I’m always asking myself about the secret of Jane Austen’s appeal. Of course this is intriguing for me as a writer because I want so badly to work out how how she does it. Still, no matter how closely I look at her writing, it always seems as if something is slipping away at the edge of my mind refusing to be captured. I’ve sensed her lurking , waiting to pounce, a cat watching the mice that are her characters. It’s one of the reasons I don’t buy into the idea of “dear aunt Jane” and the saintly spinster ideal that was presented later by her Victorian nephew. You’ll probably get mad at me, but I think “dear Jane” could be pretty snarky. In one letter she’s described as “a poker of whom everybody is afraid”. I don’t know if the pun was intended or not, but it describes what I mean very well – both in the sense of poking around to reveal the truth, as well as poking fun at people.”
Simply being snarky doesn’t generally earn you any gold medals in the Top World Writer category, though.
I think her particular brand of snarkiness works because JA could put her finger on the soul of things and expose it, without sentimentality, but also without partiality. She makes you sit up and think: “That’s so true!” She writes about a kind of elevated society — a merciless one in which you either conform to certain standards of correctness or are immediately exposed to the glaring limelight of embarrassment. Mrs. Bennet’s obvious matchmaking, Mary’s attention-grabbing, Lydia’s flirting, Caroline Bingley’s hopelessly desperate man-catching techniques are all contrasted to Mr. Darcy’s careful reserve. For a moment there at the ball in Meryton, you would almost think that Darcy is the only perfect character around. But then Darcy ’s behavior – meticulously correct as it is — is brought to its knees as Lizzy discovers the arrogance and snobbery behind it. But it goes beyond that. The well-known passage in which Darcy is first described is also a delicious indictment of society and the superficial way in which collective opinions are swayed from one extreme to another. You can almost hear Mrs. Bennet’s voice in there, along with many of the hopeful matrons at the ball. Darcy’s swing away from favor is as much a result of his snobbery as it is due to the indifferent way he dashes everyone’s hopes.
Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report, which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.
And then there is Charlotte Lucas, who delivers her own brand of cynical commentary on marriage.
If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other, or ever so similar before-hand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Austen comments:
It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire.
How true do you think that is?
Monica Fairview is author of The Other Mr. Darcy, The Darcy Cousins and a Regency romance, An Improper Suitor.