Jane Austen, in a letter to her nephew, Edward, described her work as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour”. Whilst this summation should be seen as facetious, it bears an element of truth: Jane Austen writes out of her own context, and that world might seem to a modern reader to be rather circumscribed. For example, Pride and Prejudice was started (under the working title First Impressions) in 1796 and finally published in 1813. During this whole period (save for a brief interlude between 1802 and 1803) Britain was at war with France – indeed, Jane’s brothers Frank and Charles fought in the Napoleonic Wars – and yet war rates no mention in Austen’s novel. The closest she comes to acknowledging its existence is the presence of the militia who so captivate Kitty and (almost literally in the case of Wickham) Lydia: “They could talk of nothing but officers; and Mr. Bingley's large fortune, the mention of which gave animation to their mother, was worthless in their eyes when opposed to the regimentals of an ensign.”
But Jane’s “little bit … of ivory” is the world she knew, and the strength of her novels is the close depiction with which she recreates this world: the world of fashionable middle-class and aspirational upper-class society. This is the fine brush that she wields: and perhaps explains why readers through the ages have enjoyed immersing themselves in her novels.
There are, perhaps, contextual issues that conspire to form a barrier to some modern readers; and perhaps the greatest of these is Austen’s portrayal of love. In modern literature, if not in life, we are used to naked emotion and the supremacy of love over all consideration – and Austen does not give us this. Arguably, however, her attitude to love and marriage is rather more realistic than ours – even in our context, love that transcends boundaries of class and money tends to be restricted to pulp fiction.
Austen is certainly clear about the necessity for the involvement of both head and heart in love. Consider how Pride and Prejudice deals with the issue of marriage. Lydia allows her heart – and if not that organ, certainly not her head! – to dominate her being, and her marriage to Wickham is the result – marriage to an adventurer and a seducer. Wickham would not have married Lydia without the financial inducement provided by Darcy – and although Austen (realistically) shows Lydia unrepentant, the reader surely has no faith in the stability of the mariiage bond forged between these two characters. Equally, if perhaps less evidently, let us consider the marriage of Mr and Mrs Bennet. Although it is tempting to see Mr Bennet as the archetypal reasonable man, Austen is clear about the history of their relationship: “Her father, captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had, very early in their marriage, put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown.” Indeed, Austen has a severe character note for Mr Bennet: “To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement. This is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.” With such an example of marital felicity, it is perhaps surprising that at least two of the Bennet daughters are able to find happy companionship in marriage!
On the other side of the scale, we have the marriage of Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas. Charlotte represents the pragmatic attitude to marriage: marriage is primarily a matter of the head rather than the heart: “Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar before-hand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always contrive to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.” Indeed, for Charlotte, marriage is a business transaction: “I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins's character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.”
Such a marriage goes against the romantic expectations of our times – and indeed of Austen’s; and yet there is realism here. Charlotte is 27, and will remain dependent upon her status-obsessed father if she cannot attract a partner. Mr Collins may be uncongenial, but his prospects make him a “good catch” for Charlotte, despite Elizabeth’s disquiet at there union. On the other hand, however, it is clear that Austen does not condone such an alliance: after marriage, Charlotte is clearly desperate for company, and has even arranged her home so that she is as little in her husband’s company as possible.
Marriage as a pragmatic business transaction is a common theme in the novel, of course, from the ironic first sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Arranged marriage to secure property and to consolidate social standing (it is presumed in the novel that Darcy is to marry Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s daughter; one of the reasons for Darcy persuading Bingley to break away from Jane is the inferiority of her staturs) would have been common in Austen’s context – and perhaps also in ours, despite our avowed repugnance for the idea. Interestingly, the movie Bride and Prejudice translates Austen’s novel to India, a country where arranged marriages are more contextually acceptable. Austen, however, makes clear that this is by no means an ideal situation: Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s first proposal of marriage: had she accepted at this time she would have done so for the same reason Charlotte married Mr Collins; the clearly successful relationship of Jane and Bingley is, on his side, both financially and socially disadvantageous, a fact not lost on either Darcy or Bingley’s sisters; and, of course, the same is even more true of Darcy and Elizabeth’s union.
In Pride and Prejudice, then, Austen is arguing for that a union of both head and heart is the ideal. And this union only serves to heighten sexual tension: Darcy is not simply overcome by Elizabeth’s looks but by the intellectual stimulation she offers in the way she refuses to be dominated by him, arguing against him with both intelligence and wit. There may be no overt sex in the novel (apart from what clearly if implicitly occurs between Lydia and Wickham) but this is not to say there is no passion in Austen’s work – only to argue that passion restrained by considerations of propriety is perhaps heightened by the very restrictions that prevent it from being overt.
Perhaps the feature of Austen’s writing most evidently lost when her work is translated into film is her wit and satire – and in Pride and Prejudice this is immediately evident from the first sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Here Austen makes clear her intention to satirise the social attitudes of her time, a satire continued with her creation of one of the most enduring comic characters, Mrs Bennet. The social one-upmanship practised by Mrs Bennet and Lady Lucas is a good example of the nature of Austen’s satire. Dr Johnson defined satire as a work “in which wickedness or folly is censured”; Austen’s focus is on folly rather than wickedness, which allows us to class her satire as Horatian (rather than Juvenalian, which is more bitter and angry.) Her intent is not to reform a corrupt society, but rather to laugh at the follies of social pretension and self-delusion, and to invite us to share her amusement. We might, however, take warning from Jonathan Swift: “Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own, which is the chief reason so few are offended by it.” Do we share the foibles at which we laugh when reading the novel?
Another good example of her good-natured satire is her treatment of Sir William Lucas. At first glance, her description of him might seem genuine:
Wit is also celebrated in the novel through the character of Elizabeth. Like Mr Bennet, she gains pleasure from seeing the foolishness of the social manoeuvrings of Sir Lucas and Mr Collins, but unlike her father this pleasure in folly is not the rather desperate salvage from the wreck of a marriage made without forethought and rationality.
Austen’s narrative voice is conventional third person past tense, but is not really the “omniscient authorial voice” often adopted by Dickens and other Victorian novels. As does J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Austen roots her narrative voice in her main character: except for a moment in Volume 1 Chapter 6, the reader learns and observes as Elizabeth does. The exception is a necessary departure from this: at the visit to Netherfield Darcy is granted freedom to view Elizabeth for the first time after slighting her at the Meryton Assembly. It is important that Elizabeth has no inclining of his attentions, but that the reader is prepared for his changed regard for her:
The role of Elizabeth as the focus of narrative is therefore vital: it is her thoughts to which we are privy, and generally, with the exception noted above, it is her judgements with which we concur. Her happy balance of passion and rationality accompanies and guides us throughout the novel.
Pride and Prejudice is a novel that draws the willing reader into a world where rationality, convention, societal ambition and passion collide. And it is a world full of human interest and carefully delineated characters who are wholly of their context, but are also familiar to us as people we meet every day in our own context. Ultimately, this is what makes a true work of literature: the ability to transcend the ephemera of context and speak directly about human nature and humanity.