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Friday, June 09, 2006

Victoriana

I recently finished reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the second time in as many months. This novel has truly beguiled me. It’s possessed of virtues and delights too many to count.

There are, of course, the charming lovers themselves: Jane and Mr. Bingley, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Can there be found four hearts more endearing? We get to trace the circuitous paths they follow to find each other. Their respective journeys take them from astonishment, misperceptions, self-examination, awareness, repentance and redemption to…finally…love and union.

There is the meticulous writing; the formal, studied prose of a bygone era. It’s all there - wit expressed so delicately, yet, so bitingly; character defined through subtle detail; deep truths revealed ever so gently. The writing alone is a fine treat.

And then, for me, there is "Victoriana" itself (although this book predates the heights of the Victorian Era). I’ve taken a keen interest in the histories, nature, and inevitable failures of empire. Since I don’t want to veer off into political discourse, I’ll simply state that I see striking and disturbing parallels between the United States of today, and the late stages of previous grand empires. But let’s not go there.

* * *

I’ll confess feeling great shame while reading passages that spoke to matters of civility, dignity, propriety, honor and decorum. I have fallen far short in these particular virtues. I don’t think the failure is mine alone, though. We seem to live in a coarser, far less dignified and virtuous time. There is a part of me that longs to live in an age when virtue was exalted, when people truly prized personal honor, when people expressed themselves with dignity and subtlety. I believe I would have been a better person as a result. There is more than a hint of the Victorian inside of me.

As I said, I’d periodically burn with shame while reading. Conflicting ideas began pressing in on me, and I wanted to examine these thoughts further. So I did.

So much of what delights and inspires me in Victorian society was artifice. The exalted regard for women, the delicate matter of manners and the emphasis on virtue, all mask the fact that woven deeply in that fabric were beliefs that women are (essentially) property, the observance of severe class-distinctions, and the gross exploitation of foreign resources and people. The conduct of England’s high society veiled or denied human frailties (or baseness) as it self-piously gloried in (ostensible) virtue and propriety…and as, all the while, it glutted from others’ suffering and impoverishment.

* * *

Still, deep in my soul, I wish I were more like Mr. Darcy.

* * *

5 Comments:

Blogger fatamo said...

Pride and Prejudice is my absolute favorite Austen novel. Although, Emma comes pretty close, and the rest of her novels all kind of blend into the same theme. I've read P&P more times than I can count :p and I understand what you mean about it's uncanny charm.

Sat Jun 10, 10:04:00 AM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Well, since I'm in the mood, I may just read Emma next (I think I last read it about 40 years ago).

Thanks for stopping by.

Sat Jun 10, 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger bct said...

Have you read any of Barbara Pym's novels? Critics often call her a postwar (WWII) Austen. Much of the same meticulous construction and tender regard for human foibles, but removed from that artifice-laden era.

Mon Jun 12, 03:36:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

No, Berniece, I have not read any of Barbara Pym's work (I'm such a literary Philistine!). Thanks for the recommendation! I'll keep an eye out for her books. I'm just a total sucker for any author who shows a tender regard for human foibles.

I just picked up a copy of Emma so I'll be spending a bit more time with Ms. Austen.

Mon Jun 12, 04:52:00 PM  
Blogger Jonas said...

Oooops! I spelled your name incorrectly, didn't I, Bernice?

I'm a moron.

Mon Jun 12, 04:59:00 PM  

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