Thursday, August 27, 2015

Light, Bright and Sparkling

English Country Dancers sparkle at the Jane Austen Ball (author)

Just a quick reminder. If you would like to dance like Jane Austen, this weekend is your opportunity. Your JASNA CWNY and Country Dance Rochester are sponsoring a Netherfield Ball for novice dancers. There will be plenty of instruction, easy dances, delicious refreshments, and fine company. Now is the chance to relive some of the best moments from Jane Austen's novels.

The rocky coast of Maine sparkles in the morning sun (author)

The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade…or anything that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style.” ( Jane Austen Letters )

As you may have guessed from the figure captions, the theme of this post is sparkle. The quote above  is probably the only thing Jane Austen wrote with which some of her readers might disagree. Pride and Prejudice is light, and bright, but it also engages real issues of, well, pride and prejudice.

As to sparkling, the novel sets the tone from the very beginning. Of all Jane Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice is the one that far and away begins with the most of Jane Austen’s bright, insightful, and witty dialog.

Here’s the beginning (as if I really need to quote it):

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the 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.”

So much for historical background and moral philosophy. Jane Austen moves right into dialog.

“"My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

"But it is," returned she; "for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it."

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

"Do not you want to know who has taken it?" cried his wife impatiently.

"You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it."

This was invitation enough.”

Contrast this with the beginning of Sense and Sensibility:

“The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance. The late owner of this estate was a single man, who lived to a very advanced age, and who for many years of his life, had a constant companion and housekeeper in his sister.”

The history of the Dashwood family goes on from there. Other than a few of John Dashwood’s thoughts there is no dialog. In Pride and Prejudice we learn about The Bennets though their dialog. Thanks to Mr. Bennet’s rather pointed sense of humor this is some of Jane Austen’s wittiest dialog. 

"My dear Mr. Bennet," replied his wife, "how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them."

"Is that his design in settling here?"

"Design! nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes."

"I see no occasion for that. You and the girls may go, or you may send them by themselves, which perhaps will be still better; for, as you are as handsome as any of them, Mr. Bingley might like you the best of the party."

So we learn about Mrs. Bennet’ obsession with marriage and how sarcastic Mr. Bennet can be.

In Sense and Sensibility we get the John Dashwood's character in a narrative form.

“He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted and rather selfish is to be ill-disposed: but he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties. Had he married a more amiable woman, he might have been made still more respectable than he was:--he might even have been made amiable himself; for he was very young when he married, and very fond of his wife. But Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself;-- more narrow-minded and selfish.”

Of course we also learn about Elinor and Marianne.

“Elinor, this eldest daughter, … possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother…”
Marianne's abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor's. She was sensible and clever; but eager in everything: her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent.”

We learn about John, Elinor, and Marianne Dashwood through brilliantly composed, concise and sometimes devastating narrative rather than sparkling dialog. 

So Pride and Prejudice starts with light, bright dialog while Sense and Sensibility starts with a history lesson. Jane Austen’s other novels mix dialog and narrative in their first chapters (except Northanger Abbey), but none opens quite like Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Austen was a very talented and versatile writer. Her novels are unique and varied; each one is special in its own way. She may have thought Pride and Prejudice to be “too light and bright and sparkling” but she created it as such from the opening chapter and most readers would not have it any other way.

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