Saturday, December 31, 2011

P. D. James Cracks Open Austen's World

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice owes at least a portion of its charm to its self-contained world.  P. D. James's homage to Austen, Death Comes to Pemberley, owes a great deal to our affection for Austen's world, and our pain at seeing its end.  

In Austen, we see soldiers, but no one mentions war; we hear of the Court, but not of government;  concern for steady income underlays the romance, but being forced to economize is not the abject poverty we know from cartoons by Austen's contemporary Hogarth.  Death comes no nearer than a bad cold.   Characters attend church and suffer the Reverend Collins, but God stands back in the manner of the servants, waiting on the other side of a closed door should He be called.  Reverend Collins is concerned only with cultivating plants and the prestige that comes from having tea with Lady Catherine.

Within that world, Austen focuses us on affairs of the heart.  Major events include a young man's smile, an invitation to dance, and all the things left unsaid during polite conversation.  One adolescent girl, having visited Lady Catherine's manor nine times for dinner and twice for tea, exclaims, "How much will I have to tell!" while Elizabeth thinks, "How much will I have to conceal!"

For a few dozen pages, P. D. James sustains us in that world.  But she throws down a gauntlet at the end of "Book One" (James 48-49).  Napoleonic wars threaten.  And as a frightful wind howls with "malevolent force" as if trying to find a way into the manor house, Elizabeth thinks...
Here we are at the beginning of a new century, citizens of the most civilized country in Europe, surrounded by the splendour of its craftsmanship... while outside there is another world which wealth and education and privilege can keep from us, a world in which men are as violent and destructive as is the animal world.  Perhaps even the most fortunate of us will not be able to ignore it and keep it at bay for ever.
That scene and the ones immediately following it are the most vivid and breathtaking in the novel.

A century later, around 1914, another generation would feel the same sense of a world's ending, barbarians at the gates ( a theme I've considered before on this blog).

P. D. James has done a wonderful job of imagining how Austen's crystalline world cracks when that "other world" intrudes, but I rather wish she hadn't.

[I wrote about the pleasures of Pride and Prejudice in one of my first blog posts.]

1 comment:

George said...

My wife and I both read James's "Austen" book over Faith's Christmas break and enjoyed it. Still, I really like your broad, nuanced take on it. Your last sentence is a beauty!