Michaeline: Lessons from the Great Masters: Pride & Prejudice

Darcy looks down on Mr. Collins, who is bowing with great (but false) humility before introducing himself.

Mr. Collins neglects to profit from Elizabeth Bennet’s advice. (The Ball at Netherfield, Darcy and Collins. Via Wikimedia Commons)

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!

6 thoughts on “Michaeline: Lessons from the Great Masters: Pride & Prejudice

  1. Here’s the introduction to E F Benson’s classic ‘Mapp and Lucia’:

    “Though it was nearly a year since her husband’s death, Emmeline Lucas (universally known to her friends as Lucia) still wore the most deepest and uncompromising mourning. Black certainly suited her very well, but that had nothing to do with this continued use of it, no matter what anybody said.”

    And at the end of that same introductory paragraph:

    “Though she had not made a luxury out of the tokens of grief, she had made, ever so slightly, a stunt of them.”

    • Swoon! I have to put that on my summer reading list.

      First lines are really so important.

      (-: I love the idea of making a stunt out of grief — that says so much about the character’s personality.

  2. Oooh, those are great lines if characterization. With the way reading (and writing) have changed in this modern era – shorter, more to the point, starting in situ, moving away from omniscient POV – there is more pressure than ever for each line of the story to do double or even triple duty. Which then lends itself to layers of meaning and micro-tension, two important things I’m currently trying to improve in my own stories. This is an example of how great writing of bygone eras used some of those same techniques. They’re classics for a reason :-).

    • I’ve really been grooving with the omniscient in P&P this time around. It’s completely different from head-hopping. I think it does take a lot more wordiness in the form of tagging and that sort of thing — the reader must be sure who is having which thoughts when anyone might be having them.

      I also made a breakthrough on one of the wordy, “why does she include this bit?” sections. I forgot to write down which one it was. I think it was one of those moral exchanges between Elizabeth and Jane . . . and then I realized it was setting us up for Mr. Darcy’s later change of heart from arrogance to . (Oh, lord, does this mean I have to read it again to figure out which part it was? What a hardship! (-:.)

  3. Drawing a blank on pithy characterization here (both in reading and writing), but I do like the lines you cited. I also blame you for the 2-hours of writing time I lost today by re-watching Pride & Prejudice (the Knightly version). I was keeping an ear out for characterization, honest, but got distracted by the story 🙂

    • I KNOW!! So hard to keep my reading eyes looking out for the movements behind the curtain. I didn’t take any notes at all between pages 89 and 173. I may have to read the damn book backwards, sentence by sentence. My favorite onscreen version of P&P is the BBC one, which is what? Six and a half hours out of my life. Time well spent, usually, but goodness. It’s about the same time spent reading the book, or even a little more.

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