Criticism and self-criticism

Jane Austen
Oxford UP, 2008

Finished P&P Christmas morning, adored it, laughed from beginning to end.

I was struck by some lines by Elizabeth in volume 2. She’s invited by her aunt (and the Gardiners, while the least people according to the gentry hierarchy, since they are urban professionals, are the best human beings in the cast according to the text’s moral arguments) to take a trip to the Lakes, which is significant not only for its literary associations with Wordsworth and Coleridge. Picturesque tourism, the role of natural beauty in 18th century aesthetic discourse, is so well observed in Austen’s work, and is neatly worked into the rest of what the novel is about, an early but fully formed example of bildung, the cultivation of the self, the harmony of autonomy and socialization, for a rational basis for happiness.

Elizabeth answers the invite with raptures about how it will cheer her up after the disappointments regarding some marriage prospects. Then she says,

And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone — we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers, shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.

As a bit of characterization, Elizabeth acknowledges that gentry society is more often than not abominably boring and complacent and self-absorbed (reminding me of literary society in New York). But for her the issue is based on discourse. Other travelers don’t get their recollections of their tourism straight. She values good discourse, which in this case articulates how natural beauty confirms the rational sense making that is necessary to get by in this world, to accurately perceive people, and make correct choices.

Later on in the middle volume of course she reads Darcy’s letter, which contains the truth about that rake Mr. Wickam.

‘How despicably have I acted!’ she cried. — ‘I, who have prided myself on my discernment! — I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, humiliating is this discovery! — Yet, how just a humiliation! — Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love has been my folly. — Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.’

So, these lines rang kind of false for me in the same way the previous quote does; the thoughts are too well considered to be reported speech. They seem more like things Elizabeth would write in letters to a sister or confidante. Indeed, the earlier version of PRIDE, from the 1790s, was an epistolary novel, apparently.

“Generous candor.” Which here means not being honest but being sweet, diplomatic, unwilling to find fault. Elizabeth took secret pride in thinking herself more discerning and discriminating in her judgement than her sister Jane.

And “vanity.” That is the woman-specific version of pride, which Mr. Darcy also has. But actually the way pride works in the novel suggests that the gendered distinction, voiced by Mary at the very beginning, is not useful. Both Miss Bennet and Mr. Darcy have the wrong opinion about themselves and care too much about what other people think about them.

But it’s a remarkable self-criticism, and its climax brings out what is at stake for a bildungsroman: that to get the relationship between the self and the world wrong is to misapprehend the self entirely.

Here’s Mr. Darcy’s self-criticism, devastating for melancholy boys.

‘I cannot give you credit for any philosophy of the kind. Your retrospections must be so totally void of reproach, that the contentment arising from them, is not of philosophy, but what is much better, of innocence. But with me, it is not so. Painful recollections will intrude, which cannot, which ought not to be repelled. I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. Unfortunately an only son, (for many years an only child) I was spoilt by my parents, who though good themselves, (my father particularly, all that was benevolent and amiable,) allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.’

The bourgeoisie may not factor into this story world, but Austen is introducing its progressive values into it, values of merit. It’s accident of birth that gets you an aristocratic title, but one can always earn the title of gentleman or lady; that simply comes from how you’re willing to treat others.

And to do so, she introduced modern bourgeois narrative discourse seemingly at a stroke. The self-consciousness of the 18th century is replaced with confident realistic illusion crafting. This is a narrative that can’t really be relayed in letters to suspend disbelief. We have to be looking over Elizabeth’s shoulder as she goes on her reconnaissance missions at each party and estate visit, gathering reliable intelligence on what’s going on and who’s who. Limited third person simulates the sequence of human perception, the exercise of our inferential reasoning power (Kant’s term). And in the process we characterize not just Elizabeth but also that mysterious narrating entity, not Jane Austen herself, of course, but one of her images.

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