Emma: A World of Anxiety

Anxiety may appear to be a strange topic to choose to focus on when looking at an Austen novel, but I was struck on my most recent reading of Emma by the constant undercurrent of worry in many of the characters’ lives, not to mention the constant use of vocabulary to do with fear and anxiety. Mr Woodhouse is the most obvious embodiment of this; his often rather selfish behaviour is dictated by his intense fear of illness or accident happening either to him or to those he loves. He keeps to a strict diet, preferring gruel over a proper dinner, and tries his best to dissuade his friends and relations from eating the food they enjoy in case it makes them unwell. The mere thought of anyone sitting outside to eat or- God forbid – enjoying a little afternoon sun on a garden bench – sends Mr Woodhouse into paroxysms of nerves that take poor Emma hours to soothe away. Mr Woodhouse hasn’t been to Mr Knightley’s house – a mere 15 minutes’ walk away – in over two years and he rarely ventures outside of his own gardens for fear of catching cold or having an accident in his carriage during the short journey to one of his neighbours’ homes. The language Mr Woodhouse uses is full of vocabulary associated with fear – words such as danger, afraid, risk, hurt – and is invariably negative. He sees evil lurking on every corner and even the most innocuous of activities suggest sinister consequences.

On the surface Mr Woodhouse is a caricature, someone to be laughed at in his hypersensitivity and selfishness. However, his behaviour is really no laughing matter. His terror of the slightest change in routine prevents him from leading a full life and it prevents those around him from living a full life, too. On many an occasion Emma must deny herself opportunities to see more of the world and have the fun she should be having due to her father’s fears. She has also been negatively affected by his desire to keep her at home and away from danger, which has given her a narrow experience of the world and a limited education.  Guests at Hartfield cannot eat what they like or walk where they like for fear of upsetting Mr Woodhouse, who sees indigestion in every bite of something that is not gruel. Mrs Weston cannot enjoy the outing to Donwell because she must sit inside with Mr Woodhouse while everyone else picks strawberries and basks in the sunshine. She is also made to feel guilty about getting married and her joy in this occasion is marred by the distress she knows she is giving her former employer. Mr Knightley must give up his much beloved home and his independence on marrying Emma, because Mr Woodhouse cannot cope without her. Mr Woodhouse might seem to be a mild and harmless old man, but really he is a bit of a tyrant, allowing his personal fears to restrict the lives of those he loves and causing quite significant damage to the happiness of others.

Where do all these fears stem from, one wonders? Mr Woodhouse is wealthy, with a beautiful home in a lovely village filled with old friends who think very highly of him. He has two attractive and healthy daughters, one of whom is blissfully married with five children of her own, and the other never leaves his side and cannot do enough to secure his comfort. He is not a man who would typically need to live in fear. However, if we go back to the beginning of the novel, the biggest clue to his outlook on life lies in the fact that he is a widower. His young, clever and sensible wife died when his daughters were young, leaving Mr Woodhouse at the mercy of his low intelligence and melodramatic disposition. It also meant the heart of his home was gone, and his children were motherless, which must have been immensely painful to him. We aren’t told how Mrs Woodhouse died, but it wasn’t in childbirth, so we can assume her death was caused by some form of illness or infection. The shock and grief ensuing from this has undoubtedly made Mr Woodhouse fearful of experiencing such pain again. In the early 19th century, the average life expectancy was under 50 and medicine was still primitive at best. Without antibiotics or other medications, illnesses that we would struggle into work with, accompanied by some aspirin, could kill a formerly healthy adult in the blink of an eye. Therefore, to a certain extent, Mr Woodhouse’s seemingly trivial fears are justified; illness was not something to be trifled with. His fear of change is also intriguing as it’s not really change as much as marriage that terrifies him. He didn’t like Isabella or Miss Taylor getting married – and always refers to them as ‘poor’. This is undoubtedly partly due to him missing their company now they are no longer part of his household and not wanting to be alone like he must have felt after his wife’s untimely death, but perhaps also because of the unspoken implications of marriage. Invariably a married woman would become pregnant; in the 1800s, when births took place at home and any ensuing complication could be fatal, a woman dying in childbirth was commonplace. Mrs Weston’s impending labour brings much anxiety, after all, and everyone is relieved when she is found to be ‘safe’. Mr Woodhouse’s experience has shown him that life is precious and can very quickly be snuffed out , though ironically his fear of death has prevented him from enjoying his life to the full.

In general, the early 1800s was a time of war and upheaval and just a few decades earlier the revolutions in America and France had demonstrated that the rigid class systems that had been the status quo for hundreds of years were no longer as stable as previously thought. In Emma, we see the likes of the Coles, Hawkins and the deliciously named Sucklings able to raise themselves through trade from humble backgrounds to great prosperity. The Sucklings’ much mentioned estate in Bristol, Maple Grove, is bigger than Hartfield and the Coles have rapidly become second only to Hartfield in Highbury society, encroaching on the landed gentry who have been ruling the roost for several generations. The likes of Mr Robert Martin are also rapidly ascending the social ladder and could hope for a better life than they were born to through hard work and access to education. Highbury may seem to be a microcosm of a traditional, safe and unchanging rural English community, but dig a little under the surface and you find a very different picture.

This is reflected in the fact that Mr Woodhouse is certainly not the only Highbury resident to be living in fear. Miss Bates is forever afraid of Miss Fairfax’s health and her prospects and reads her letters over first so that she does not say anything to alarm her mother. Mrs Weston almost calls the ball at The Crown off for fear of her guests having to pass through draughty passages and works herself into a state of much anxiety over Frank’s safety when he is late for his appointed visit. Emma worries about Harriet and her state of mind constantly. Mr Knightley is fearful of the consequences of Emma’s influence on Harriet. He is also afraid of her having an affection for Mr Churchill that will end his hopes of marriage. Jane Fairfax is terrified of her secret engagement being found out and also made ill with the terrible prospect of having to leave her family and friends behind to have to take the lowly position of governess in a stranger’s house. Mr Churchill is ever nervous about his aunt’s capricious temper and also worried about getting found out and disappointing his father. Isabella is perpetually nervous about her children’s health and Mr John Knightley almost calls off Christmas because of his concern for the safety of driving a few yards down the road to Randalls. No one in Highbury is ever resting easy, even if what they are worrying about is trivial. Fear and anxiety run underneath the surface of this otherwise immensely lighthearted and joyful book, and this tone of worry is a reminder that Jane Austen was not, as many of her critics suggest, oblivious to the contemporary world around her. Look carefully and you see a perfectly clear reflection of early 19th century England in her pages, and this makes the reading experience even richer.

Emma by Jane Austen: First Impressions

Emma has long been a favourite novel of mine. It was the first Austen I ever read; I have since read it about ten times. Each re-read highlights the cleverness of Austen’s characterisation, the multi layered, intricate plotting and the hilarity of her arch wit. I know some people can’t stomach Emma Woodhouse, but I absolutely love her. She is a fantastic heroine because she is so human; she makes catastrophic errors of judgement, is a dreadful snob, thinks she knows best about everything, and can be very unfeeling towards those less fortunate than herself. For me, it’s like looking in the mirror!! However, Emma manages to be all of these things and yet remain utterly endearing. This is down to Austen’s skill in drawing three dimensional characters. Emma could be insufferable; she has all the ingredients to be the most odious heroine ever created (apart from Fanny Price, obviously). However, Austen’s narrative voice is wonderful at revealing Emma’s softer side. Emma has frequent moments of doubt and regret; she never fails to recognise when she has done a wrong and she is the first to criticise herself and resolve to do better when she realises that she has stepped out of line. Her heart is always in the right place and she never intentionally means to wound; she acts in what she genuinely believes to be the best interests of others. If she occasionally has a lapse of judgement, can she be blamed? She is only ‘one and twenty’, after all, and a very sheltered and spoiled one and twenty year old at that. As the novel opens, Emma has only just lost the company of her adoring governess, who has never uttered a cross or corrective word to her in all her formative years. Her father thinks she is perfect, as does her sister. The fact that she is so self reflective and quick to admit her own faults is actually quite remarkable, considering her upbringing.

One of the greatest, if not the greatest, influence on Emma’s moral development is that of her brother in law, Mr Knightley, who is sixteen years her senior, owner of the considerably larger neighbouring estate of Donwell Abbey and a much respected and admired member of the local community. Mr Knightley does not approve of the way Emma has been pandered to all her life and is always quick to bring her up when he feels she has behaved wrongly or erred in judgement. He is sensible, forthright, clear sighted and fair, and he truly values Emma and wants to bring out the best in her. Every time I re-read this book, I see the symptoms of his love for her earlier and earlier; this time around, I could see it even in their very first dialogue, after Miss Taylor’s wedding. “Emma knows I never flatter her,” says Mr Knightley (and you can just imagine the wry smile on his face as he says it!), but this is actually a compliment rather than a criticism. He doesn’t flatter Emma because he knows flattery does her no good. He cares so much for her that he risks her displeasure in attempting to make amends for Miss Taylor and Mr Woodhouse’s indulgence. Mr Knightley sees Emma exactly as she is; a clever, warm hearted, generous and witty girl, whose tendencies for laziness and an inflated ego have been allowed to go unchecked and to marr her better qualities. The fact that he sees her faults and loves her regardless is knee-weakeningly romantic and I love how cross he gets when Emma irritates him with her inability to see her errors, and how jealous he is when Emma praises other men. Their disagreement over Harriet’s refusal of Robert Martin was particularly enjoyable to read; what a sparring match! In standing up to Emma, Mr Knightley provides her with her only true intellectual and moral challenge. I have spent pretty much the entire time I have been reading this novel with my hand pressed to my chest in glee at how much I fancy the pants off Mr Knightley. Sorry to bring down the tone, but seriously; I want one!

This time around, I have been particularly intrigued by the sheer number of periphery characters who have a key role in events. Gossip is a major player in Highbury life; news of even the most trivial nature gets passed around like wildfire and everyone knows everyone else’s business within minutes of said business occurring. There is no privacy, no escape; if Miss Bates doesn’t pin you down to talk about the latest news from Jane Fairfax, Mrs Goddard will stop you in the street to inform you of what she overheard Mr Elton telling Mr Cole in the lane that morning. There is no discretion and no real divide between the classes; Emma Woodhouse’s personal life is no more sacred than Miss Bates’ when it comes to topics for tea-time chat. This environment of gossip is actually very important, as we are able to see beyond Emma’s rather unreliable viewpoint and have events related to us by third parties on a frequent basis. This not only allows for a wider perspective, but also gives us our first clues as to Emma’s inadequacies. I am so used to the story of Emma that I can no longer be hoodwinked by her, but I remember on my first reading that I had no idea of Mr Elton liking Emma and was totally convinced that he was in love with Harriet. Mr Knightley and his brother might have seen the truth of the matter, but they had access to Mr Elton in more informal settings where they had the opportunity to learn more about his character. As such, Emma’s lack of judgement and misunderstanding of Mr Elton’s behaviour can be excused, to a point. However, when we realise that Mrs Cole had been aware of Mr Elton’s regard all along: “A Miss Hawkins! Well, I had always rather fancied it would be some young lady hereabouts; not that I ever – Mrs Cole once whispered to me – but I immediately said, ‘No, Mr Elton is a most worthy young man, but -‘ ” (says Miss Bates), we begin to question Emma’s judgement. There is no smoke without fire, after all. Austen ensures that we are exposed to the wider community’s viewpoint so that we can make a balanced judgement on events. Though, like Emma herself, we are ultimately left to our own devices to make up our minds, and Austen makes it very easy for us to only see what we want to see.

The cleverness of Emma‘s plot cannot be underestimated; there are so many meanders up garden paths that it is very easy for the reader to find themselves hopelessly wrong about the intentions of the characters and shocked at the turn of events. Austen leaves enough clues for us to come to the right conclusions, but she masks them with the help of very unreliable characters. Mr Elton’s preference of Emma over Harriet is actually quite obvious on a second reading, but on the first reading, we have no idea that Emma is not to be trusted and we find ourselves unable to think outside of her reasoning. When Frank Churchill arrives on the scene, it is only with hindsight that we realise he has turned up directly after Jane Fairfax has arrived. He has been putting off his visits to Highbury for years, but all of a sudden he finds himself with two weeks to spare? Obviously he has another motive, but we don’t think about that until all is revealed much later on. This is because Mrs Weston has laid a very interesting booby trap across our path; she has sown the seed of a potential romance between Mr Knightley and Jane. In the scene at the Cole’s, Frank, again in hindsight, is quite obviously working to manoeuvre his way over to Jane at every possible interval, but we don’t see this because we are too busy trying to work out whether there is any truth in Mrs Weston’s conjecture. Emma’s shock and consternation at such a suggestion is enough to make us worry; Emma surely wouldn’t be so bothered if she didn’t see any truth in it. So, we are deliberately sidetracked, even though the romance between Jane and Frank is going on right underneath our noses. How clever Austen is; in writing the plot in this way, she creates a novel that gives much more pleasure on subsequent readings than the first, building in richness the more times we return to it.

I think Emma is the cleverest and most intricate of Austen’s novels. She really makes the reader work hard, and that is a major part of the immeasurable pleasure that I find in reading it. We must unravel the partialities and prejudices of Emma’s mind, weigh them up against the evidence we hear from the other residents of Highbury and come to our own conclusions on the myriad of mysteries and intrigues that arrive to tease us. Who does Mr Elton love? Is Emma doing right in warning Harriet off Mr Martin? Why did Frank Churchill take so long to come to Highbury? Why is Jane Fairfax so reserved? Is Frank Churchill a little too good to be true? Why has the lovely Mr Knightley never married? It’s just simply wonderful. I love every second of reading Emma, and frequently laugh out loud at the characters, who come alive off the pages with their perfectly nuanced dialogue accompanied by the always pithy narrative voice. There is so much more to discuss and explore and I’m really looking forward to digging deeper as I continue reading. I hope some of you will join me!

Pride and Prejudice: On Foolishness

In my final look at Pride and Prejudice, I’m going to focus on foolishness. Much of the novel’s considerable humour is found in the behaviour of foolish characters, whose actions and dialogue not only provide comic relief, but also an interesting commentary on class snobbery and the consequences of poor parental guidance. I think one of the most enduringly appealing aspects of Austen’s writing is that she is so good at capturing people who are blind to their own faults. Let’s take Mrs Bennett, to start off with. Poor Mrs Bennett has become the epitome of the ’embarrassing mother’ – she is totally socially unaware, and sees no shame in talking indiscreetly about her daughter’s marriage prospects, or lack of them, in the most inappropriate of company. She is easily flattered and likes a bit of fun as much as her wayward younger daughters, thoroughly enjoying the attentions of the soldiers without realising how vulgar she is being. She refuses to hear criticism, always thinks she is right, and is shallow to almost painful proportions; as soon as Lydia’s marriage is confirmed, Mrs Bennett starts ordering clothes and talking about how wonderful it will be to have a married daughter to brag about. The shame of the circumstances and the blight this will bring on the prospects of her other daughters doesn’t even seem to occur to her. Mrs Bennett only sees and understands what she wants to, and she is quickly brought around in her dislikes of others when her personal gain is involved.

Mrs Bennett is comic relief because she is undeniably hilarious; her melodramatic, gossipy nature is is brought to life wonderfully in Austen’s portrayal of her speech and actions, and we can’t help but laugh at her. However, Mrs Bennett isn’t totally lacking in wits. Her desperation to see her daughters married isn’t because she’s stupid or shallow, but because she knows they will have practically nothing to live on when their father dies, and she wants them to be financially secure. Her artful wiles, such as getting Jane to go over to Netherfield on horseback in the rain so that she will catch cold, are silly, but they work. Even so, this isn’t to say that Mrs Bennett goes about things in the right way. Austen gives her the credit of having motivations, but her poor intelligence and childlike desire to get her own way have serious consequences. It is thanks to her poor parenting and poor governance of her own tongue that Mr Darcy removes Mr Bingley from Netherfield and poor Jane and Elizabeth nearly have their hearts broken, not to mention Lydia running off with Mr Wickham and causing not only much shame, anxiety and embarrassment, but a lifetime’s worth of an unhappy and unfulfilling marriage. Mrs Bennett is funny, yes, but Austen never lets us lose sight that her foolishness is dangerous, and causes far more harm than good.

Up next is Mr Collins. Oh, Mr Collins! Austen is a genius at portraying the deluded, and Mr Collins is on a par with Mr Elton when it comes to total lack of self awareness and genuine belief in his own fabulousness. What I especially love about Mr Collins is this self belief; where he has got it from, I don’t know, but his confidence in himself and his own abilities is truly astounding. He comes to stay at the Bennetts with the express purpose of leaving with a wife; the thought that he might get turned down never seems to enter his head. When Elizabeth refuses him, he thinks that she is playing a game as ladies are wont to, and proceeds to inform her that really he’s the best offer she’s ever likely to get, and she’d be mad to refuse him. Part of Mr Collins’ belief in his own immense value – not just to the opposite sex but to mankind in general – is his relationship with the De Bourgh family, to whom he grovels with an intensity one might liken to a pet dog. Mr Collins is a huge snob, and will do anything to be noticed by someone with a title. He thrives on Lady Catherine’s condescension and it is the highlight of his sad little life to think up appropriate compliments that he may drop oh-so-casually into later conversation to please Lady Catherine and her sickly daughter.

However, like Mrs Bennett, Mr Collins is not completely stupid; he may be totally insufferable with a hugely overinflated ego, but he has his head screwed on. His patronisation of the right sort of upper class type – namely that who also has an overinflated ego and thrives on being flattered – is hugely beneficial to his career and fortune. Lady Catherine’s patronage has assured him an excellent parish with promotional opportunities, not to mention good connections and a free meal at the big house several times a week. The old adage of ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ certainly rings true for Mr Collins, and though he values style over substance and money over morals, it can’t be denied that his laughable egotism and toe curlingly cringeworthy flattery of his social superiors have helped to secure him a very comfortable life indeed. Even though he does prosper financially, however, he never prospers emotionally; he has no true friends, and his wife married him for convenience, not love. Everyone with sense and heart can’t stand him, and his company is suffered, not desired. His inability to see the true value in other human beings will ensure that he never experiences the true happiness of life, that of loving and being loved, which really makes him the greatest of fools.

Finally, there is Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She is a well built, handsome woman, with a huge house, a large fortune and a massive ego. She loves nothing better than putting other people in their place and reminding them of hers; she enjoys Mr Collins’ company so much because he shows her the deference she believes she deserves. Lady Catherine takes every opportunity to make those she considers to be beneath her feel small, and Elizabeth’s spirited exchanges with her and refusal to be cowed into submission takes her completely by surprise because she has clearly never been challenged before. Lady Catherine’s identity and sense of wellbeing is built on her high opinion of herself, but she is sadly deluded about many aspects of her life. She believes that her nephew Mr Darcy loves and respects her; he doesn’t, because she has never given him any reason to. She believes that her daughter, the silent and sickly Miss Anne, is a genuine catch and that Mr Darcy, handsome and eligible as he is, will marry her. She believes that she is a Lady Bountiful, valued and appreciated by those to whom she dispenses her advice; really she is a strongly disliked busybody who is more of an inconvenience than a blessing. Lady Catherine is a fool because she is blind to the realities of her behaviour and how it impacts on others; she is blind because she cannot see the human value in people beyond their parentage and their bank balance; and she is blind because she cannot see that she only inspires respect in those who need her for her money and influence, and no one truly loves her for who she is. Her demeanour and dialogue are funny because they demonstrate her pompousness and her delusion, but they are also rather sad, because they demonstrate how lacking in kindness and love she is. She will forever be stuck in her big house, alone with the pathetic daughter she knows deep down will never make a good marriage, visited only out of duty rather than pleasure. What a fool she is indeed.

Austen’s depiction of foolishness is not just for comic effect, or to mock. It raises questions of what is good, and what is moral; it raises questions about the duties of parents, and of those blessed with rank and influence. It sets up comparisons between characters, demonstrating that those in society who deserve respect are not those with money and titles, but those who put others first and judge people’s worth on their actions rather than the size of their house and their connections. There is also a degree of sadness about the foolishness of her characters; their behaviour prevents them from enjoying the respect of those around them, and from entering into meaningful, fulfilling relationships. All of them are lonely in their own way, and compared to the happiness of those they are wont to criticise, their lives are small indeed.

Re-reading Pride and Prejudice has once again highlighted just how brilliant Austen is; every time I come back to her novels, they offer me a fresh and delightful new perspective. I notice new details, new insights, and marvel at just how complex Austen’s supposedly simple, romantic tales are. All of humanity is within her pages, and as we as readers grow and change over time, so do her novels, offering us further riches each time we return, a little older and a little more experienced. I think really, if it came down to it, I could just get rid of all my other books and read Austen for the rest of my days, and never cease to be satisfied. I am so pleased I started on this re-reading project; next up will be Emma. I hope some of you will join me to read this wonderful novel next month.

Pride and Prejudice – Varying Observations

I have now finished Pride and Prejudice, and when I tell you that I sat up until the wee small hours for a good few nights because I couldn’t bear to put it down, I think that shows how much I loved it. What a brilliant book this is; so witty, well observed, lively, emotive and deeply, deeply, satisfying.  It contains none of the weaknesses I consider Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park to have; in Pride and Prejudice we have a three dimensional, wonderfully flawed heroine and an equally three dimensional and wonderfully flawed hero, and Austen is excellent at allowing us to get inside both of their heads and so come to understand and sympathise with them on an emotional and rational level. There were several points where I was filled with so much joy that I couldn’t read on; I had to have a little wistful moment with my hand pressed to my chest and my eyes gazing off into the middle distance, digesting the wonderful piece of dialogue, tete a tete, or scene I had just been thoroughly delighted with, before I could come back to my senses and process the prose again. How anyone can say that they don’t love Jane Austen, I really cannot understand. She is a miracle. The world would be a less joyful, less romantic, less hopeful place without her.

Pride and Prejudice has so many interesting characters and subplots and themes to tease out, and I can’t possibly hope to get to them all in just a couple of posts, but I am going to try and look at a few. Firstly, the novel hinges on miscommunications and misunderstandings. There is the obvious one, on which the whole plot pivots, which is Elizabeth’s misunderstanding of Darcy’s character due to her ill advised trust in Mr Wickham’s deliberate miscommunication of his life story, but there are also plenty of other ways in the novel in which characters, by saying too much or too little, or by failing to understand a situation, influence the plot. Elizabeth makes a fatal error by choosing not to communicate Mr Wickham’s true colours once Mr Darcy has made them clear to her; her decision to keep quiet paves the way for Lydia’s elopement. Jane’s failure to make her feelings known to Mr Bingley causes Mr Darcy to misunderstand her modesty for disinterest, and convince Mr Bingley that Jane doesn’t love him. This then moves the Bingleys and Mr Darcy away from Netherfield to London, prolonging the action and introducing a good deal of tension to the plot.

Miscommunication doesn’t always cause problems, though; in some cases, it is a major benefit. A seemingly minor miscommunication is Jane’s inability to address the letter about Lydia’s elopement to Elizabeth in Derbyshire correctly; this delays the letter’s arrival by three days. However, in this three days, Elizabeth has had the opportunity to see Darcy in a totally different light, through going to his home, meeting his housekeeper, and witnessing him behaving as a kind, courteous and amiable gentleman, highly respected by all who know him. It is from this point that she begins to fall in love with him; yet if she had received Jane’s letter on time, Elizabeth and the Gardiners would have been obliged to cut their trip short without ever going to Pemberley. Moreover, Darcy’s arrival a day before he had said he would be at home ensures that he crosses Elizabeth’s path and sets in motion their renewed relationship; if he had made his plans known, Elizabeth would never have dared go to Pemberley at all. So, miscommunication and misunderstandings cause just as much joy as they do trouble, and without them, Pride and Prejudice would have been a much shorter and less interesting novel.

Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I am particularly struck by Austen’s portrayal of the Gardiners. Seemingly minor characters, they are actually incredibly important as surrogate parents for Jane and Elizabeth, demonstrating to them what a good marriage looks like. In a novel full of ill matched marriages, they are a beacon of hope. Without them, Jane and Elizabeth would have no model for what happy matrimony should be; Mr and Mrs Bennett are an unfortunate pair of role models indeed. Married too young, Mr Bennett soon realised  to his cost that prettiness is no substitute for brains. He quickly lost all respect and patience for his wife, and Mrs Bennett was always too dim and too selfish to have developed an understanding and respect for her husband’s character. After 25 years of marriage, they barely tolerate one another, and clearly have little pleasure in each other’s company. Lydia and Wickham’s marriage is an exact copy of this relationship, and Austen makes it clear by the end of the novel that they will have the same fate; Wickham has lost all respect for Lydia, and Lydia’s ardour for Wickham has rapidly cooled. Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas’ marriage is another ill advised pairing; Charlotte is far too sensible and rational for Mr Collins, and will never be able to esteem or love her husband. However, she knows what she is doing, and has placed her desire for a home and children above her desire to give and receive love in marriage. This cool rationality with no romance in sight horrifies Elizabeth. For her, only a love match will do. But how does she know a love match is possible? Certainly not from her parents; rather, it is through witnessing the marriage of her beloved aunt and uncle. The Gardiners represent a perfect union; attractive, intelligent and sensible, they are equals on every level. Their mutual devotion is an example Jane and Elizabeth look to in modelling their future marriages, unlike their silly sister, who is her mother’s favourite and so naturally follows in her footsteps by making the most imprudent and hasty marriage possible.

Finally, I love how Austen creates such comedic characters, passing no authorial judgement, but simply allowing them to show their own stupidity through their dialogue and actions. Mr Collins’ ridiculous obsequiousness, pomposity and total lack of tact or social awareness is hilarious, and no one needs to tell us this apart from Mr Collins himself. His letters are especially priceless; he genuinely thinks he is being of consolation by telling the Bennetts that it is all their fault that Lydia has run off with Wickham, and that, oh, by the way, so does Lady Catherine, and everyone else he has told of their misfortune. Yes, just what they want to hear at this moment in time! Mrs Bennett is no better; even in her moment of most distress over Lydia’s elopement, she still manages to think about the dilemma of wedding clothes, and when the wedding is confirmed, the excitement of ordering the trousseau is what gets her out of bed. This focus on trivial, shallow details is Mrs Bennett’s speciality; she always fails to see the bigger picture and is like a child in her wildly swinging emotions. Her favour of her children dependent on what they do to please her is also a symptom of her childish and shallow personality; as soon as Elizabeth announces her engagement, Jane and Lydia are cast off immediately, and Elizabeth, who she had previously declared disowned and never bothered to show much affection to, has suddenly become her favourite child. Mr Collins and Mrs Bennett (and Lady Catherine, as well, of course – ‘I insist on being satisfied!’ has to be the best line in the whole book!) provide comic relief at times of heightened stress in the novel, and Austen’s structuring is rather Shakespearean in this way. Having such characters as this keeps the novel ‘light, bright, and sparkling’ – without them, Pride and Prejudice would lack the humour and frivolity that makes it such a fun as well as such a satisfying read.

I could go on for hours but I shall stop here…more thoughts in a couple of days. Meanwhile don’t forget to check out Muriel Spark Reading Week at Simon and Harriet’s – I will be participating with the rather predictable The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (I don’t have any other Sparks – and this new edition is gorgeous!) and please do read this wonderful interview with Anne Tyler, who I have never really mentioned, but is one of my favourite authors. I’ll definitely be reading some of her books this summer.

Pride and Prejudice: First Impressions

I must admit, I have never really loved Pride and Prejudice. I have a typically British love of the underdog, and a desire to promote what I believe to be underappreciated. Pride and Prejudice is most often quoted as being Austen’s ‘best’ novel, and the vast majority of people who read Austen seem to claim it as their favourite. I suspect this is largely thanks to the 1990s adaptation starring Colin Firth, whose rise from the lake in see through shirt and skin tight breeches, dripping with irresistible, repressed English male sexuality (and water, of course), earned Pride and Prejudice legions of new fans. As such, Pride and Prejudice doesn’t need my promotion, and so I have reserved my praise and raptures for Austen’s less read masterpieces; namely, the exquisite Persuasion, and the marvellous Emma. I have always found Pride and Prejudice somewhat lacking in comparison to these two younger sisters; it is witty and sparkling and has engaging characters a-plenty, but it never really inspired my affection. I read it several times during my teenage years, and studied it for my A levels, and each time I failed to see the magic others did. It has been a good seven years since I last picked it up, and now, older, wiser and more open minded, I am seeing it with fresher and less critical eyes. Especially as I am reading it so soon after Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility, both of which I think are rather flawed, at last I can see what others do; this really is a close to perfect novel, and one in which you can see the development of Austen’s style and confidence as a novelist. At present (100 pages in), I can’t fault it.

The first thing that has struck me is how hypocritical, proud and a poor judge of character Elizabeth is. After Mr Darcy’s brilliantly catty put-down ‘not handsome enough to tempt me’ – Elizabeth, though she laughs it off and pretends not to care, obviously takes the comment deeply to heart. Her resentment is so keenly felt that regardless of Darcy’s behaviour after his initial criticism of her, she is determined to hate him and find fault in all he does. This is rather ironic, as she is very quick to criticise Darcy for his inability to give people second chances. Darcy – which I had totally forgotten – actually realises his mistake within seconds of his ill advised comment and is not shy about making his admiration of her known. He defends Elizabeth when the Bingley sisters mock her and attempt to put her down, and makes a genuine effort to build up a repartee and earn his way back into her good graces. He is never unkind or short with her – except when he begins to worry that he may have taken things too far, on her last day at Netherfield during Jane’s illness – and in an environment where Elizabeth is out of place and uncomfortable, and the Bingley sisters do their utmost to make her feel small – Darcy makes it clear to the Bingleys that he approves of her, both in appearance and intelligence, and does his best to lessen the impact of their incivility. His former brusqueness is obviously down to shyness; his close friendship with the amiable and rather simple Mr Bingley suggests to the more astute reader that Darcy is an entirely different man to those he trusts and loves, and his reputation as being proud and aloof is only really evidenced when he is in the company of a large group of strangers. This all points to a social awkwardness, a hatred of small talk and a hatred of being looked at (he hates dancing, I am sure, because he dislikes being paid attention to) that Elizabeth, as a gregarious and confident girl, cannot understand or relate to. Therefore, she misreads Darcy’s shyness for pride and snobbery, and makes no attempt to try and understand him further; which, as we all know, will turn out to be a big mistake.

Enter Mr Wickham, who I always want to call Mr Willoughby; they are so similar! The awkward encounter between Mr Wickham and Mr Darcy on the street in Meryton piques Elizabeth’s interest, and she revels in Wickham’s dirt-dishing on Darcy. She doesn’t stop to wonder why a perfect stranger is so keen to tell her his dirty laundry, or blacken the name of Mr Darcy so thoroughly in their very first conversation; to someone a little more mature, this would ring alarm bells. Why is Mr Wickham so anxious to get Elizabeth on his side? Why is he so vocal about Mr Darcy’s apparently dastardly behaviour, despite the fact that he has only just met Elizabeth and they haven’t established anywhere near a level of intimacy that would merit him telling her such personal confidences? Obviously he is up to something, but Elizabeth doesn’t even think to doubt him. So bitter is she towards Darcy for his comment at the ball that she delights in a further excuse to think ill of him, and happily trusts a perfect stranger who clearly has several chips on his shoulder. Jane, who I had previously thought of as a bit of a drip, shows some sense and does raise doubts as to Wickham’s trustworthiness, but Elizabeth will have none of it. She is determined to hate Darcy, and though she is normally possessed of plenty of good sense and intelligence, her vanity over the slight she has received overrides all other considerations. When she mentions Wickham to Darcy, and Darcy refuses to say much on the issue, this should have shown her that Wickham was the one to distrust; Darcy is the true gentleman in declining to trample on someone else’s reputation. However, she takes this as a further sign of his guilt, and, silly thing that she is, falls even more in love with the handsome and supposedly hard done by Wickham in the process. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, after all; and no woman can resist a man in a uniform.

So here we are, at page 100, with a lively, fun loving, passionate and intelligent heroine who, through her own pride, is getting herself into a very tricky situation indeed. Normally I would find such lack of insight infuriating, but I actually love Elizabeth for it. Love is blind, and haven’t we all been in a position of failing to see what is right under our noses because of our misguided affection for a man (or woman!) who is very handsome and says all the right things? Of course we have! Elizabeth is marvellously human, and a magnificent creation. So is Mrs Bennett; I had forgotten how awful she is – the epitome of the embarrassing mother – and don’t even get me started on Mr Collins! He deserves a post of his own. Mr Darcy has especially warmed my heart, however; his awkward attempts at showing Elizabeth that he actually admires her rather a lot and is sorry for what he said are very endearing, and it’s obvious that he finds Elizabeth’s curtness hurtful. He is not very good at communicating with people, and this social shyness is debilitating, giving him a reputation he doesn’t deserve. I just want to give him a hug; what woman can resist a vulnerable man?! I am delighted to be so thoroughly enjoying myself and am looking forward to reading further and getting into some interesting discussions with you all. There are so many characters I want to explore and so many issues bubbling under the surface; what a magnificent novel this is! More to come over the next week!