The Brilliance of Austen

Re-reading the books with an analytical mindset is quite a new experience. So far, I’ve usually read them for the story, lovely romances which I knew so well I’d skip over chunks I didn’t like or found tedious (such as Mr Collins’ proposal – gah). But this time, in addition to enjoying the story, I’m also paying attention to the books as books – which is a whole other enjoyment in its own right.

Reading P&P, I approached it with the question: Just what makes this such a good book? Why is this piece of writing so immensely popular? P&P is, of course, Austen’s most famous book. S&S is read not infrequently, Emma is popular, Persuasion less so; hardly anyone reads Northanger and even fewer get Mansfield (which is a topic for another day) – but Pride and Prejudice invariably makes the Top Hundred of English literature, if not the Top Ten (depends on whom you ask). Hamlet, Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice – that sort of thing.

But the thing about it is that the story itself, the plot, is actually fairly boring – well, predictable, anyway. Girl meets guy, girl doesn’t like guy because he’s stuck-up, girl meets other guy who tells her first guy has been mean to him, girl dislikes guy even more, guy proposes to girl, girl tells him to get lost, guy explains issue with second guy, girl changes her mind about guy, guy does extra-noble thing to get her out of trouble, girl and guy get together, the end. Oh, and there’s the side story with girl’s sister and guy’s friend, but that’s not really that big a deal. In the hands of 99.9% of writers, this plot would, and does, turn into something not much more enduring than one Harlequin print run (slushie-in-the-sun effect). But when it’s Austen writing it, it’s a book that’s still on the bestseller list two hundred years after its first publication. (Incidentally, Happy Bicentennial, P&P!)

Now, there are probably a number of reasons for this which I’ve missed entirely, and their discovery shall be left for another day and another re-reading. But one of the things that struck me about the book this time around is the sheer brilliance of Austen’s writing. In particular, that chapter, almost smack-dab centre of the book (Vol. II, Ch. xiii) where Elizabeth has read Mr Darcy’s letter with his explanation about his relationship to Wickham and his actions with regards to Bingley and Jane, and she is now reacting to it. She goes from hating his guts, being completely unwilling to believe a word he says, chucking the letter away (determined to never look at it again), to immediately fishing it back out, reading it again and again, until, sentence by sentence, she arrives at a position 180° opposite from where she started. Austen walks the reader through Elizabeth’s change of mind bit by bit, utterly believably – and all of that in just four pages of not-very-fine print. Elizabeth changes her mind about Darcy, and the reader changes theirs right along with her.

Twenty-first century readers might not quite comprehend what the big deal is about an entail, or about the dire need to find a husband as rich as possible, or what the fuss is all about when a girl runs off with a guy and lives with him for a couple of weeks before they’re married. But we understand Elizabeth, because Austen makes us understand her. She makes us feel Lizzie’s feelings. And that is what’s so brilliant about her writing. Mr Darcy isn’t the most attractive of men, rich-tall-dark-‘n-handsome notwithstanding. He’s stiff, starchy, stuck-up (and possibly a few other things starting with st), doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of humour (Henry Tilney has him beat hollow on that), and can’t even carry on a conversation. Not my idea of an interesting man, in the ordinary course of things. But Elizabeth thinks he’s hot – well, after II, xiii, she does – and reading her story, I feel like her. So Darcy – is hot. It didn’t need Colin Firth in a wet shirt to bring that across; Austen managed it with a quill and paper.

And she does it over and over, even with the means of a potentially boring plotline such as P&P. If you compare it to the other Greats, it becomes especially apparent. There is inherent interest in a story about a young prince whose father has been murdered by his uncle, who then marries the prince’s mother, and the prince has to decide what to do about it. Or about a dirt-poor little orphan boy who falls in with a gang of street thieves, and has to fight his way out to respectability; or about a couple of young teenagers falling desperately in love even though their families have an ongoing feud. Those are interesting plots. Austen’s girl-falls-in-love stories – not really. But she pulls it off. Austen’s books are interesting, over and over, because of how she writes them.

Such is the brilliance of the little lady from Hampshire.

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