In this series of guest posts, a meta-diary of sorts, Austen readers recount what brought them to Austen in the first place and reflect on why they keep returning. This post is by Tom Flynn, emeritus professor of English at Ohio University Eastern, who wrote his dissertation on none other than Jane Austen.
My path to Jane Austen was long and circuitous and roughly follows my growth as a reader. The journey took approximately 15 years and was aided by the advice of concerned mentors. Let me illustrate.
|Auburndale Public Library
My journey began at the Auburndale, Massachusetts Public Library 466 feet from my home, where my love of reading was nurtured and provided constant sustenance. After graduating from the children’s section, I began to explore typical adolescent male genres: historical novels (Thomas B. Costain), and bodice rippers (Anne Golon), except for an intensely emotional summer hammock encounter with the close of Little Women. The influence of Sister St. Joseph, who introduced me to serious literature, specifically John Dos Passos (U.S.A. Trilogy) helped to clarify my course and set my bearings.
The seduction of science fiction (Issac Asimov, whose laws of robotics seemed like a foundation for human interactions) and sociology (David Reisman, The Lonely Crowd) caused me to detour away from my path toward Austen when I became an undergraduate sociology major at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. In addition to the naive belief that human affairs could be rationally managed and that sociology held the key to principles governing that process, the field appealed to me because of the rich narratives presented in the more anthropological works like William Foote Whyte’s description of the life of the Italian community of the North End of Boston (Street Corner Society) and St. Clair Drake and Horace Clayton’s study of Chicago, Black Metropolis. Unfortunately, once I delved deeper into the field beyond these works into theory processes, and nomenclature, my interest waned. I realized that sociologists would not rule the world, and I found myself consistently falling asleep in class. In contrast, my Modern and Irish Literature courses with Mary Doyle Curran.
|Mary Doyle Curran
(The Parish and the Hill) sparked my interest and invigorated me, prompting my future wife, Shirley Nottage, to encourage me to switch my major from enervating sociology to the energizing field of English Literature. Professor Curran brought literature to life and sharpened my appreciation of plot and character.
That decision led me to graduate school in English literature at Ohio University and a first term course in the eighteenth-century British novel with Barry Roth, who in 1979 became a founding patron of the Jane Austen Society of North America and who, in time, published three bibliographies of Jane Austen studies.
Roth had studied with Ian Watt, and Roth’s introduction to the early English novel was exhilarating, progressing through Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Sterne, Smollett and Burney, before culminating in Austen. Prior to this course I had read nothing by Austen and discovering her after a review of her predecessors was an eye-opener. Like each of the earlier authors she drew on previous works and also like them she brought a unique element to the novel. Like Richardson, Austen focuses on the tension between women and men; unlike him she eschews melodrama and decreases her use of epistles to advance that action. Like Fielding, Austen brings wit and charm to her characters; unlike Fielding’s Tom Jones, Austen’s female protagonists live much more constrained lives, and unlike Fielding, Austen diminishes her voice in the novel and relies more on direct discourse to reveal the character’s actions and mood.
At this point I could appreciate that Austen possessed what I had been looking for in literature. As impressed as I was with the earlier writers, Austen’s subtle control of her characters and plots, as well as the sense of purpose with which each of her novels is imbued made her stand out. Above all, her command of character and dialogue heightened my appreciation.
In Roth’s course we read Pride and Prejudice. As I have been working on this piece I have tried to identify exactly what about this novel so appealed to me. I believe it was the discourse between the characters, the skill with which Austen presented them through their words, and the skill with which some of them stated their positions, read the other characters’ motives and took their stand. Though for my dissertation topic I finally chose the role of Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price in identifying, absorbing, and affirming the values of integrity and loyalty that stand at the heart of the Bertram family and Mansfield Park, initially I was drawn to the topic of Jane Austen’s metadiscourse, which I perceived to be the subtle interplay, the verbal dance and jousting between characters that for me gives the greatest pleasure in the novel. As much as this topic still intrigues me, its complexity led me down a rabbit hole where I stayed till the prospect of ABD forced me to abandon it for a more readily definable task.
Though I have set aside the study of Austen’s discourse, this aspect of her skills still seems to me to be central to her contribution to the English novel. Therefore, I returned to Austen’s discourse for this blog. When I reviewed Pride and Prejudice to identify a passage that best exemplified Austen’s verbal pas de deux, I focused on the end of the novel when the characters have worked through their difficulties, matured and established themselves. Austen closes the work with three strong set pieces: 1. Elizabeth and Wickham, 2. Elizabeth and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and 3. Elizabeth and Darcy. Upon review, scene two though important to the plot of the novel as it provides Elizabeth an opportunity to declare her justifiable pride in her status as a gentleman’s daughter and, therefore, Darcy’s social equal and to demonstrate her integrity by refusing to be cowed by a social superior, does not reveal Austen’s highest level of skill because Lady Catherine is a woman of limited intelligence who cannot grasp Elizabeth’s strength of character and who also has a limited set of skills to manipulate or persuade her skilled opponent. Scene three between Elizabeth and Darcy also did not demonstrate the qualities I was looking for, not because Darcy lacked the intelligence and acuity to engage fully with Elizabeth but because at this point in the novel, the sole task of this scene is for them both to reveal their hands, apologize for their prides and prejudices and lay the foundation for their harmonious life together. There is no challenge or threat to be resolved here. Dare Elizabeth reveal that she knows of the role Darcy played in saving Lydia and the honor of the Bennet family? Yes. Should Darcy reveal that he acted not for the sake of Lydia and the Bennet family, but out of his love for Elizabeth? Yes. No, neither of these two scenes, appealing and important as they are, made me aware of Austen’s skill and the contribution she was making to the novel.
The scene that for me represents Austen and Elizabeth Bennet at their best and that clinched my appreciation of her is that between Elizabeth and Wickham after Darcy has bribed him into doing right by marrying Lydia Bennet. Austen thoroughly sets the ground for this scene: first, she employs the conventional technique of filling in plot events with an epistle: she has Mrs. Gardiner send Elizabeth a letter detailing Wickham’s villainy, his plan to abandon Lydia and seek his fortune abroad, his refusal to marry her unless his debts are paid off by Darcy, and he receives a thousand pounds and a commission in his regiment. Next, she provides Elizabeth with an interlude for reflection on Darcy’s principled generosity, occasioned solely by Wickham’s despicable, unprincipled behavior. This scene plays an important role in the novel because Wickham had enticed Elizabeth into adopting a prejudiced view of Darcy and won her favor by presenting himself as a victim of Darcy’s cold pride. Before Elizabeth can be united with Darcy, Wickham must be disposed of. Austen facilitates this action by having Wickham seek Elizabeth out when he visits the Bennets after he marries Lydia.
While the scene unfolds it becomes clear that Wickham has an agenda: he hopes to discover what Elizabeth knows about his current situation and if possible secure her as a future ally against Darcy. In contrast, Elizabeth’s two-fold challenge is to protect her sources and to let Wickham know as subtly as possible that she is fully aware of his mercenary motives and his unprincipled actions while simultaneously avoiding a rupture that would cause a rift within the family.
Although blinded by his self-esteem, Wickham is a more worthy opponent for Elizabeth than Lady Catherine in that he has greater knowledge of and appreciation for Elizabeth, a broader array of social skills, and an ability, though limited, to assess and respond to her reactions.
Their brief conversation, which is related entirely in direct discourse, falls into three distinct sections. In each, Wickham initiates, attempting to present himself positively only to have Elizabeth say just enough to bring him up short.
First, after greeting her with the ingratiating “my dear sister,” he probes to find out what she knows of his past by referencing her visit to Darcy’s estate at Pemberley and her meeting with the housekeeper. This indirect inquiry is adroit because by merely mentioning the visit, he avoids asking a direct question and permits Elizabeth to frame her response as she sees fit.
When he finds out that the housekeeper had spoken of him, he then directly asks what she said.
Elizabeth’s economical and layered response both condemns him and also permits him to save face, should he choose to do so. She reports that the housekeeper said “That you [Wickham] had gone into the army, and she was afraid had—not turned out well. At such a distance as that, you know, things are strangely misrepresented.”
Austen reports that Elizabeth intends this information to silence Wickham, and he does bite his lip. Yet Wickham emerges from this first encounter relatively unscathed. He has not been so wounded that he considers retreating; rather, he adopts the dangerous strategy of returning to one of his earlier misrepresentations. This lack of judgment further establishes his lack of discretion. But then he persists in directly inquiring after Darcy’s sister, an early conquest of his, who was saved from Lydia’s fate by her good sense and Darcy’s intervention. Wickham’s reference to his earlier transgression reveals no remorse for his ill treatment of the daughter of his benefactor, Darcy’s father. Rather, he caddishly states “When I last saw her, she was not very promising. . . . I hope she will turn out well.”
In response to Wickham’s second probe, Elizabeth again holds back, allowing Wickham to establish, if he chooses, to establish a polite truce between them. Although she knows fully that Wickham had attempted to seduce Georgiana Darcy and betray the trust and honor of the Darcy family, Elizabeth holds her fire and states ambivalently “I dare say she will; she has got over a most trying age.”
The third section of this scene reveals Wickham’s limitations and Elizabeth’s strengths. Thus far, Austen has permitted Wickham to dominate the scene, and though Elizabeth’s responses to Wickham’s probes have been clear, they have been too subtle to alter Wickham’s behavior. To penetrate his amour propre, she must be more direct. Wickham begins this third section seemingly satisfied with Elizabeth’s neutral response to his conduct at Pemberley, and attempts to win Elizabeth over and to alienate her from Darcy by reminding her of one of what he perceives to be Darcy’s most serious wrongs against him, the denial of the position of parson at the village of Kympton.
He asks if she had visited the village when she toured Pemberley. She states that she had not; he reflects, “I mention it, because it is the living which I ought to have had. A most delightful place!—Excellent Parsonage House! It would have suited me in every respect. “
Elizabeth’s response here is perhaps my favorite line in the novel, revealing her wit, her knowledge of her opponent and her condemnation of his behavior.
“How should you have liked making sermons?”
Had he any self-knowledge or integrity, Wickham could not make an honest affirmative answer to this question. Austen, through Elizabeth, has put him in checkmate. Wickham’s attempt to ruin Georgiana Darcy, his success in poisoning Elizabeth’s opinion of Darcy, his willingness to ruin Lydia, his greed in marrying Lydia solely for the money that Darcy offers him, all demonstrate that all his sermons would be grounded in hypocrisy.
Wickham’s response is a wonderful comic stroke of character illustration, exemplifying his thorough lack of self -knowledge.
He declares that he would have liked making sermons “Exceedingly well. I should have considered it part of my duty, and the exertion would soon have been nothing. One ought not to repine; ---but, to be sure, it would have been such a thing for me! The quiet, the retirement of such a life would have answered all my ideas of happiness!”
Then he pushes Elizabeth further. Thus far she has only revealed what she knows of his ill behavior when he has directly questioned her. Again he does so and allows Elizabeth to put him in his proper place and to establish that she sides with Darcy.
Wickham asks directly what she knows from Darcy about the circumstances that caused him to be denied the position of parson. At this point Elizabeth refuses to hold her fire any longer and lets Wickham know that she has heard directly from Darcy that Wickham had refused the position in favor of a cash buyout, which puts the lie to Wickham’s earlier claim that Darcy had unfairly refused to honor his father’s wish that Wickham be given the living at Kympton.
“I have heard from authority that it was left you conditionally only and at the will of the present patron. . . . I did hear, too that there was a time when sermon-making was no so palatable to you as it seems to be at present; that you actually declared your resolution of never taking orders, and that the business had been compromised accordingly.”
Elizabeth’s reference that she has her information from “authority,” should let Wickham know that Elizabeth has learned this fact from Darcy, the only other person than Wickham who would know of this arrangement and that she believes Darcy. With these comments Elizabeth has completely cast Wickham aside, and if he has the wit to comprehend what has taken place he should gracefully withdraw. Wickham makes a feeble attempt to save face, which Elizabeth ignores, choosing instead to speed up their walk and leave him at the door of her house.
In another novel by another novelist Wickham could have been a more melodramatic, dangerous threat to the order and honor of the Bennet family and had not Austen countered his malign force with Darcy’s benign efforts, he would have been. Darcy’s efforts make it possible for Elizabeth to graciously dismiss Wickham at the end of this scene.
“Come, Mr. Wickham, we are brother and sister, you know. Do not let us quarrel about the past. In future, I hope we shall always be of one mind.”
This seemingly innocuous closing in which Elizabeth might be appearing to paper over the differences between her and Wickham and to suggest that they will not disagree cannot be taken at face value. In this scene Wickham continued his efforts to ingratiate, manipulate, and deceive; however, unlike with his earlier efforts, this time Elizabeth has refused to be drawn in and politely insisted that the truth of his behavior must be recognized.
The more I reflect on dialogue in this scene, the skill with which Austen shows how Elizabeth parries Wickham’s probes and the limits Elizabeth observes in revealing to him her knowledge of his unethical conduct until he begins to malign Darcy, at which point she feels she must take a stand and convince Wickham that she will not be trifled with and that he can no longer manipulate her, the more I appreciate Austen’s skill. The level of excellence, the skills Austen displays in her evocation of character in this scene have become the standard by which I judge an author's expertise.
Thomas Flynn, Ph.D., is Associate Professor Emeritus of English, Ohio University. Since 1978, he has taught a variety of literature and composition courses at Ohio University Eastern. His experience of reading, studying, and writing about Austen has played a vital role in his appreciation of literature and in the goals he has set for himself and his students. From 1980 to 2007 Flynn chaired the James Wright Poetry Festival and in 1993 co-edited with Mary King The Dynamics of the Writing Conference for the National Council of Teachers of English.