Mar 18, 2014, 07:02AM

Jane Austen Did It Wrong

Look at the first line of Pride and Prejudice.

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I don't like Jane Austen. I won't explain all the reasons why, but I'll explain the top reason, the one that makes me despise her instead of just being disappointed by her. The reason shows up in her most famous sentence.

Pride and Prejudice, chapter one: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Note the phrase “in want of.” That means the man needs a wife. Everybody takes a look at him and they agree: what he needs is to get married. They've sold themselves a story.

But, as it turns out, no. The idea vanishes in the second and third paragraphs. Mrs. Bennett, mother of Elizabeth and the other girls, doesn't think Mr. Darcy is unhappy without a wife but too dim to realize it. Her view is much simpler, as she explains when laying out her plans to her husband. “You must know that I am thinking of his marrying one of them,” she says, referring to her daughters and the district's new bachelor. Mr. Bennett asks, “Is that his design in settling here?” Mrs. Bennett: “Design! Nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.”

Mrs. Bennett is thinking quite clearly. Yes, the man might fall in love with one of them, and he'd better. The Bennett household is saddled with four young creatures who will never hold a profession and will always have to eat. Mrs. Bennett wants them to continue eating, and they can't do so unless there are men nearby to generate money, the more men the better. So Mrs. Bennett wants husbands and she's not going to quit. She's pushy and single-minded, but she isn't daffy. Why must we smile at the little goose?

The trick Austen pulls here reminds me of the famous anecdote that right-wingers like to tell about Pauline Kael. Years ago Kael was asked about the giant landslide Richard Nixon had just won. Kael said she wasn't a good person to ask because she didn't know any Nixon voters, a circumstance that she admitted was a bit unusual (or “special,” to use her word). Kael lived in Manhattan and reviewed movies for The New Yorker, so various conservative writers decided this was too good to pass up. For decades they padded out columns, magazine articles and finally blogposts with their droll retelling of how the dizzy urbanite had said Nixon's victory made no sense because “I don't know anyone who voted for him.” Like Kael expected the country to vote the same as her co-op and was flabbergasted when it didn't.

But that wasn't the case. Kael didn't tell herself a story, and Mrs. Bennett doesn't fool herself either. We're supposed to laugh at them for being benighted, but really they're just in different situations than we are. Unlike conservatives, and many other people, a magazine writer in Manhattan may not know anybody who votes Republican. Unlike anyone at all except a middle-class mother in a society where men control the money, Mrs. Bennett has to find husbands. Because Kael and Mrs. Bennett are in such outré situations, they have different points of view than most of us do. That doesn't mean their mental processes are clouded.

But Austen wants to pretend that her target is very silly, so she pulls her little trick. Deluding yourself so you can pretend that someone else is deluded, and therefore deserves being talked down to, strikes me as a grubby thing to do. I find it's typical of Austen, and it's what makes me find her tittering so inane. 

  • I don't know, CT. I think your reading of that first sentence is shaky. "In want of" there doesn't mean he' s pining away; it means he needs one, or should have one. As often with Austen, it's as much (or more) about social norms as internal states. You could paraphrase it as "everyone knows that a single man with a large income should have a wife," not as "everyone knows that a single man with a large income is pining away and sighing because he desperately wants a wife." I also think Austen is pretty aware why Mrs. Bennett's motivations are what they are. The issue is that she (Mrs. Bennett) is not very good at what she's setting out to do. Being too importunate and single-minded actually undermines her efforts; remember, Darcy and Bingley almost don't marry the girls because of their family, specifically Mrs. Bennett. It's not that she wants to get her daughters married that's the problem; it's that she's so bad at it. If you don't like social satire, you don't like social satire, and certainly Austen's morals aren't exactly ours, and you can criticize her for that in various ways. But you can't be entirely opposed to sneering at people if you're sneering at her, right?

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  • 1. For years and years people have been getting that quote (re Nixon) wrong. It was not Pauline Kaiel. It was Betty Friedan! I was there at the time. Maybe Kael said something similar, but it was Friedan who first said it. 2. Come on!. Jane Austen did nothing wrong. She is the greatest writer int he English language. about a minute ago · L

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  • Interesting about Kael. I always took it for gospel. In fairness, though, I'm sure there were a bunch of Upper West Siders who said the same thing.

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  • gsarant, no sale on the idea that Betty Friedan "said it." I read what Kael originally said, and I've seen the right-wing rehashings of the quote as they have altered it. // Russ, no sale on the idea that the story is somehow valid because somebody else on the West Side must have said something like it. Somebody in the Bush admin must have said the country has too much freedom. I guess I might as well say Dick Cheney said it. // Noah, you tell me I should read "in want of a wife" as meaning "he needs one or should have one." Rest assured, that is how I read the phrase. You can tell because immediately after quoting "in want of a wife," I write this: " That means the man needs a wife." Immediately after. At no point do I argue that Austen says the marriage nuts thought Darcy was "pining" for a wife. At this point I will bow and withdraw.

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  • Hey C.T. You say, "Mrs. Bennett...doesn't think Mr. Darcy is unhappy without a wife but too dim to realize it. " I take that to mean that you believe that first line suggested that Mrs. Bennett believed Darcy/Bingley were unhappy without wives. I don't think it does suggest that. Which I think undermines the rest of your reading.

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  • If he were in need of a wife, he'd be unhappy without one whether he knew the reason or not. To pine is to long for something, not just to feel the effects of its absence. So I stand by my reading.

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