Pride and prejudice: past, present, future. (Conference Papers).
MY FIRST COLLEGE ENGLISH TEACHER, Charles Kerby-Miller, gave our Class a short introduction to Jane Austen when we began reading Persuasion. He told us--a classroom of young women--that the reason for reading Austen's novels was that the people she wrote about--"intelligent young women making decisions"--were the most important possible subject for novels. I'm sure that he was also partly talking about his own life teaching young women making decisions and his own career in the English Department at Wellesley College. He then glanced ruefully over his glasses and added that one of the problems he had often faced with his friends and fellow literary scholars was what to do when you have read all of Jane Austen. His answer was, "There is only one solution: reread Jane Austen."
Many members of JASNA agree. Like Mr. Kerby-Miller and so many other readers, I have reread Pride and Prejudice uncountable times. As our lives change, different aspects of the novel assume prominence in our minds. When I was working on the collection of essays about teaching this novel that I edited for the Modern Language Association, I was moved by the novel's exploration of an inner world of thinking and reasoning as the path to deep feeling. Rereading Pride and Prejudice several times over this summer in honor of our conference about the book in "Past, Present, Future," I have been stunned to notice its complex consciousness of time. The very words, "past, present, and future" appear repeatedly in the novel in ironic and problematic contexts. For three short examples, I mention three memorable instances when Austen uses the words "present," "past," and "future" in the book.
Consider the question Mr. Darcy addresses to Elizabeth at the Netherfield ball: "'The present always occupies you in such scenes--does it?'" (93). The word "present" is italicized--indicating the emphasis in Darcy's query The reader understands that Darcy's question is an attempt to fathom Elizabeth's temperament and character. But Elizabeth, who is thinking about the story she has heard about Darcy's past, answers "'Yes, always,"' "'without knowing what she said.'" Darcy's guess that Elizabeth always thinks about "the present" in "such scenes" is his interpretation of her refusal to talk with him about books in a ballroom. Her answer, agreeing with this inaccurate description of herself, proves how very little she is occupied by the present at this moment. In fact, Elizabeth is so preoccupied by her thoughts about the past that she does not even really hear his question or answer it accurately.
And yet the present does occupy Elizabeth in this scene and in many others. It is her startling ability to comment on the very conversation in which she is engaged that repeatedly charms readers and surprises Darcy with its intelligent immediacy. In this very scene, she has already daringly commented on his silence. "'It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy.--I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples'" (91). Her comment is intended as a reproach to him for what she thinks is his failure to meet the requirements of common civility. But the mixture of "sweetness and archness in her manner made it difficult for her to affront anybody." Instead, he hears her reproach of his silence as witty conversation. It is this kind of exchange between them that they review at the end of the novel. "'Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?'" (380) she asks. "'For the liveliness of your mind, I did,'" he replies. Their old contr ary interpretations persist. It is rereading that enables us to see these connections across the pages of Pride and Prejudice.
Later in the novel, Elizabeth alludes both to past and to future in one deceptive speech. "'Come, Mr. Wickham,"' she says to him after his marriage to Lydia. "'We are brother and sister, you know. Do not let us quarrel about the past. In future, I hope we shall be always of one mind"' (329). Hilarious, joking, impossible wish! Elizabeth knows, Wickham knows, and the reader knows that Elizabeth and Wickham cannot possibly "'In future, . . . be always of one mind,"' since Elizabeth now knows Wickham's past history. Yet, ironically, in not quarreling about "the past" and being of one mind "in future," Elizabeth and Wickham in fact are united as brother and sister in a present that has erased the secrets that made Elizabeth like him and misjudge him.
Still later, in a resonant phrase, Elizabeth gives lighthearted advice to Darcy after they are engaged. "'Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure,"' she recommends to him (369). Darcy immediately refuses this advice: "'Painful recollections will intrude, which cannot, which ought not to be repelled."' Such painful recollections have made him grow, he tells Elizabeth. "'You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous."' He has been remembering his former desire to "'think meanly of all the rest of the world"' and his "'wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, and. . . and such I might still have been but for you."' By thinking of his own past and remembering his own former beliefs, he says that he was "properly humbled."
But Elizabeth herself knows very well that "painful recollections" cannot and ought not to be repelled. She too, has grown by reviewing the past self-critically. Austen uses some of the same diction for Elizabeth's thinking about the past long before this scene when she reviews Darcy's letter. "Reflection must be reserved for solitary hours: whenever she was alone, she gave way to it as the greatest relief and not a day went by without a solitary walk, in which she might indulge in all the delight of unpleasant recollections" (212). For her, too, growth comes from "delight" in unpleasant recollections, and the "relief" of thinking about the past as its remembrance gives her pain.
These three moments in Pride and Prejudice where characters use the words "past, present, and future" exemplify that complexity of thought, diction, and context that are typical of Austen's writing. Any thread that a reader of Pride and Prejudice traces with care leads not to homilies or formulas, but to complex, ironic, flexible, and inexhaustibly resonant insights.
AUSTEN, JANE. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. R. W Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||Clintock Folsom, Marcia MC|
|Publication:||Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2000|
|Previous Article:||Jane austen and rhoda: a further postscript to persuasions 20 (1998). (Miscellany).|
|Next Article:||Sleeping with Mr. Collins. (Conference Papers).|