Few novelists seem as innocent of the temptation to punditry as Jane Austen. Though living through a period that witnessed the birth of an independent United States, the French Revolution and the Terror, the Napoleonic wars and the rise of revolutionary romanticism, and the upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, she focuses on a few middling gentry families in rural England. Hints of the wider world sometimes impinge on Austen’s peaceful outposts — Wickham, a soldier, plays a prominent role in Pride and Prejudice, and there are occasional passing references to the British colonies and the slave trade. For the most part, her characters go about their farming and their business, their follies and their romances, their dances and their games of backgammon and whist, as if nothing has changed.
Well-read as she and her family were, it is impossible that Austen was ignorant of the transformations taking place around her. How, then, does one account for their almost total absence from her novels? One possibility is that she was fighting a rear guard action by offering quaint and nostalgic glimpses of a simpler, happier time and place. Like Mr. Woodhouse in Emma, perhaps she found change so disagreeable that she had to pretend it had not happened. Austen’s twentieth-century readers (and, even more, viewers) may feel the twinge of a lost world, but Austen herself betrays no such sentiment. It is difficult to imagine a less nostalgic writer than Austen; she was too sharp-witted, too much the satirist of manners, for that. Her world amused her, but she was keenly aware of the pettiness of many inhabitants of her world and she did not shrink from showing their true colors.
More credibly, it has been suggested that Austen consciously chose to limit the scope of her concerns for artistic reasons. Her letters indicate that she was conscious of where her gifts did and did not lie; she playfully but firmly rebuffed one attempt to coax her to write a romance, claiming that she could not do it without dissolving into laughter, even if her life depended on it. Behind this aesthetic decision is a “philosophical” stance that can be described as vaguely nominalist. Particulars, Austen sensed, are all we can talk about with any degree of accuracy; about universals we can say very little. In Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney’s discourse on the theory of the picturesque ends in silence, but not before a long detour: “Delighted with [Catherine Morland’s] progress, and fearful of wearying her with too much wisdom at once, Henry suffered the subject to decline, and by an easy transition from a piece of rocky fragment and the withered oak which he had placed near its summit, to oaks in general, to forests, the inclosure of them, waste lands, crown lands and government, he shortly found himself arrived at politics; and from politics, it was an easy step to silence.” The larger the scope of discourse, the less opportunity Austen saw for delineation and fine discrimination, and the more everything blurs into the undifferentiated “smoothness” that Austen (with many of her characters) detested. Precisely this “nominalism,” and the minute attention to details of character and relation that comes with it, makes Austen’s work a continuing source not only of delight but of moral instruction and, in the best sense, of punditry. For Austen, character and culture are incarnated especially in particulars of manners and language. By attending to how she manipulates these, we see her busy evaluating what one Austen scholar calls the “revolution behind the revolutions.”
Manners in Austen’s novels constitute a code, a set of Augustinian signa data (given signs) that communicate within a particular society. Chiefly, manners communicate either a willingness or unwillingness to enter into conversation, to open a relationship, and this willingness is frequently determined by considerations of class. When he first appears in Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy — tall, handsome, with 10,000 pounds a year — makes a favorable impression. But this initial favor is soon lost when “his manners gave a disgust,” revealing him to be a proud man of “most forbidding, disagreeable countenance.” Darcy’s proud manner is sharpened by contrast with his best friend, Bingley, who quickly greets his new neighbors and is “lively and unreserved,” full of “amiable qualities.” On the far side of Darcy is his aunt, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, whose manner is designed solely to make others feel their inferiority. Manners are embedded in a social structure and trace its contours, so that a profound shift in manners is a social and cultural revolution.
Signs can communicate, but signs can also conceal. Thus, manners require interpretation, and Austen’s novels often take the form of hermeneutical dramas. And, like all cultural codes, manners can be manipulated for personal gain. Wickham, a soldier with whom Elizabeth flirts for a time, has an easy and open manner, and Elizabeth is quickly — too quickly, she later decides — taken into his confidence, so that she immediately accepts his accusations against Darcy. After Darcy discloses the truth at great length, Elizabeth recognizes that Wickham’s “agreeable” manners were only a counterfeit of true “amiability.” Later, Wickham uses his charm to seduce Elizabeth’s younger sister Lydia into a foolish elopement. With Wickham, there is a direct line from a dishonest deployment of the code to an act of high treachery, and earlier discernment of his abuse of manners would have prevented a severe family crisis.
Language provides another medium in which character is encoded. Austen is not, however, simply concerned with what her characters say; as much as semantics, syntax is character. Her narrative voice sets the syntactical standard — crisp, classical, unadorned prose — and characters who deviate are dishonest or idiotic or both. The Bennetts’ first knowledge of their cousin Mr. Collins comes through a letter, full of inappropriate apologies, convoluted sentences, stale metaphors, and obsequious references to his patron (Lady Catherine). Elizabeth immediately questions whether he can be a sensible man: “There is something very pompous in his style.” Bookish Mary Bennett, however, thinks well both of Collins’s sentiments and his style: “The idea of the olive branch perhaps is not wholly new, yet I think it is well expressed.” In a few lines, Austen’s economical genius has not only revealed that Collins is a buffoon but, by recording the Bennetts’ responses to his letter, has sharpened our understanding of both Elizabeth and Mary. Lydia Bennett provides another example. Ignoring Elizabeth’s protests, she describes her wedding to Wickham: “We were married, you know, at St. Clement’s, because Wickham’s lodgings were in that parish. And it was settled that we should all go there by eleven o’clock. My uncle and aunt and I were to go together; and the others were to meet us at the church. . . . And so we breakfasted at ten as usual. . . .” Yada, yada, yada. Like her sentences, Lydia’s life is just one breathless thing after another. Elizabeth is right to wonder how a young woman who speaks this way can hope to find a shred of permanent happiness in marriage.
Though complaining that Austen ignores passion and “what throbs fast and full, though hidden,” Charlotte Bronte conceded that “she does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well.” What Bronte could not see through her Gothic haze is that Austen’s close attention to the surface provides an entry to issues of great moment, not only personal but cultural. Were Austen living and writing today, she would no doubt be shocked at the smarminess of contemporary public discussion, but she would also recognize a sign of severe cultural ruin in the inability of people to speak two sentences together without a heavy peppering of “you knows,” “justs,” “likes,” or “kewls.” Crime statistics would alarm her, but she would have much more to say about our un-code of manners that refuses to recognize hierarchy of any sort, that oscillates between chumminess and rudeness, that insinuates viciousness and dishonesty into everyday social contacts. By focusing our attention on these sorts of cultural signa, Austen alerts us to some of the unrecognized habits that make it so exceedingly difficult for us to continue the conversation that is contemporary society.
Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. This post was originally published in a newsletter by Biblical Horizons.