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Tuesday, 20 August 2019

Discuss Pride and Prejudice as Jane Austen's world on "two inches of ivory".

A reading of Jane Austen's novels shows that her materials are extremely limited in themselves. Her subject matter is limited to the manners of a small section of country-gentry who apparently never have been worried about death or sex, hunger or war, guilt or God.

However the exclusions and limitations are deliberate. Jane Austen herself referred to her work as "two inches of ivory". In a letter to her niece Jane Austen wrote, " three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on". Those three or four families are the kind she knew intimately ---- the landed gentry, the upper classes, the lower edge of the nobility, the lower clergy, the officer corps of the military. The novels including Pride and Prejudice exclude the lower classes, not only the industrial masses of the big cities, but also the agricultural labourers who must have been numerous around Meryton and Longbourn.... She hardly touches the aristocracy, and if she does it is only to satirise it ---- as for instance Lady Catherine Dr Bourgh. The Bennets, the Lucases, the Bingleys and Darcy all belong to the class of landed country gentry, with the Bennets and the Lucases at the lower end of it and the Bingleys and Darcy with their personal fortunes at the higher end of it. Very rarely as in Pride and Prejudice the country gentry may include people like the Gardiners who are in trade.
two inches of ivory

Pride and Prejudice like other Jane Austen novels has a narrow physical setting. The story revolves around Netherfield Park, Longbourn, Hunsford Parsonage, Meryton and Pemberley. There is no reference to nature itself. It is one of the ironies of English literary history that at a time when the English Romantic writers Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats and others were discovering external nature, Jane Austen manages to keep her characters imprisoned indoors. A trip to the lake district is cancelled in Pride and prejudice and the only description of nature at Pemberley is brief and fairly generalized. 

Since her settings are the drawing rooms, ball rooms, parks and gardens of a civilized leisure class, she was unlikely to introduce lunatics, villains or ghostly figures. With strict adherence to the probability of life in a country village, she allows nothing terrible to happen. The greatest villainy that disrupts the evenness of a Jane Austen novel is an elopement or may arise from an unkind word or social faux-pus as Darcy's snubbing of Elizabeth at the Netherfield Ball. Jane Austen's theme was also limited to love and marriage. In all of her six novels, there are beautiful girls waiting for really eligible bachelors to get married to. Beyond this, there is no other pursuit to engage them. It was the period of the American war of Independence, of the French Revolution and of the Napoleonic wars. But Jane Austen's characters are blissfully unaware of these tumultuous events. The only relevance of the militia in a Jane Austen novel is its ability to provide girls with handsome military officers to flirt with and if possible to marry ------ Wickham and the other military officers in Meryton in Pride and Prejudice serve as objects for flirtation for Lydia and Kitty the younger Bennet girls. Similarly there is no discussion of spiritual or metaphysical issues and Mr. Collins the vicar is only an absurd, comic figure satirized by Jane Austen.

Another limitation of Jane Austen is the 'feminization' of her novels. Men do not appear except in the company of women. There is no 'men talk' or depiction of male sports like hunting. This might be one of the reasons for Darcy not appearing to be a wholly credible character. We never see Darcy except in the company of Elizabeth and since the novel is unfolded from the heroine's point of view, we look at Darcy through Elizabeth's eyes.

These limitations of Jane Austen have occasioned some very scathing criticisms and there is much that has been said in her depreciation. H. W. Harrod complains of the monotonous uniformity of her materials, "A drab scenery, the worse for use, a thin plot unfashionably cut and by turning, relining and trimming made to do duty for five or six novels, a dozen or so stock characters ------ these are Miss Austen's materials". Charlotte Bronte her most famous critic, feels a want of "passion" in her works and believes her to be an author of the surface only: "She ruffles her readers by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound, ....... Her business is not half so much with the human heart as with the human eye, mouth, hands and feet". Wordsworth admitted that her novels were an admirable copy of life, but since the pervading light of imagination way totally absent in them, they could hardly interest him. Since, her women are eminently pre-occupied with economic security a number of critics think that her text is just money. And since she looks at things from an ironic point of view, it being assumed that an ironist is only a detached and disinterested observer of life, Leonie Villard and Marvin Mudrick conclude that she does not have any moral concern. 

But the limitations are self-imposed and within her deliberately restricted field of art, Jane Austen is perfect. The restricted social setting, purely local interests lend a sense of discipline to her art and account for the accuracy and precision of portrayal. Her characters stem from the class and society she knows well and hence they are very realistic and life-like. Elizabeth Bennet is one of the most delightful heroines one could come across in literature. She is not the simpering, holier-than-thou heroine of a romantic novel, but appeals by her ordinary and real next door girl image with wit, humour and also very human failings of pride and prejudice. Her characterisation is indeed superb. She may choose her characters from the country gentry but no two characters are ever repeated in any of her novels. Mr. Elton, the vicar in Emma is totally different from Mr. Collins the vicar in Pride and Prejudice. Similarly her heroines are all different. Elizabeth is as different from Emma as Emma is from Fanny Price. About her characters, Macaulay comments "She has given us a multitude of characters, all, in a certain sense, commonplace, all such as we meet everyday. Yet they are all as perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings". 

It is wrong also to say that her novels lack passion and profundity. It is true that Jane Austen's view is essentially ironic and hence she chooses only those aspects of social behaviour that can lend themselves to ironic treatment --- the inconsistencies and follies of human behaviour, hypocrisy, pretentiousness, incongruities of speech and conduct, self deception. But it does not mean that she touches only the surface. Jane Austen's theme are love, courtship and marriage and it is impossible to keep the feeling out of such a novel. Jane's emotional involvement with Bingley is nothing but a matter of heart as also the Darcy-Elizabeth affair. The emotional conflict in Elizabeth when she refuses Darcy's proposal and later when she recognizes her own blind prejudices on receiving his letter of explanation, are all very finely delineated. So also her distress at the Lydia-Wickham elopement is proof of her deep feelings. Besides love, there are other significant emotions like the jealousy and hypocrisy of Caroline Bingley, the cunning of Wickham, the snobbery and vanity of Lady Catherine, all of which have been depicted by Jane Austen with perfect sincerity and conviction. In Jane Austen, emotions are experienced within a social frame work and hence they are controlled, but they are not absent. 

Similarly, it would be wrong to say she is not profound or lacks moral concern. She has delineated with great skill the psychological workings of Elizabeth's mind, her torment on recognizing her own, blind prejudices, in Pride and Prejudice it is definitely possible to work out a scheme of moral values. The moral concern is unobtrusive, but ever present and Jane Austen skillfully portrays the marriages of Lydia and Wickham, Collins and Catherine and the Bennets which by contrast serve to highlight the propriety of the Elizabeth-Darcy marriage which is seen in the social context of the stability and happiness it brings not just to themselves, but to everyone around them. As Andrew H. Wright says, "sht develops themes of the broadest significance, the novels go beyond social record, beneath the didactic, to moral concern, perplexity and commitment... Her novels may be read as broad allegories, in which, sense and sensibility, pride and prejudice, and a number of other virtues and defects are set forth and commented upon."

Within her limited theme and subject matter, Jane Austen is unparalleled in her skill in plot construction. In Pride and Prejudice not a single event or character is out of place and each contributes to the development of plot and theme. Following a logical and coherent pattern the plot of Pride and Prejudice proceeds like that of a drama from exposition, with the characters being introduced in the first few chapters, the development of the complication with Bingley's departure from Netherfield and Elizabeth's prejudice against Darcy, to the brilliant climax at Hunsford parsonage where Darcy proposes and is rejected, to the final denouement and resolution with the marriages of the Bennet sisters after the Lydia-Wickham elopement. The sub-plots of Lydia and Wickham, Charlotte and Collins are all closely linked to the main Elizabeth-Darcy plot and highlight the theme of the right marriage Jane Austen has a brilliant ear for dialogue and her characters reveal themselves through their speech. The witty and ironic language add much beauty to Jane Austen's art.

Thus, we may conclude that within her limited range Jane Austen's art is perfect. She handles, characters and events, dialogue and plot with an exquisite and masterly touch, fusing all the elements of novel into one, weaving and interweaving them so fine, that no strand can be separated. Her visible structure may be flimsy but she is profound in plumbing the psychological depths of her characters and in delineating the basic principals of human conduct. On her two inches of ivory, Jane Austen carves with a miniature delicacy to present a polished and refined work of art.

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