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Austen 2014: Pride & Prejudice, Volume III and a Revised Schedule

Your humble blogger is ridiculously behind schedule. He knows this. Since his last post, he has completed a major (read: time-consuming) project at work, found and moved into a new apartment, and spent far too much time waiting for furniture delivery people who never arrived. However, he is also a rather stupidly optimistic man and is determined to do his duty, both to his three readers and to Austen herself. So, here's a revised schedule, with a bit of give, allowing for more flexibility.

By October 31: Three posts on Mansfield Park.
By November 30: Three posts on Emma.
By December 31: Two posts on Persuasion and at least one on "Lady Susan" and the other juvenilia.

The posts may be dispersed evenly throughout the month, or they may arrive in clusters, depending on the vagaries of life. While there is still hope that he will be able to cover the film adaptations, etc., etc., they may be very brief posts, if they appear at all, and may trickle well into 2015.

Business aside, he moves on to wrapping up Pride & Prejudice. He also abandons the third-person, as it has become tiresome.

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Jane Austen is what used to be termed a moralist, before that term came to be associated with humorless prigs intent on scolding everyone around them. Her moral thought--which I hesitate to call a philosophy only for fear of making my readers' eyes roll--pervades all of her novels, and while most prominently on display in Mansfield Park, which is as much a comedy of morals as it is one of manners, Pride & Prejudice has a lot to say to us. In particular, Volume III resonates deeply with the language of responsibility and blame. The more her characters are accurately aware of their own responsibilities--a term I use to avoid her equally frequent choice of "duty," as it has gone the way of the term "moralist"--and the more acutely they feel and accept the blame for their poor decisions, the happier they are and the greater are their rewards.

Let's start with the most irresponsible character of them all: Lydia. While Lydia's initial decision to elope with Wickham shows a troubling lack of understanding of the seriousness of marriage and a total lack of forethought generally, her decision to stay with him when Darcy attempts to persuade her to return to her family is in fact a far greater transgression. Had she acquiesced, her dalliance might have, in time, been forgotten and largely hushed up, much as Miss Darcy's was some few years previously. However, she ignores the responsibility she owes to her family, and to herself, and insists on staying with Wickham. To further display her total lack of a sense of responsibility and blame, when she returns to Longbourne, she shows no sense of shame over her actions, flaunts her new marriage in a way completely at odds with the way it was brought about, and generally proceeds to act as if she has done absolutely nothing wrong.

Her mother scarcely behaves better. Upon finding out that Lydia has eloped, she abdicates all responsibility and places the blame--to paraphrase Austen--everywhere but where it should be placed, namely, with Lydia and, to some extent, herself. Mr. Bennet (who we will come to in a moment), Colonel Forester, Mr. Gardiner--everyone in the world is to blame. Then, when the marriage is finally come to pass, she immediately rebounds from her sickbed and starts asking for money for wedding clothes. In her mind, her only responsibility as a mother is to get her daughters married, and she sees no reason not to count Lydia's marriage as a fulfillment, rather than as a failure, of her maternal responsibility.

Mr. Bennet, on the other hand, is aware of his failures of a father regarding Lydia. For a while. As he says, "[L]et me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame. I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression. It will pass away soon enough." As predicted, soon enough the feeling passes, and aside from his humorous threat to Kitty, he doesn't seem to take Lydia's actions very seriously. He certainly doesn't take them seriously enough to begin to play a larger role in his daughters' lives. Indeed, the intervention of both Mr. Gardiner and Mr. Darcy allow Mr. Bennet to shirk his responsibilities as a father even sooner that he might have otherwise, and his discovery that it was Darcy who paid off Wickham, in his mind, absolves him even further. It is also in this section that Austen take a slight detour from the novel to make it clear how very irresponsible Mr. Bennet has been in providing for his daughters' futures. As a husband and as a father, Mr. Bennet is a failure--a fact which he seems aware of intellectually, but one that he would rather ignore than act upon.

Before we move on to our heroes, let's briefly take a detour to examine people who assume responsibility for things which are not, in fact, theirs. Lady Catherine, Mr. Collins, and even Miss Bingley all fall into this category, and, as the story wraps up, all are essentially made to see their own impotence. Lady Catherine officiously tries to control both her nephew's and her daughter's futures, hoping desperately to marry the two cousins, against the apparent interest or inclination of either. Mr. Collins, of course, takes the scolding of the Bennets upon himself via letter, and, as Mr. Bennet rightly points out, his understanding of his responsibility as a clergyman and as a Christian generally are hardly in keeping with the Bible's theme of forgiveness. And poor Miss Bingley, hoping desperately to maneuver her brother into a marriage with Miss Darcy, and herself into one with Mr. Darcy, fails on both counts. Like Lady Catherine, she discovers too late that attempting to control people's romantic lives is a dangerous business that usually backfires against those who do so. Of course, Mr. Darcy also seeks to control young love, and for a while, succeeds in driving apart Mr. Bingley and Jane. Darcy's moral worth, however, is established when he confesses the whole to Bingley and all but tells him, "Go get her, tiger." Here is a case where someone who has assumed responsibility where they have none correctly realizes their error and tries to rectify the situation.

Elizabeth and Darcy, on the other hand are of a higher moral sort than almost anyone in the book--only the Gardiners can share their high status. This is demonstrated by the keen sense of responsibility and blame that they share together. Mr. Gardiner and Darcy even have a lengthy argument over who should lay out the funds that will entice Wickham to marry Lydia. Each has a case: Mr. Gardiner, a sense of familiar obligation; and Mr. Darcy, one based in his own past failings. Both are valid arguments, but in the end, because he is Mr. Darcy, Mr. Darcy carries the day. However, Mr. Gardiner is very uneasy allowing the more sensible Bennets to think he is their benefactor, and Mrs. Gardiner, when prompted, readily tells Elizabeth of Darcy's role. If taking responsibility for things you shouldn't is a fault, so too, implies Austen, is letting people give you the credit for fulfilling obligations you did not.

Finally, in the end, both Darcy and Elizabeth repent of their past wrongs, making it clear that neither views their past actions as blameless, and that they are acutely aware of their responsibilities both to each other, and to their families. Austen shows us them sharing the responsibility of communicating the good/bad news with various relatives. Even after they are married, they are, it seems, continually sharing each other's responsibilities and reminding each other when they aren't being fulfilled. Elizabeth's encouragement of Darcy in mending the rift with Lady Catherine is an excellent example of this; there is nothing to be gained from restoring the relationship except the knowledge that the Darcys have done their familial duty. Far from polluting the shades of Pemberly, Elizabeth wears the responsibility of being its mistress well, a fact which even Lady Catherine must in the end grudgingly admit.

Obviously, there was much I didn't discuss--did you notice the various discussions of memory that played out in this volume?--but that will suffice for now on Pride & Prejudice. Next we move on to the Austen novel that nobody loves except me: Mansfield Park. Three posts by Halloween!

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