Monday, March 12, 2012

Even Jane Austen?

"What an excellent device," said he, "the use of a sheep-skin for carriages. How very comfortable they make it;--impossible to feel cold with such precautions. The contrivances of modern days indeed have rendered a gentleman's carriage perfectly complete. One is so fenced and guarded from the weather, that not a breath of air can find its way unpermitted. Weather becomes absolutely of no consequence.”

That’s doesn’t come from a work of proto-science fiction, although a few such works had appeared by 1815, when Emma was first published. It’s doubtful that Jane Austen was aware of them, and she may never have given a thought to hot air balloons or other technological innovations that figured in them. But the introduction of sheepskin insulation for carriages would have been part of the world she wrote about, that of the English country gentry, and for an sf reader it jumps off the page as evidence, however trivial, that change was coming to that world.

I’ve become familiar only lately with the world of Jane Austen, and through a curious circumstance. P.D. James, one of the great mystery writers of our generation, had just published Death Comes to Pemberley, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. I have a vague recollection of Pride and Prejudice having been assigned reading in prep school more than 50 years ago, and it can’t have made much impression on me at the time. But even people who’ve never read it at all may recognize the opening line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

It was hard to avoid the publicity three years ago about Seth Grahame-Smith’s urban fantasy rip-off of Austen’s classic, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, with its alternate opening: “'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.'' I avoided that like the plague. But James’ novel was another matter; there have been any number of mystery novels featuring historical figures like Benjamin Franklin and John Fielding (who commanded the Bow Street Runners, the first professional police force, in 18th Century London) or esteemed writers like Charlotte Bronte getting involved in mysteries.

Some of them have been really good. But was Death Comes to Pemberley among them? And was it authentic? Last year my wife Marcia read Joanna Challis’s The Villa of Death, which features novelist Daphne du Maurier (best known for Rebecca) – but Challis didn’t bother to get even the most basic facts of du Maurier’s life straight. On the other hand, Marcia just finished Barbara Hamilton’s Sup with the Devil, which stars Abigail Adams and is true to her and her time. But to make an informed judgment about Death Comes to Pemberley, I had to get back to Pride and Prejudice.

It turned out to be a revelation in more ways than one. The novel is every bit as good as its reputation, but it is also a fascinating look at another world and another time. First off, however, those who still aren’t familiar with the novel may have the impression (I did) that the mistaken pride and prejudice are all on the part of Elizabeth Bennet, who spurns the marriage proposal by Fitzwilliam Darcy because he has not only taken upon himself to thwart a budding love between her sister Jane and Charles Bingley, but has seemingly been cruel towards George Wickham – a militia officer who had once been taken under the wing of Darcy’s father and promised a living as the local vicar.

Elizabeth had previously turned down a proposal by William Collins, a clergyman – a good thing, because he turns out to be a complete and utter pill. It’s a wonder he’s able to win over Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas, or how she can put up with him after their marriage. But Wickham knows how to turn on the charm, and forms an attachment with Elizabeth, pouring out his tale of woe about Darcy’s alleged mistreatment of him. Moreover, she knows how her sister feels about Bingley, only to learn that Darcy has contrived to keep him from seeing her. Elizabeth rakes him over the coals for that; his only excuse is that he thought Jane wasn’t really interested in Bingley. As for Wickham, Darcy declares him to be a complete wastrel and scoundrel, but Elizabeth isn’t about to believe anything he says.

The thing is, Elizabeth eventually finds out that Darcy was right about Wickham. Yet he learns that he was wrong about Jane’s love for Bingley: he too has to eat crow, and help make things right by Jane, before they can find happiness together. The fact that these two had equally been in the wrong makes Darcy and Elizabeth more credible as equal partners. That wasn’t what I expected, and it may not be what others still expect if they haven’t read Pride and Prejudice. But then there are other details that stand out – not only matters of custom, but matters of language, as in this bit from Elizabeth’s father:

"From all that I can collect by your manner of talking, you must be two of the silliest girls in the country. I have suspected it some time, but I am now convinced." 

“Collect” instead of “gather:” one of those changes in the way English is spoken, but not as well known as others – notably the shift in meaning of “silly” from “blessed” to, well, silly, a few centuries earlier. Actually, I first came across the old usage of “collect” in a Georgette Heyer novel, The Quiet Gentleman, set during the same period, in which there are expressions like giving one the bag (as opposed to the slip). Another usage of the time was “in-law” to refer to step-relatives as well as the relatives of one’s spouse; this might have been rooted in legal language of the late 18th and early 19th century for all I know. 

After Pride and Prejudice, I turned to Death Comes to Pemberley, of which I’ll say only a little here. It is a murder mystery – James is a mystery writer, after all – and Wickham is at the center of it. Darcy and Elizabeth return, but not as sleuths in the classic sense; the solution to the murder involves the work of a number of parties. What is more important is that James captures the essence of Austen’s time, and even her manner of writing about it, as Charles McGrath pointed out in a review for The New York Times:

The prologue remarks, for example: “A family of five unmarried daughters is sure of attracting the sympathetic concern of all their neighbors, particularly where other diversions are few.” And the odious Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt, makes a characteristic appearance, declaring: “I have never approved of protracted dying. It is an affectation in the aristocracy; in the lower classes it is merely an excuse for avoiding work.”

Emma is the story of Emma Woodhouse, who fancies herself a matchmaker but doesn’t know the hearts and minds of the people she’s trying to match, or even her own. When Amy Heckerling wrote and directed an updated movie version set in California, she called it Clueless. That would be an apt characterization of Austen’s heroine if “clueless” had been an idiom in her time as opposed to that of Cher Horowitz in the 1995 movie.

Austen admitted that Emma was pretty hard to take for anyone but herself, and – contrary to the case with Elizabeth and Darcy – I couldn’t fathom what she and George Knightley, the man she eventually marries, ever saw in each other. But I could see a lot of things in the novel that readers at the time might not have noticed, because – like the casual details in novels today – they were taken for granted. Sheepskin for carriages was one; it may well have been the talk of the town, or should that be talk of the country, at the time Austen was writing. Another example, which is unintentionally funny today, has to do with a family supper (served in “basins,” as bowls were called in those days):

The gruel came and supplied a great deal to be said--much praise and many comments--undoubting decision of its wholesomeness for every constitution, and pretty severe Philippics upon the many houses where it was never met with tolerable;--but, unfortunately, among the failures which the daughter had to instance, the most recent, and therefore most prominent, was in her own cook at South End, a young woman hired for the time, who never had been able to understand what she meant by a basin of nice smooth gruel, thin, but not too thin.

As the Wikipedia entry on gruel (cereal boiled in water or milk) puts it, there are similar staples even today for recently-weaned children and invalids, but none would dare call them "gruel" because of "the negative associations attached to the word through novels like Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist." But there are other passages in Emma that uncannily seem to look forward to elements of our own literature. There is, for example, a spinster, referred to only as "Miss Bates," who can't seem to shut her mouth once she's opened it to declaim on any subject – like, for example, the apple harvest:

The apples themselves are the very finest sort for baking, beyond a doubt; all from Donwell--some of Mr. Knightley's most liberal supply. He sends us a sack every year; and certainly there never was such a keeping apple anywhere as one of his trees--I believe there is two of them. My mother says the orchard was always famous in her younger days. But I was really quite shocked the other day--for Mr. Knightley called one morning, and Jane was eating these apples, and we talked about them and said how much she enjoyed them, and he asked whether we were not got to the end of our stock. 'I am sure you must be,' said he, 'and I will send you another supply; for I have a great many more than I can ever use. William Larkins let me keep a larger quantity than usual this year. I will send you some more, before they get good for nothing.' So I begged he would not--for really as to ours being gone, I could not absolutely say that we had a great many left--it was but half a dozen indeed; but they should be all kept for Jane; and I could not at all bear that he should be sending us more, so liberal as he had been already; and Jane said the same. And when he was gone, she almost quarrelled with me--No, I should not say quarrelled, for we never had a quarrel in our lives; but she was quite distressed that I had owned the apples were so nearly gone; she wished I had made him believe we had a great many left.

When I read that, two things came to mind: stream of consciousness and Edith Bunker. As you’ll see from the link below, I found that I was hardly the first to think of stream of consciousness in connection with Miss Bates:

A Google word search [Austen/Emma/“stream of consciousness”] brings up others – including a pdf of a 2003 Master’s thesis at Marshall College by one Diane M. Counts that invokes Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. Sheesh! But the parallel with Edith Bunker may take more explaining than that with Woolf and Joyce, since All in the Family isn’t likely to be as common a subject for college courses. One of the recurrent shticks of the show was Edith starting in about some trivial happening in her day and going on and on and on – until Archie mimed committing suicide in various ways. I wasn’t able to find any of her actual ramblings on YouTube, but there’s one link that shows Archie’s reaction to them.

What would Jane Austen have made of that?

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