My relationship with Austen started when I had to study Pride and Prejudice for A level… so that takes me back to 1991! I can remember my fabulous English teacher of the time, Alison Brown, desperately trying to convince me of its merit, but all I could see were trivial balls, singing, dancing and the desperate, and to my mind rather pathetic, pursuit of men and marriage. Why was there no detailed exploration of the effects of the French Revolution, where were the lives of the servants and why was it so important to be able to sew, paint and sing? I wanted politics, I wanted passion, excitement and grit. How things have changed! Now I find myself justifying to my students, and some of my colleagues in the department, why studying Austen is so important.
Back in the 90s my English teacher, increasingly frustrated with my complaints that the novel was “girlie” and superficial, resorted to Fay Weldon’s Letters to Alice, as a last ditch attempt to make me appreciate the merit of Pride and Prejudice. I was forbidden from moaning in lessons until I had finished Weldon’s book; it worked. I recommend anyone who struggles to see genius in Austen reads this book, a fictional set of letters between Aunt Fay and her niece Alice who is being made to study Austen as part of a college course. In her book Weldon makes the case for Austen by challenging Alice’s view that her novels are boring, petty and irrelevant. Weldon grounds Austen’s preoccupation with marriage in the social conditions of the day. Weldon states that for women it was a horrible time to be alive but that you can get used to anything; preferably by mentioning it as little as possible, and using the greater peril to intensify the smaller joy.
In Pride and Prejudice we see the clear differences and joys in the marriages forged by Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins and Elizabeth and Darcy. We know Elizabeth and Darcy will be fabulously happy; they will spend a lifetime in love as well as enjoying great wealth. What Charlotte and Mr Collins gain through marriage is social respectability and crucially, for Charlotte, space. This is what fascinates me about Austen’s work today and is something particularly evident in Pride and Prejudice. When Elizabeth first sees Pemberley she is entranced by the grandeur and exquisite taste of Darcy and his family, but, most importantly, the scope for personal space it represents. Charlotte Lucas marries Mr Collins and because of his constant curtain twitching in the front parlour, ever desperate for a glimpse of Lady Catherine, Charlotte has the back parlour to herself. This is enough for Charlotte and is certainly better than living at home, an old maid. Elizabeth can have a whole wing of Pemberley to herself if she pleases. At home Elizabeth sees her father, the flawed yet witty Mr Bennet, able to retire to his library; no such space is available for her or her sisters, if she desires space she must walk outdoors, something she does frequently. So to bemistress of Pemberley means the right to personal space and heaps of it.
Austen knew women needed space to breath and in most instances this space, however small, could be secured through marriage, hence the preoccupation with accomplishments, balls and fashions. Arguably, an unmarried Austen found her space in her writing. There the rooms were limitless, the social engagements under her control and the outcomes of her characters under her management.
So looking back at Pride and Prejudice, now 200 years since its first publication, we can ask ourselves whether women have secured themselves space, both in their thoughts, their domestic lives and at work, or whether we still see male freedoms exceed those of women.