The best thing I read today, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, is a pair of ironically contrasting pronouncements on love from the artful and pontificating Elizabeth Bennett (the character after whom the novel is named). Here we have Austen’s usual charming final surprise, inviting us to pause and reflect instead of allowing our reflex to judge and decide and form opinion, to take its course.
First, Elizabeth and her aunt, Mrs. Gardiner, are discussing the sincerity of Mr. Bingley’s love (now thought evanescent) for the oldest Bennett girl, Jane. Elizabeth, as usual, is trying to figure everyone out, or fancies she already has, and is instead defending a thesis:
“I never saw a more promising inclination. He was growing quite inattentive to other people, and wholly engrossed by her. Every time they met, it was more decided and remarkable. At his own ball he offended two or three young ladies, by not asking them to dance, and I spoke to him twice myself, without receiving an answer. Could there be finer symptoms? Is not general incivility the very essence of love?”
Can’t you just see Austen’s winsome smile? In the end, it’s hard to insist on a distinction between the author and her heroine here, the two sharing in the final irony. File this one under Prejudice.
In the next chapter we get another conversation between the same two kinswomen, only this time it’s Elizabeth who’s been jilted by the eligible Mr. Wickham. The latter has dropped his attentiveness for Miss Bennet in favor of a suddenly very wealthy heiress. But Elizabeth is unfazed:
“I am now convinced, my dear aunt, that I have never been much in love; for had I really experienced that pure and elevating passion, I should at present detest his very name, and wish him all manner of evil. But my feelings are not only cordial towards him; they are even impartial towards Miss King. I cannot find out that I hate her at all, or that I am in the least unwilling to think her a very good sort of girl. There can be no love in all this. My watchfulness has been effectual; and though I should certainly be a more interesting object to all my acquaintances were I distractedly in love with him, I cannot say that I regret my comparative insignificance. Importance may sometimes be purchased too dearly. Kitty and Lydia take his defection much more to heart than I do. They are young in the ways of the world, and not yet open to the mortifying conviction that handsome young men must have something to live on, as well as the plain.”
Yeah, ok, Eliza. File that one under Pride.
But then, to be honest, would not the space required to explore the three simultaneous possibilities posed by the ironical comment, “There can be no love in all this,” prohibit the exercise?
Thanks, dear reader, should you ever find me, for preventing my prolixity.