More pride, less prejudice

Sally Feldman stands up for popular works of scholarship

March 10, 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged that any serious student of English literature must be a postmodernist with a huge appetite for deconstruction and a cultivated disregard for the enjoyment of the books themselves. Who needs to wade through the 896 pages of Middlemarch when it's so much more interesting - and often far quicker - to identify hermeneutical opposition within a narrative discourse, or apply hypertextual liminality to notions of the authorial voice?

Even though the invasion of cultural theory had only just begun when I was an English undergraduate, it was enough to instil in me a discernible guilt about reading novels for personal pleasure, for feasting myself on Jane Austen's sparkling prose and barbed satire and delighting in the way her books propose a morality, an idea of how to live.

But now a new book has appeared that has done much to banish that guilt and restore my Leavis-inflected faith in literature as an expression of humanism. It's a lavishly illustrated edition of Austen's Pride and Prejudice, comprehensively annotated by Patricia Meyer Spacks, professor of English at the University of Virginia. Suddenly I've been given a dispensation not merely to enjoy the novels but to care about every detail of the characters and their specific milieux.

Spacks loves detail. But never for its own sake; never in the service of pedantry. Her detail illuminates and refreshes the experience of reading. If you've ever wondered why the Bennet sisters spent so much time trimming their bonnets, Spacks can enlighten you. Material was so expensive that to stay fashionable the girls would have to upgrade existing garments as they wouldn't be able to afford new ones.

Mealtimes are frequently used by Austen as plot devices but Spacks gives them added significance. The Bingleys look down on their country neighbours for serving dinner earlier than in more fashionable town circles. And Lady Catherine de Bourgh can afford not one but two separate breakfast parlours.

Money, of course, is the invisible main character of all of the novels, so our understanding of the real plight of the Bennet sisters is poignantly enhanced when Spacks reveals just how much of it a gentleman needs to run his household, how much the girls would inherit from their mother, as well as the invidious property laws that were responsible for disinheriting them.

But there are also smaller, telling details of what money can buy. Mr Collins enthuses about the windows at Rosings because windows at the time were a signifier of wealth, since each one would be heavily taxed. And once you're aware of the fine distinctions between a barouche, a gig, a phaeton and a curricle you realise that each is a clue to the standing of its owner.

The Bennets, for example, do have a relatively expensive coach - but we learn that they can afford only one set of horses. This detail is crucial to the action. Mrs Bennet insists that the horses are needed on the farm, which means Jane must travel to Netherfield by horseback, get caught in the rain, and be obliged to spend the night with the Bingleys.

Whereas Austen's novels are sometimes dismissed as comedies of manners, Spacks shows how important manners really would have been at a time when the established social order was being challenged, and class differences would be determined more by etiquette than by wealth. Edmund Burke, for example, valued manners as more significant than the law, while Mary Wollstonecraft regarded the gallantry of gentlemen as insulting to women.

This painstaking attention to historical detail also serves a broader academic purpose. It brilliantly captures the philosophical climate of Austen's England. So we learn, for example, that the arrangement of trees at Pemberley demonstrates how Romanticism was beginning to influence notions of landscape gardening, while Austen's portrayal of the conflict between the rational and the emotional echoes the views of contemporary thinkers such as David Hume and Adam Smith.

What these insights represent are scholarship at its most meticulous and most revealing. The book embodies the difference between reading a book and studying it. And judging by its sales - it's already in a second print run even though it was only published in October - it's appreciated as warmly by general readers as it is by academics. I doubt that this success would quite count as "impact" in the research excellence framework, though. Indeed, it's exactly the kind of scholarly activity being downgraded by the proposed withdrawal of funding for humanities.

This decision fundamentally changes the very definition of a university. No longer is it to be regarded as a seat of enquiry, analysis and the pursuit of pure knowledge for its own sake. Now, its only role is as a hothouse to feed the needs of employers.

Since there's no direct employment line from the majority of humanities disciplines, that becomes the rationale for excluding them from the teaching grant, even though most of the Cabinet took humanities subjects at university. It's a pity, however, that so few read English. Then they just might have been embarrassed by the similarity of some of their policies to the views of literature's most ridiculous characters. To view university education merely as training for jobs is not unlike Mrs Bennet's view of marriage as a monetary arrangement, stripped of any notions of love, fulfilment or creativity.

Just as Elizabeth has to learn that there's more to Darcy than the beautiful grounds at Pemberley, it's time the government displayed a little less prejudice about British higher education. And a lot more pride.

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