Before I begin, I would like to clarify that I enjoy Jane Austen. By no means would I profess myself as a Janeite but I do take pleasure in her work, within which I find a plethora of issues and sentiments. With that said, my post today will be a negative critique of the novel. (Melissa wrote about the ubiquitous enthusiasm that continues to surround the novel, so I thought I would just take it the other way.)
Two weeks ago in Dr. Amy King’s class, we were asked to submit our papers, where the assignment was to write about a modern work inspired by Jane Austen’s novels and discuss why there seems to be a sudden surge in her popularity. Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813 but by 2011, we have endless filmic and television adaptations, parodies, comic strips, graphic novels, sequels, and other offshoots. Clearly, Austen’s popularity cannot be denied. Pride and Prejudice seemingly packages themes of romance, feminism, picturesque beauty, and economic practicality, all told in an elegant, ironic, and witty way. It’s for the masses and any one of these themes can resonate to a sizeable crowd. But besides economic practicality, are any of these themes really dominant in Austen’s novel?
Undoubtedly there is some sense of romance in the novel; after all, it is a marriage plot between two characters that are perfect for each other, even with their flaws. There is looking, blushing, and even proposals. But if there is any passion, it is either angry or subdued. The possible romantic scenes are quickly brushed over and are rather subtle. It seems to really be a novel about finding financial security and the union of two compatible strong-minded people in that quest. Elizabeth Bennett’s love for Mr. Darcy actually culminates in the scene when she sees his estate. Some of the lines in the scene are, ‘Her spirits were in a high flutter’, ‘Elizabeth was delighted’, and most important, ‘At that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!’. Of course after seeing his vast and beautiful property, all of Mr. Darcy’s good qualities come to light. Earlier, she had rejected him because of his pride and her prejudice, but now that she’s seen Pemberley, we find out what a kind master Mr. Darcy is from the servants, the misunderstanding between the villainous Wickham and Mr. Darcy has been cleared conveniently just a few chapters before, and Mr. Darcy becomes the gallant hero by uniting his friend with Elizabeth’s sister and saving her other sister, Lydia. The path is clear to become mistress of Pemberley! Additionally, we get little sense of the happenings between the couple when Elizabeth does give her hand to Mr. Darcy in the end. Jane Austen basically narrates for us unlike the angry rejection, which we had dialogue for dialogue. We got the confusion, the indignation, the fury before, but when we’re looking for the real romantic scene, it falls flat. If there is sensuality in the characters, there is little in the book itself, but rather in the Colin Firths and the Kiera Knightleys we are privy to in modern screen adaptations.
Charlotte Bronte reaffirms this lack of romance in a letter, saying about Austen, ‘she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her’. The deficiency of romance in what appears to be a romantic novel seems deceiving to Bronte and she harshly criticizes Austen that she is a fluffy writer who is not capable of depicting proper description or emotion. This sentiment is continued in another letter when Bronte is describing her particular reading of Pride and Prejudice’s account of the scenery. While the reader is expected to be awed by the sights of Pemberley, and possibly even Netherfield, Bronte described it as, ‘An accurate daguerreotyped portrait of a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright, vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck. I should hardly like to live with her ladies and gentlemen, in their elegant but confined houses.’ For her, the straitlaced portrayal does nothing, and she would rather be surrounded by wild descriptions of open fields. While negatively appraising the landscape, Bronte also added in her critique of the stodgy characters who acted in the way of the norm rather than doing something madly exceptional. The way the characters are described, they are run of the mill puppets with nothing memorable them.
In Mary Favret’s article, ‘Free and Happy: Jane Austen in America’, she discusses authors who found Austen’s work stale and why so. Ralph Waldo Emerson stated suicide would be a better option than reading her work, adding her work was ‘Imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society. Her main subject is marriageableness’. Austen’s work was rather confined, especially in her descriptions of English estates and class systems. There is stuffiness, snobbery, a desire to find some sort of pecuniary collateral through marriage. Does this promote feminism? While possibly progressive in thought, does Elizabeth Bennett endorse feelings of feminism as she marries Mr. Darcy? Mark Twain, echoed his revulsion for the social convention by saying that after reading Pride and Prejudice, he felt like ‘a barkeeper entering the Kingdom of Heaven’. Favret comments on his criticism, saying Twain disliked the severe class distinction and the unrelenting propriety of the hero and heroine. There was no adventure, no finding of the individual identity, but rather finding ways to stick to the standard set. It did not evoke a sense for change and instead was steeped in the same culture of the centuries before. It was simply unsatisfying.
How satisfying Pride and Prejudice is naturally up to the reader. Undoubtedly, there is a large community of Austen lovers. However, apart from students forced to read the book in high school, how many people (in the academic community and those who voluntarily read the book on their own) dislike it and why? Bringing in Bayard, are some of us forced to say we like it simply because of the ‘classic’ tag the work holds and it would be embarrassing to say otherwise? Looking forward to our discussion of the novel in Dr. Mentz’s class this week.
(On this laptop, I only have Microsoft Starter at the moment, which won’t allow footnotes so I will just post the works cited below. Apologies.)
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. James Kinsley. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
“Charlotte Brontë on Jane Austen.” Classical Bookworm. Web. 07 Nov. 2011.
Favret, Mary A. “Free and Happy: Jane Austen in America.” Ed. Deidre Lynch. Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2000. 166-87. Print.