I often wonder what Jane Austen would have thought of the intense interest in her writings more two hundreds years further on. I wonder whether it had entered her mind that her books would gain a worldwide audience, and her popularity only grow. On the second, I think the answer would be a definite no. It never occurred to her. On the evidence, all she hoped for was the publication of her novels and their acceptance.
On the first, I think she would have been stunned, flabbergasted – and appalled. Appalled at the interpretation by some who attribute political views to her she did not hold. Feminists have given her the status of a feminist icon while the evidence speaks against this.
Jane Austen was a devout Christian, leaning to the High Church of England. Her traditional Christian beliefs, which include the idea of an ordered world, would disqualify this picture before we look at other evidence. In her novels, she savages a range of female types – the stupid, the ignorant, the neurotic, the manipulative, the deceitful, the cruel, and the list goes on. The heartless Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park is perhaps the most vile female character in English fiction.
The 1995 television production of Pride and Prejudice added to the self-serving feminist interpretation. At the time, I said it reflected a 1990s feminist mentality. Nothing has changed my mind.
An indication of the program’s superficial bias is the depiction of the clergyman Mr Collins as boorish, ignorant and vulgar, a man who represents all men in their innate misogyny. The English actor who portrays Mr Collins gave it the full works, among other characteristics having Mr Collins make disgusting noises when eating, the sort of noises one hears by the pig trough. Elizabeth Bennett’s best friend Charlotte Lucas rebuked Elizabeth for her bias towards Mr Collins. Elizabeth should not think because Collins failed with her, he must fail ‘to procure any woman’s good opinion.’
Mr Collins was an educated man who had reached a respectable position in English society. Jane Austen’s intention was to show how Mr Collins failed in his duty as a clergyman and in his duty as an individual. You can have the best education and the most respectable position in society, but you fail as a person if you are fawning and obsequious to your superiors and pompous and condescending to your inferiors.
Charlotte told Elizabeth that ‘considering Mr Collins’s character, connections and situation in life, I am convinced my chances of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.’
Jane Austen’s concerns in all her writings were with human fallibility, not with one or other political theory. The story of Mr Collins is as much about Elizabeth’s prejudice as about Mr Collins’s pompousness and silly condescension.
Just one last point about Mr Colllins in the 1995 series (which one can gathered annoyed me no end), the producers made out not too subtly that Mr Collins revolted Charlotte, who had married him, and she did her best to stay out of his way. In the book, Charlotte has a baby to Mr Collins. He cannot have revolted her too much.
Before my irritation completely carries me away, I should get onto the point of this comment. That point is that there is a lot more to Jane Austen’s thinking and concerns in her novels than with delightful romances, on the one hand, and political ideas, on the other. In a fine article on Crisis Magazine’s website, Emily Linz shows how much more.
Being a “Gardiner” in the Vineyard: On Austen’s Pride and Prejudice
Pride and Prejudice: the book that tends to make ladies giggle with glee and gentlemen roll their eyes in annoyance. But beyond the tea-time social drama and the range of reaction from the sexes, there lies in this novel a vision of humanity and society.
The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense.
Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, exclaims these words in exasperation over two frustrating relationships in her life. How true they can still ring in today’s society, particularly with regards to holy marriages. Marriage is under attack in our culture. Not only is marriage being redefined in the court systems, but couples also marry because it is easy, they are “in love,” or they crave affection from places that are not centered on God. We see many marriages end in divorce or lukewarm toleration of each other, and these marriages have rippling and damaging effects on children and the larger community. What were these couples thinking before they married? How did they prepare for marriage? Did they have any guidance from the community? The easy solution is to take the path of despair or cynicism, like Elizabeth Bennet in the above quote. Yet, Pride and Prejudice also presents the remedy to this current conundrum.
Interestingly, Jane Austen does not begin the novel with either the hero, Mr. Darcy, or heroine, Lizzy Bennet. Instead, Jane Austen presents the first married couple of the novel: Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Lizzy’s parents. From their first interaction, Mrs. Bennet tirelessly nags her husband to visit Mr. Bingley, the new gentleman at Netherfield Park who has five thousand a year, an inheritance that makes his neighboring matrons almost swoon. Proper introductions need to be initiated by Mr. Bennet, but he evades his wife’s badgering. Mrs. Bennet finally gives up and says, “It will be no use to us, if twenty such [gentleman of five thousand a year] should come since you will not visit them.” Mr. Bennet responds testily: “Depend upon it, my dear, that when there are twenty, I will visit them all.”