Saturday, February 8, 2014

Jane Austen as Elizabeth Bennet: A Circumscribed Life

by Kaelyn Caldwell

Although it doesn’t appear that the spirited and sometimes outspoken Elizabeth Bennet had much in common with her creator, Jane Austen, a seemingly private and unassuming authoress, this Pride and Prejudice duo did share a circumscribed 19th century existence, which befitted the writer … and benefitted her most-admired heroine.

Against a backdrop of day-in, day-out domesticity, Elizabeth Bennet made the most of what was at hand: her home and her garden, her family and friends, her neighborhood ramblings and her close-by vacations. Elizabeth Bennet’s world is narrow, but her appreciation runs deep.

It is without the distractions of a large and busy arena that Elizabeth is able to develop a rich reservoir of personhood. As a result, she is neither shallow nor provincial; Elizabeth is a country girl who – because she’s adept at interpreting a limited landscape – has a complex understanding of her seemingly simple world. When viewed in this context, Elizabeth Bennet and Jane Austen seem to have everything in common.

In addition, Elizabeth’s ability to observe “something new … forever” makes the circumscribed storyline of Pride and Prejudice an expanding experience for Austen’s audience. In Pride and Prejudice – and with Elizabeth Bennet leading the way – Jane Austen shows us that the way we perceive our world becomes our world, inspiring us all to define the scope of our existence for ourselves.

Ironically, it is along these same lines that Austen is sometimes criticized for setting Pride and Prejudice against a backdrop of pastoral peace when England was engaged in a lengthy war with France. Although there cannot be two opinions on the fact of war, there can be two opinions on why Austen chose to ignore it, beyond the usual reason given: that Austen was writing a “light, and bright, and sparkling” romance, and there was no place for war in a Pride and Prejudice so conceived. (Steering clear of current events also ensured a timelessness in Austen’s manuscript which was a couple of decades in the making).

Today’s reader can also look at it another way. Writing was not Jane Austen’s career; writing was her hobby, and as such, it was done for the author’s amusement and for the entertainment of those around her. That Austen wasn’t interested in devoting her off-hours to a discussion of war is completely consistent with a hobby pursued for pleasure.

Jane Austen’s real job – just like Elizabeth Bennet’s – was being a gentleman’s daughter, and as a gentleman’s daughter, Austen’s world was inherently insular (news tended to travel slowly). In our information age, it may be hard to imagine a life so out of touch, but Austen was not focused on the world “out there”; Jane Austen – and by extension, Elizabeth Bennet – was focused on the world at hand. This meant that the news of the day didn’t define the day; instead, Elizabeth awoke each morning to interpret her world for herself.

Although Elizabeth Bennet’s lifestyle may seem a world away from our own, the fact remains that most of us live on a relatively small stage, and few of us have lives any more noteworthy than Elizabeth’s own. Yet Elizabeth remained focused on the life she did have. Without an ever-present outside world to dwarf her own, Elizabeth could give her life the time and thoughtful attention it deserved … and that may have made all the difference for her and for the woman who created her.

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Excerpted from How to Speak Like Jane Austen and Live Like Elizabeth Bennet, A Pride and Prejudice Primer: Your Guide to Livelier Language and a Lovelier Lifestyle. Author Kaelyn Caldwell can be reached at www.austenandbennet.com.


5 comments:

  1. Hearing that it took Jane Austen two decades to write Pride and Prejudice is a relief! It could be that it will take me at least that to write my novel. I am impressed by fiction writing that stays close to the protagonist's life. Dailiness makes up our lives and can be as rich and adventuresome as war and travel.

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  2. I also love the everydayness of life, which is one of the reasons I really LOVE the miniseries version of P&P - it captures wonderful vignettes of life at Longbourn. Like you, I almost always prefer stories that are simple in plot/structure but rich in insight about daily life. Thanks so much for sharing!

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  3. Kaelyn, I adore this post. Thank you for putting Jane Austen's life into perspective for us. Lovely!

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  4. Miss Austen took dull mundane people and breathed a life into them and made them people of interest seemingly forevermore. What a pity she never found her own Mr Darcy, I wonder did she really want her own?

    Thank you for an enjoyable post

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  5. As a fan of both Austen and Bennett, I did wonder if there were similarities. Elizabeth is such a rich character because of and in spite of everyday life and remains my favorite. :)

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