“What are men to rocks and mountains?”
For several reasons, I hadn’t read Jane Austen up until a couple of weeks ago. None of her novels were required reading in school, which is probably my main justification. But there were other reasons just as influential as they were crass. I understood her work to be girly, romantic, Victorian fluff, and as goes the common fallacy, I figured it had nothing to say to me about my life — since that’s why anyone reads anything anyway.
I came around to it having heard enough people insist that Austen did indeed have a sharp sense of the language, and that in the interest of reading some good verbal sparring, Pride and Prejudice would be worth the while. That was certainly the case — the scene wherein our bourgeois heroine Elizabeth Bennet holds her ground against keeper-of-the-old-guard Lady de Bourgh is the best (“your name will never even be mentioned by any of us,” “These are heavy misfortunes”). And Elizabeth's zinger toward the heinous Miss Bingley — “have you any thing else to propose for my domestic felicity?” — should be a feminist bumper sticker of the first order.
But what irony and wit might overshadow is the weight of Austen’s words in terms of parsing human nature. The first sentence of the novel — “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” — is perhaps the most artful way of saying that if a girl catches a man’s interest, he’ll want to sleep with her, and it’s been that way since the beginning of time. What Elizabeth goes on to prove, which I guess was no small thing for the early 19th century, was the viability of attracting a man’s interest based on one’s intelligence. That is, Mr. Darcy, whose pool of socially acceptable mates only includes one person (who happens to be his cousin, Lady de Bourg Jr.), never meditated on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes could bestow; he had the hots for a smarty pants and didn’t know how to say it.
It's worth noting that not everything Elizabeth says is facetious. The no-means-no exchange with Mr. Collins is the foremost example, but even her dismissal of Darcy’s proposal is a point of radicalism in the context of the novel’s time period. Fellas: if she “stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent,” do not consider it “sufficient encouragement.” The difficulty, of course, lies in making things explicit whilst being polite (in the 19th century sense of polite). What makes Elizabeth so remarkable in that regard is that rather than inciting revolution, she manages to carve out a sense of independence within the confines of English tradition, and she establishes some “domestic felicity,” on her own terms.
Finishing the novel, and understanding the influence of the Elizabeth Bennet character, led me to think of this week’s presidential debate and the question of equal pay. The answer as it stands, which wasn’t really explicated (per the modern political brand of bullshit, not the Jane Austen brand of discretion), is that Lily Ledbetter allows women to sue. That is, the Fair Pay Act isn’t on the side of revolution, but of tradition. To gain equality through lawsuits, rather than having it given plainly, asks an incredible amount of women’s social and linguistic talent. This is not a good thing. But it does smack of a What-Would-Elizabeth-Bennet-Do kind of situation that still plagues our culture.
Pride and Prejudice is valuable because it’s a book for reading people read people. As is still the case today, this is particularly difficult for men, whose narratives are culturally dominant enough that we don’t feel the need to decipher anything —we just expect that our perceptions match reality. And this is why boys ought to read Jane Austen. Women have made it clear enough where we are and where we need to go. It’s our imperative to pay attention.
This article is the second in a bi-weekly colum by James Ramsay entitled, "Whom Is Just the Fancy Who: Notes on the English Language From Someone Who Practically Speaks It. Check out the previous articles here.