Monday, January 3, 2011

Just What is it About Jane Austen?

A friend recently compared (the book) Pride and Prejudice, to a soap opera, that had entertaining dialog.

That got me thinking about the appeal of Jane Austen.  What is it that compels primarily women to read her books over and over?  Sometimes ripping through the entire collection on a yearly basis...Is it the soap opera quality?  I shuddered to think that might be it.  Is it the perpetually witty dialog?  Or some intangible facet of her writing?

After some thought and a new start on my next round through Jane Austen's titles, I have a ready reply.  It is most emphatically NOT the soap opera quality, if even such exists.  I'm not convinced of that aspect at this point.  Yes,  I love the dialog and the character typing.  I love the language that to our modern ears is so fun.  but to me, the most compelling aspect of an Austen novel is her profound grasp of human nature.  She hits time after time, page after page, the idiosyncrasies of various personality types and those foibles that the readers see in themselves and others.

Since I started my foray into this latest round of things Austen with Pride and Prejudice, I'll restrict my quotes to that book.  In fact I can think of several examples just from the first few chapters.  But each chapter of each title is a feast for study of human nature.

Her well-known opening line of P&P is a good place to start.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
This quote is perhaps not quite as poignant to us today, since our economic system and the freedoms women have today is so markedly different than it was when Jane Austen wrote in the early 1800s.  But it doesn't take much imagination to understand the point of the sentence.  And with a small amount of contemplation, most of us can even think of a person or two  who hold similar presumptions.  What do we consider an eligible bachelor today?  One who has a college degree or a stable job.  Better yet perhaps if he owns his own home, leases a nice car or has a boat.  Such a man certainly must be in the market next for a good wife, right?

On the trustworthiness and inevitability of idle gossip, Ms Austen has this to say.
...a report soon followed that Mr. Bingly was to bring twelve ladies and seven gentlemen with him to the assembly.  The girls grieved over such a number of ladies; but were comforted the day before the ball by hearing, that instead of twelve, he had brought only six with him from London, his five sisters and a cousin.  And when the party entered the assembly room, it consisted of only five altogether; Mr. Bingley, his two sisters, the husband of the eldest, and another young man.

In my book this is all of eight lines and yet Austen captures these aspects of gossip: people will gossip, we will get things wrong, and people will be affected to one degree or another by what is reported.

On the attractiveness of wealth and manners, (please keep in mind that Mr. Bingley, as opposed to his friend, Mr. Darcy, had a mere five thousand a year.)
Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minute after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year...the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large Derbyshire estate could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.
Firstly, the possession of wealth can effect an opinion of the one who possesses such wealth. Secondly, upon further acquaintance, we can get beyond the wealth to the person who possesses it.  And third, we hope to still find in such a possessor of great wealth, some redeeming personality trait.

And on the particular character trait of pride, and the prejudice against such pride Austen plays the entire length of the book.  But that's another post. Pride and Prejudice, after all.

On the different ways a man and women appreciate a social occasion, Mrs. Bennet, upon returning home, relates the highlights of the assembly to Mr. Bennet (male readers beware, just reading the following may vex you as it did Mr. Bennet),
Only think of that my dear; he actually danced with her twice; and she was the only creature in the room that he asked a second time.  First of all, he asked Miss Lucas.  I was so vexed to see him stand up with her; but, however, he did not admire her at all: indeed, nobody can, you know; and he seemed quite struck with Jane as she was going down the dance.  So, he enquired who she was, and got introduced, and asked her for the two next.  Then, the two third he danced with Miss King, and the two fourth with Maria Lucas, and the two fifth with Jane again, and the two sixth with Lizzy, and the Boulanger--"
     "If he had any compassion for me," cried her husband impatiently, "he would not have danced half so much!  For [goodness'] sake, say no more of his partners.  Oh! that he had sprained his ancle in the first dance!"
     "Oh! my dear," continued Mrs. Bennet, "I am quite delighted with him.  He is so excessively handsome!  and his sisters are charming women.  I never in my life saw any thing more elegant than their dresses.  I dare say the lace upon Mrs Hurst's gown--"
    Here she was interrupted again.  Mr., Bennet protested against any description of finery."
Perhaps I'm taking too many liberties with my prejudice toward both men and women, but probably most married people can relate to this interchange.  We women prattle on and on about those details we enjoy and our husbands think to themselves, "Enough already!  I"m sorry I asked."

And I could go on and on with such examples of Jane Austen's brilliance in portraying these "truths universally acknowledged". But really, if you never have, just read the books.  Or even if you've already read them fifteen times, isn't' it time for another plunge?

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