Letter to Jane Austen
Dear Miss Austen:
I have recently had the pleasure of reading your new novel Pride and Prejudice, and am moved to make a few comments, which I feel to be of moment.
I would first like to congratulate you on a remarkable literary accomplishment, which I feel will endure the test of time. I can assure you that the novel is being read and discussed in the learned and genteel society of London with much interest.
It is my opinion that it will continue to be read with as much avidity at the turn of the millennium, such is its lasting appeal. Why I feel so positive about your works I will try to explain as follows.
I greatly enjoyed the dialogue that you employ in your novels. Such dialogue is a whiff of fresh air to the English novel. It is short, crisp and vibrant, such as the readership of the English novel have never experienced before. It delineates character accurately, and yet at the same time carries the plot forward at a vibrant pace. It is never dull, for it is always laced with irony, sarcasm and humor. The characters are drawn with a subtle pen, and yet always seem to have a strong and distinct presence. Somehow you make it seem as if the ordinary day-to-day life in a country parish is as exciting as the tales brought back by travelers of the wild seas. How this is so, it is hard to analyze.
On this point, I assure you, I have entered into heated discussions with some companions of mine. It is a bone of contention as to what philosophy you represent. As you know, this is the age of new ideas. The revolution that has taken place in Paris and on the continent testifies that we are indeed entering a brave new world, one that promises freedom for all. The French writers and philosophers revive the virtues of the classical world, and in doing so they represent the philosophy of order and reason.
On the other hand the poets of Germany, mistrusting reason, and rejecting its excesses, are glorifying passion instead. Goethe and Schiller are great writers who compose novels and plays in which inner man is far more important than intellectual outer self. They are classified as the Romanticists, and our own Isles boast the likes of Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge, who are writing in this vein. Both these philosophies are worthy of respect, for they both promise freedom. The French philosophers of the Enlightenment promise freedom from the age old clutches of superstition. The Romanticists promise a world in which our passions have fulfillment. But so far we are not able to agree on your specific philosophy.
I feel that in Sense and Sensibility you have brought these two philosophies to a head. Of the two Dashwood sisters that it may concern, Elinor Dashwood you make the preserve of sense, therefore of the classical virtues of order, restraint and reason. She proceeds with caution, and does not let herself be known easily. On the other hand her younger sister Marianne Dashwood is clearly the protagonist of sensibility, impulsive and careless. However, the outcome of both sisters is happy, for they are matched in the end. Both sisters suffer tribulations, of different sorts, through the novel.
On the whole, we cannot judge that one path is better than the other, solely on the evidence given to us. Yet the message that I am able to read from the novel is that the middle road is the best. Those who judge Elinor and Marianne by categories of philosophy fail to take into account their development throughout the novel. In the end it is Elinor’s feeling, which overcomes her restraint, that helps her in her choice. On the other hand Marianne’s experiences teach her restraint, without which her match would have eluded her.
The same kind of truth is inherent, I feel, in the opening to your novel Pride and Prejudice, which reads: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” (Austen 1). Whether it is your intention or not, such an opening speaks to me of a precious truth, and this is that universal truth can only be found in the mundane world. Beyond all the elevated ideas of Classicism and Romanticism there is the simple matter of life, of finding a suitable partner, of homemaking and the raising of children, so that the wheel of life may turn in its eternal way. In all your novels the utmost importance in put on the function of finding one’s ideal match.
Many might construe your novels to be about scheming women, cynically extracting the greatest advantage from marriage. I, however, see it in a different light. In my opinion, your novels are celebrating mundane life. This is why they seem so fresh and exhilarating. The men of ideas have over-emphasized thinking. Yes, even Romanticism is a philosophy in the end. Because we live in an age of ideas, thinking tends to surfeit all fields, even such a popular art as novel writing. Authentic life is forgotten in the process. Put in another way, the world has become too over-burdened with the male perspective. The woman’s perspective is needed to bring the balance back. This is what you provide, and it indeed meets the call of the age.
Many would compare your novels to those of the great epistolary novelist Samuel Richardson. Like yours, his heroines are concerned with finding matches above their station. But the similarities do not proceed much further than this. Pamela is a one dimensional morality tale. The full title bears this out better, for it bears the subtle “Virtue Rewarded”. In it the heroine Pamela is shown to resist all the evil advances of her master, Mr. B., which includes rape, imprisonment, and torture.
The reward for protecting her virtue, in the end, is that her master consents to marry her, vowing to be a reformed man. The plot is crude, cynical and unrealistic. It is open to satire, and all know how Henry Fielding satirizes Pamela twice, first in Shamela, then in Joseph Andrews. But it is not so easy to satirize Elizabeth Bennett, or Elinor Dashwood. This is because such characters are drawn with subtle nuances, and thus are far closer to life. Many of your female protagonists are aiming to secure social status, prestige and privilege through marriage, just as is Pamela.
But those who harbor only cynical motives are shown come to bad passes. The message we read from your novels is that such social aspirations are only normal. But the suitability of match is equally important. And indeed the affections of the courting couple must not be ignored. This is so because marriage is a defining moment of life. On the whole, we learn that marriage and family life are of overriding importance.
These are some of my thoughts on reading your novels Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. London: Pan Books, 1978.