Margaret Innes

New Worlds: Reading, Writing and the Imagination

Writing for Survival How to read Jane Austen

1     The need to work

 

In Pride and Prejudice, the not very wealthy, not very pretty, 27 year old Charlotte Lucas takes advantage of her friend Elizabeth Bennet’s refusal of the very irritating Mr Collins’s proposal of marriage by accepting him herself. In the words of Elizabeth, ‘The strangeness of Mr Collins’s making two offers of marriage within three days, was nothing in comparison of his now being accepted.’ Charlotte has no illusions about the man who will be her husband and the father of her children, and with whom she will spend the rest of her life, however long or short that might be given that childbirth was both frequent and dangerous. As she puts it, ‘Mr Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome and his attachment to her must be imaginary.’ If he were not so selfish, you could feel sorry for Mr Collins. Charlotte marries him, presumably gritting her teeth every time they have sex, solely because she doesn’t want to die in poverty or dependence in a society which gives her no other choice. Pride and Prejudice makes clear that men can suffer from this situation just as women do. The charming Colonel Fitzwilliam hints to Elizabeth, who he clearly likes and whose company he enjoys, that he cannot have any serious thoughts about her by saying, ‘But in matters of greater weight, I may suffer from want of money. Younger sons cannot marry where they like.’ She is quick enough to pick this up and let him know that she does. He continues to talk to her in a friendly and open way while presumably realising he won’t necessarily be able to do so with the woman he will eventually marry. It’s a point in his favour that he’s gallant enough not to lead Elizabeth on, unlike the worthless Wickham.

Jane Austen suffered from Charlotte’s financial insecurity herself. She wasn’t independently wealthy (as her character Emma is) or earning sufficient money from her writing to provide herself with a liveable income. There are a number of female characters in her work who suffer from crippling poverty: the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility, Mrs and Miss Bates and their niece, Jane in Emma, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, Mrs Smith in Persuasion, and the heroine of the novel herself, Anne Elliot. Jane Fairfax is interesting because she is a highly intelligent, sensitive and musically talented young woman who in real life would have her talents wasted as a governess for bad pay and worse conditions. All those jokes about the butler getting children on various governesses and maids would have had their genesis in real life. These days we’d call it sexual harassment.

All of which brings us back to Jane Austen herself. As Hillary Clinton once said, ‘You are what you are and you do what you do.’ Jane Austen was a writer. It was her profession in a time when few women had one. She did not waste her genius; instead she wrote some of the most loved and widely read novels in the language. She remained unmarried, reversing her acceptance of a proposal the morning after it had been given. She died at the young age of 42 from an unknown disease leaving a final novel, Sanditon unfinished. Her gravestone in Winchester Cathedral makes no mention of her being a writer. Yet today she is everywhere, so much a part of popular culture you can have the book and the film, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I’m sure it would have made her laugh. She translates into the modern world so well because her female characters are not caricatures or stereotypes but full human beings, good and bad, smart and silly.

So here’s why I’ve called this blog what I have.  Like any other writer, writing was something Jane Austen would have to do if she was to be remotely happy. You can’t live without money and you can’t live without doing what you have to do either. Jane Austen’s life teetered between these two imperatives. Her talent as a writer offered her freedom of the mind, the ability to exercise an intelligence that above all needed to work. In many ways her novels are about just that: enclosure and escape and learning how to think with freedom, the topic for next week’s blog.

 

2     Thinking with Freedom

 

Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams. Hamlet.

What has this to do with Jane Austen? Taking the first part of the quote, mainly that a mind can take you anywhere even if your body is imprisoned, even if society chooses to confine your mind simply because your body is female. Like Jane Austen herself, all her heroines are constricted by the limits society puts on them just for being women, sometimes physically – Emma is pretty much her father’s prisoner – but more often intellectually, socially and emotionally. In this world, freedom is the isolation of your room where you can think your own thoughts and recover your spirits in solitude. One thing Jane Fairfax cannot have in her aunt and grandmother’s little two room apartment is solitude and it almost drives her to breakdown. ‘“Oh, Miss Woodhouse, the comfort of being sometimes alone!” – seemed to burst from an overcharged heart, and to describe somewhat of the continual endurance to be practised by her, even towards some of those who loved her best.’ Freedom of thought isn’t only the opportunity to refresh your spirits when you desperately need it; it’s also an expression of your integrity. Once her sister Lydia’s patched-up marriage is announced to the household, Elizabeth accepts her congratulations from Mrs Hill, the housekeeper and then ‘sick of this folly, took refuge in her room, that she might think with freedom.’ She knows Lydia’s marriage is a disaster that will bring her neither happiness nor material well being but they are all obliged to pretend otherwise. In solitude you can face the truth, assuming you actually want to.

Whatever their faults, all of Jane Austen’s heroines are intelligent, thinking women who have integrity. Elizabeth rejects Mr Collins’ proposal even though, as he so charmingly tells her himself, her fortune is so small that pleasant as she is, she has no guarantee of receiving any other offer of marriage if she refuses his. Fanny Price refuses to accept Henry Crawford despite the pressure brought to bear on her, including being sent back to her dysfunctional family for a taste of what might happen if she doesn’t consent. Emma excoriates herself for her misjudgements and her failure to recognise the reality of her own and other people’s feelings, misjudgments that are fed mainly by her own emotional hunger. Having been foolish enough to reject him when a young woman, Anne Elliot chooses to have no expectation of anything except simply continuing to love Captain Wentworth. When Marianne Dashwood’s sometime lover, Willoughby, admits he married his wife solely for her money, Elinor Dashwood tells him that this same wife has a right to his politeness, his respect at least.  ‘To treat her with unkindness, to speak of her slightingly is no atonement to Marianne.’

The constraints of Austen’s society were such that, in real life, all these characters would have had little else to comfort themselves with except their integrity, their ownership of their sense of self, whatever it might have cost them in marriage and financial security. In a society which grants you only very limited control over both your fate and the use of whatever talents you possess, what else do you have? This brings us to the second part of the quote – were it not that I have bad dreams. This is the fine comic balance of Jane Austen’s novels, what makes them so pleasurable. They make us laugh at the fools we mortals are and in the end, for the main characters at least, there are no bad dreams. Each of them achieves the marriage they sought, one that opens up for them wider worlds. All the while their fates were being crafted by a woman who frequently escaped to a place where she could think with freedom, writing her novels on small sheets of paper to make revision easier, finding in the exercise of her mind the sheer pleasure of being herself. In her fiction neatly picking out all the constraints that surrounded her life and turning them inside out at will. There’s another quote that’s applicable here, from The Tempest, from Caliban, Thought is free. It was for Jane Austen just as long as she had access to paper, a pen and ink and a quiet place in which to work.

3         Asking your future husband to dance with you.

 

At some time in each of Jane Austen’s novels there’s usually a ball. While there’s much dancing, it’s clearly not the kind that gets done these days because the participants get a lot of time to talk to each other. Often it seems to be an occasion when couples can talk intimately, paradoxically while in the midst of a crowd of other dancers. Dramas get played out at these balls when everyone is in the mix. Mr Collins makes a prat of himself in front of Mr Darcy, the Bennets behave like an episode of the Simpsons for the supposed upper classes, Fanny Price realises she is as much the object of Henry Crawford’s ambition as his affections. Can he persuade her to marry him despite her distrusting him so much? It’s a project worthy of his considerable attractions. Marianne discovers Willoughby has abandoned her in a ballroom and actually cries aloud when she does, upsetting the decorum that rules emotions cannot be revealed in public. In this restricted, gossipy world where face is everything, it’s dangerous. All it takes is a little rumour-mongering for a woman to have her reputation damaged and then there’s no way back. Frank Churchill sends his secret fiancée, Jane Fairfax, a handsome pianoforte as a gift because she has no musical instrument to play. But the talk that swirls around her as a consequence is terrifying and Emma’s contribution to it, a fantasy that makes light of what is serious, is deeply wounding. Talk is dangerous; it’s a weapon, a means of destruction.

A place that’s more usually women only is the drawing room after dinner before the men arrive. In Jane Austen’s time, once the meal was finished, the ladies withdrew while the men stayed to drink port and talk and joke freely about men’s business: politics, property, money, sex, women and marriage. Mr Knightly can advise Emma that Mr Elton won’t marry Harriet, whatever her schemes, precisely because of what he’s heard in the male privacy of the after dinner table. He knows Mr Elton is after a woman with a useful bank account, in this case Emma herself with her £30,000. At least one reason why this possibility has never occurred to Emma is that she herself has no interest the clergyman whatsoever, despite his good looks. In this after dinner scenario women sit in the drawing room, usually talking, while they wait for the party to begin once the men arrive. On one occasion in Emma, Frank Churchill, his eye on Jane Fairfax, walks in first announcing he hates sitting long. Probably there were men who found this after dinner custom tedious but felt obliged to be a part of it, to sit longer than they wanted to, listening to conversation they might even have sometimes found offensive. It’s also possible that in actual life some women found the freedom to talk to each other as they pleased liberating. But that would be just a personal preference. Even if the power of movement belongs to men, they are just as much bound by custom as women.

Not everything is so regulated. Emma can say to Mr Knightly ‘We always say what we like to each other.’ In the domesticity of the home, the rigidities of social life can slip away; where relationships are of long standing they can be conducted with a natural, unquestioned intimacy. Despite their arguments and his habit of lecturing her, Mr Knightly and Emma still treat each other with an intimate equality in which almost anything can be said. As a novel, a great deal of Emma is dialogue: the characters talk all the time. They discuss, disagree, flatter, prevaricate or lie or, if they’re Miss Bates, can’t stop talking. She apologises for this –‘I’m a talker’ – as if she’s asking for forgiveness or at least tolerance. Both she and Mr Woodhouse drain the energies of those around them even when those individuals feel they have nothing more to give. As in most Jane Austen novels, the observations of people made in Emma are perceptive, minute and careful. The novel is about everyday life where nothing happens and everything happens. At the ball in Emma there is a small scene right at the end when the dancing is about to begin again.

‘Whom are you going to dance with?’ asked Mr Knightley.

She hesitated a moment and then replied. ‘With you, if you will ask me.’

‘Will you?’ said he, offering his hand.

If anyone can tell me of any novel prior to this, or indeed for some time afterwards, in which a young woman asks a man to dance with her with such ease and assumed equality, I’d love to know about it. Quietly revolutionary, in almost unnoticed way.

Next time – Tattoos and Memory: what’s written on the outside and what’s written on the inside.

At some time in each of Jane Austen’s novels there’s usually a ball. While there’s much dancing, it’s clearly not the kind that gets done these days because the participants get a lot of time to talk to each other. Often it seems to be an occasion when couples can talk intimately, paradoxically while in the midst of a crowd of other dancers. Dramas get played out at these balls when everyone is in the mix. Mr Collins makes a prat of himself in front of Mr Darcy, the Bennets behave like an episode of the Simpsons for the supposed upper classes, Fanny Price realises she is as much the object of Henry Crawford’s ambition as his affections. Can he persuade her to marry him despite her distrusting him so much? It’s a project worthy of his considerable attractions. Marianne discovers Willoughby has abandoned her in a ballroom and actually cries aloud when she does, upsetting the decorum that rules emotions cannot be revealed in public. In this restricted, gossipy world where face is everything, it’s dangerous. All it takes is a little rumour-mongering for a woman to have her reputation damaged and then there’s no way back. Frank Churchill sends his secret fiancée, Jane Fairfax, a handsome pianoforte as a gift because she has no musical instrument to play. But the talk that swirls around her as a consequence is terrifying and Emma’s contribution to it, a fantasy that makes light of what is serious, is deeply wounding. Talk is dangerous; it’s a weapon, a means of destruction.

A place that’s more usually women only is the drawing room after dinner before the men arrive. In Jane Austen’s time, once the meal was finished, the ladies withdrew while the men stayed to drink port and talk and joke freely about men’s business: politics, property, money, sex, women and marriage. Mr Knightly can advise Emma that Mr Elton won’t marry Harriet, whatever her schemes, precisely because of what he’s heard in the male privacy of the after dinner table. He knows Mr Elton is after a woman with a useful bank account, in this case Emma herself with her £30,000. At least one reason why this possibility has never occurred to Emma is that she herself has no interest the clergyman whatsoever, despite his good looks. In this after dinner scenario women sit in the drawing room, usually talking, while they wait for the party to begin once the men arrive. On one occasion in Emma, Frank Churchill, his eye on Jane Fairfax, walks in first announcing he hates sitting long. Probably there were men who found this after dinner custom tedious but felt obliged to be a part of it, to sit longer than they wanted to, listening to conversation they might even have sometimes found offensive. It’s also possible that in actual life some women found the freedom to talk to each other as they pleased liberating. But that would be just a personal preference. Even if the power of movement belongs to men, they are just as much bound by custom as women.

Not everything is so regulated. Emma can say to Mr Knightly ‘We always say what we like to each other.’ In the domesticity of the home, the rigidities of social life can slip away; where relationships are of long standing they can be conducted with a natural, unquestioned intimacy. Despite their arguments and his habit of lecturing her, Mr Knightly and Emma still treat each other with an intimate equality in which almost anything can be said. As a novel, a great deal of Emma is dialogue: the characters talk all the time. They discuss, disagree, flatter, prevaricate or lie or, if they’re Miss Bates, can’t stop talking. She apologises for this –‘I’m a talker’ – as if she’s asking for forgiveness or at least tolerance. Both she and Mr Woodhouse drain the energies of those around them even when those individuals feel they have nothing more to give. As in most Jane Austen novels, the observations of people made in Emma are perceptive, minute and careful. The novel is about everyday life where nothing happens and everything happens. At the ball in Emma there is a small scene right at the end when the dancing is about to begin again.

‘Whom are you going to dance with?’ asked Mr Knightley.

She hesitated a moment and then replied. ‘With you, if you will ask me.’

‘Will you?’ said he, offering his hand.

If anyone can tell me of any novel prior to this, or indeed for some time afterwards, in which a young woman asks a man to dance with her with such ease and assumed equality, I’d love to know about it. Quietly revolutionary, in almost unnoticed way.

 

 

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