Jane Austen: Savage Queen of Snark and Satire
Beware an Author Whose Books Never Go out of Print. Reviewing ‘Pride and Prejudice’
Curators are putting a 1798 letter written by novelist Jane Austen to her sister, Cassandra, on public display. The missive reflects details of her domestic life while her mother was ill and Austen managed Mum’s medication and housekeeping responsibilities. As quoted in the Guardian, it also reflects Austen’s snarky sense of humor.
“Our dinner was very good yesterday,” she said, “& the Chicken boiled perfectly tender; therefore I shall not be obliged to dismiss Nanny on that account. . . .” With the departure of their washer woman, a new servant stepped into handle the laundry. “She does not look as if anything she touched would ever be clean,” she said, “but who knows?”
Edgier still, she mentioned a neighbor with a stillborn child, “oweing to a fright.” She concluded, “I suppose she happened unawares to look at her husband. . . .”
I chose Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice for my classic novel goal this year because it’s hard to imagine a novel more classic. It’s never been out of print and has found its way to stage and both the small screen and big many times over. There’s even a musical. But it’s one of the many holes in my education; I’d never read the book.
Given the romantic nature of her novels, I was prepared for something serious, even sentimental. And sure enough, those qualities announced themselves as I turned the pages. But so did the same snark filling the letter to her sister. Pride and Prejudice is comedy in the classic sense; it ends with three marriages, after all. But it’s comical in the handier sense we employ today. Be careful of your beverage choice; some of Austen’s jabs will make you spit out whatever you’re drinking. And many of those jabs have a point; there’s as much satire as romance here.
Austen drops her characters amid an impossible legal situation, exacerbating their worst traits and playing them shamelessly for laughs.
According to her famous open line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” But the only person desperate for marriage is Mrs. Bennet, the mother of five daughters, one of whom is the heroine Elizabeth. Without direct male heirs, Mr. Bennet’s estate will go to his cousin, Mr. Collins, upon his eventual death. This unfortunate financial transfer would leave the Bennet daughters bereft of income and reliant on advantageous marriages to avoid destitution. Mrs. Bennet thus obsesses over finding husbands for her brood, and like any full-tilt obsession, it brings out her worst.
Ah, but there’s hope at last! A new neighbor—as rich as he is unattached—moves into the area. And as luck would have it, this Charles Bingley takes a fancy to the eldest daughter, Jane. Good news keeps coming: Mr. Collins, taking the advice of his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, has decided to marry. While initially interested in Jane, Collins isn’t particular and—upon learning of Jane’s exit from the market—shifts his gaze to Elizabeth.
What could be better? Marriage to a rich landowner for daughter No. 1 and the family inheritance kept, more or less, in the family thanks to daughter No. 2. Except, any scheme so desperate is bound to unravel. Bingley’s friend Fitzwilliam Darcy isn’t impressed by the Bennet family and intervenes to separate Bingley and Jane. And Elizabeth, who can’t stand Collins, rejects his proposal of marriage. Easy come, easy go.
Collins is a fool, but Austen spends more time showing than telling. When, for instance, he admits with self-satisfaction that he composes his compliments in advance and looks for social settings to employ them, we nod: Of course he does. And the reader cringes every time he says something about De Bourgh; his fealty to his patron is slavish and silly. What does it say of a legal and social arrangement that to preserve wealth for one’s family, a woman would be forced to marry a such a buffoon, or that such a buffoon has a job overseeing a church parish thanks to the funds of a patron soon revealed as little wiser?
When Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas accepts Collins’s next entreaty, we’re not surprised to find that she does so for purely practical reasons and avoids him at home as much as possible. Surely, there’s a jab there as well. Same with Mr. Bennet himself, who wisecracks his way through the first two-thirds of the story and seems oblivious to the real predicament his daughters are in. Instead, he hides in his library, behind a wall of sarcasm—most of which, admittedly, floats off the page with a grin.
“You take delight in vexing me,” Mrs. Bennet tells him early on. “You have no compassion for my poor nerves.”
“You mistake me, my dear,” Mr. Bennet responds. “I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last twenty years at least.” While such responses to his neurotic family endear him to the reader, we soon realize that his passive, retiring approach renders him worthless when the time comes for him to act. His failure knocks him down a few notches on the sympathy meter.
Austen takes aim at one convention after another. Darcy is, we discover, pledged to marry De Bourgh’s underwhelming daughter, though he has no interest in the match. Instead, after an initial rejection, he desires to make advances on Elizabeth. This is promising; Darcy is far richer than Bingley. Unfortunately, he’s also every bit as arrogant as Collins is obsequious. Collins is below Elizabeth’s contempt; Darcy wins that all for himself.
Just as tricky, Elizabeth shows interest in George Wickham, an old acquaintance of Darcy’s whose wayward life and betrayals we eventually discover have warranted his exile from Darcy’s good will. Even when Elizabeth discovers the full story, thanks to Darcy, she can’t bring herself to expose Wickham and bears culpability when her silence permits Wickham to run off with her younger sister, Lydia. Wickham, it turns out, would have also received a parish like Collins had Darcy not withheld it. The Church of England has, apparently, a poor filter for talent.
The remarkable feat of Austen’s narrative? She takes this tangle of motivations and manages to rehabilitate Elizabeth and Darcy’s opinion of each other while ironing out several additional wrinkles. Even then she has fun with it. Sister Jane knows only of Elizabeth’s disdain for Darcy. When Jane asks when Elizabeth changed her mind, she responds, “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley,” his lavish estate. We laugh because we know it’s untrue.
Elizabeth would never marry for mere wealth or status. Instead, she emerges from the story as both principled and independent, bent on taking life on her own terms. When Lady Catherine De Bourgh insists that she promise not to marry Darcy, Elizabeth refuses, rendering the icon of power and status impotent and humiliated. Neither a feminist nor a reactionary, Elizabeth charts a third and empowering course for herself.
But it’s not Elizabeth’s appealing performance alone that guarantees Pride and Prejudice’s ongoing relevance. It’s Austen’s comic alchemy that allows her nineteenth-century social critique to amuse twenty-first century readers, along with every generation in between.
¶ Have you read Pride and Prejudice? I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments.
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¶ So far I’ve read three of twelve books for my classic novel goal. In January I reviewed Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and in February, Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio. P&P was my March book. In April, I’ll be reading and reviewing Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. If you’re not a subscriber, take a moment and sign up. It’s free for now, and I’ll send you my top-fifteen quotes about books and reading. Thanks again!