by O.W. Firkins
Chapter II: Pride and Prejudice
I incline to rank Pride and Prejudice among the best-plotted novels in English literature. This is far from holding it to be impeccable. It is unfortunately true that a novel need not be faultless--need not be free from grave faults, to be classed with the best-woven fabrics of the clumsy English looms. English novelists commonly write on the grand scale which makes the correlation of particulars difficult and irksome, and in general they are eager or preoccupied. Like the man who had been so busy in making money that he had wanted time to think about finance, they have been so lost in narrative that they have almost forgotten plot; and their forethought, when it has existed, has been moral and intellectual rather than artistic. Even the Lesthetic re-quickening in the last years of the nineteenth century came almost too late for the amelioration of their plots. They found themselves ready to appropriate the patterns of their continental masters at the very time when those masters were preparing to teach them that art is truth and that truth is patternless. Accordingly, a strong, definite, and shapely plot, like that of Pride and Prejudice, has never lacked the pedestal of isolation. For the most part the English have muddled through in novel-writing as in war. Lovers of literature will find solace in the thought that in the military field the habit has not acted as preventive to Blenheims and Trafalgars.
The plot of Pride and Prejudice belongs to that admirable class in which two processes, a flux and reflux, of approximately equal length and strength, are parted in the middle by a crest or equinox in which the first process finds an end and the second a beginning. This is the type which proved so captivating to the imagination of Gustave Freytag that he was decoyed into the error of making it an imperative formula for tragic drama. In Miss Austen's novel, Elizabeth Bennet accumulates dislike of Darcy throughout a volume; throughout a second volume she accumulates love; the arch finds its beautifully poised keystone in the rejection scene in which her aversion touches its acme. The manner of these changes is highly characteristic. The word "process" which I have applied to the movements is inexact, they are no more processes than a flight of steps or a series of ledges is an incline. The graduated is achievable by Miss Austen, but not the gradual. Elizabeth, in the first volume, collects evidence of Darcy's wickedness; in the second she collects evidence of his worth: and this evidence comes not in grains but in blocks. As soon as the rebuttal is complete, so strict a logician cannot delay the bestowal of the hand which is the irrefutable Q. E. D. Yet it is by no means unpleasing or unexciting to watch the deliberate movements of the crane by which block after block is swung into its due place in the massive lines of Miss Austen's geometric masonry.
The mingled correspondence and opposition in the two movements is worth noting. The inexcusable rudeness of Darcy to Elizabeth in volume first leaves a bruise to which a series of delicate courtesies in volume second applies the counteractive and appeasing salve. A scandalous count in the indictment against him in the first half of the book is his injustice and malignity toward an angelic personage called Wickham. In the second half we are info that the object of these persecutions is a worthless ingrate on whom generosities have been vainly lavished. But the crowning offense in Darcy is hisinterference with the thriving mutual attachment of his friend Bingley and Elizabeth's sister Jane. This act is not only revoked in the second volume, but is more than counterpoised by an act of magnanimity toward another sister by which a prostrate reputation is placed not on its feet indeed, but on crutches, and repairs are effected in the highly reparable honor of the unexacting Bennet dan. The equation is not precise; precision would outrun nature. Even the general plan of the two movements is a departure from the truth, and owes all its brilliant virtuosity to the imposition on life of a symmetrical elegance to which life itself is uncompromisingly hostile. Of itself, it would block Miss Austen's claim to the title of an inexorable realist.
The differences in merit between Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice are emphasized in one point by the similarity of their materials. There are two sisters with two parallel love-affairs in both noels. But in Sense and Sensibility the union of the stories has little other basis than the union of the heroines, as if two lapdogs became companions rather than partners through the fact that their mistresses were inseparable. In Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, the two stories are virtually one; they not only interlace; they interlock. Darcy, in destroying the happiness of Jane by the removal of Bingley (who, it may be incidentally remarked, is almost as removable as a joint-stool), has ruined his own prospects with the justly resentful Elixabeth, and his sanction of the renewal of Bingley's addresses to Jane is the prelude to the establishment of his own happiness. There is another point in which the two stories are superficially alike, but artistically different. In the middle of Sense and Sensibility the two cavaliers ride away; the interest slackensl almost languishes; and there is a "meated grange" effect in the forsaken cottage to which the name"Marianne" seems charmingly apposite. In Pride and Prejudice, likewise, the two heroes betake themselves to London, but the threat of languor for the story implicit in this step is dispelled by the promptitude with which Darcy is recalled to the proscenium. It may be noted as a symptom of the times that the modest and discreet Jane pursues the fleeing suitor to London almost as promptly as the headlong and reckless Marianne. The maxim that "To the victor belong the spoils" appears to have regulated the conduct of the most exemplary young women of the period.
In Pride and Prejudice the fabric is minute. Observe the dense packing and close coherence of the little incidents which precede and provoke Darcy's final declaration to Elizabeth. Bingley becomes engaged to Jane. This brings Darcy and Elizabeth into contact. To gossiping countrysides one marriage suggests another. The report passes from the Lucases who belong to that countryside to their relatives, the Collinses, and from the Collinses to Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Lady Catherine visits Elizabeth to bully her into a refusal. Elisabeth betrays a willingness to accept. Lady Catherine, visiting Darcy, unwittingly allows him to divine this willingness. Darcy renews his proposal, and is accepted.
This is more than care; it is elaboration. It indicates not merely a love of good plots but a love of plotting. Meredith's plots have a similar careful minuteness, but the enjoyment they might afford to the reader is nullified by the onus of unravelling their complications. Miss Austen's admirable clear-headedness makes even her minuteness lucid. The Gardiners are entirely subordinate, but they are enlisted in the plot three times; they serve as hosts to Jane, as escorts to Elizabeth, as helpers to Lydia. An ordinary novelist would have treated such auxiliaries as porters or hackmen to be changed at every station. When Mr. Collins marries Miss Lucas, that might serve as his congé from the novel at the hands of the easygoing, shiftless storyteller. Not so with Miss Austen. Further service is to be extracted from Mr. Collins. Elizabeth's visit to his wife becomes the occasion for Darcy's first proposal, and his value as a medium for the transmission of Longbourn gossip to Lady Catherine has been noted in a former paragraph.
But if Miss Austen's care in the provision of sequences is unresting, I cannot affirm that her choice of ligatures is always sound. The means by which Jane and even Elizabeth are made to spend a night or more under Bingley's roof may be called unscrupulous, but they are modesty itself in comparison with the effrontery of the methods by which Elizabeth of all persons is conveyed into the grounds at Pemberley, yes, even into the unmitigated presence of Mr. Darcy himself. Still, even where Miss Austen is brazen, she is careful according to her lights. To rationalize the visit to Derbyshire, Mrs. Gsrdiner was long before appointed to be born and bred in that county, and an effect of innocence is given to the choice of that district as a destination by making it a reluctant second choice. The ball at Netherfield Park illustrates both the skill and the heedlessness of the writer. To make Darcy's conduct in deporting Bingley excusable, two things are requisite: he must be convinced of Jane's indifference and of the hopeless vulgarity of the vulgar members of the Bennet family. The second of these objects is obtained with admirable foresight, but the first, which is even more important, is ignored. Indeed, two points in Jane's behavior make for a conclusion precisely opposite to that which it is needful to implant in Darcy's mind, and the elasticity of the term "gentleman" in Miss Austen's day is proved by his pursuit of his unchivalrous object without forfeiture of that title.
In a review of the characters in Pride and Prejudice the Bennet family merits the first place. A family, as Americans understand that term, they are not; they are a congeries. They are bedded and boarded in the same enclosure, but a family life is unimaginable in their case. Even under the double disadvantage of the father's neglect and the mother's attention it is difficult to conceive that Kitty and Lydia should have sprung from the same stem of which Jane and Elizabeth were the primary off-shoots. Sisters may be as far apart morally as Goneril and Cordelia, as far apart intellectually as Dorothea and Celia Broolie; but, if reared in one household, they can hardly differ in manners as Rosalind differs from Audrey in As You Like It or as Romola differs from Tessa in George Eliot's Florentine story. Breeding, being more superficial, is more teachable and less variable than either intellect or character. The two eldest and the two youngest sisters in the Bennet household are divided by an incongruity of this type.
Mr. Bennet is well drawn, though sometimes he seems little more than a salver for his own pleasantries. The appearance is unjust. He has a character apart from his witticisms, but he and his witticisms are practically inseparable, and in their seductive and distracting company his character, though visible, is hardly seen. No one ever joked better, but his lazy tolerance is more characteristic than his wit, which is almost too consummate to be individual. One imagines his wit, when not springing, to be always couchant for a spring, or rather perhaps one imagines his condition between jokes to be syncope. He is described interestingly enough as an odd mixture of "quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice," and one can imagine that in a richer soil and sunnier climate he might have matched felicities with the Bromfield Corey of Mr. Howells's Rise of Silas Lapham. But Mr. Bennet's lot was less fortunately cast, amid earthier and grosser conditions, on a social order in which the farm-horse took the girls to fashionable parties. He is overridden with women--woman-rid as the schoolmaster Charles Lamb avoided and pitied was boy-rid. A little henpecked by his wife, he finds in irony both solace and revenge; in his encounters with her he ia perfectly secure of an absolutely ineffectual victory, since his shafts, though unerringly aimed, are stopped by the cuirass of her insensibility. I think we should be more comfortable with Mr. Bennet if he had less to do or did more; he reaps the guilt, without the grace, of nonchalance. His indignation at his daughter's elopement is vehement but short-lived, and the baseness of his new son-in-law supplies his returning levity with a fresh target. Idleness, the least active of passions, is perhaps finally master of the swiftest and fieriest of its competitors. I think there are possibilities of delicacy, of pathos, in Mr, Bennet which his creator lacked the power to exploit; a century later, a more intuitive Miss Austen would have drawn a more intimate Mr. Bennet.
The character of Mrs. Bennet illustrates firmness and sureness of Miss Austen's hand. It illustrates no less clearly the utter want of temperance, of shading, almost of decency, in her satirical delineations. It is brilliant and it is garish. Many women have had follies akin to Mrs. Bennet's, but no live woman ever devoted herself to the quite superfluous task of proving that she was a fool with the perseverance and assiduity of Mrs. Bennet. The wariest of fools are off their guard sometimes; they stray into remarks which would be conceivable on the lips of intelligence. There is a neutral ground between wit and folly in which perhaps both wit and folly spend the greater part of their time. Miss Austen scores every minute with Mrs. Bennet, and at the end of the book her recompense is a splendid score rather than a human being. With her usual ruthlessness Miss Austen will allow Mrs. Bennet nothing; motherly feeling is conceded only in the form of a weakness. The woman has undoubtedly Strength of a kind--the strength of an undivided nature. Counsel, experience, suffering, leave no dent on the fixity of her prepossessions. She is a consummate exhibit, but she is hardly a character.
Jane is probably commemorative--the liquidation of some debt of affection and homage. She is the angelic person who delights the middle-class reader, and she is naturally rather tedious to that kind of upper-class reader who regulates his aversions by the raptures of the middle class. In Jane there is a contrast between the softness of the material and the firmness of the handling which is interesting to the thoughtful student of Miss Austen. In calling the material soft I do not contest Jane's possession of judgment and a kind of fortitude. We are impressed with the strength of her defenses, even while we are a little impatient of the weakness which requires the evocation of so much hardihood for its subdual. We like Jane, but perhaps we are tried by her emotion when we ought to be touched by it. We feel pain for her, but we do not feel that pleasure in our pain which draws and wins us in the case of Ellen Douglas or of Lily Dale. We are behind a closed door, and the exclusion magnifies our sense of the suffering, while it denies us the solace of participation.
Elizabeth's Bennet's value as a character is large, though not transcendent, and her interest as a study is extreme. If it is hard to find room for Jane's judgment in the rifts of her sensibility, it is hard to find room for Elizabeth's sensibility in the crevices of her judgment. We might think her made by formula; her very speech seems diagramed. These impressions are delusive. Elizabeth has all the human, all the womanly, traits, but she holds them by the oddest of tenures. Her figure possesses the indispensable feminine curves, but these curves are so gradual and so elongated that in viewing any small arc of her character we might readily mistake them for straight lines. Her delightful humor should temper the precision of her intellect, but the humor itself has a sharpness of definition so unusual that it all but reinforces the precision it should qualify. Elizabeth has a woman's variations, but her shifts are so'massive and so deliberate that to a remote or careless glance they have much the air of constancy. She has impulses, as a woman should have, but the reader must know her pretty well, before he can tell these impulses from plans. In short, there is a woman, even a girl, inside Elizabeth, but you must rummage to find either. Compare her with Beatrice in Shakespeare, with Diana Vernon in Scott's, Rob Roy, with Patience Oriel in Trollope's Doctor Thorne. What is the difference? In the last three cases the temperament wields the intelligence, and is dignified by the brilliancy of its utensil. In Elizabeth the intelligence wields--or seems to wield--the temperament. In the firm edges and broad surfaces of her character there is both satisfaction and unrest. There is not a fold in her personality, or if research lights upon a fold it is so straight and so severe that it leaves an effect of added candor, not of coyness. So much formality would have frozen a less spirited woman; so much spirit would have ignited less formality. Elizabeth's position is curiously intermediate.
In Mary Bennet Miss Austen courted disaster. Miss Austen's own serious conversation is exaggerated almost to the point of burlesque in respect of the conversation of real people. One shudders to think what will happen when Miss Austen sets forth her own notion of exaggeration and burlesque. Mary justifies the shudder.
If Kitty is the least interesting, she is likewise the least exceptionable, of the portraits in the Bennet family. In the lifelike limpness and tameness of this subsidiary character the evoctttive force of a very few touches, when the few touches are Miss Austen's, is happily evinced.
Lydia Bennet herself is hardly more reckless thaa Miss Austen is reckless in the lengths to which she permits the boisterousness and shamelessness of Lydia to go. The drawing is unbridled. Here is a girl who disgraces herself, tries and sentences herself in every speech--a, thing hardly compatible with human nature. Her want of conscience, her want of decorum, are perhaps barely conceivable. But I can it be imagined that a girl whose pleasures and ambitions are purely social should be absolutely indifferent to the preservation of her claims to the respect or even the tolerance of society? She is a gentleman's daughter; she has two sisters who are models of refinement; and she has not one ladylike instinct, not one vestige of decorum. Scott is thought to be impromptu and swashing in comparison with Miss Austen, but compare the shading in the character of the compromised and fugitive Effie Deans with Miss Austen's big bow-wow portrayal of Lydia Bennet.
Nevertheless gross as the characterization is, it is vigorous in its crude way. If the strokes are few, their vividness is unequalled; and, if they have no support in human nature, they reënforce each other. Even individuality is secured, though how individuality can be imparted to a character that has neither variety nor moderation is a paradox before its acomplishment and a secret afterward. Lydia's individuality rests mainly on a self-reliance which gives a massiveness to her very levity and is intrin- sically a respectable trait. I think that Miss Austen felt this, though I doubt if she was awake to her own feeling.
Darcy, the problem of the book, is also its failure. He is neither firmly drawn nor clearly understood. A really estimable character is to appear intolerable throughout the first half of a book, and to reveal a climax of virtue in the last half. The condition of success in this adventure is that no offense shall be specified in the premises which cannot be forgiven as venial or explained as illusory in the conclusion. Miss Austen is too fond of violent coloring to observe this rule. Darcy is merely the shell of a character, and the two lips of the shell will not meet.
When he first appears, he speaks insultingly of a young girl within her hearing. After that, all is over, and to search the character for virtues is to delve among ruins for salvage. Goldwin Smith's comments on this behavior leave nothing whatever to be said either in supplement or in retort. "Nobody but a puppy would reply when he was asked to let himself be introduced to a young lady, 'She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.'" Strange things no doubt passed as ladies and gentlemen in Miss Austen's day, but it is difficult to imagine that puppyhood and magnanimity shared a character between them in any age. Darcy has not exhausted his littleness in this remark. The thrift of Miss Austen has provided him with a reserve of enormities. He insults Elizabeth in the act of soliciting her hand. Later on, he writes her a letter in which he vilifies her family, and excuses this indecency on the characteristic ground that "my character required that it be written and read." In a word, the recovery of her esteem is to be chased by her mortification in the perusal of insults to her nearest relatives. This is the conduct of man whose character, in the sequel, is to be pictured as the abode and meeting-place not only of all virtues but of all the delicacies. One does not envy the virtues and the delicacies their lodgings.
Miss Austen's explanation of all this is that he was spoiled in his youth, that his pride was not innate or ingrained, but a cloak or even a shawl, which dropped off at once and forever the moment a young woman with a mind of her own gave it a vigorous twitch by rejecting its wearer. Darcy, however, is long past the juvenilities of life, and his strong character--we are assured that it is strong--is fully ripened. His pride is not a gentleman's pride, but a sullen and forbidding arrogance, a pride that flaunts its own withdrawals and isolations, that battens on the mortifications it inflicts. He is like Dombey, except that he is not absolute fool, and the change he exhibits is only a little less incredible than the change by which Dombey, in the language of the uncompromising Taine, "I spoiled a fine novel." His churlishness in society would have a certain excuse, if, like the imperious Rochester in Jane Eyre, he had a temperament to which society was an episode or a bagatelle. But Darcy is as much a social animal as Bingley or Wickham; he is that unpleasing and unlucky combination in which the social ideal consorts with the unsocial temper.
An owl I fancied scared by night,
A fish that had the water-fright--
though in Darcy it is dislike rather than scare that is visible.
There is a stiffness in almost all the man's movements; it abates a little in the spring warmth of his first hesitating attraction toward Elizabeth, but soon reasserts itself, especially in the love-making, which has an effect of being done by clockwork. Even bis anger is heavy; it makes him vehement, but it cannot make him supple. There is one happy stroke in which Miss Austen, who is wiser than she sometimes chooses to let her patrons suspect, indicates the survival of the old man in the spick-and-span paragon whom she has obligingly revamped for the delectation of the uncritical reader. When he revokes the inhibition he has laid upon Bingley, Elizabeth cannot "help smiling at his easy manner of directing his friend. . . . Elizabeth longed to observe that Mr. Bingley had been a most delightful friend--so easily guided that his worth was invaluable; but she checked herself." Does Miss Austen often check herself, with the satiric truth balancing on her lips?
As portraits I prefer either Bingley or Wickham to Darcy. The delineation is sparing, almost frugal in both cases; the margin round the text is blank and broad. Bingley, slight as he is, possesses an individuality, the key to which may possibly be found in his union of impulsiveness with docility. He is one of those persons in whom an effect of general adequacy to the immediate occasion is combined with final insignificance. He is not a mere nobody; he is not a mere anybody: yet we feel that his proximity to both those characters might have made a more perceptive wife than Jane uncomfortable. That his winningness should somehow percolate through scant portrayal to the indifferent mind of the half-attentive reader is proof of the delicacy of Miss Austen's touch.
Side by side with the attachable and detachable Bingley, we have in Wickham another happy illustration of the multum in parvo form of character drawing. We know of Wickham's person only what we can extract from the brief generalities of a single uncommunicative sentence. "His appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty, a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address." We do not hear his voice, or discriminate his tones, and his speeches, which are consciensiously reported, are suggestive of an abstract and colorless propriety. Yet somehow Wickham is got before us. His entrance is clandestine, but his presence is unmistakable. The word that embodies him, to my imagination at least, is velvety. He is the demure, pensive, and pathetic rascal; be had wished to be a clergyman, and he is not unlike the sort of man whom one can imagine the Reverend Laurence Sterne to have beenat any rate that traditional Sterne whom Thackeray amused himself by impaling in the English Humourists. His aplomb is exemplary; it is very nearly as good as innocence. Miss Austen, who is the kind of person to accept a bon mot as expiation for a felony if the transaction could be kept inviolably secret, is rather more tolerant of Wickham than so responsible a woman has any right to be.
I do not think that the prodigious and portentous Mr. Collins is fully entitled to the superlative praise he has elicited in certain quarters. He is rather too unqualified himself to be admired without qualification. Miss Austen's stroke is bold and blunt, and she begrudges the character every delicacy--I mean of course artistic, not moral, delicacy--which could impair its rollicking completeness. There is a conceptual felicity in the union of egregious self-importance with gross toadyism. The sycophant to rank who is boaster and bully to his inferiors is by no means a rare figure, but the imperturbable selfrespect of the incorrigibly fawning Mr. Collins is something for which memory is slow to parallels. His flunkyism has a peculiar literary virtue; it is not in the least disinterested, but, in a gross way, it is sincere. We wants the wages, but he likes the job. What is policy in its origin becomes religion in the process; most religions have doubless grown up in the same way. Thackeray, with his proclivity for moral discovery, showed us later, in his account of Tom Tusher, how caste-worship might turn inward. "Twas no hypocrisy in him to flatter but the bent of his mind, which was always perfectly good-humoured, obliging, and servile."
Mr. Collins is amusing, undoubtedly, but he fatigues almost as much as he enlivens. The pungency of verbiage has been overrated. Even in the famous and excellent Micawber, it is doubtful if the rotundity of the periods is to be counted as yeast or dough in the ingredients of that eccentric bread-making. The lawyers in Browning's Ring and Book are intolerable. The chief satisfaction of laughing at a character is to feel that we are getting the better of him, and, even while we laugh at Mr. Collins, we feel that his mighty periods and redoubtable diction are getting the better of us. The laughter cannot pierce the bore, but the bore, as his name wittily indicates, can penetrate anything, including tbe laugher.
What chiefly troubles me in Mr. Collins is the reconciliation of his sophistications with his clownishness. There is not the slightest artistic reason why a man who writes an English far beyond the capacity of most professional men in America, and who makes a point of scrupulous adhesion to the ritual of politeness should not insult his kinsfolk and triumph in their misfortunes. But, while he may be as low-minded as a carter in the substance of his communication, I doubt if he could address a gentleman in these terms:
The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this. And it is the more to be lamented, because there is reason to suppose, as my dear Charlotte informs me, that this licentiousness of behaviour in your daughter has proceeded from a faulty degree of indulgence; though, at the same time, for the consolation of yourself and Mrs. Bennet, I am inclined to think that her own disposition must be naturally bad, or she could not be guilty of such an enormity at so early an age. . . . They agree with me in apprehending that this false step in one daughter will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others; for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family? And this consideration leads me moreover to reflect, with augmented satisfaction, on a certain event of last November; for had it been otherwise, I must have been involved in all your sorrow and disgrace.This passage appears to be enjoyed; at all events the letter is quoted in full by Goldwin Smith as one of the "charming" things in Pride and Prejudice. To me it seems neither enjoyable nor true. I do not quarrel with its vindictiveness or cruelty; I quarrel with its open vulgarity. This is not the brutality of the parsonage, though parsonages may be brutal in their kind; it is the brutality of the sponging-house, the barrack, and the counter, with a bedizenment of Johnsonese which those haunts could not parallel. I may add that to laugh at Mr. Collins in this phase is almost a form of complicity, and admission of kinship. A world in which the record of insults to sensitive women in calamity can amuse the refined is of one substance with the world in which their perpetration can delight the vulgar.
Charlotte Lucas, who marries Mr. Collins for prudential reasons, is hardly drawn at all, yet her sitution is strangely disquieting. In the few plain words in which her sedate and steadfast fortitude is suggested to the wakeful reader there is the intimation of a tragedy which awes us like the neighborhood of death. That the martyrdom is voluntary and that the martyr is pedestrian and calculating does not alter the decorous grimness of a situation in the drawing of which the pencil of Mary Wilkins Freeman might have found an acrid pleasure. Charlotte says nothing, and Miss Austen very little; the continence of both is impressive, almost dismaying. One thinks with heartbreak of a social order in which a woman of family and education could find marriage with Mr. Collins the preferable alternative. Literature has strange repercussions, and in this quiet English country-side, amid these inexorable decorums, I catch a faint foreshadowing of the dilemma (or trilemma) from which a nimble and bustling French dramatist was to rend the veil with cruel abruptness in the Three Daughters of Monsieur Dupont. Nothing makes me respect Miss Austen more than her portrayal of Charlotte Collins.
Miss Austen requites herself for the hush in which she has enshrined the homespun tragedy of Charlotte by the shrillness of her portrayal of the arrogant and domineering Lady Catherine de Bourgh. They say Miss Austen is quiet. The elderly friends of young Marlow in the Good-Natured Man said that he was quiet. They had not seen him with the barmaids. The discoverers of quiet in Miss Austen have surely not seen her with the titled aristocracy. Thackeray was a high colorist, a reveller in extremes, but the difference between Lady Kew, for instance, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh is the difference between an extravagant human being and a performer, a trick mule, whom his trainer exhibits to a delighted audience. I grant the excellence of the training and the merit of the tricks; but the mule never steps off the platform. Miss Austen in a quiet novel which leisurely people are to read by a cosy fireside draws a character of the sort which Moliére or Congreve would have adapted to the glare of a theatre--that is to say, she excludes all points but the points of highest relief. The series of volleys of which this woman's conversation is made is in- consistent--I will not say with the virtue or the decency--but with the laeiness and fickleness--of ordinary human nature. Her daughter, Miss de Bourgh, is put on the low ration of half-a-dozen sentences to an entire book, but those few and scattered words, chosen with infallible judgment, make her a sounder and more credible human being than her mother.
Miss Bingley, like many of Miss Austen's unpleasant characters, unites the diction of an academician with the manners of a housemaid. She is clear enough--unendurably clear in many particulars, but I have a sense of fissures, of lacunse, in the de lineation. She is like a book from which handfuls of pages have been casually torn; all is felt to be capable of unification, but the connective tissue has been snatched away, and incompleteness puts on the guise of incoherence.
The other members of the Darcy-Bingley group I may be passed over with the single exception of the inconspicuous but unforgettable Mr. Hurst, of whom Miss Austen supplies the following account: "As for Mr. Hurst, by whom Elizabeth sat, he was an indolent man, who lived only to eat, drink, and play at cards; who, when he found her prefer a plain dish to a ragout, had nothing to say to her." Another hint or two of equal meagreness are furnished later on, and Miss Austen, whose concern for Mr. Hurst seems to be patterned on his own solicitude for Elizabeth, has completed her portrait of this porcine individual. In the normal writer--even in the normal strong writer--this handful of vulgarities would be nothing; yet somehow in the utterance of these meagre phrases Miss Austen has smuggled a soul, or whatever in his primitive make-up takes the place of a soul, into the sluggish and sensual Mr. Hurst. Of just this form of magic I am not sure that even Shakespeare has given proof.
I have commented on sixteen distinct characters in Pride and Prejudice. I doubt if another novel of its size can show sixteen characters who invite or permit comment. To these might be added a list of persons who are by no means wholly indistinct, Georgiana Darcy, Mrs. Hurst, the two Gardiners, Mrs. Philips, Colonel Fitzwilliam, Maria Lucas, Sir William Lucas. Here are twenty-four persons to whom individuality in various amounts is allotted in a novel which, by the scale of Dickens and Thackeray and George Eliot, must be accounted short. Yet the novel has not that effect of being cumbered or littered with characters which is more or less noticeable in Scott's Peveril of the Peale and Mr. Howells's Hazard of New Fortunes. The minor figures are not tufted or ranged in scattered groups, and the eminence of the primary actors is never threatened by the intrusion of the subordinates. I must not close the chapter without noting the rather frequent shifts of place in the narrative, and the ease and convenience with which the transfers are effected under the unhurried but unpausing conductorship of Miss Austen.
This text was originally digitized by Catherine Dean for her "Jane Austen E-Texts, Etc." website, and is archived at Molland's with Ms. Dean's permission.