of the book of the difficult situation in which Elinor is placed. Her father has died and her only male relative is her half-brother John Dashwood. The consequence is that Elinor, her two sisters, and their mother must cope on a small income with no prospect of increasing that income except through advantageous marriages. The beginning of the novel is a bit confusing—even early readers found it confusing—because Austen has to establish the family relationships, but once they are established, we can see the difficulties of the situation that confronts these women. The options for women of their class are severely limited, and they do not merely bow to convention by acquiescing. They truly have no choice. Elinor may be more intelligent than virtually anyone else in the novel, but as a woman without substantial money, she is trapped, as she herself understands. She may rebel against her situation privately, but there is nothing she can do to change it.
In many ways, Elinor’s mother has a clearer understanding of what is going on. We may laugh at Mrs. Dashwood, as we laugh at Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. They are both often comical characters. But, from their limited viewpoints, they also have legitimate concerns. Yes, it is funny that they are both so anxious to see their daughters married, that they measure the suitability of potential husbands on a monetary scale, that Mrs. Bennet especially cares so little about affection or compatibility. They are nags; they are frequently insensitive. But from another perspective, they are absolutely correct. They are concerned for their daughters’ well-being. If the girls do not marry well, those girls will be in a terrible predicament, and from the mothers’ point of view, even a bad marriage (like that of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet) is far better than no marriage at all. In a society that judges people, families, and relationships on the basis of money, these right-thinking mothers are doing the best they can for their apparently ungrateful daughters. When we laugh at them, then, we should also keep in mind the serious issues they have to confront and the kind of society that has made them into the kind of women they are.
Still, from Elinor’s point of view, the behavior of her family is often intolerable. She believes in some kind of decorum: there are proper and improper ways of thinking and behaving. The rest of her family shares that conviction, but they have different standards of what is proper and improper. This conflict brings us to a consideration of the novel’s title, Sense and Sensibility. In the eighteenth century, “sensibility” had a very clear meaning, involving what we might call sympathy for anyone who was experiencing misfortune. Such sympathy might be shown for the realistic, if expected, misfortunes of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or for the very far-fetched and highly melodramatic misfortunes of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Elena in The Italian. In fact, melodrama really lends itself to eighteenth-century sensibility. Elena spends a great deal of her time crying and fainting, and readers were expected to share her emotions. Austen was aware of this approach to sensibility, but she uses the word somewhat differently. It would be too simplistic to say that Elinor represents sense and Marianne represents sensibility, but through much of the novel those are their dominant character traits, and they each have to learn to adopt some of the other characteristic.
It is difficult to discuss this point without revealing too much of the plot, but I will try. Early in the novel, Marianne evaluates Elinor’s prospective suitor Edward in revealing terms. He has been reading aloud to the family (a favorite pastime in pre-radio and pre-television days) and Marianne comments, “Elinor has not my feelings, and therefore she may overlook it, and be happy with him. But it would have broke my heart had I loved him, to hear him read with so little sensibility” (I.3). One way of defining Marianne’s notion of sensibility is as “feelings,” or more precisely, as “feelings openly expressed.” Marianne, in the fullness of her sixteen years, has strong feelings about everything and practically no hesitation about making those feelings known. Her complaint about Edward, even about Elinor, whom she loves deeply, is that they do not show sufficient feeling for things. Edward read poetry, but without the emotion that Marianne thinks it deserves, which makes him, in her eyes, devoid of sensibility. The narrator explains the differences between the sisters in the first chapter:
Elinor…possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother…her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.
Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever; but eager in every thing; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was every thing but prudent.
Elinor does indeed have strong feelings, but she keeps them under such strict control that we know about them only because the narrator can enter her mind. Occasionally she would be much better off, and readers would be much less frustrated, if she expressed her feelings. If she could be totally honest with Edward or with Lucy or with Mr. Dashwood, we would feel happier, though she would certainly not (and here we have an important distinction between her early nineteenth-century views and our early twenty-first-century views). Even Marianne, when she realizes how much Elinor has suffered silently for her sake, is both grateful and ashamed, grateful because she would not have survived without Elinor’s aid and ashamed because Elinor’s silence kept Marianne from seeing how deeply Elinor was affected by events.
Marianne, on the other hand, although she shares Elinor’s kind and generous nature, would be better off if she learned to control her feelings just a bit. Her romantic ideas and her insistence on acting on impulse create problems for her and for her family. Fortunately I am not giving away much of the story when I say that Marianne and Elinor do learn this lesson. They do not become interchangeable, and they do not lose their individual characteristics, but they do grow up; and we see that “sense and sensibility” does not mean that the sisters are divided between these two qualities but that they must each learn to incorporate both qualities into their personalities.
I also am not giving away too much of the story when I say that the novel ends with marriages. Like Shakespeare’s comedies, though often with a clearer rationale, Austen’s novels often end in marriage. The trick is to decide who will marry whom. In Shakespeare, those weddings signal a wholeness. Problems are resolved and couples can be paired off with some assurance that they will live happily ever after. The case is a bit different in Austen. There are wholeness and resolution in her novels, but because of their greater sense of verisimilitude (what we might call representational realism), we have a stronger feeling that the current triumph over problems is temporary. At the end of As You Like It, everyone heads back to their proper places and we have a sense that there will be no more usurpations for a long time. At the end of Sense and Sensibility, though the proper characters are married and happy, we know that the society as a whole will continue to evaluate people in terms of their fortunes and that the venial characters have succeeded as much as the admirable ones. We may feel that the admirable characters are happier, but we are probably wrong: Lucy is and will be quite happy with the role she has chosen. Since she is not burdened with the sense of insight of an Elinor or a Marianne, she can share none of their perceptions. She lacks self-awareness and any possibility of self-criticism. She is convinced that she has triumphed over Elinor and Marianne, and much of the world would agree with her. Elinor and Marianne, and their small circle of true friends, are the oddities.
Austen’s novels, in this way, remind me of Mozart’s symphonies. They are exquisitely fashioned: the language is crisp and precise, the structure is elegant, the characters appear and function almost the way musical themes do. There is a sense of grace and sunniness in her novels, just as in Mozart’s symphonies, and yet, also like the symphonies, there is a darker aspect to the works as well. Austen’s sense of decorum is like Mozart’s sense of harmony. It gives the impression of well-being, of perfection, but underneath that appearance of perfection there is incredible depth, in which the decorum and the harmony are called into question. Reading Jane Austen seems to be a delightful occupation—the scene in Sense and Sensibility in which Mr. Dashwood decides what his obligations to his half-sisters must be is beautifully and amusingly done—but there is more to reading Austen than delight. Mr. Dashwood reveals his own selfishness, that of his wife, and that of a society that allows people like the Dashwoods to flourish. Jane Austen can be critical indeed, but like so many of her characters, she succeeds by understatement, and her criticism is never ill-mannered, which makes it even more devastating.
A good example of Austen’s technique can be found at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, whose opening lines are almost as well known as the opening line of Melville’s Moby Dick: “Call me Ishmael.” Of course, the answer to the question, “Who is the narrator of Moby Dick is not “Ishmael.” We do not know his name. He just tells us to call him Ishmael, for reasons that the reader must discover in the course of the book. So, too, the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice are not so simple as they seem:
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
Is it, as the narrator seems to say, “a truth…that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”? Or is this “a truth universally acknowledged,” that is, something that people have made into a “truth” simply because they think it is true, or should be true? Is it “a truth” at all—does a wealthy single man necessarily need a wife? What Austen does in this brilliant sentence is to state a commonly held view, assert that commonly views are treated as universal truths, question whether they ought to be so treated, and cast doubt on the truthfulness of this particular commonly held universal truth. Furthermore, the second sentence not only contributes to these implications of the first sentence but adds new implications of its own. When the narrator refers to these wealthy men as “the rightful property” of the local daughters, she adds irony upon irony. The men are wealthy because of what they own, but in the mercantile world of Jane Austen, where honest trade is regarded as a family blemish, courtship and marriage are approvingly regarded as commercial transactions. And in a society where, as we will see, women had few legal rights, where their right to own anything at all could be very doubtful, the notion that wealthy men could be their property was as much an illusion as the universal truth that wealthy single men automatically want wives. As we saw to a lesser degree in Sense and Sensibility, there is no mention here of affection, of moral worthiness, of any of the higher qualities that one might desire in the spouse of one’s child. People are property. They are commodities measured by the size of their financial attributes. Mr. Bingley could be an axe murderer, but Mrs. Bennet wants him for her daughter, because he would be a wealthy, single axe murderer, and the only reason she rejects Darcy as a possible suitor for another daughter later on is that he seems socially too far above the Bennet family. As I mentioned earlier, Mrs. Bennet has some legitimate cause for anxiety about the future welfare of her daughters and herself; but although her behavior in this regard occasionally seems humorous, in too many instances it verges on the monstrous. She is a constant source of embarrassment to her two older daughters and to her husband, though he has the power to remove himself from her and avoid the worst of her behavior.
The predicament of the Bennet family has a precise source. Mr. Bennet’s estate, which means his income and his property, “was entailed in default of heirs male” (I.1). This situation is quite different from that in Sense and Sensibility, where Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters are in a predicament because of the elder Mr. Dashwood’s sudden death. He has asked his son, Elinor and Marianne’s half-brother, to help them, a charge that the son insufficiently fulfills, but in Pride and Prejudice, the women’s potential problem is the result of deliberate planning. According to the terms under which Mr. Bennet has inherited the estate, it must pass to another male. Had the Bennets had another child, a boy, he would have inherited the estate and, presumably, have had some responsibility toward his mother and to any of his sisters who remained unmarried. But there was no boy, and so the estate is destined to be inherited by the pompous and foolish Mr. Collins. How were the girls expected to survive? They were expected to marry and become the responsibility of their husbands, and any of them who did not marry would become the responsibility of those who did, or of other relatives who would pity them and take them in. Since so much of the novel’s action results from this peculiar arrangement, it was obviously important to Austen. If we combine this thought with the fact that there are five Bennet daughters, we find something very interesting, because two of the daughters, Mary and Kitty, play almost no role in the novel and could easily have been dispensed with. But Austen had a reason for giving the Bennets five daughters.
In the biblical book of Numbers, we find the story of the five daughters of Zelophehad, who are about to lose their patrimony because their father died without a son. “‘Why,’” they ask, “‘should the name of our father be done away from among his family, because he had no son? Give us a possession among the brethren of our father.’” Moses is in a quandary and takes the case directly to God, who tells him, “’The daughters of Zelophehad speak right: though shalt surely give them a possession of an inheritance among their father’s brethren; and thou shalt cause the inheritance of their father to pass unto them. And thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel, saying: If a man die, and have no son, then ye shall cause his inheritance to pass unto his daughter’” (Numbers 27:1-8). In short, the entailment that causes so much trouble in this novel violates divine law; and it is no accident that the man who is to inherit the estate, Mr. Collins, is a clergyman. He is a clergyman who advises Mr. Bennet, when one of his daughters is in trouble, “to console yourself as much as possible, to throw off your unworthy child from your affection for ever, and leave her to reap the fruit of her own heinous offence” (III.6). Apparently Mr. Collins has little regard for either Testament, and that is just Austen’s point. Mr. Collins, the official representative of religion, is a hypocrite. He honors authority and mouths Christian pieties, but his actions are transparently selfish. So it is with many of the novel’s characters, and so it is with a society that would allow a Mr. Collins to represent its religious interests. Again, in her understated way, Austen is satirizing what she sees going on around her, in this case the treatment of women as less than full people and the concurrence of religion in perpetuating social inequities.
There are, of course, other examples in all of Austen’s works of the same attitude toward women. In Sense and Sensibility, for instance, where so much of the action takes place in the city, Elinor and Marianne are confined to the house unless an appropriate person, a man or an older woman, can be found to chaperone them. At least in the country the women can go out walking on their own, though their lives are circumscribed in other ways. Austen seems to present their lives in matter-of-fact terms, as though she is simply describing the way things are. She is, perhaps, too polite to criticize openly, but there is always a substratum of criticism. Like Elizabeth Bennet, whose words are almost always polite and proper, even when they are double edged, Austen manages to convey both senses at once, the sense of verisimilitude—this is how things are—and the sense of satirical criticism—the way things are is absurd and harmful. Every so often she slips in a comment that gets exactly to the point without disturbing the decorum of the narrative. My favorite example comes when Elizabeth is visiting Lady Catherine, who spends her time interfering in everyone else’s lives, giving orders and making decisions for them. At one point, the narrator says, “The party then gathered round the fire to hear Lady Catherine determine what weather they were to have on the morrow” (II.6). This devastating and revealing attack seems to be just part of the narrative, but the attentive reader who has not been lulled by the matter-of-fact way that the statement is made may well be taken aback by the bluntness of the criticism.
A more serous example of the technique can be found when Charlotte Lucas agrees to marry Mr. Collins:
Mr. Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband.—Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honorable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservation from want.
What the narrator says here is what Austen demonstrates in so many places in the novel, but this is the clearest statement of the real meaning of marriage in her society: it provides security for the women but makes no guarantee of happiness for anyone. Such is surely the case for Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, neither of whom is terribly happy in marriage. We can only hope that the happy couples at the novel’s end will transcend the models that predominate in the book and in their lives. The narrator hints that they will.
The narrator’s role in the novel stands in interesting contrast to the role of Mr. Bennet. I remember being told when I first studied Pride and Prejudice that Mr. Bennet is a satirist in much the same way that Austen’s narrator is, but actually there are major differences between them. Like the narrator, Mr. Bennet has a well-developed sense of the absurd, and he knows that he does. As he says to Elizabeth toward the end of the novel, “ ‘For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?’ ” (III.15). When he says this, he and Elizabeth are in his library, the private room to which he retires to avoid his wife and daughters and most of their visitors. This is the room where he spends most of the book. He removes himself from the action and then acts as though he is therefore above the action. For instance, early in the book Mrs. Bennet contrives to have Jane stranded at Netherfield, the home of Mr. Bingley. Because of Mrs. Bennet’s scheming, Jane is caught in the rain and catches a cold. Mr. Bennet’s comment is that “‘if your daughter should have a dangerous fit of illness, if she should die, it would be a comfort to know that it was all in pursuit of Mr. Bingley, and under your orders’” (I.7). We must keep in mind that a cold in the early nineteenth century was nothing to sneeze at. Marianne’s illness in Sense and Sensibility is quite serious, and George Washington died of complications from a cold (one of the complications being the medical treatment of the time). Jane does become quite ill, but Mr. Bennet, instead of taking a stand, instead of asserting authority over what he recognizes as his wife’s foolishness (as a nineteenth-century husband might), does nothing to stop her from endangering the happiness and even the lives of their children. His wife’s activities give him material to laugh at, but he never makes any attempt to stop her or to protect his daughters, not even the two he likes, Jane and Elizabeth. He has no hesitation about expressing his scorn for the other three. The combination of his scorn and his desire to remove himself from the action while he laughs at human follies very nearly has a catastrophic result. That matters work out satisfactorily is none of his doing. Like the narrator, he laughs satirically at particular behaviors, but unlike the narrator, he seems incapable of seeing the whole picture. Of course, the narrator has the advantage of omniscience, but Mr. Bennet seems unaware that there is a whole picture. He does show some awareness of his errors during one of the novel’s crises, but he knows himself well enough to know that he will not change his behavior.
What is remarkable is that Elizabeth does have that awareness. She is not content simply to laugh at follies, though she does that, too, but she draws conclusions and then acts upon those conclusions. “Elizabeth, however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behavior as a husband. She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook…But she had never felt so strongly as now, the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife” (II.19). We can see several remarkable points in this passage. First, we can notice how clearly Elizabeth sees most things. On some vital questions she, like Darcy, is blinded by her pride and her prejudice, and the novel describes how she must learn to overcome those factors, but generally she sees quite keenly. Furthermore, she is not afraid to be critical even of her father, whom she loves. And finally, it is interesting to notice how closely Elizabeth’s thoughts match those of the narrator, who has expressed similar sentiments throughout the novel.
In fact, Elizabeth is very much like the narrator, except that the narrator already knows what Elizabeth must learn. In Sense and Sensibility it was often difficult to distinguish between the narrator’s views and Elinor’s, and here, too, we get the sense that Elizabeth is a young version of the narrator. This similarity between the two voices does not mean that the novel is autobiographical. Elizabeth is not Jane Austen, and neither is Elinor, but she is like Jane Austen in being an acute observer and a quick satirist. There is a wonderful passage where Jane, who seldom attributes bad motives to anyone, utters a critical remark, to which Elizabeth responds, “‘That is the most unforgiving speech…that I ever heard you utter. Good girl!’” (III.13). I feel like I can hear Austen’s laughter as she wrote that line. Austen may have used herself partly as a model for these characters, but the most important impression that we come away with can be found in something Elizabeth says to Mr. Collins, who has just proposed to her and tries to explain her rejection of him as a form of feminine flirting. Elizabeth, trying to convince him of how serious she is, says, “‘Do not consider me now as an elegant female intending to plague you, but as a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart’” (I.19). That may seem like a fairly ordinary statement to us, and we may even object that elsewhere in the novel Elizabeth is not guided by rationality. We must realize, though, that in Austen’s day (and even in our time), the claim that a woman is rational rather than emotional could be viewed as revolutionary. There has been a long history of denying rationality to women—the word “hysteria” comes from the Greek for “womb,” and hysteria was long seen as an affliction of women—so that Elizabeth’s assertion of her own rationality, especially to a tradition-bound fool like Mr. Collins, is far from ordinary. And if Elizabeth is extraordinary for saying it, how much more extraordinary was Austen for writing it!
If Elizabeth is such a rational creature, why does she make so many mistakes? Often she is the only person who “reads” correctly, whether we are talking about situations, people, or letters. When Jane receives a letter from Miss Bingley, she misreads it, while Elizabeth sees what it really says; and Elizabeth frequently, with the eye of a satirist, sees beneath the surface meaning of what people say to get to their full meaning. But in the cases of Darcy and Wickham, she is guided by both her pride and her prejudices and makes some dreadful errors. On the other hand, unlike so many of the novel’s characters, she learns from her errors. After she learns the truth about Wickham and Darcy, she tells Jane, “‘One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it’” (II.17). The task of the rational creature, the novelist, and of the satirist is to get beyond the appearance, and Elizabeth is still learning how to do so, how to read people and how to read the world, not looking for “hidden meanings” but looking to see what they really say. Both she and Darcy, the novel’s most intelligent characters, make the same mistakes. Their early conversations, when they are, in effect, fencing with each other, are amusing. It is especially interesting to see how rude Elizabeth can be when, after accusing him of pride, she behaves with far more pride than anyone. Part of her reaction is certainly justified by Darcy’s condescension and by her loyalty to Jane, but part of it comes from her joy in being able to triumph over Darcy.
Naturally, since we are reading Jane Austen, the situation is more complicated than it at first appears. Elizabeth is not entirely wrong in her reading of Darcy. Darcy is proud, though part of his pride is the result of the class distinctions that characterized his society. Although he is beloved by his servants, he is not accustomed to socializing with people of Elizabeth’s class. In addition, he is shy, a characteristic that is often mistaken for pride. Consequently, though he and Elizabeth share so many views, they have a great deal of trouble communicating. Furthermore, he is understandably put off by some members of her family, though she is often mortified by their behavior as well, and he is just as embarrassed by the behavior of Lady Catherine, his relative. There is so much for them to break through, their own pride and prejudice and the pride and prejudice of everyone around them, that it is surprising they have any success at all. Their success, however, is vital to Jane Austen’s view of the world. Given the obsession of the world she describes with money, status, and power, it is vital that at least some of her characters show the possibility of escaping from those obsessions. Some characters like Marianne in Sense and Sensibility and Lydia in Pride and Prejudice rely on love to free them, though in Lydia’s case especially, love is viewed as a means to raise her status. Marianne, however, learns from her experience, and what she learns is much like what Elinor, Elizabeth, Darcy, and Jane know almost instinctively: that living a truly engaged life requires a degree of selflessness. The societal obsession with money, status, and power requires an individual to think primarily of self—How can I achieve money, status, and power? Marianne, through much of Sense and Sensibility, behaves selfishly, and it is only when she realizes how much Elinor has suffered for her that she understands what is required of her. Elizabeth and Jane almost always think of others first, as, to everyone’s surprise, does Darcy. The society they inhabit may be petty and venal, but as long as characters like these exist, pettiness and venality cannot be entirely triumphant. In their charming and decorous way, these characters are subversives, undercutting the beliefs and customs of their society and showing that there are other, better ways to behave.
It is marvelous, therefore, to watch how Austen creates these characters and sets them in motion. Everything that happens in the novels must happen the way it does. There is a feeling of inevitability about it. These are ultimately sunny books with just enough shadows to make them believable and to remind us that, despite appearances, the world is never a simple place. Jane Austen and her narrator saw the world clearly; Elizabeth learned to see it clearly. With their help, perhaps we can learn, too.
Readers who enjoy Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice might well want to look into Austen’s other novels. I am partial to Mansfield Park, but Emma and Persuasion are wonderful books, too. These books take a somewhat darker view of the world, but they are enjoyable. Northanger Abbey is also fun, though it depends for much of its effect on a knowledge of Gothic romance, so read some of Mrs. Radcliffe’s work first. It can also be instructive to read some of the works that are roughly contemporary with Austen’s. Fanny Burney’s Evelina is fun to read, and it is especially instructive to read the novels of Sir Walter Scott. Scott was exceptionally popular in his time, and through much of the nineteenth century, but except perhaps for Ivanhoe, he is not read much today. Comparing works like Waverly or Rob Roy to Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice can show us why. Scott writes fine adventures, but his characters do not approach the depth of Austen’s characters. Scott’s people are caught up in historical events, while Austen’s characters, though they inhabit a society quite different from our own, have experiences to which we can more closely relate. At the same time, Scott’s novels, like Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Kenilworth, and others can be great fun to read. Many of his novels were transformed into operas by nineteenth-century composers. I particularly recommend reading The Bride of Lammermoor and then seeing what Donizetti did with it in his superb opera Lucia di Lammermoor. And by all means, don’t forget the great novels of Charlotte and Emily Bronte that we mentioned earlier. Again, they are quite different from Austen’s works, but they are fun to read.