By Sarah Raff
Two hundred years after the initial publication of Pride and Prejudice, commodities marketed to Janeites overwhelmingly emphasize Jane Austen’s powers as an advisor. Shoppers can choose among volumes called Finding Mr. Darcy: Jane Austen’s Rules for Love or Dating Mr. Darcy: The Smart Girl’s Guide to Sensible Romance; The Jane Austen Guide to Life, Happily Ever After, Modern Life’s Dilemmas, Dating, Good Manners, and coming soon, Thrift; older miniatures such as Jane Austen’s Little Advice Book, Jane Austen’s Little Instruction Book, Jane Austen’s Universal Truths; books called The Jane Austen Companion to Love and to Life but also the 2013 Jane Austen Companion to Life mini wall calendar; and works of fiction masquerading as advice, with titles such as The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, Dear Jane: A Heroine’s Guide to Life and Love, What Would Jane Austen Do?, and even Jane Austen Ruined My Life: a novel. This visibility of her so-called guidance helps to reveal how attractively Austen perfected the didactic tradition of the eighteenth-century novel. Austen’s predecessor Samuel Richardson aspired to be a guide for his readers on matters of romance and conduct, but no one today looks for counsel in A Collection of such of the Moral and Instructive Sentiments, Cautions, Aphorisms, Reflections, and Observations contained in the History, as are presumed to be of general Use and Service or any of the other volumes of extracts he compiled from his novels. Meanwhile, a drawback of Austen’s marketability as an advisor is that it risks branding Austen’s admirers as sexually and socially desperate. So at least my students tell me. Far from the companion who guarantees one’s literary distinction, Austen the mentor can be a style-cramper for young women in just the way that Mrs. Bennet is for Elizabeth Bennet: association with her suggests that one lacks a romantic partner and is willing to make an unseemly effort to get one.
What I find remarkable in this latest twist to Austen’s reception is how precisely yet incompletely it follows cues set up in the opening sentence of Austen’s best-loved novel. There, Austen takes Richardson’s notion that reading can turn things around for your romantic life and gives it a utopian dimension, offering up a narrator who can help readers not just with counsel but with limitless powers for active intervention in the world. When Pride and Prejudice’s narrator adopts what initially seems to be the tone of an advising aunt to give the reader’s implicit antecedent question, “will my beloved ever propose to me?” the coy but distinctly encouraging answer, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” she offers to write us the love story we want through the sheer force of her magical thinking and ours: her control over the fictional world will extend into our world and dictate the behavior of that particular man whose name we have mentally substituted for the general term, “single man.” By an entirely different logic, the words “universally acknowledged” hint that the narrator is prepared to extort a proposal for the reader from the man in question by using group pressure against him. In a society ruled by the gentleman’s code requiring that if it is generally supposed that a man will marry a particular, willing woman, he is honor-bound to propose to her, power to make matches goes to anyone who can persuasively articulate universal opinion, as the narrator here proves that she can do. The reader’s romantic hopes get an additional boost from the sanguine expectations of others—how could the narrator and a whole universe of acknowledgers be mistaken?—and from the sense that, since she herself acknowledges her beloved’s want of a wife, she belongs to a prestigious group, one whose alliance with herself can only further her chances with her beloved.
Of course, the trap laid for that straight, nubile woman and every reader willing to identify with her soon appears. The next sentences of the novel oblige the reader to recognize that the universe whose apparent prestige was the basis for her romantic optimism has boundaries: standing outside it are the single man himself, whose “feelings or views” may, the narrator warns, be “little known”; the intelligent Mr. Bennet, who sarcastically asks whether marrying a Bennet daughter was Mr. Bingley’s “design in coming here”; and indeed the narrator, who abruptly revokes her opening promises, prepares to draw a mustache on her once-flattering portrait of the reader, and transforms her own persona. Suddenly, the advisory figure to whom the reader confessed the name of her beloved no longer looks like that comfortable confidante, benign and wise, who was ready to grant the reader’s desire and testify to the dignity of that desire, but rather like Mrs. Bennet: liable to misjudge the desires of eligible men, unable to tell the difference between a vulgar local community and the world, abjectly desperate to find her protégée a husband, likely to sink rather than raise the reader’s social status and marriageability. Having unwarily accepted the matchmaking services of this Mrs. Bennet-like figure, the reader now seems to stand condemned before the new, Mr. Bennet-like narrator coming into view, who articulated that opening sentence not to endorse its assurances but to ridicule them.
By taking Austen as fairy godmother or pathetic yenta, the Janeite and anti-Janeite camps ignore this last transformation in the narrator. Perhaps their doing so represents an insight: after all, the narrator soon eases the pressure of her threatened scorn by offering up for our identification the magnificent Elizabeth Bennet, who demolishes the law that desire for a husband makes a woman contemptible. That Pride and Prejudice, with its wealth of generalizations about love, inspires so many readers with the hopeful, even euphoric eagerness for rules that it sends up in Mary Bennet, Mr. Collins, and the reader of its opening sentences suggests that Austen retained a fundamental allegiance to advice-book tradition she knew so well how to mock.
Sarah Raff is Associate Professor of English at Pomona College. She has written for Comparative Literature Studies, The Eighteenth-Century Novel, Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, Modern Painters, and Publishers Weekly. Her upcoming book about Jane Austen’s erotic evolution will be published by Oxford in September 2013.
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Image credits: (1) The submissive reader by Rene Magritte, 1928 via wikipaintings.org. (2) Altered version of Dear Abby star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Original photo by Ben McCune, 2006. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.