Inside Mr Shepherd

James Wood

  • Jane Austen and the Morality of Conversation by Bharat Tandon
    Anthem, 303 pp, £45.00, March 2003, ISBN 1 84331 101 1
  • Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style by D.A. Miller
    Princeton, 108 pp, £12.95, September 2003, ISBN 0 691 09075 0

Comedy is the disguised priest who weds every couple, the German writer Jean Paul Richter said, and in the English novel the greatest of all disguised priests, the comic celebrant of happy unions, is Jane Austen. For the puff of marital harmony that ends every one of her books, among other things, Austen’s comedy began to be called ‘Shakespearean’ soon after her death. But there has been disagreement about the ideological price of that harmony. Do Emma and Mr Knightley, Elizabeth and Darcy, Anne and Captain Wentworth, Fanny and Edmund, represent ideal or merely idealised marriages? Do Austen’s novels foreclose their own vitality by choosing the safety of proper settlements? Are romance and marriage at odds – politically, stylistically, generically?

All readers agree that Austen’s novels enact a series of exchanges, and it could be said that disagreement revolves around the moral value we award this movement. One of the reasons the books appeal to many different kinds of reader is that they are rational, problem-solving structures: characters get each other wrong, then learn to get each other right, and in the process learn a great deal about themselves, generally humbling. Marriage is the reward paid to these now better-adjusted heroines and heroes. The reason that we, as readers, root so happily and swiftly for the heroines is that the novels turn them into readers, too: Elizabeth and Anne and Fanny learn how to read and reflect on the material at hand (often literally – think of the importance of letters in Austen). In Sense and Sensibility, we are told that Elinor ‘was resolved not only upon gaining every new light as to his [Willoughby’s] character which her own observation or the intelligence of others could give her, but likewise upon watching his behaviour to her sister’.

But these rational structures are powered by an enormous, finally irreducible irrationality: love. Hero and heroine spar with each other, play, feint and fight, but in the end must fall in love because they already have. When we first read Pride and Prejudice we have the eerie feeling of already having read it. Of course, the story belongs to the culture, so we know what to expect. But the novel also has a strong feeling of inevitability: we know that Elizabeth must get Darcy, just as we know Emma must get Mr Knightley and Fanny must get Edmund. And part of that inevitability has to do with the irrational fatalism of love. Darcy says at the end of Pride and Prejudice that he does not know when he fell in love; he was in the middle before he knew that he had begun. The same is true of Elizabeth: doesn’t she really fall in love with Darcy the very first time she sees him, despite – or because of – her protestations about how she detests him? In the novel’s first volume, Elizabeth is always noticing that Darcy is looking at her, but in order to notice that one is being noticed, one has to do some noticing of one’s own. And just as Darcy was in the middle before he knew he had begun, so we first read Pride and Prejudice with a feeling of not knowing quite when it all began.

So Austen’s novels make a great case for rationality, for the necessary and moral correction of error – think of Emma’s self-abasements when she realises how poorly she has read her world – while simultaneously undermining the grounds of that rationality by showing that the quest for transparency is in fact driven by cloudy desire. Is this a contradiction or a paradox? Can Austen’s novels somehow combine an ideal rationality and an ideal irrationality in a harmonious resolution? Bharat Tandon, though he does not quite put it in these terms, thinks they can. His subtle, learned book is an examination of the various ways Austen’s favoured characters learn to listen to each other, to speak to each other, and to speak to themselves. So his emphasis is on the ways these novels move towards a convincing and rich harmony, a mutuality of give and take, a true marriage of minds. Conversation is ‘less a technique than a constitutive atmosphere’ of Austen’s work, he writes, and true conversation encodes a morality, an ideal way of being.

One way of finding what the novels value in this area is to identify the malefactors, the violators, and the specific gravity of their sin. Horrors such as Mrs Jennings, Mrs Norris, Mrs Elton and Mr Collins sin against the morality of conversation. They want to talk only about themselves; but their self-love, to adapt Housman, is a great passion squandered on an unworthy object. Austen is one of the greatest mistresses of idiolect, of distinguishing characters by the way they speak, and she reliably catches out her egotists by forcing them to be always quoting themselves. Here is Mrs Jennings in Sense and Sensibility:

Mrs Taylor told me of it half an hour ago, and she was told it by a particular friend of Miss Grey herself, else I am sure I should not have believed it; and I was almost ready to sink as it was. Well, said I, all I can say is, that if it is true, he has used a young lady abominably ill.

Austen’s monologists are windy performers, who always enact the opposite of the laws they so like to propose. Mrs Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, may be the funniest example. ‘I do not like to boast of my child,’ she announces, while doing so; or ‘People who suffer as I do from nervous complaints can have no great inclination for talking.’ In the same book Mr Collins is always prefacing his little homilies with ‘give me leave to observe’, or ‘permit me to say’.

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