Jane Austen, 1780-1814: English novelist and (according to the New York Times) the “posthumous queen of genteel cinema”. Hugely successful in her own time and popular to this day, Jane Austen wrote captivating novels about the lives, loves, pretensions and aspirations of genteel society in Regency England. She likened her style to painting literary miniatures on ‘a little bit (two inches wide) of Ivory’. Her six novels are noted for the great delicacy, humour, refinement – and at times biting satire: in her work the foolish, the selfish and the shallow invariably meet with the ruin, disgrace or obscurity they deserve. Her portrait (a heartfelt if naïve miniature by her sister Cassandra) shows a good-humoured, doughty, resourceful-looking character… no beauty. The Prince Regent admired Emma, or at least acknowledged safe receipt of the presentation copy. His secretary, James Stanier Clark, ludicrously wrote to Austen suggesting an idea for her next book: “any historical romance illustrative of the august House of Cobourg would just now be very interesting.” Readers have sought comfort and amusement from Jane Austen’s work in the bizarrest places. When searching for flora on the upper slopes of Mount Everest , the nineteenth century botanist Reginald Farrer sent his servant, Ma-Fu, down to base camp, several thousand feet away, to fetch up a copy of Northanger Abbey. Ma-Fu, who couldn’t read, trundled back up with Emma, whereupon Farrer might well have found solace in the view held by some that all Austen’s plots and characters are pretty much interchangeable. Walter Scott admired her: “[Miss Austen] had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I have ever met with. The Big Bow-Wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me.” The following extract from Chapter 5 of Pride and Prejudice is a very good example of the qualities Scott admired. We are witnessing an increasingly intense and somewhat sententious discussion about the various delinquencies of Mr Darcy. Comic relief comes in the form of a decisive interjection from one of the Lucas children. It comes across as entirely believable, not in the slightest bit staged or artificial, a perfect foil to the elaborate pretensions of the grown-ups.
“I beg you would not put it into Lizzy’s head to be vexed by his ill-treatment, for he is such a disagreeable man, that it would be quite a misfortune to be liked by him. Mrs. Long told me last night that he sat close to her for half-an-hour without once opening his lips.”
“Are you quite sure, ma’am?–is not there a little mistake?” said Jane. “I certainly saw Mr. Darcy speaking to her.”
“Aye–because she asked him at last how he liked Netherfield, and he could not help answering her; but she said he seemed quite angry at being spoke to.”
“Miss Bingley told me,” said Jane, “that he never speaks much, unless among his intimate acquaintances. With THEM he is remarkably agreeable.”
“I do not believe a word of it, my dear. If he had been so very agreeable, he would have talked to Mrs. Long. But I can guess how it was; everybody says that he is eat up with pride, and I dare say he had heard somehow that Mrs. Long does not keep a carriage, and had come to the ball in a hack chaise.”
“I do not mind his not talking to Mrs. Long,” said Miss Lucas, “but I wish he had danced with Eliza.”
“Another time, Lizzy,” said her mother, “I would not dance with HIM, if I were you.”
“I believe, ma’am, I may safely promise you NEVER to dance with him.”
“His pride,” said Miss Lucas, “does not offend ME so much as pride often does, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, everything in his favour, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a RIGHT to be proud.”
“That is very true,” replied Elizabeth, “and I could easily forgive HIS pride, if he had not mortified MINE.”
“Pride,” observed Mary, who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections, “is a very common failing, I believe. By all that I have ever read, I am convinced that it is very common indeed; that human nature is particularly prone to it, and that there are very few of us who do not cherish a feeling of self-complacency on the score of some quality or other, real or imaginary. Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”
“If I were as rich as Mr. Darcy,” cried a young Lucas, who came with his sisters, “I should not care how proud I was. I would keep a pack of foxhounds, and drink a bottle of wine a day.”
“Then you would drink a great deal more than you ought,” said Mrs. Bennet; “and if I were to see you at it, I should take away your bottle directly.”
The boy protested that she should not; she continued to declare that she would, and the argument ended only with the visit.