The Joy of Reading Jane Austen 9 February 2006Posted by ABD in ABD, Arts, Relationships, Reviews.
Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors, and Pride and Prejudice is one of my favorite books. There, I’ve said it. I’m hardly alone, but I recognize that I have more sisters than brothers standing with me on this one.
Janissaries like me are so drawn to this woman because she opens a window into another, richer world. The drama of Pride and Prejudice depends on the insights and perceptions of its characters, and on the delicacy with which they make or lose their point. Here is a textured vocabulary with which to communicate without being too direct, rude or crude in matters that require sensitivity. Take for example the grace with which Eliza Bennet’s refuses Mr. Collins’ suit, or the wit with which she nettles Mr. Darcy without shaming him.
It’s almost a guilty pleasure. To be fair, there is something very artificial about this comedy of manners. We are invited into the drawing rooms of an idle class of tea-drinkers and piano-players who can afford to learn fourteen different ways to flirt with someone without being crude. The greatest distance that an Austen novel runs is from ettiquette to courtship and back. To drive this point home, we can invoke as great a literary authority as Mark Twain (my brother is certainly more than willing to):
Everytime I read Pride and Prejudice I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.
From his own criticism, however, it would seem that even Mr. Twain has read Pride and Prejudice several times (Janissaries who have worn their copies into vintage editions can take solace here).
Muslim readers in particular can be gratified that a world of rules does not take fun out of the game. Modesty is celebrated rather than ridiculed in Pride and Prejudice. Lydia (the younger sister who runs off with bad boy Wickham) would be a wonderfully three-dimensional figure in a contemporary novel, but Austen has no sympathy for her. Moreover, we (re)learn that elders can be a moderating influence on young women and men. Note how gently Eliza’s aunt speaks to her about the impropriety of an otherwise desirable relationship. Even the failure of the Bennets to be good parents points to the need for more, not less, chaperoning. Strict guidelines on what is or isn’t appropriate can set up obstacles, but they also protect us–from each other and from our own selves. As we know from our Prophet (saw):
Every deen has an innate character. The character of Islam is modesty. (narrated by Zayd ibn Talha, transmitted by Malik)
In the Austen game, the smartest and most sensible girl wins. Jane is prettier, Catherine Bingley is richer and Lydia is looser, but it is Eliza that walks away with the biggest prize.
To repeat, we shouldn’t be fooled by Austen–this is a romanticized view of a world that no longer exists. We are at least twice removed from it–by fiction and by time. But literature can teaches as much by absence as it does by presence. If things turn out wonderfully for Eliza by the end of the novel, only the most careless reader forgets how easily they might not have. (Lest we forget, Jane Austen never married.)
Or take the more difficult question of “Where’s Darcy?”. Darcy is harder to find than Waldo, but somehow men are less disturbed by this than women are. Sure, the average guy has less invested in being the ideal man than the average girl is in finding him. But there may be something more fundamental at work here. As Robert Bly writes in Iron John: A Book About Men:
The European novel, a lovely phenomenon of the last two centuries, has taught more than one contemporary woman what a rich reservoir of impulses and longings she has in her soul that can be satisfied or remain unsatisfied. Few women say now, “The boundaries of my life are my husbands.” or even think it. A twentieth-century woman feels complicated sensibilities in herself that no ordinary or mortal man meet.”
Beer nuts can’t compete with complicated sensibilities. I realize that even as I am defending the male character, I feel obliged to caricature it. But that will have to wait for a later discussion. Suffice it to say that while men have something to learn from Darcy, women can also learn something from the gap between him and most men–even the good ones.
Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was the first book read by the Iqra Book Club this semester.