Lit. Crit. (was: Re: More than you ever wanted to know (was Re: answers from Diana))

Dorian E. Gray israfel at
Sun Jun 3 16:06:32 EDT 2001

Philip said...
> I think I'd better get my Jane Austen reply in before the debate on
> really takes off.

Heh.  Them as want can discuss feminism, and the rest of us will discuss
Jane Austen. :-)

> Except that I have no objection to any of the devices in your list.
> Heyer uses all of them, and the longest sentence I've encountered is in
> the Pooh" by A A Milne (it's at the end of the chapter about the flood,
> lasts a page and a half)

Personally, I'm not overly fond of asides to the reader...  But that was
just a random, off-the-top-of-my-head, set of examples.  There are other
devices less employed now than they were previously.
> > today are not used to such things, and can find them very off-putting.
> > find I do have to engage a slightly different mind-set (reading-set?)
> > reading Austen (or any other pre-20th century writer) than normal.  I
had to
> Now we're getting closer.  I think this is the case, but it's not (just) a
> thing.  It's about the assumptions we all make about the world.

Mm.  Yes, I think you're right.  I think that in order to enjoy writing from
a period other than your own, you have to at least understand, and
preferably try to enter, the mind-set and world-view of that period.  Which
would include all kinds of things, from class distinctions, to available
technology, to vocabulary, to writing style, to clothing design...and on and
on and on.

> I've grown up
> with DWJ, and as a result my outlook on life has been to some extent
moulded by
> her writing.  This means I can pick up _any_ book by DWJ and know that I'm
> to feel at home in it, whether or not I like it.

Yeah, me too.

> With unfamiliar writers it is
> more difficult, and the separation in time makes it more difficult still.
> the case of Austen, I just failed to find enough in common.  This means
that if
> I persevere, I would probably come to love the books.

I suppose it all comes down to whether you wish to put in the requisite
effort.  And lest that sound condescending, which I assure you it isn't
intended to, let me add that it wasn't a great deal of effort for me,
because I had someone to show me parallels that I might not have instantly
noticed for myself.  Like how Kitty and Lydia, drooling after the militia in
their fine red coats, and buying clothes they don't want just because they
like shopping, are little different from modern teenagers drooling after pop
stars and, well, buying clothes they don't want just because they like
shopping. :-)
> > learn to do this (huge thanks to my mother and my school English teacher
> > showing me how!), but not everyone either realises that it's necessary,
> > is willing to, or maybe even is able to.
> I'm not sure it's a case of realising or being willing.  I'm sure it's
> I do unconsciously with many authors I do read.

Yes, but if you do it unconsciously, are you then able to recognise when you
are not doing it, and realise that you need to?  And if you do it
unconsciously, it's more or less effortless, so if you do recognise and
realise, you might find it much harder than you expected - maybe harder than
you think is worth it - to do.
> I would also say at this point that we shouldn't assume a hard cut-off at
> the turn of the 19th/20th centuries.  Quite apart from the plenty of
writers who
> span both, such things are almost always a continuous, gradual change.
ATM I am
> reading The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris.  Definitely 19th
> I find it heavier going than a modern novel, and a trifle slow in pace,
but not
> as off-putting as I found JA.

Granted.  I knew even as I was writing it that that wasn't a cut-off point,
but as you say, there is no clearly defined cut-off point, so that seemed a
reasonably convenient point to use.

And I should admit here, that though I love Jane Austen's books, I've never
yet been able to enjoy Dickens' work.  I'm no saint in this respect!

> > Hm.  I must admit, I didn't find that.  Can you explain this a little
> > Give examples?  Darcy, it must be said, is one of my all-time favourite
> > romantic heroes!
> Oh dear.  We seem to be arguing from totally opposite premises.  I mean,
> unromantic anti-hero was more the impression I got ;-)

Well, yes, I can see that.  But I still wouldn't say no to him!
> To be more specific, we start the book with FD a stuck-up boor, who can't
> bothered to make himself agreeable at a party, and doesn't want to admit
that he
> fancies Elizabeth (or whatever her name is) simply because she's from the
> sort of ancestry.
> Later on, he has turned into a charming host, taking a lot of trouble with
> guests.
Okay.  I thought something like that might be what you were getting at, but
I wasn't sure, and didn't want to argue without something concrete to argue

> These two sides to his personality come up throughout the book, but
> nothing that I could see to tell the readers why there are two aspects;
> could I really see how he transforms from one to the other, even though
> we do get to observe the process at least once.

My feeling is that it's a lot to do with the etiquette and society of the
world the characters live in.  Because of the way he's brought up and
treated within this world, Darcy has a high opinion of himself, and stands
very much upon ceremony.  But for the same reason, he is a charming host,
because it's simply "not done" not to take trouble over your guests.
Granted, some people didn't take the kind of trouble that Darcy takes, but I
think he's an illustration of all that is best in the etiquette of the
period.  But basically, I think Darcy is these two contradictory people
because that's what his society has made him.

And I may well be reading far more into this than Miss Austen intended, but
I'm not sure of that:  Darcy is contrasted strongly with, say, Bingley's
sisters, who are from the same milieu, but almost invariably appear boorish
and ill-bred.  I think we are meant to draw the inference that Darcy is a
true gentleman, even when he's being rude, but the Bingley ladies are not
true ladies.  (Darcy, at least, is not sweet to your face and malicious
behind your back!)

I also have the feeling that a lot of this contrast is to do with the
characters' own sense of self-worth (and I have no idea at all if Miss
Austen intended this!):  Darcy is always secure in himself, confident of his
worth, so he doesn't care what people think of him (except when he's trying
to win Elizabeth's affections!).  But the Bingley ladies seem to me to be
rather insecure, somewhat un-self-confident, and therefore behave badly
because they can never get away from "what will people think?".

I seem to have rambled quite a long way away from my orignal point, but I
hope I'm at least making some kind of sense!
> And I ended up with a feeling of "Yes, so even a stuck-up boor can put
> out to help people, but it hasn't made him less of a boor..."

Now that I think about it (and you're making me think more deeply about this
book than I think I ever have before - thank you), I think Darcy is only
boorish when he's conforming, or trying to conform, to his society and its
expectations.  And in this case, I'm talking about *his* society, the rich,
landed and titled gentry, not the Bennetts' society which, although
technically equal to Darcy's, nonetheless operates by subtly different
expectations.  Once Darcy simply begins to conform to what he knows (because
he's been taught all his life) is the right and proper way to behave
(behaviour in general, I mean, not behaviour expected by the rich and
snobbish), he shows himself as an ordinarily mannerly and pleasant
> Again, this is purely my reaction to it.  I wouldn't presume to make any
> statements about What The Author Meant.  She no doubt had many of the
> things for which she is famous to say, but I didn't detect them...

And these are my thoughts and reactions to it, and I daresay Miss Austen
would take issue with some, if not all, of them.  But once the book is
published, there's nothing for the author to do but sit quietly and put up
with people reading all kinds of things into it that she didn't intend. :-)

Until the sky falls on our heads...

Dorian E. Gray
israfel at

"I feel that if a character cannot communicate, the very least he can do is
to shut up!"
--Tom Lehrer

To unsubscribe, email dwj-request at with the body "unsubscribe".
Visit the archives at

More information about the Dwj mailing list