[KB] Austen, Me, and Irony

Carrol Cox cbcox at ilstu.edu
Mon Jun 9 19:41:01 EDT 2008

(Note, my academic background is in Pope & Milton; my introduction to
Burke came 54 or so years ago: while in the USAF in Washington, D.C., I
joined a book club, the first two selections being the Grammar & the
Rhetoric.  Later while in grad school in Ann Arbor I purchased the
Philosophy of Literary Form. I have profited greatly from all three but
was nevere a "Burkean" or a Burkean scholar.  I have been retired from
ISU for 11 years.This intro because I wished to plunge in on Ed's
remarks on Austen.)

I more or less know Austen's novels by heart, though I was never an
Austen scholar. I tried the Austen-L list a couple times, but 'Janeites'
tend to drive me up the wall & I unsubbed. P&P is indeed a wonderful
novel, though not it but Mansfield Park & Emma are Austen's truly
titanic creations. Mrs. Norris in the former is a vision of evil besides
which Iago is a boy scout. Now to Ed's post.

Edappel8 at cs.com wrote:
>        My new heartthrobs, Jane A. and her alter ego Elizabeth Bennet,
> are noted for their ironic, perhaps even partly jaundiced,
> construction of the social scene and power relationships they have to
> reconnoiter to bring female yearnings to something approaching
> satisfactory fulfillment. 

Not wrong but possibly misleading. You get a better grip if you define
"female yearnings" as the outer covering of a rage to be human within a
social context (not itself challenged) which essentially denied the
legitimacy of such a rage in a female - which could not, in fact, even
_imagine_ that such a desire/rage could exist.

 Austen's masterpiece even starts out with
> what has been called a "spoof aphorism": "It is a truth universally
> acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must
> be in want of a wife."  

Ah ah ah.  There are worlds within worlds here (some not visible until
the final pages of the novel). Firs look closely at the syntax. The main
clause is, "It is a truth universally acknowledged." Nothing in the main
clause about men, women, fortunes, wives. In fact it is about you, the
reader.  _Universal_ presumably means everyone, past, present and
future. Hence in that very first sentence the reader must define his/her
relationship to the narrator byjudging (a)whether the truth referred to
is _universally_ acknowledged and (b) if it is not, is the narrator so
naïve as to expect her reader to fall for such a claim. Note that one of
the features of irony is its stroking of the reader, its assurance that
of course the reaer, like the writer, is "in the know." Swift, of
course, arranges to undercut this often, but it is not easy to do. 

The rest of the first page, in the conversation between Mr. & Mrs.
Bennett, lets us see the truth embodied in Mrs. Bennett - she of course
denies it when made explicit by her husband, but her actions belie that
denial: of course, for her,  all young men of good fortune need one of
her daughters as a wife. So at this point narrator, reader, and Mr.
Bennett are all united in amused superiority to Mrs. Bennett's

But now let's look back to this opening sentence from the novel's end.
Elizabeth has accepted Darcy. She apologizes for the rudeness of her
rejection of his first proposal. And in considering his response, let us
also think about his declared reasons for aiding in the marriage of
Wickham & Lydia: he claims to feel in part responsible because he felt
himself above the need to expose Wickham earlier. HE (Darcy) needed
merely to BE DARCY.  The Master of Pemberly need not explain himself. He
simply _Was_.  Only, he explains to Elizabeth at the end, after her
refusal did he realize that perhaps something more, some deeper
self-knowledge, some more deliberate _choosing_ to be what he ought to
be, could make him worthy of such a woman as Elizabeth.

In fact, Darcy, to be Darcy and not merely a mannikin from Pemberly,
_was_ in need of a wife, and not any wife but precisely Elizabeth. Only
as the husband of Elizabeth was Darcy to be truly Darcy. This does not
make Mrs. Bennett any less foolish; it does place a few question marks
on the early self-assurance of narrator, reader, Mr. Bennett on the
first page. Austen's irony is not all that distant from the irony that
produced that explosive clause in the Tale of a Tub, "the supreme
blissful state of being a fool among knaves." (Quoted not quite
accurately from )memory.) Lady Catherine is in the novel in part to show
us Darcy minus Elizabeth.

> By the end of that short first chapter of P&P,
> it's obvious that it's the young women and their mother who are
> ravenously matrimonial in their ambitions, not necessarily the
> newly-arrived eligible men in the neighborhood.  That line is
> appropriately put into the mouth of Elizabeth in the great 1995 BBC
> version.  She gives it the "jeering" tenor that "silently"
> characterizes so much of Austen's attitude throughout her works.

Noooooooooooooooooooooo! That deprives the novel of its soul. Elizabeth
_never_ from first to last accepts that proposition.  As her sentiments
warm towards Darcy she seriously thinks it would be quite reasonable for
him to have no further regard for her, and is surprised and pleased to
find otherwise, but not even at the very end does she assume any _right_
to him. That would be to repeat his errors in his first proposal. 
Elizabeth stands above her world, is the woman through whom Darcy can
achieve self-knowledge, only because she is free of "matrimonial
ambitions" - almost foolishly so, since in the world of the novel thre
is little between a woman and the street but a husband. Mrs. Bennett is
foolish, but her foolishness is grounded in social reality.

And hence we have Charlotte Lucas and an extremely important minor
character who appears in only one paragraph - the older Lucas boy who
declares his life values in a brief tiff with Mrs. Bennett. No one
should attempt to make sense of Austen's novels without giving thought
to the role of The Unmarried Sister and Sister-in-Law in 19th-c
society.  The former is in effect slave to the the latter - as dependent
on her for the slightest needs (thread to repair a dress), a beggar,
nothing but an attachment to her brother's wife. And what kind of a wife
will the young Lucas revealed in that paragraph choose, and what kind of
shelter will he offer an unmarried sister from the petty tyrannies of
such a wife.

Austen was not a nice person. Auden once wrote of her:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
Besides her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
>   [clip]     My "sisters" at the Republic of Pemberley (92 percent female, I
> am told) are mainly fanatical fans of J.A., of popular bent, not
> scholars.  There is, I think, a listserv for Austen academics,
> connected to a quarterly journal that I think is online, like the
> KBJ.  I'm something of a fish out of water in respect to both sets of
> aficionados.[clip]

Austen is available for the reader who is neither Janeite nor Austen
scholar, but do not assume her irony is innocent or has only one layer.
And do note that all the fathers in Austen novels are, essentially,
weaklings who fail their daughters terribly. And that Mr Knightly, the
best Emma can do for a husband, is really a pompous ass. Emma does make
terrible mistakes, but they are mistakes which stem from the impossible
situation of a great imaginative intellect in a confined society of


More information about the KB mailing list