She wanted Mr. Darcy to account for his having ever fallen in love with her. “How could you begin?” said she. “I can comprehend your going on charmingly, when you had once made a beginning; but what could set you off in the first place?”
“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”
[…] “To be sure, you knew no actual good of me – but nobody things of that when they fall in love […] You might have talked to me more when you came to dinner.”
“A man who had felt less, might.”
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
This paragraph was written 200 years ago. In the preceding two centuries many thousands of readers have ‘fallen in love’ with the novel from which it comes—with its characters, and with its author. Pride and Prejudice sells up to 50,000 copies a year, even now when – because it is out of copyright – it is now available for free as an e-book. Despite this incredible popularity – or perhaps because of it – a passion for Jane Austen’s work has become vaguely embarrassing.
Among ambitious university students, there is an unspoken rule that one must never. Ever. Write. About. Jane. Austen. Any student engrossed in Emma or Persuasion in a library is presumably on a break from essay writing. Northanger Abbey is only just about okay—kook points guaranteed by its gothic turns and twists. Academia’s shying away from popular “GCSE-type” texts is a wide-spread problem; writing an essay about – god forbid – The Great Gatsby is as laughable as one comparing medieval text, Gawain and the Green Knight with Harry Potter (this has been done repeatedly, a quick Google search proves.) Similarly, the international celebrations of the novel’s anniversary are tinged with scorn. The Guardian offers up an article ‘looking afresh’ at the classic, which sounds like a passionate bitching session at a London literary party: Zoe Williams does not want Lizzie Bennett as a new gal pal, with her smart-alec comments and lack of sisterliness; “All that Darcy can do now is marry Elizabeth, his lifelong Prozac in an Empire-line dress […] who will be good at sex, kind to his sister and will laugh at his aunt,” snipes Sebastian Faulks, and so on.
Even within The Inkling Faculty itself, I have got an inkling (;-)) of some disdain. Having pitched this article, my beloved editor replied with one stipulation:
Go 4 it. (Not TOO gushy about JA though…) xxxX
Days later, another writer sent me this:
[29/01/2013 00:35:16] jamie.curtis.hayward: is this your sort of thing?
[29/01/2013 00:35:17] jamie.curtis.hayward: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jtoI029sKIk
And to be brutally honest with you, I was mildly offended by the assumption that a collage of heart throbs in tailcoats (almost all created by Austen) languorously staring into the camera, getting soaked remarkably frequently in tin baths or freak rain-storms, and finally sticking their tongue down feisty heroines throats, all sound-tracked by The Weather Girls’ ‘It’s Raining Men,’ would be my ‘sort of thing.’ And I do understand the fear of the Austenite’s gush.
Why though is there such a divide between those, like us, who find it hard to admit a liking for Austen, and those ardent fans who will this year take to the streets of Bath in period dress, partake in a BBC-organised re-enactment of Pemberley Ball, and even engage in Austen-themed engagements? (Bath’s Gravel Walk, where Persuasion’s Anne and Captain Wentworth agree to marry being particularly recommended.)
The answer, I believe, lies within the novels themselves—this article’s opening quotation hinting at the deftness and subtlety with which Austen predicts her readers’ responses. Elizabeth and Darcy, in this passage, attempt to read their own story. Elizabeth, searching for the pivotal moment in her story, wishes to transform her life into a conventional 18th century novel, with a neat plot and all mysteries ironed out. Pride and Prejudice is perfectly structured, with parallel stories interweaving just beneath the surface, ‘going on charmingly’ until the satisfying
conclusion. However Austen, like Darcy, refuses to help the reader ‘fix on’ the novel’s crucial moments.
“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation,” he says. And nor can we. There is of course the first meeting—famous now from multiple adaptations and Bridget Jones etc. “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men” he states, as ‘Turning round, he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own.’ Here then is the first moment, first look, first words, yet they display not love at first sight, but a display of prejudice, prompting Darcy to withdraw his attention, and leading Lizzie to show her own pride, dismissing him as a rude prig. Both make snap-judgments, demonstrating the danger of granting too much weight to momentary impulses, to ‘the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words’—a mistake Austen never makes.
The earlier-mentioned YouTube montage is flawed in its attempts to compress whole television shows or films (themselves flawed in their attempts to compress novels) into a matter of seconds, a crucial moment, a heart-melting look. The 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice made a whole generation swoon collectively, partly because of its considerable length. We fell in love over the course of six long and languid hours. Comparably, in Austen’s novels, characters fall in love gradually and unobtrusively, and in parallel, the reader falls in love with the novel—‘in the middle before I knew that I had begun,’ absorbed in the lives of characters that initially seemed only ‘tolerable.’
Virginia Woolf proposed ‘first, that of all great writers [Austen] is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness; second, that there are twenty-five elderly gentlemen living in the neighbourhood of London who resent any slight upon her genius as if it were an insult to the chastity of their aunts.’ It is as impossible to locate the moment when those gentlemen surrender their hearts to Austen as that when Darcy surrenders his to Elizabeth. It is difficult to pin down the writing’s ‘actual good’ because of the economy of Austen’s style—her ‘genius’ is comparable with the aunts’ chastity,’ in that it lies in what she does not do, what she refrains from saying.
The passage quoted relies on dialogue. With almost no narrative presence, no high-flown metaphors, every word counts. Darcy’s metaphorical phrase ‘laid the foundation’ is perhaps crucial, drawing attention to Darcy’s steadfastness compared with Wickham’s unreliability, and the importance of property—jokingly Elizabeth dates her falling in love: “from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” The reader, like the characters, must detect from single words, cold looks at balls, and silences at dinner, the great intensity of human feeling, as he or she is forced to act like a teenage girl desperately reading passion into the number of ‘x’s in an unenthusiastic text message.
The idea of highpoints or unmissable ‘act[s] of greatness’ is problematic in Austen’s novels. Marianne in Sense and Sensibility reveals her naivety, when asked whether Willoughby had confessed love: “It was every day implied, but never professedly declared.” Reading too much into looks and shared passions, into the fact that ‘the same books, the same passages were idolized by each,’ Marianne fails to look for the crucial, practical moment: the proposal.
Austen allows us to be swept along with her headstrong characters, wrongly cherishing moments of apparent warmth, condemning characters for moments of apparent coldness, so revealing our own failings. Even Woolf trips up when writing about Austen:
A dull young man is talking to rather a weakly young woman on the stairs […] From triviality, from commonplace, their words become suddenly full of meaning, and the moment for both one of the most memorable in their lives. It fills itself; it shines; it glows; it hangs before us, deep, trembling, serene for a second; next, the housemaid passes, and this drop, in which all the happiness of life has collected, gently subsides again to become part of the ebb and flow of ordinary existence.
I’d like to read the book Woolf describes—but it sounds more like one written by her than by Austen. Austen’s restraint bristles against the looseness of Woolf’s ‘ebb and flow,’ a term which attempts to turn Austen into an early Modernist, inviting her readers to observe streams of consciousness, when in fact Austen does not even allow the reader to dip their toes into such streams. Woolf’s lyrical passage gives more away than Austen does in an entire novel. Austen’s characters are rarely described conclusively, rarely ‘dull’ or ‘weakly.’ Even Elizabeth’s much-remarked-upon fine eyes remain un-coloured-in. Furthermore Austen does not describe ‘ordinary existence,’ or at least not in its entirety. Housemaids are generally excluded from her novels – relegated to much the same role as the reader. We may pass, unnoticed, the hero and the heroine on the stairs. We glean what we can from snippets of conversation, rarely gaining insights into the thoughts of those we watch.
Austen’s world is not, as Woolf suggests, a ‘trembling’ one that ‘shines’ and ‘glows’ with memorable ‘moments.’ Instead, it is a world in which, feet firmly on the ground, during the pauses in conversation at dinner, we, without realising it, fall in love.
And the problem is – having been set this example of economy and restraint – how then to discuss this almost imperceptible, indescribable reading experience. Knightley, professing his love to Emma, states: “I cannot make speeches… If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.” Taking his advice, I will stop what I’m afraid has come quite close to the dreaded gush, here.