Jane Austen was extremely modest about her genius, describing her work to her work to her nephew Edward as “That little but (two inches wide) of ivory in which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labour.”
Although the world of her novel “Pride and Prejudice” is confined to a small section of society comprising of country-gentry and lesser aristocracy of England in the opening of the 19th century, the novel itself shows page by page how interesting life could be, how fascinating life’s twists and turns are, how significant the trivialities are to those concerned.
The range of Austen’s novel is limited by her own circumstances, her own sex, and her position in the society. But the little world she writes about, she knows inside out. She fills her little world so artfully that when we are in it we do not long for anything else and we feel its fullness as well. She practiced what she preached.
“There are four families in a country village” is the very thing to work on. She sticks to what she knows and is refusing to include in her novel what does not properly belong to village life; she is an artist.
Austen has an acute interest in personalities, her field is the human heart. Therefore, although she writes in the years of war between England and France while Napoleon was changing the map of Europe, in her novel we find not mention of “Britain at war.” In “Pride and Prejudice” soldiers like Wickham, come to Meryton to provide, in a sense, amusement for the girls. Austen thus does not impose anything harsh or unnecessary on her novel; this alludes to the artistic unity of her creation. She consciously limits herself and does not write anything beyond her experience. It may well be mentioned here that in “A Room One’s Own” Virginia Woolf pays a rich tribute to Austen by mentioning that novels like “War and Peace” could never be written by any female novelist, but certainly no Tolstoy could ever write the novels of Jane Austen.
Austen deliberately and wisely limits herself to a few families and a limited number of characters in “Pride and Prejudice”. Her characters live in comfort in country houses; their lives consist of holding balls, attending parties, visiting each other’s house and thus amusing themselves. In that society even a small event is given a higher importance. Thereby a ball at the Bingleys or at the Lucases is eagerly anticipated and minutely analyzed.
Austen chooses her characters from very ordinary life. Her characters range from the proud aristocrat Darcy to the dull-witted Mrs. Bennet, from the good-natured Jane to the hypocritical Miss Bingley. The men-folks in her novel do not in fact do nay work whereas the young girls are always in pursuit of good husbands. The girls have somehow managed to turn themselves into husband hunting butterflies. Distant Pembrly, Netherfield and Rosings are the upper limit, whereas Sir W Lucas and Lady Catherine Debourgh are highest in rank, the still higher estates and greater aristocracy are not mentioned in the novel, since they little effect Meryton and Derbyshire.
The way Austen treats her characters is satiric. Her views of life are therefore always satiric; the passionate and tragic aspects of human life are somehow discarded. Only such characters are chosen that could be satirically treated. This satiric vision of life is a limitation on Austen’s part. Critics sometimes mention that Austen “Banished nine-tenth of life, and gave us people who never work, or fight or die, or starve or go crazy.”
In the view of that above-mentioned statement we find that people in “Pride and Prejudice” engage themselves in doing nothing. Mr. Darcy apparently seems to have some work to do when he is at Pemberly, the work he does there is obviously connected with his estate. Mr. Gardiner revels in fishing only. Mr. Bennet, as we are told, takes one of his farms but only emerges from his library when he needs to settle some family affairs. Mr. Hurst’s motto of life is “High living and little thinking.” Reading has a place in family entertainment and since all the novels are heard at family gatherings, the writers take care to fill up pages fit for family consumption.
In fact, Austen’s knowledge of men’s ways limited, but she knew how to use her limitation. In “Pride and Prejudice” men come and go, and sit and chat when in front of the ladies; Austen does not pursue them into their personal world. We may see Fitz William Darcy and Bingley set off in a carriage but what they discuss is never reported if no woman is present. Despite Austen’s failure to present the many facets of men’s life, she is successful in providing an illuminating insight into some of the most significant characters like that of Darcy and Bingley.
For instance, Darcy’s transmigration from a proud and snob person to a compassionate and reliable one is shown with perfect dexterity. In this novel Austen does want to compete with students of political economics, or social problems. The life and its complications that she depicts are just as what she experienced as a woman. Quite naturally her themes in this novel center the complex role of money and love in marriage. In doing so she even consciously avoids any discussion on philosophical or social issues. A simple plot concerning a few number of people is woven in this novel.
That Austen has no wish to exceed the limitation of her own is quite evident when we find that urban life is excluded from the novel only because she had not much experience of it. It is mentioned casually during Jane’s visit to London. We have also observed that no black-hearted villain ever makes an appearance in Austen’s pages. The greatest villainy that ever occurs in “Pride and Prejudice” is the occasional elopement of Lydia with Wickham. Wickham indeed lacks all those negative traits of character which could have made him a person of shade like that of Alec in Hardy’s “Tess of the D’urbervilles”. Therefore, Wickham’s possibility to be the only villain in “Pride and Prejudice” ends there.
Still it is no shallowness or lack of insight on Austen’s part, which leads her to restrict the exploration of human nature to the apparent social level. Austen gives us in her novel an artistic unity in which nothing is forced, nothing is excessive. A simple plot proceeds bit by bit to the only conclusion possible. Her characters act and speak in a very familiar way as we can imagine. The characters are so true to nature and so well-balanced against constructing types that as they talk along the story we begin to think that it would not matter if there were no plot. The central figures whose union we desire grow upon us as their mistakes and recoveries reveal the fineness of their spirit. Therefore, in Austen’s world there is a welcome for the sensitive reader who will accept it as it is and will not cry out for, in the words of one critic –
“The moon of passionate embraces or the lightning of sword.”