How Jane Austen Created a Shakespearean World in Pride and Prejudice
The Late Harold Bloom on the Delights of the Beloved 1813 Novel and the Joys of Rereading
At different times in my life I have preferred Persuasion and Emma to Pride and Prejudice, but in my advanced old age the three seem equally grand. The same holds for Mansfield Park, but I will neglect it in this book.
Probably Pride and Prejudice is the most popular Austen. It is frequently hilarious, always amiable, and with a curious profundity that is difficult to assess. Why did Mr. Bennet marry the absurd Mrs. Bennet? The question is unanswerable since the mismatch is preposterous:
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.
Mr. Bennet’s favorite necessarily is Elizabeth, whose quickness of mind, spirit, and sensibility, and an amiable reserve are beyond even her father’s apprehension. Jane Austen herself, in a letter to her sister Cassandra, January 29, 1813, gives Elizabeth the ultimate guerdon:
I must confess that I think her as delightful a character as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least, I do not know.
I might vote for Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as rivals, but who else is there? The answer has to be Sir John Falstaff, and Rosalind, and Cleopatra, and Feste, and who you will in Shakespeare. Of course, Cleopatra is something other than delightful, and in another way so is Panurge. Delight goes back to the Latin delicere, “to allure.” Elizabeth Bennet allures Fitzwilliam Darcy, and the reader, by her lightness and quickening power, ultimately the power both of her mind and of her sexuality.
If the authentic test for a great novel is rereading, and the joys of yet further rereadings, then Pride and Prejudice can rival any novel ever written. Though Jane Austen, unlike Shakespeare, practices an art of rigorous exclusion, she seems to me finally the most Shakespearean novelist in the language. When Shakespeare wishes to, he can make all his personages, major and minor, speak in voices entirely their own, self-consistent and utterly different from one another. Austen, with the similar illusion of ease, does the same. Since voice in both writers is an image of personality and also of character, the reader of Austen encounters an astonishing variety of selves in her socially confined world. Though that world is essentially a secularized culture, the moral vision dominating it remains that of the Protestant sensibility.
Austen’s heroines waver in one judgment or another, but they hold fast to the right of private judgment as the self’s fortress. What they call “affection” we term “love,” of the enduring rather than the Romantic variety, and when they judge a man to be “amiable,” it is akin to whatever superlative each of us may favor for an admirable, humane person. Where they may differ from us, but more in degree than in kind, is in their profound reliance upon the soul’s exchanges of mutual esteem with other souls. In Pride and Prejudice and Emma in particular, your accuracy in estimating the nature and value of another soul is intimately allied to the legitimacy of your self-esteem, your valid pride.Austen’s irony, though endlessly genial, unsettles all her meanings.
The moral comedy of the misunderstandings between Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy has been compared, by several critics, to the combat of wit between Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. As a comparison, this has limited usefulness: Elizabeth is not primarily a wit or a social ironist. Her true Shakespearean precursor is Rosalind in As You Like It. Rosalind resorts to furious wit in properly squelching Jaques and Touchstone, but her fundamental strength is a sure sense of self, with the wisdom that only an accurate self-estimate can bring. Such wisdom transcends detachment and welcomes a generous concern with other selves. It leads to a pride that is also playful, which is an intense contrast to Darcy’s implacable pride. His sense of self relies upon an immense conviction of personal as well as societal eminence. We cannot dispute his conviction; he is socially formidable, morally fair-minded, and a better judge of character than Elizabeth sometimes proves to be. But his aggressiveness is excessive, despite Elizabeth’s final, justified verdict: “He is frequently amiable.” There is a touch of the quixotic in Elizabeth, whereas Darcy stands outside what could be termed the order of play. Tact without playfulness can yield too readily to moral zeal; but the quixotic not only can be tactless, it can decay into misguided exuberance.
Such reflections, though germane to Pride and Prejudice, are sadly abstract when applied to the lively comedy of the novel. Surprise keeps breaking in, and nothing turns out as anyone in the book expects. We are indeed in a Shakespearean world, as random in its way as Rosalind’s Forest of Arden. Only the level firmness of Austen’s narrative voice holds together a social world that borders oddly upon the bizarre, for everyone in it is rather more idiosyncratic than at first they appear to be. Pride and Prejudice has an authentic monster in Mr. Collins, a poseur in Wickham, a tyrant of pride in the odious Lady Catherine, and a master of destructive satire in Mr. Bennet. There is a marvelous comic tension between Austen’s seemingly normative tone and the eccentric personages who perpetually render the story more vivid and more strange.
Irony, which essentially is saying one thing while meaning another, is Austen’s characteristic mode. Austen’s irony, though endlessly genial, unsettles all her meanings. Where we seem most assured of the happiness or perfection attained by her heroines, we learn to look more closely and to surmise the implied reservations of this ironic vision. A great master of metaphor, Austen is also a genius of the unsaid: she expects the astute reader to say it for her. Not that Austen, in the manner of her Darcy, is a triumph of tact; she is more in the mode of her Elizabeth Bennet, and is a triumph of playfulness. In some ways, Austen is more like Shakespeare’s Rosalind than Elizabeth ever could be, and so Austen’s largest triumph is in the sheer psychic and spiritual health of her magnificent wit and invention.
The grandest comic moment in Pride and Prejudice is the outrageous proposal made by Mr. Collins to Elizabeth Bennet. One remembers Melville Cooper, perfect in the role of Mr. Collins in the 1940 motion picture of the novel:
My reasons for marrying are, first, that I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish; secondly, that I am convinced that it will add very greatly to my happiness; and thirdly—which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice and recommendation of the very noble lady whom I have the honor of calling patroness. Twice has she condescended to give me her opinion (unasked too!) on this subject; and it was but the very Saturday night before I left Hunsford—between our pools at quadrille, while Mrs. Jenkinson was arranging Miss de Bourgh’s footstool, that she said, “Mr. Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry. Choose properly, choose a gentlewoman for my sake; and for your own, let her be an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way. This is my advice. Find such a woman as soon as you can, bring her to Hunsford, and I will visit her.”
Allow me, by the way, to observe, my fair cousin, that I do not reckon the notice and kindness of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as among the least of the advantages in my power to offer. You will find her manners beyond anything I can describe; and your wit and vivacity, I think, must be acceptable to her, especially when tempered with the silence and respect which her rank will inevitably excite. Thus much for my general intention in favor of matrimony; it remains to be told why my views were directed to Longbourn instead of my own neighborhood, where I assure you there are many amiable young women. But the fact is, that being, as I am, to inherit this estate after the death of your honored father (who, however, may live many years longer), I could not satisfy myself without resolving to choose a wife from among his daughters, that the loss to them might be as little as possible, when the melancholy event takes place—which, however, as I have already said, may not be for several years. This has been my motive, my fair cousin, and I flatter myself it will not sink me in your esteem. And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affection. To fortune I am perfectly indifferent, and shall make no demand of that nature on your father, since I am well aware that it could not be complied with; and that one thousand pounds in the four per cents, which will not be yours till after your mother’s decease, is all that you may ever be entitled to. On that head, therefore, I shall be uniformly silent; and you may assure yourself that no ungenerous reproach shall ever pass my lips when we are married.
This has to be the funniest marriage proposal in Western literature. Its apex is the ultimate outrage:
And now nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affection.
Jane Austen is so accomplished a novelist that one does her wrong to wish she had also written stage dramas. I have never been carried out of the legitimate theater because I became helpless with laughter, but on two occasions I became so borne away by frightening hilarity that I had to leave two cinemas, the first when Melville Cooper concluded his proposal, and the second after viewing The Fatal Glass of Beer, the brief masterpiece of W. C. Fields (1933).
Setting aside the undoubted good looks of Laurence Olivier as Fitzwilliam Darcy, are we to share Elizabeth Bennet’s final estimate of him? I met the late Tony Tanner only once, in Rome, introduced to him by his wife, Nadia Fusini, a critic and translator. We talked about recognition in literature and argued my friend Angus Fletcher’s surmise that all imaginative literature depends upon partial recognition, since total recognition is a kind of death. Tanner found in Jane Austen a kind of total recognition that enhanced life and could help banish melancholy. I realized later that Tanner had to struggle with a more dangerous melancholy than I tended to experience, except in my own midlife crisis in 1965.The question is: are we to agree with Jane Austen that Darcy is the all-but-perfect husband for Elizabeth Bennet?
The question is: are we to agree with Jane Austen that Darcy is the all-but-perfect husband for Elizabeth Bennet? Tanner followed Marvin Mudrick in observing Jane Austen’s deprecation of any merely sexual attraction. I am not certain that I find that altogether convincing. She died at 41, in considerable pain, and we have no reason to believe that she did not die a virgin. And yet, though she made light of it, she does seem to have experienced an authentic and mutual falling in love with Tom Lefroy, a young Irishman, when both of them were 20 in 1796. That was the year she began what was to become Pride and Prejudice. In his biographical study, Becoming Jane Austen (2003), Jon Spence shrewdly suggested that Lefroy was a model for Darcy, but that Austen transposed her qualities to Darcy, and Lefroy’s to Elizabeth Bennet. Jane Austen’s pride in her aesthetic autonomy evades her ironical sense, and is transmuted into Fitzwilliam Darcy’s pride of social and personal integrity. The evidently charming Tom Lefroy bestows upon Elizabeth Bennet a quickness of wit and spirit that also reaches beyond irony.
Though the quality of criticism devoted to Pride and Prejudice is unusually high, it does not often go deep enough. Austen’s own somewhat ironic critique of the book gently laments what we would call its refusal of the abyss. Negative reflection, in a somewhat Hegelian mode, yields knowledge of a kind that allows Elizabeth Bennet a partial but firm recognition both of Fitzwilliam Darcy and of herself. Their mutual affection does not lack sexual passion yet nevertheless is compounded of two legitimate prides that exchange esteems. Pride is thus redeemed, and prejudice becomes judicious in that it grants otherness its place in knowledge.
It may be too easy to love Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It is the work of a very young woman of astonishing genius whose hopes have been kindled, set aside, but not yet extinguished. Tom Lefroy and Jane Austen gave each other up because neither had any money. It is more than two centuries since Pride and Prejudice was first published, and all social contexts have evaporated. We now might say that Lefroy and Austen ought to have married and enjoyed, despite financial vicissitudes, two decades together. But how can that be said? Austen evidently turned down two later suitors, perhaps because she still longed for Lefroy. We cannot know completely. Four years after Pride and Prejudice was published, Jane Austen died at 41. Six great novels and some remarkable fragments survive her. A day after my 88th birthday, I am more sentimental than ever. Grateful for the books, one wishes she could have had a more prolonged and fulfilled life. Still, she revered Dr. Samuel Johnson, who in his Idler remarked:
Philosophy may infuse stubbornness, but Religion only can give patience.
No one would think of Jane Austen as a religious writer, but there is something stubborn in her spirit, as there is in Elizabeth and Darcy. She teaches patience inflected by wit and the joy of being.
Excerpted from The Bright Book of Life. Used with the permission of the publisher, Vintage, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Harold Bloom.