As hackneyed as it may be to wirte this, I adore Jane Austen. I will state up front, I am not a member of the ultimate fan club, The Jane Austen Society. (Is it true they gather monthly in period clothing to discuss textual differences in editions of Mansfield Park?) But Pride and Prejudice, as both a book and a cinematic experience, has moved into the mythic realm for my extended family. Watching the A&E production has become a holiday ritual, and the households of each of my six siblings have a copy in their DVD collection. A healthy majority of my 45 nieces and nephews can recite along, line by line, verbatim. The G-rated equivalent of the Rocky Horror participatory cinema experience.
We know all these and oh so many more:
From the first moment I met you, your arrogance and conceit, your selfish disdain for the feelings of others made me realize that you were the last man in the world I could ever be prevailed upon to marry.
You mistake me, my dear. I have the utmost respect for your nerves. They’ve been my constant companion these twenty years.
An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. –Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.
For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?
It goes on…
And what do you know, another biography of Jane was just reviewed in the Times—How Jane Austen Conquered the World, by Claire Harman. The reviewer is Sophie Gee.
It only makes me love Jane more to read about her cleverness in a letter to her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh who was also a novelist. Upon hearing that he had lost some chapters of his manuscript (back before computer back ups) she reassured him that she did not purloin his pages:
“What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited Sketches, full of Variety & Glow? — How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush, as produces little effect after much labour?”
Gee goes on:
The “little bit of Ivory,” frequently quoted to describe Austen’s virtuosic miniaturism, started out as a self-deprecating remark to a much younger, less talented relative who would later become her biographer.
In her account of Austen’s rise to international celebrity, Claire Harman…wonders whether Austen’s comment reflected anxiety about the “sustainability of her gift and the degree of ‘labour’ it required,” or whether it was simply a way of reminding James Edward that she was a master of her craft and he a mere novice. Harman’s reading of this, and of all Austen’s literary utterances, is that it reveals a writer consciously controlling her creative persona. The Austen of Harman’s book is unlucky at times, fortunate at others, but always aware of herself as a professional, despite her provincial, domestic environs.
Virtuosic miniaturism. Great phrase for a timeless writer.