A letter to Matt about Pride & Prejudice
While my primary field of aesthetic expertise is giant robots, we both know that my other grand passion is English literature of Georgian era. Which means it’s time to talk about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which is, pound for pound, one of the best works in the English language. My utter delight in this novel places me under the unfortunate obligation of saying something insightful or entertaining about one of the best-loved and most-discussed products of our mother tongue. It is for such obstacles, Matt, that I customarily limit my commentary to murder simulations.
I was at a wedding a few years ago, and I got involved in this argument about Austen versus Tolstoy. The argument for Tolstoy was this: while Tolstoy was interested in everything, Austen only cared about marriage.
The short answer for this argument is, well, thank god we’re not forced to choose! But the longer answer is that to me, this argument mistakes Austen’s ultimate concerns. Granted, marrying well is the chief preoccupation of every Austen novel and heroine. Her books are literally “about” marriage: the arc of romantic love, culminating in marriage, provides the narrative structure for almost everything that happens in them.
But I think the right way to understand this preoccupation with courtship is to see how the pursuit of love provides a good arena for the exploration of morality. It’s not so much that marriage is the most important thing in life (although marrying well is certainly up there), it’s that it provides a set of circumstances in which essential elements of character come into play. Pride and Prejudice is occupied with Elizabeth’s finding of a good husband because it is through finding love that she comes to understand herself better.
Because Pride and Prejudice, as the title implies, is chiefly about misperception. That’s why there this marvellous final scene in the book, after Darcy and Elizabeth have become engaged, where they just spend an extended walk narrating with delight how they had gotten each other so wrong. Darcy, misled by Elizabeth’s (admittedly, pretty-atrocious) family, openly insults and then materially injures the only woman of his acquaintance whose intelligence and probity could possibly provide him any wedded happiness. Elizabeth, misled by Darcy’s (admittedly, pretty-shitty) demeanour, mistakenly takes her own offence at his slights as reason to believe that Darcy is not merely an asshole, but also a scoundrel. Happily, events conspire to let these two get things right: they come to understand not only why they got each other wrong, but also what it is that is wrong about themselves. Austen thinks this task has great moral worth, and so she spent all of her adult life and considerable talents imagining how it happens.
Actually, I would defend Austen’s preoccupation with marriage for much the same reasons I routinely defend shows like Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones to educated laymen. As a culture we are excessively hung up on subject-matter as the chief determinant of aesthetic merit, much to our detriment. Yes, my friends: there may be some light wizardry along the way. But the purpose of good science fiction (as with romantic comedy) is that space-plane battles provide can furnish an apt context to sound certain ground notes of human character. Battlestar is essentially an extended meditation on the nature of democracy in an age of terror, and in this respect it is probably the best work of art we have (in any medium), about the post-9/11 aftermath. I would not rate Game of Thrones quite so highly, but even a casual observer can see that it is a show as ruthlessly concerned with the manipulation of political power as it is concerned with knights, tits, and dragons.
My prejudices with regard to genre have steadily eroded over the years, Matt. I think I’ve just came to see that the best things to see and read have little to nothing in common. Us humans have made great things about nearly anything: spies, sea voyages, gay cowboys eating pudding, anything. We should keep it up.