We’ve Been with Lizzie All Along
A conversation about the enduring appeal of Pride & Prejudice
As half the Western world is now feverishly reminding the other half, Jane Austen’s most-read novel, Pride and Prejudice, was published 200 years ago – on 28 January 1813. The author, who died a spinster at the age of 41 only four years later, famously referred to the book as “my own darling child,” and the verdict has been shared by countless aficionados in the ensuing centuries. In addition to the humdrum little miracle of remaining in print for 200 years, Pride and Prejudice has been adapted and re-imagined in just about every way a work of fiction can be adapted or re-imagined: movies, mini-series, musicals, stage plays, operas, action-oriented Japanese anime, theme parks, costume balls, erotica, and ‘mash-ups’ featuring vampires and zombies – in these and countless other ways, the reading public has taken the book to its heart in ways more personal and persistent than those lavished on any other single work of fiction, including the comedies of Mark Twain and the plays of Shakespeare. The bicentennial hoopla may have temporarily pitched things to a new volume, but the fact is, Jane Austen mania is apparently a permanent part of the cultural landscape. In an attempt to get at the heart of this phenomenon, Open Letters Managing Editor Steve Donoghue recently sat down with Rohan Maitzen, professor of English at Dalhousie University in Halifax and Open Letters‘ in-house authority on 19th-century literature. Unconfirmed rumors allege that both were wearing crino-lines.
SD: Everyone in the world, suddenly, seems to be talking about Pride and Prejudice as it turns 200! In-print and online articles abound on “the Magic of Jane” and “the Eternal Appeal of Austen-land” – and yet, there have always been famous dissenters, right? Charlotte Brontë, perhaps most famous of all, writing to a friend that she’d read Pride and Prejudice and basically didn’t see what all the fuss was about:
And what did I find? 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.
In almost anybody else, we could dismiss this kind of thing as sour grapes, but surely we have to allow that the author of Jane Eyre knew a thing or two about fiction. So apart from any issues of psychology (never very far away when dealing with any of the Brontës!), the obvious first question is: What was Charlotte missing? Or, more controversially, is there a chance she was right?
RM: Oh, she was absolutely right! But she was also completely wrong, in just the way you’d expect of one genius contemplating another’s masterpiece. Think of Henry James blithely pronouncing that Middlemarch is a “treasure-house of details but an indifferent whole”: he just didn’t get it, or perhaps he couldn’t afford to get it, because he needed to believe in his own vision of greatness in the novel in order to achieve it. Jane Eyre is a passionate assertion of self, a literary gauntlet thrown down to a world that idealized women who were meek little domesticated mice. “It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility,” declares Jane:
they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.
Brontë’s novel is (and was received as being) itself a revolutionary document: it trumpets its resistance to a “stiller doom” on every page.
Austen’s sensibility is not revolutionary, and for Brontë Austen’s restraint comes across as repression. And yet Pride and Prejudice also makes pretty radical claims, doesn’t it? Elizabeth Bennet may not burn down Rosings (if only!), but when she faces down Lady Catherine, rebuffing her assertions of aristocratic privilege (“Miss Bennet, do you know who I am?”) with the proud resolve to “to act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness” — that opens the windows of those “elegant but confined houses” wide to let in a blast of fresh air. Pemberley with Elizabeth in it is hardly commonplace.
That line about there being “no open country” in Pride and Prejudice always reminds me of Elizabeth’s walk across the fields to see Jane at Netherfield. She arrives with “weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.” Miss Bingley has no difficulty seeing and condemning her “indifference to decorum”; it seems ironic that Brontë would be less perceptive!
SD: A quick digression! In the great scene you mention, isn’t there a chance Lady Catherine is justified? Not about aristocratic privilege but rather about the danger of a young girl who’s governed only by her own happiness? In that same scene, Lady Catherine herself brings up the damning example of Elizabeth’s sister Lydia, who threatens to disgrace the whole family precisely by trying to constitute her own happiness. How was Lady Catherine – how was anybody – to see the difference between the two sisters? And what were readers supposed to make of it all, for Heaven’s sake?
RM: The danger — which I agree is perfectly illustrated by silly, self-indulgent Lydia — is not the reasoned pursuit of happiness but the thoughtless pursuit of sensual gratification. Readers are in a much better position to see the difference than Lady Catherine, don’t you think? Because after all, we’ve been with Lizzie all along and know how closely she observes and how astutely she judges. One of the great pleasures of reading Pride and Prejudice is tucking ourselves into her point of view, laughing at other people’s follies and appreciating the real privilege, which is superior wit, not higher class. In that way, Austen arms us against Lady Catherine’s confusion.
Mind you, Austen also sets us up to make Elizabeth’s big mistake right along with her: that Lizzie too initially falls for Wickham helps us understand the dangerous seduction of that kind of shallow, selfish charm — but we’re susceptible, as she is, because we know she deserves to be appreciated, and so we’re offended by Darcy’s self-satisfied condescension. Austen is so good at taking us through that process of mutual re-education! As is so often the case for characters in 19th-century novels, what Lady Catherine needs, to understand where she’s going wrong, is to read the novel she’s in.
SD: Certainly if she did she’d have lots of company! Here at the 200-year anniversary, Pride and Prejudice seems more popular than ever, when novels that once outshone it (poor Sir Walter Scott comes to mind) have fallen into darkness. Endless theories have been put forward to account for this popularity; a sardonic British director claimed that if you film something enough times, you make it immortal (A. E. W. Mason, author of the much-filmed and entirely-forgotten The Four Feathers, might disagree!); in the 1960s, a Berkeley student rather unconvincingly claimed “it’s all about Wickham”; and of course there’s the widespread theory that humans of both genders and all ages simply can’t help swooning in the presence of brooding Mr. Darcy (recently – and definitively? – immortalized on film by the great Colin Firth, as lauded by Elinor Lipman in the Huffington Post) It almost seems like a defining characteristic of these theories that they should all feel unsatisfying; after all, on one level, Pride and Prejudice is no different than a million other Regency romances, right? Rich, arrogant nobleman is physically attracted (and really, when Darcy is first drawn to Elizabeth, can it be for any other reason?) to provincial spitfire and eventually makes her mistress of his vast estates and learns a little about his own humanity in the process. Like all right-thinking people, you’re a fan of writers like Georgette Heyer and Mary Balogh, and they’ve each written dozens of books with that same plot. So now the epic question falls to you: why this book? What makes Pride and Prejudice Pride and Prejudice?
RM: I’m not sure if I’m the right person to answer that question or exactly the wrong one! As you know, I’m not a devout Janeite — does that disqualify me, or give me a little valuable distance? I suppose it depends on whether you’re asking what makes Pride and Prejudice stand out from the likes of Heyer and Balogh, or whether you’re asking about why Pride and Prejudice is (for now, anyway) the Novel of Novels, the One Novel to Rule Them All. I’m a relative newcomer to 20th-century Regency romances — I’m only just finishing The Grand Sophy, for instance, which is my first Heyer Regency, and of Mary Balogh’s vast backlist, I’ve read only a dozen or so titles. But in that context, I think it’s an easy call: Austen offers far more sophisticated pleasures, from the nuance and layered irony of her language to the sharpness of her social criticism. I’m thoroughly enjoying The Grand Sophy, which is fast-paced and funny and has a delightfully spunky heroine. I’ll be very surprised, though, if on finishing that novel I have any sense of intellectual discovery, or if I’ve read any scenes with the psychological complexity that makes Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley in the novel so much more thrilling even than the sight of Colin Firth in his wet shirt. Balogh, too, tells a good story (though with a tendency toward the kind of maudlin sentimentality that is, thankfully, nowhere in Austen). But if there’s a sentence in any of Balogh’s novels with the succinct but epiphanic force of Elizabeth’s “Till this moment, I never knew myself,” I haven’t come across it yet.
The other, larger question is a bit more perplexing to me, though I find some of the explanations in Claire Harman’s Jane’s Fame plausible: for instance, that being an Austen fan “could be made to reflect flatteringly” on the reader. I don’t share the skepticism of famous contrarians like Mark Twain (who famously sniped that “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone”): Pride and Prejudice is a brilliant novel. I agree wholeheartedly with the 19th-century critic George Henry Lewes, who called Austen “the greatest artist that has ever written, using the term to signify the most perfect mastery over the means to her end.” But as Lewes tacitly suggests, hers is hardly the only end imaginable, especially for a form as malleable as the novel — “like crystalline masses, it may take any form, and yet be beautiful,” as Marian Evans wrote just as she herself was on the verge of becoming George Eliot. Austen’s self-deprecating comment about the “little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush” is, I think, properly taken with a grain of salt, but the scope of her work is smaller — the demands it makes on her readers are slighter — than those of some other novels that take very different forms. That Middlemarch (you knew I had to go there, right?) is not such a crowd pleaser reflects as much on readers as it does on Middlemarch itself. Earlier I commented on how easy it is to take Elizabeth Bennet’s side. For readers of Pride and Prejudice, where is the moral effort equivalent to Eliot’s treatment of Mr Casaubon? Pride and Prejudice is a great 19th-century novel, but it’s not the greatest 19th-century novel: there’s no way, but happily also no need, to make that call.
SD: I always thought the grace-note of Twain’s snipe was the implication that he, like everybody else, re-reads Pride and Prejudice! I confess, I’ve used this anniversary-hoopla to return to it myself, like sinking into a warm bath.
RM: I’ve re-read it often, but I confess that the hoopla was having the opposite effect on me — I was feeling that I’d prefer to read any other novel! — until I pulled Pride and Prejudice off my shelf to look up some quotations for this exchange. As soon as I looked at the book itself, I was reminded what a treat it is.