Of Jane Austen and Attila the Hun

My dear friend—a man—tells me that “Real men read Jane Austen.” I’m not totally sure about that either way, but I do know that Attila managed without her, and as Gibbon tells us, “It is a saying worthy of the ferocious pride of Attila, that the grass never grew on the spot where his horse had trod.”

We may charge many crimes to that famous fifth-century Hun whom, along with his Roman rival Aetius, the terrified inhabitants of the Western Roman Empire swore they saw ascend with his numberless horde into the sky, where today they continue the impossible battle of the Catalaunian Fields…many crimes, and some of them terrible.

But I do not think wasting words was one of them.

What’s the point? Well, I recently remarked to a close family-friend (part family, part friend, she was the mother of the house where I spent at least half my days growing up) on the joy I get from reading something not work-related, in English—a novel—just to relax. Specifically I mentioned Pride and Prejudice.

Her response: “I’m surprised that you have any interest in Jane Austen (other than understanding what [your wife] likes) because of the sheer number of words she often uses to describe things. Don’t get me wrong, I like Jane Austen, but sometimes she can be so, well, wordy!”

Jane Austen is one of the finest English prose stylists I have read. Her survival is ensured, even if only by the fineness and consistency of her characterization and the keenness of her observation, on which she can say, as Dickens did, to any accusation of exaggeration: “I merely observe more than others do.”

Her dialogue, for the two virtues I just mentioned, is at least as good as any other English author I’ve read.

But I think it’s true that she could do more with less. For example—and this is the best thing I read today, not just something I’m subjecting to criticism—here’s from the day that Elizabeth and the Gardiners arrived home at Longbourn after receiving the news about Lydia and Wickham:

“Mrs. Bennet, to whose apartment they all repaired, after a few minutes’ conversation together, received them exactly as might be expected; with tears and lamentations of regret, invectives against the villainous conduct of Wickham, and complaints of her own sufferings and ill usage. Blaming every body but the person to whose ill-judging indulgence the errors of her daughter must be principally owing.

“‘If I had been able,’ said she, ‘to carry my point of going to Brighton, with all my family this would not have happened; but poor dear Lydia had nobody to take care of her. Why did the Forsters ever let her go out of their sight? I am sure there was some great neglect or other on their side, for she is not the kind of girl to do such a thing, if she had been well looked after.

‘I always thought they were very unfit to have charge of her; but I was overruled, as I always am. Poor dear child!

‘And now here’s Mr. Bennet gone away, and I know he will fight Wickham, wherever he mets him, and then he will be killed, and what is to become of us all? The Collinses will turn us out, before he is cold in his grave; and if you are not kind to us, brother [i.e., Mr. Gardiner —Phil.], I do not know what we shall do.’”

O character worthy of Dickens!

Now, laying aside the question of the economy of Victorian prose style versus ours today—a question at which I think the most ardent mocker today of the florid language of manners will find himself blushing before he arrive at the honest conclusion—Austen has wasted a lot of words here.

A whole paragraph, in fact. Well, almost. There is need to introduce Mrs. Bennet, but no more than a stage direction. What does all the rest of that narrative give us that the charming dialogue which follows does not?

And how can we delight in the irresistible urge to love Mrs. Bennet in spite of ourselves, if we are not allowed to be influenced solely by her very own outrageous talk?

A little too much of the resentment of Elizabeth’s personal perspective intrudes in that narrative paragraph, as it often does throughout the novel. I think this may be the novel’s greatest defect.

Still, I suppose it’s better than living on your horse and heating your dinner—a hunk of raw meat torn off with bits of skin and hair here and there—by pressing it between your thigh and your horse’s rib cage as you ride along the road, hard-packed by the blood of simple, peaceful folk, from Constantinople to Orléans.


About philokalos

Philologist, historian, and lover of great books, I started this blog to keep myself alert to the beauty of what I see amid the demands of my work.
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