02 December 2020

Stepping Down With Jane

 I wrote a few months ago about enjoying Libby, the service provided by some libraries that allows you to listen to books.  Recently I couldn't find any books on Libby I wanted to listen to so I searched their Humor category and was surprised to find Pride and Prejudice listed.

I must admit I have reached the age of mumbly-mumble without reading a Jane Austen book or watching a movie based on one.  But I figured I would give it a shot.

And, what do you know?  I enjoyed it a lot.  Although it was published in 1813 I found it much easier to read than, say, James Fenimore Cooper or Herman Melville who came a bit later.  

Since I came to it from the Humor category I was naturally interested in how well this comedy of  manners worked for me.  I found Mrs. Bennet  and Cousin Collins were not nearly as amusing as I think Austen expected me to find them, but I delighted in the company, and very odd mind,  of Mr. Bennet.  Favorite example: When his wife complained about the entailment which meant she would be forced from her home when he died, Bennet offered the comforting thought that she might die first.  Somehow this failed to console her.

Another point of interest was that everyone seemed to know the exact income of every eligible man.  "He has 2,000 a year," or whatever.  Was there a list posted on a bulletin board someplace?  In our society talking about such things is considered terrible manners.

I was also fascinated by Austin's use of certain words.  Amiable and agreeable appear constantly, and seem to be about the best thing you could say about someone.

But the most fascinating word of all is condescending.  The odious and unctuous Mr. Collins describes his patron Lady de Bourgh as "all affability and condescension."  He means it as a compliment.  It indicated that she was willing to be gracious to her inferiors.

Today, of course, the mere implication that you think you have inferiors is what makes the word an insult.  (And by the way the word comes from "stepping down with," and originally meant compromise.  English is, as they say, a living language.)

The Grammarphobia  blog has an interesting piece on  Austen's use of the word.  

I have also been reading In The Hurricane's Eye, one of Nathaniel Philbrick's excellent books about the Revolutionary War.  In it he quotes George Washington, early in the fight, instructing his new colonels: "Be easy and condescending in your comportment to your officers, but not too familiar."  The same usage as Austen, I believe.

And speaking of presidents...  Not to get political but this reminded me of  something Donald Trump said at a rally in March 2019: "You know, I always hear 'the elite, the elite.' Well, I always said… 'they are the elite, I'm not.' I have a better education than them, I'm smarter than them, I went to the best schools, they didn't.  [I have a] much more beautiful house, much more beautiful apartment, much more beautiful everything. And I'm president and they're not, right? And then they say 'the elite, the elite.'"

He seems to be claiming that some group is bragging of being elite, but in this country elite is generally an insult thrown at intellectuals.  The only person who seems to be hinting that he himself a member of the elite is Trump himself.   

Which seems pretty condescending.  See what I did there?


  1. A few years ago, I caught up with S&S, P&P, and Emma, and now I feel I might have missed something without your article. When reading Chaucer or Shakespeare, I look for period word meanings, but I don't think I did with Austen. And I agree, she is more more readable than Melville. Thanks, Rob.

  2. People seem to have been very upfront about their finances. It was the first question an otherwise eligible young man would be asked - and the first thing parents would want to know about a prospective bride would be her dowery and any inheritance prospects. Marriage, after all, was a matter of money, especially since middle class women couldn't work without losing status.

  3. Enjoyed this, Rob. And I must check out In the Hurricane's Eye--I loved Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea. (But every time I hear his name I think of an old TV show named I Led Three Lives--I'm old enough to remember Herbert A. Philbrick.)

  4. Rob, consider the source. It's the unctuous Mr Collins who means it as a compliment when he says Lady De Bourgh is condescending. As I said in a recent SS post, Austen means us to get it that Lady De B's "condescension" is a sign that she's a snobbish, rude old B indeed. As for you know who being smarter than the elite, well—consider the source.

  5. Yes, money was always discussed before any eligibles even met, and that held true through Victorian times. BTW, Vladimir Nabokov finally read his first Jane Austen when he was assigned to lecture on "European Fiction" - against his will, because "I dislike Jane, and am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers." If you ever get a chance, get a hold of his "Lectures on Literature", which includes his lectures on Mansfield Park, which really impressed him. (Though he still with reservations against women writers.) BTW - my favorite scenes in P&P are where Charlotte Lucas explains to Elizabeth why she marries the unctuous Mr. Collins, and later, when Elizabeth pays the Collins' a visit at their marital home. Incredible grim humor and insight into what the marriage market really meant to women...

  6. John, if you read Philbrick's revolutionary war books (and I recommend them) be sure to read them in the right order. I am currently enjoying Valiant Ambition, but I should have read that before ITHE. I grew up on stories about Lexington and Concord, Morristown, Valley Forge, etc. but I realize I never knew the context...

  7. I haven't read Pride and Prejudice, but my 11-year-old daughter is really enjoying. And yeah, when she explains it to me, she's a little condescending.


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