I long resisted Jane Austen because of a preconception that her style was dense and prolix. In fact, when it comes to the pre-1900 novel, I am more or less a functional illiterate – one Dickens book, Middlemarch (at university) Mark Twain, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and that’s around it. However, I just read Pride and Prejudice and was surprised how much I enjoyed it. The thing fair rattles along.
John Rentoul, frontline warrior in the war against cliche, includes on his Banned List Austen’s first line ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’ – cannibalised over and over by broadsheet hacks to give second-hand wry literary gloss to pedestrian articles, many of which have nothing to do with Austen, literature, marriage, romance or Georgian England. No one ever quotes the second para, which sums up Austen’s conventions just as well:
However little known the surrounding feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
The Bennets are cursed with five daughters, not enough money and no male heir. Employment ain’t an option for the Bennet girls, so from an uncertain talent pool they must find a ‘single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year’ or else the estate will be taken over by the ludicrous Mr Collins, a clerical cousin of the Bennets. What got me was how much Austen laughed at these conventions. Mr Collins is a Georgian David Brent, full of sycophancy and solipsism, completely unconscious of the needs, reactions and personal space of others, who blusters through social scenes leaving discomfort, embarrassment and offence in his cringey wake. He has a powerful patron, the aristocrat Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who he continually praises for her ‘affability and condescension’: because of this connection, Collins considers himself quite the catch, and in the self-regard of his magnanimity decides to marry one of the Bennets to ensure the estate will remain under the family’s nominal control.
His proposal to Lizzy Bennet is a laugh-out-loud scene. Collins takes her unequivocal refusal as flirtation – ‘it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses of the man whom they secretly mean to accept’ – and Lizzy cannot persuade him that no means no. From Collins’s point of view he has convention on his side, he has money and position, Lizzy has nothing, how could she possibly refuse? The final para of this chapter is masterful comic writing:
To such perseverance in wilful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply, and immediately and in silence withdrew; determined, that if he persisted in considering her repeated refusals as flattering encouragement, to apply to her father, whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as must be decisive, and whose behaviour at least could not be mistaken for the affectation and coquetry of an elegant female.
Lizzy seems genuinely not to care about the rules. A woman with a ‘lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous’ she is unfazed when Mr Darcy, with a startling lack of gallantry, insults Lizzy Bennet in Lizzy’s presence (‘tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me‘) she shrugs this off not out of forced defiance, but because she really doesn’t care. When her sister falls ill at a distant manor, Lizzy strides for miles across rainy shire pulp, arriving at Netherfield withot apology or explanation, all ‘weary ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.’ Martin Amis highlights this scene in his essay, ‘Force of Love’, and adds: ‘By now the male reader’s heart is secure (indeed, he is down on one knee).’
When Darcy and Elizabeth finally fall in love, the gatekeepers of convention half kill themselves to stop them. There’s a letter of warning from Mr Collins, whose patron disapproves of the match: then, an unprecendented visit from the lady herself. There’s no more affability and condescension from Lady Catherine: she’s heard rumours of a wedding, and confronts Lizzy in order ‘to insist upon having such a report universally contradicted.’ Lizzy defies her outright: ‘How far your nephew might approve of your interference in his affairs I cannot tell; but you have certainly no right to concern yourself in mine.’ Lady Catherine is reduced to the classic last resort of the celebrity on the wrong end of an argument: ‘Miss Bennet, do you know who I am?’ To no avail. Not only do Lady Catherine’s representations not work, they also play a role in bringing Darcy and Lizzy together.
From this angle, the novel seems almost feminist. Lizzy isn’t forced to lower her expectations. Elizabeth, Amis writes, ‘will never settle for anything less than love’ – and she doesn’t have to. But Amis notes that her little sister Lydia is wrenched into something like a period cautionary tale. She runs off with the rakish officer Wickham into a rushed and penniless marriage that quickly loses its fire. At the end of the novel she is tolerated and subsidised but not accepted. There’s little sympathy from the other characters, almost none from Austen herself. From Amis’s review:
And this despite the following mitigations (which gallantry, as well as conscience, obliges one to list): that Lydia’s fall was precisely and vividly foretold by Elizabeth; that its likelihood was blamed on parental and familial laxity; that Elizabeth was at one point entirely gulled by Wickham’s charms and lies; and that Lydia, during the course of the novel, only just turns sixteen.
No matter. The British love romantic conventions, and the friction they produce when you brush against them. But you can fuck with the rules of attraction so far – and no further.
Austen has obvious contemporary resonances. The plot of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones loosely follows Pride and Prejudice. Bridget and her contemporaries are locked in a similar stampede to the altar. But the driving force has changed. Instead of money and estates, it’s the timeless cliche of the biological clock – the desire to have children, and the expectations of family, peers and society that one should do so.
It’s astonishing that the novel was such a contemporary hit. Bridget is far less independent, and more submissive than Lizzy Bennet – Darcy’s thoughtless comment at their first ball would have triggered weeks of tearful self-analysis and hazardous dieting. In fact popular fiction traces an arc of female servility – from chick lit to Fifty Shades by way of Twilight (‘Oh, Edward, you are a vampire. How dashing!’) I reread Bridget Jones’s Diary recently and was struck by how cold the book was. There is more of Austen’s invention and spirit in the cult hipster novels of Martin Millar.
Fielding did introduce an original element: the introduction of the Bad Man. Her Mr Darcy has to compete for Bridget’s hand with the philandering Flashmanesque Daniel Cleave. The Bad Man is unreliable and ultimately impossible to live with, but there’s a sensuality there and a candid mischief that keeps him forever in the game. There is no Cleave equivalent in Austen – even Wickham is more lazy and hapless than actually wicked. More than one woman has said to me that Bridget should have married Daniel Cleave – at least he made her laugh.
In my view, TV drama Green Wing tells the old story much better. If you didn’t see this show in the mid 2000s, it’s a surreal comic burlesque set in a hospital, and scored with gorgeous electronica. You can drop a pill and dance to it. Surgical registrar Dr Caroline Todd is torn between two potential suitors: the Good Man, Dr Macartney, and the Bad Man, the textbook FHM medic Guy Secretan. The characters are better developed: Macartney is modest and taciturn while Fielding’s Darcy just comes off as remote and aloof. Daniel Cleave is a bastard who never changes. But we never really hate Dr Secretan because his macho pomposity is so easily deflated. Guy develops a genuine love and care for Caroline, which in turn makes him more vulnerable and likeable. Mac too is in love with Caroline, but their relationship is continually disrupted by the vagaries of chance.
Green Wing acknowledges the biological clock. Sitcom women are usually portrayed as unattainable goddesses or domestic foils. But the female characters in Green Wing are as idiosyncratic and fucked up as the men. From the raging corporate vamp Joanna Clore to the insane sexual dynamo that is liaison officer Sue White, they go to comic, desperate and extraordinary lengths to find romance. The Mac-Guy-Caroline triangle is mirrored in Joanna’s relationship with Dr Alan Statham, a consultant radiologist defined by self-important whimsy and a multitude of sexual tics. Statham is the comic highlight of the show – you’ll never again hear the phrase ‘One hundred per cent’ without smiling. But he genuinely cares for Joanna, and their kinky autumn love forms a parallel to the central romance.
The last episode of series two begins with the Kinks song ‘Tired of Waiting’ – Mac’s favourite band and appropriate for his relationship with Caroline. In a cruel irony, it turns out to be Mac that’s running out of time. He arranges to meet Caroline at the station. A weekend away is his last try at getting the relationship back on track. On the way, he has a routine medical appointment – where he’s handed a terminal diagnosis. With months or maybe just weeks to leave, he decides to get out of the game. Caroline, waiting at the station, decides too to give up the relationship – ‘He’s let me down again’ – and instead it’s Guy who comes walking out of the smoke. She accepts his proposal – and it’s a measure of how strong the writing and character development is that by this time we’re happy that she says yes.
There’s a happy ending to Green Wing, as there always is with romantic comedy. But there’s an edge to it as well, because you only get a certain amount of time in the world to be happy, and at the back of your heart you’re always aware how easily and seamlessly the dance of love segues into the dance of death.
Update: for Austen criticism from people who actually know what they’re talking about, I recommend Normblog’s exhaustive Janeite resource.