Last week I volunteered to lead the McMaster Alumni Association Book Club discussion of Pride and Prejudice. It was one of those obligations tangential to the gargantuan pile of Pressing Work that has the potential to magnify the stress of the first weeks of a semester exponentially. I knew this when I agreed to do it over the summer. But it was also one of those things that provides an obvious, immediate, and unequivocal answer to the question “What Would My Dad Have Me Do?”—Gregory, remember, was a dedicated director of alumni affairs as well as perhaps the world’s greatest casual reader. From his perspective, I suspect that leading the public in a reading of Jane Austen, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the publication of her most beloved book, is what I’ve been preparing for my whole life. So that’s what I did. For whatever reason, I wrote my notes out in the form of an essay (though I did not deliver a lecture), so I thought I’d share them here.
Against Aphorism; or, Why We Should Only Quote Austen in Long Passages
A couple months ago, the bank of England announced that 10-pound notes will soon feature the image of Jane Austen, who will replace Charles Darwin by 2017 or so. The new note will also include a quotation from Pride and Prejudice: “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” As numerous commentators familiar with the novel have noted, this selection is highly infelicitous if it is to be taken as an expression of Austen’s own sentiment, since, in the novel, it is spoken by the obnoxious Miss Bingley, as she flamboyantly demonstrates that she takes no enjoyment in reading whatsoever.
Miss Bingley’s attention was quite as much engaged in watching Mr Darcy’s progress through his book, as in reading her own; and she was perpetually either making some inquiry, or looking at his page. She could not win him, however, to any conversation; he merely answered her question, and read on. At length, quite exhausted by the attempt to be amused with her own book, which she had only chosen because it was the second volume of his, she gave a great yawn and said, ‘How pleasant it is to spend an evening this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book! – When I have a house of my won, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.’
No one made any reply. She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes round the room in quest of some amusement….
In fact, the scene suggests, people who make such declarations are not only insincere but generally foolish; as much as we like to mine Austen’s novels for aphorisms, the texts themselves hold such expressions in contempt. Elizabeth teases Mr Darcy with marked severity when she says to him, ironically, during their dance at the Netherfield ball, “I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb.” We know, at that point, that this characterization does not describe Elizabeth well at all, and we come to learn, as she does, that it does not apply to Mr Darcy either; one of the qualities they share, despite their difference in station, background, and prospects, is enough good judgment not to use language primarily to make pompous, universal declarations. In addition to Miss Bingley, other characters who deal in “notable quotables” include Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr Collins, and Mary Bennet, to none of their credit.
Our own attachment to the “quotable” Jane Austen is therefore questionable—Elizabeth and her father, given their penchant for satire, might find it delightfully ridiculous. To illustrate this point, we need look no farther than the book’s opening. The very first sentence of Pride and Prejudice is one of the most oft-quoted lines in the book: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Taken out of context, this line indeed has all “the éclat of a proverb.” But in context, it immediately becomes clear that this so-called “truth” is “universally acknowledged” only within one of the most limited definitions of the universe imaginable, namely, the small rural society exemplified by Mrs Bennet: “However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.” Austen’s use of the passive voice here is sly, and severe: by erasing the specific subject of the thought, the sentence lends its content the air of universal truth, but the absurdity of the presumption reveals that such ideas find purchase only in very small minds. Who thinks such things? Who even thinks such ideas count as thoughts, much less “universal truth”? People like Mrs Bennet, “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.”
Arguably, the entire plot of Pride and Prejudice is a vehicle to ensure that Elizabeth becomes the total opposite of her mother—that is, a woman of expansive, nuanced understanding; of much information; and of steady temper. She is able to do so because, unlike her mother and Miss Bingley, she does enjoy reading—not only books (“bookishness,” remember, is harshly satirized in the character of Mary Bennet) but primarily people. Elizabeth’s greatest humiliation, which is also her greatest leap toward maturity, is the moment she realizes how acutely she has been misreading the leading characters of the story, particularly Mr Darcy and Mr Wickham. Meaningful relationships, the novel suggests, can only be formed between individuals who are both good readers and sufficiently legible. Jane almost loses Mr Bingley because her feelings are not legible enough; initially, Elizabeth doesn’t recognize this quality in her sister, because she can read Jane so well, but she (and we) come to understand that this is because they are so intimately close. This intimacy is emphasized in Elizabeth’s close scrutiny of her sister’s letters.
Elizabeth … chose for her employment the examination of all the letters which Jane had written to her since her being in Kent. They contained no actual complaint, nor was there any revival of past occurrences, or any communication of present suffering. But in all, there was a want of cheerfulness which had been used to characterize her style, and which, proceeding from the serenity of a mind at ease with itself, and kindly disposed toward every one, had scarcely ever been clouded. Elizabeth noticed every sentence conveying the idea of uneasiness, with an attention which it had hardly received on the first perusal.
Elizabeth is a privileged reader of Jane, having had enough private access to her to develop the skill of “close reading” her, whether in person or on the page. But if Jane expects to be received fairly by a wider social body, she is obliged to open herself up to a wider “readership.” Likewise, Mr Darcy almost loses Elizabeth because he, like Jane, is inscrutable in public—not until she also has him “in writing,” in the form of the letter he gives her following her rejection of his proposal of marriage, does Elizabeth start to make out the truth of his character.
Her feelings as she read were scarcely to be defined … With a strong prejudice against every thing he might say, she began his account of what had happened at Netherfield. She read, with an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension, and from impatience of knowing what the next sentence might bring, was incapable of attending to the sense of the one before her eyes … But when this subject was succeeded by his account of Mr Wickham, when she read with somewhat clearer attention, a relation of events, which, if true, must overthrow every cherished opinion of his worth, and which bore so alarming an affinity to his own history of himself, her feelings were yet more acutely painful and more difficult of definition. Astonishment, apprehension, and even horror, oppressed her … In this perturbed state of mind, with thoughts that could rest on nothing, she walked on; but it would not do; in half a minute the letter was unfolded again, and collecting herself as well as she could, she again began the mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham, and commanded herself so far as to examine the meaning of every sentence ….
The novel uses the convention of letter-writing to show how important it is to recognize people as texts, and to take the time and cultivate the skill of reading them thoughtfully, closely, and judiciously, which in many cases means in context. Elizabeth reads Mr Darcy’s letter repeatedly, and each time it strikes her differently, until it ultimately comes to revise her interpretation of the world around her, and herself in it. Austen devotes pages to this process: Elizabeth “read, and re-read with the closest attention”; “put down the letter, weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality”; “again … read on”; “paus[ed] on this point a considerable while” before “she once more continued to read.” Careful reading is shown to vacillate between words on the page and the contextual knowledge one brings to the page. Its aim is to transform one’s understanding, whether to revive or to revise it. Elizabeth’s love for Darcy emerges not as a revelation but as the result of self-questioning: “Till this moment,” she concludes, “I never knew myself.” By attending to him for the first time, and thus to herself for the first time, she discovers the need for, and practices the skills of, advanced social literacy.
While it is not enough to declare a love of reading books, neither is it enough, in Austen’s world, to actually “love reading” for enjoyment. Her novels emphasize literacy over “bookishness,” and social literacy above all else. As Elizabeth’s encounter with Mr Darcy’s letter illustrates, deep, literate reading frequently provokes quite different feelings than “joy,” precisely because it is profoundly self-transformative. What would it mean to read Austen’s novels with this level of literacy? For one thing, it would entail an openness to confronting in them what we may not yet understand, without imposing our prejudices on them.
Just one example, to conclude. I suspect readings of Pride and Prejudice as a modern “love story” falter a bit at Elizabeth’s confession to Jane, towards the end, that she would date her being in “love” with Darcy “from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” I think this line rings oddly to modern ears because it suggests a materialistic, even socially mercenary foundation to Elizabeth’s feelings that is at odds with how we’ve been led to understand them. We tend to treat it as Jane does, as a joke. But in an early nineteenth-century context, this statement does not necessarily carry the same negative connotation; instead, it refers to an eighteenth-century tradition of reading the social quality of the upper classes through their houses, gardens, and furniture. Elizabeth demonstrates, as she takes in Pemberley and later reflects on the significance of the estate as an expression of its master’s better qualities, that she has become so socially literate as to have herself mastered the principles of good taste that distinguish the social elite—and this, more than her feelings (which remain very tempered in the novel, as far as “love” is concerned), qualifies her to become the mistress of Pemberley. Such a reading of Elizabeth’s love may not gratify us with feelings of immediate identification; we may not recognize ourselves in it. But it does present us with our own potential to come to understand things through modes other than possession, identification, and assimilation, which offers gratifications of a more complex kind.