Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Austen's Pride and Prejudice, iii.14 (or chapter 56)

Here is a late-novel conversation between Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Elizabeth Bennet. Lady Catherine has the first lines:

   "I will not be interrupted. Hear me in silence. My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended on the maternal side from the same noble line; and, on the father's, from respectable, honourable, and ancient, though untitled families. Their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses; and what is to divide them? The upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. Is this to be endured! But it must not, shall not be. If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere, in which you have been brought up."
   "In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal."
   "True. You are a gentleman's daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition."
   "Whatever my connections may be," said Elizabeth, "if your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you."

It was once unusual to see Jane Austen in a political context, but passages like this certainly support such a reading. "The Spirit of the Age"—as William Hazlitt and others described the late 18th and early 19th centuries—was in large measure a spirit of revolutionary change. An older aristocratic/monarchic system preserved money, power, and cultural authority in the hands of a few dominant, titled families, and those titles were handed down through the arcane rules of primogeniture from one generation to the next. This was not a system to inspire and reward individual merit—one's place in the social order was determined chiefly by the circumstances of one's birth. The emergent social order, however, tended to emphasize and reward individual merit and individual judgment. It was a more democratic (and capitalistic) social order that allowed for much greater mobility among social classes and that granted some power and cultural authority to persons who did not necessarily belong to established, "respectable" families. In one sense, the political debates of the 1790s that set conservative writers like Edmund Burke against radical/reformist writers like Thomas Paine or Mary Wollstonecraft offer a microcosm of this social, political, and economic sea change.

The passage above is imbued with this debate. For her part, Lady Catherine offers an almost cartoonishly extreme image of the aristocratic concern with family wealth and noble status. She begins with a bald assertion of her sense of cultural authority by issuing a direct command to Elizabeth: "Hear me in silence." She follows with a detailed account of the Darcy/de Bourgh lineage and the further assertion that the "fortune on both sides is splendid." These are powerful aristocratic credentials that are supposed to awe Elizabeth into submission, and, by extension, to assert her own "ancient" rights to power and to keep such bounders as she imagines Elizabeth to be in the "sphere, in which [they] were brought up." Note that there is no place in this system even to recognize any individual merit in a person like Elizabeth. From Lady Catherine's point of view, Elizabeth is of a class that is to be kept in its place. The fact that the marriage that Lady Catherine hopes to encourage between her daughter and her nephew is vaguely incestuous (at least from a twenty-first century vantage perspective) simply underscores the jealously guarded intra-familial relations of the aristocratic system.

Elizabeth, of course, will have none of Lady Catherine's pretensions, though she does adopt a version of the "family heritage" argument. Her first response is to assert the status of her own connections: "I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal," and even Lady Catherine must acknowledge the validity of Elizabeth's claim (though she continues to question the "connections" on Elizabeth's mother's side). Of greater importance, however, is Elizabeth's argument that it is the nephew's—Mr. Darcy's—views that count here, not Lady Catherine's: "Whatever my connections may be, if your nephew does not object to them, they can be nothing to you."

Granted, one would not go so far as to claim Austen as a radical reformer, but there is a crucial difference here between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine that mirrors the logic of the political radicals. Lady Catherine's conception of the social order allows no place for individual judgment—everything depends on the historical and financial circumstances into which a person is born. But Elizabeth contends that such general claims of authority based on nothing more than social rank (e.g. Lady Catherine's initial command to Elizabeth) need to be subordinated to the concerns of the individuals involved. If what is at issue is a potential match between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, it is the prerogative of these individuals to decide their own best interests. The "ancient" aristocratic order is subverted by a new emphasis on individual judgment and individual merit.

The echoes of the socio-political debates of the period are obvious enough in a passage like this that pits the old-guard Lady Catherine against the plucky and self-reliant Elizabeth, and it is clear that the novel favors Elizabeth. This raises a broader question about Austen. Several posts here on Romanticism @ UAB have focused on the revolutionary moment of romanticism. Where exactly would Austen's novel fit into this debate? Does Elizabeth's individualism put her on the side of the radicals? Or do the portrayals of such well-tuned and tasteful estates as Pemberley put her on the side of the conservatives?

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