Saturday 21 October 2017

Just Do Mention Jane Austen

I never felt very easy about Jane Austen: I think she made a tremendous, far-reaching decision to leave certain things out. She forfeited passion for wit, and I think that led her to collude with certain little strategems which are horrifying in real life. She wrote about getting husbands.
Anita Brookner speaking to John Haffenden, Novelists in Interview, Methuen 1985

Observer: What did you read as a child?
Brookner: Ah! Dickens. My father fed me Dickens. Two novels for my birthday, two novels for Christmas until I'd read the lot. And after that I think it was H.G. Wells, for some reason. I've been talked about in the same context as Jane Austen. I didn't stick that label on myself, other people did. Quite inaccurate. I've never got on very well with Jane Austen.
2001 Observer interview 'Just don't mention Jane Austen'

I decided to reread Pride and Prejudice - tried to read it with an innocent eye, as if for the first time, as if I didn't know anything about it.

Something of an impossible task, I found. For one thing I felt haunted by film and television Darcys and Elizabeths. Just couldn't shake them off. So I tried, as Nabokov would have advised, to focus on the author.

What does Jane Austen think of the limited and oppressive world she depicts or rather creates? She's both an insider and an outsider, at once disaffected and invested in it. Take the interaction between Mr Bennet and Elizabeth on first meeting Mr Collins:
Mr Bennet's expectations were fully answered. His cousin was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and, except in the occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure. (Ch. 14)
This is subtly but not radically subversive; it is subversion from within, and probably as far as Austen is prepared to go. Her world is simultaneously cosy and comfortless. She's a satirist, but a conservative satirist.

Pride and Prejudice isn't comic throughout. It shows its eighteenth-century, Richardsonian roots in its sombre passages, in extended discussions and conversations about friendship and conduct. Austen might be said to achieve a balance between the modes of that century, between the comedy of Smollett and Sterne and the high seriousness of Samuel Richardson.

Additionally Austen is good at undercutting her comedy. Mr Bennet's 'You have delighted us long enough', aimed at the talentless Mary, is a famous put-down, but Austen's quiet authorial follow-up renders Mr Bennet a cynic and Lizzy ever more the human and moral centre of the book:
Mary, though pretending not to hear, was somewhat disconcerted; and Elizabeth, sorry for her, and sorry for her father's speech, was afraid her anxiety had done no good. (Ch. 18)
What is there in Brookner's cavils? Austen does indeed write about getting husbands, but the lives of the Bennet sisters and their circle are far more socially precarious than the existence of anyone in Brookner. Miss Lucas's 'pure and disinterested desire of an establishment', for example (ch. 22), carries with it the burden of rather shocking knowledge. Jane Austen may have left certain things out, but they're never far from the surface.

It's a realistic, unromantic world. As such it is unBrooknerian. For all its apparent bleakness and astringency, Brookner's world is strongly glamorous and full of art. Brookner heroines are not realistic, not given to compromise - not least because they don't need to compromise. The resources of Austen's personages, both inner and outer, are more limited. In the unusually lengthy chapter 43 Elizabeth visits Pemberley for the first time and her views on Mr Darcy undergo a change, not only in response to the positive comments she hears of him from his servants but also because, having seen his magnificent and tasteful house, she realises what a thing it would be to become its mistress. This is certainly honest, but also mercenary, and we might well register some disapproval (and indeed at the end of the novel Austen returns to the moment, giving a less objectionable interpretation). A little later in chapter 43 Elizabeth shows scant regard for Pemberley's 'many good paintings'. 'Elizabeth knew nothing of the art,' Austen tells us. Sketches of the Darcy family are more to Elizabeth's taste - more interesting, more intelligible. There is always irony in Austen but here it doesn't seem to be directed at Elizabeth but more at those (such as a lady or gentleman in an Anita Brookner novel) who might prefer Darcy's great pictures. Jane Austen is no bluestocking, and nor is Lizzy: that is the message. But Austen is possibly a philistine - and I wonder whether that's one of the reasons she's now such a national treasure. (Poor Mary's bookishness is likewise a matter for ridicule and disdain.)

I ended my revisiting of Pride and Prejudice slightly baffled, and more than slightly awed. Jane Austen made, perhaps, a tremendous, far-reaching decision to leave certain things out. But one might equally suggest she merely withholds those things, and the pleasure of the text lies in tracing their outlines. A thing I would say for sure: I do not always enjoy the novels I read. But I enjoyed Pride and Prejudice, enjoyed it with a continuous pleasure. And it is a pleasure that's to be found, as Nabokov correctly said, in the company of the author.

To me at least, please do mention Jane Austen.

* * *

One reason I've been reading Pride and Prejudice again (not having read it since my teens) is that 2017 is the bicentenary of Jane Austen's death - an event marked by the Bank of England in its own special way. Of course no one really knows exactly what Jane Austen looked like: she lived before the age of photography, and her sister Cassandra's sketch in the National Portrait Gallery is not very accomplished. But the Bank of England chose instead a mid-Victorian prettified portrait created for a relation's memoir of the author. But this is in keeping. The designs on English banknotes since the mid-1990s have, it seems to me, tended towards the fussy and the chintzy. And the portrait of the Queen on the front is neither idealised nor a perfect likeness.

(The Pride and Prejudice quotation on the note is also worth a word or two. See a well-considered Guardian piece here.)


  1. The depth and quality of this blog is astonishing. I appreciate it so much.


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