Assets and ambition in the world of Jane Austen

by Tim Upperton / 21 February, 2013
The soundtrack throughout Pride and Prejudice is the jingle of pounds, shillings and pence.
Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini series

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” It’s the most famous opening sentence of any English novel, and all of Pride and Prejudice – all of Jane Austen, in fact – is contained in it. The desire of upper-middle-class parents to exchange their daughters’ virginity for wealth and position is ironically projected on to the possessor of these things, and a grasping, partial ambition is elevated to a universal, unassailable truth.

Hilarious! But how ironic is it, really? This is the ethos of Mrs Bennet and, for all his condescension and witty barbs, of Mr Bennet, too. Elizabeth Bennet, one of their five marriageable daughters, is made of better stuff and is mortified by her mother’s behaviour. But is she any different?

Elizabeth is the character with whom we are most intimately acquainted, inside and out. She detests Mr Darcy for his pride and rudeness, and because of the calumnies spread by the bounder Wickham (a character I wish we saw more of – the novel quickens whenever he appears, along with the ghastly Lydia). Elizabeth hates the materialism and social climbing of her family, but what are her first thoughts on seeing Pemberley, Darcy’s magnificent estate? She admires the “large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground […] She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment, she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!”

As she wanders through the stately rooms, she notes they “were lofty and handsome, and their furniture suitable to the fortune of their proprietor”. This is a common enough usage of “handsome” in the early 19th century, but it’s striking how often it’s used to describe Darcy’s substantial assets: we may as well call him Pemberley, just as the US President is called the White House. “‘And of this place,’ thought she, ‘I might have been mistress! With these rooms I might now have been familiarly acquainted!’”

Much later, when Elizabeth and Darcy are united, Jane, her sister, asks her when she first knew she loved him, and she responds: “I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” Elizabeth says this archly – there’s more arch in an Austen novel than in a Norman cathedral – but she means it, too. “What is the difference,” she asks at one point, “in matrimonial affairs, between the mercenary and the prudent motive?” The answer, roundly endorsed by Austen, is: no difference. The soundtrack throughout this story is the jingle of pounds, shillings and pence.

This is hardly the first novel in which a woman is ultimately and happily united with an arrogant, controlling man of superior position and wealth – we’d have to go back to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) for that. But innumerable novels have hitched a ride on its narrative train since, including every Mills & Boon ever written and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Usually filtered through the perspective of the heroine, the initial meeting with the hero is always marked by misunderstanding, and various obstacles are placed in the path of their love. Darcy is presented as unlikeable at first, but it’s often overlooked just how nasty he can be (I blame Colin Firth). On first encountering Elizabeth, he says, within her hearing, “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.” Not content with this, he later sneers, “She a beauty! I should as soon call her mother a wit”; and he dismisses dancing with her as utterly beneath him: “Every savage can dance.” The man’s a complete arse.

Such novels also always have a striking insularity – there is no sense of a wider world in which the romance takes place. Pride and Prejudice is crawling with military regiments, but these are a source of social diversion and flirtation only: the passing reference at the end to “the restoration of peace” is as much as we ever hear of the Napoleonic Wars.

Literary critic Edward Said once noted how, in Mansfield Park, the heroine’s questioning of her uncle about the slave trade is met with silence (the family’s prosperity derives from a sugar plantation they own in the Caribbean). That the question is raised at all shows Austen was troubled by slavery, but it is completely beyond the orbit of her experience and of the social sphere her characters inhabit.

So, too, in Pride and Prejudice, where so much is omitted from the story. Servants, for example, move invisibly between the great houses, delivering invitations; they drive carriages, cook meals and do laundry, but otherwise they simply don’t exist.

Nearly as invisible is the Bennets’ fifth daughter, the plain, bookish Mary, always secluded in her study. Is Mary a portrait of Austen herself? For all her reading, Mary is unworldly and priggishly moralising, and I wonder whether in her character (hardly necessary to the novel) Austen is acknowledging her own limits. Maybe we should acknowledge those limits, too.

Listener Book Club
The New Zealand Listener Book Club
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