As I mentioned in the comments earlier this week, I am reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time. This time around, I’m trying to drag my brain away from the story and the political implications of gender, and really concentrate on the mechanics – how she made the story work. Dear readers, let me tell you, this is very difficult. I get so caught up in the world, it’s hard to remember to pay attention to the underpinnings and scaffolding. But, I have managed to catch glimpses of certain techniques.
Last night, I was reading Mr. Collins’ speech to Elizabeth Bennet at Netherfield Ball – the one where he’s determined to introduce himself to Mr. Darcy and give Darcy good tidings of Darcy’s aunt, Lady Catherine De Bourgh (who is also the woman who gave Collins his job as a clergyman).
The first thing that struck me was how elegantly Austen managed to portray a very complex man in a few sentences of dialog. His guiding star in life is summed up in this sentence:
“(G)ive me leave to observe that I consider the clerical office as equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom – provided that a proper humility of behaviour is at the same time maintained.”
All future behavior – his ridiculous pompousness and his groveling before superiors – is all explained in those phrases. When we visit his home in Hunsford, we know exactly what type of man he is, and are ready to roll with the contrasts and ridiculousness.
The other thing is that Austen has given Elizabeth a good reason to reject Collins, in spite of all his comfortable situation.
Collins concludes his speech by saying, “Pardon me for neglecting to profit by your advice, which on every other subject shall be my constant guide, though in the case before us I consider myself more fitted by education and habitual study to decide on what is right than a young lady like yourself.”
In other words, he will pay hypocritical homage to the high ideals of literature and popular culture, but it’s all lip service: when it comes down to action, he will do as he please, and Elizabeth can eat her advice and anger.
We can see why Elizabeth would rather face genteel poverty in her mother’s house than marry this supercilious bootlicker, who would either break her, or be the source of constant irritation until death parted them.
When one talks about the puzzle of writing, I think this is one part of it. In a first draft, I would probably take a few pages to describe such an exchange, and I’m not sure I could pack even half of the nuances flying around in that speech. Austen distilled the essence of her villain into fewer than two dozen lines.
Have you run across a really pithy characterization in your reading (or writing!) today? Please share, and inspire us all!