Books

Austenian irony

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading.

The new £10 note, shown for the first time today, displays a drawing of Jane Austen by her sister on the cover and has this accompanying text from Pride and Prejudice. Social media has condemned the words and the Bank of England for their cloth-eared choice. The phrase is spoken by the supercilious Caroline Bingley when Elizabeth Bennet is suffering the condescensions of the women at Netherfield, as Jane lies ill in bed with a cold. Miss Bingley exclaims the words after being ‘quite exhausted by her attempt to be amused with her own book’ in a failed attempt to draw Darcy away from his. The line therefore purports to be in praise of reading but is from the lips of a deceitful character with no love of books as she pretends to read. Austen is skewering a snob with characteristic irony. Miss Bingley knows the price of a book but not its value. But irony is capable of cutting is many ways; is this sly irony on Mark Carney’s part, an unhealthy emphasis on crass materialism at a time of late stage capitalism?

Austen deploys attitudes to reading to reveal aspects of her characters:

  • Catherine Morland’s mistakes in Northanger Abbey stem from her quixotic reading of the Gothic novels she confuses with reality. She may believe too readily in The Mysteries of Udolpho but at least, unlike the boorish John Thorpe, she has read it.
  • Mr Knightley approves, with gentle irony, of Emma’s reading lists of books she intends to read as ‘very well chosen, and very neatly arranged – sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule.’
  • Sir Walter Elliot is condemned in Persuasion thus: he ‘never took up any book but the Baronetage’. And Anne is surprised at Louisa Musgrove and Benwick’s engagement on the grounds, in part, that although she is amiable he is a reading man.
  • The Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility are marked out by their reading. Marianne believes it takes you to a person’s heart and the sisters are set apart from the other, frivolous ladies by their reading habits which at the same time raises Lady Middleton’s suspicions of them.

How characters read is also crucial (that is reading out loud, as a performance, as a communal activity, fiction as a shared intimacy):

  • Willoughby reads wonderfully, whereas poor Edward Ferrars, who struggles to declaim the poems of William Cowper, does not.
  • Mr Collins is invited to read to the family on his first night with the Bennets, more as a way of stopping him talking. On beholding the book he is presented with he begs pardon and protests that he never reads novels and permits himself instead to read aloud to the company, with very monotonous solemnity, three pages of Fordyce’s Sermons.

How many of the social media faultfinders are, like Miss Bingley and Mr Collins, non readers of novels? For me, the text on the note is something I am in agreement with. And to choose an ironic passage from Austen is apposite.

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