Let’s round out the year with a Jane Austen mini-series. Austen has a reputation among the uninformed of being treacly, old timey romance. Mark Twain famously declared that he wanted to “dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.” Twain always writes like the cat who got the cream and I’d just as soon dig Austen up and beat him over the skull with her shin-bone. Because Austen, for those who may not know, was a quiet genius who developed her craft despite gender constraints, ill health, and near-constant financial precarity.
My first Austen was Sense and Sensibility, which I loved and read many times. I knew that Pride and Prejudice loomed higher, which made me resistant to it, protective of S&S. I finally read Pride in college and found that, in addition to its celebrated central heroine, Pride and Prejudice is frickin’ funny. Austen builds around her heroine a cast of characters so silly and yet so human it feels like walking through your own community even centuries later. She takes the piss as a virtuoso plays her instrument although most of her most scalded targets would be too stupid and/or self-involved to notice they’ve been burned.
I’ve now read or listened to or watched film adaptations of Pride and Prejudice too many times to count. It’s my second favorite Austen novel. And I find myself constantly curious about these people—the inner lives of the peripheral characters, what happens to them all after the novel closes. I’m not a person constantly in want of a sequel. Sometimes it’s perfectly fine for things to end (I’m looking at you Fresh Prince of Bel Air). But Austen (and her time period) was so devoted to marriage as the natural conclusion of a novel that her books largely miss how much interesting stuff happens after people get married. And so I present several unanswerable questions and roguish speculations on Austen’s most beloved book.
- How many children do Elizabeth and Darcy, and Jane and Bingley, and Lydia and Wickham end up having? What tragedies happen to them in their post-married lives?
- Is Mrs. Bennet ever invited to Pemberley? (I think not or, at least, rarely. She probably goes to the Bingleys’, where Elizabeth stops in for micro-visits.)
- Why does Mary Bennet come in for so much vitriol? A few years ago I noticed various attempts to resuscitate Lydia’s reputation, on the post-feminist grounds that she’s actually sassy and liberated. While that may be true, she’s also a selfish, self-involved bully. Mary, on the other hand, has been mocked for centuries for striving to be the kind of woman her society valued. She cares about her Christianity, reading books, and practicing piano, a stereotypical middle child trying to distinguish herself from her pretty older sisters and her ridiculous younger ones. Mary’s greatest sin, it seems, is wanting to play piano in public, to receive some recognition for her hard work, despite not being particularly good at it. In short, Mary is a classic “try hard” and nobody takes more shit from the cool kids than someone who cares and doesn’t hide it. I sometimes wish that Mr. Collins had been less dazzled by the beauty of first Jane, then Elizabeth, to notice poor Mary, who would have jumped at him and been a similarly pedantic and self-important match for him. I also envision some very staid fanfic whereby Mary comes into contact with St. John Rivers (of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brönte) and he finds his missionary match. (These two are at least a generation apart, with Mary being the elder, but just go with it.) In sum, I’m not blind to Mary’s limitations but I still feel for her the kinship of the try-hards and would like an addition to Austen fandom that gives her a second look.
- How does Darcy change, post-marriage? I imagine that he and Lizzie laugh, a lot. That she makes him lighter and less stiff. But is that shift purely private, hidden from all but his wife and closest friends?
- Who dies first, Mr. Collins or Charlotte? If Mr. Collins lives longer, I assume he continues in obsequious obnoxiousness, sucking up and puttering around his garden, missing the domestic bliss he once enjoyed with a wife who tolerated his nonsense. But if Charlotte outlives him, I want to know what she does next. Is she left in a position to be more comfortably, independently herself? Is she a good mother, close to her child or children? Or does she sink into poverty without the protective income and status of even a ridiculous husband? (For the record, I really hope he dies first, and early, oozing oiliness. Charlotte made her bed but she still deserves better.)
- What happens to Lady Catherine when Miss De Bourgh dies young, as the novel strongly implies that she will? What heartbreak does she feel but conceal, possibly even from herself?
- Is Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s whole dance of melodrama and sarcasm actually just foreplay?