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Blakey Vermeule on Jane Austen

Blakey Vermeule earned her Ph.D. in English Literature at UC Berkeley in 1995, and she has been Professor of English at Stanford University since 2005. Blakey Vermeule's research interests are British literature from 1660-1800, critical theory, cognitive approaches to literature, major British poets, post-Colonial fiction, and the history of the novel. She is the author […]

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This is KZSU Stanford.
Welcome to entitled opinions.
My name is Robert Harrison.
And we're coming to you from the Stanford campus.
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Had we but world enough in time, I would gladly follow up on all the many excellent suggestions
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now that's a really good idea.
In titled opinions has the most intelligent audience in the world.
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As we start winding down this third season of entitled opinions,
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which is happy to join us in the garden as we freewheel around the banquet table feasting on ideas.
The black plague has devastated our Florence, my friends, that is to say our culture, as you know only too well,
but up here in the hills of Fierzole, we try to keep the story going.
That's why we talk so much.
Not because we're academics who like to hear ourselves speak,
but because as custodians of cultural memory, we're the survivors of a disaster.
I'm very pleased to welcome to the program today my colleague Blakey Vermuel, who teaches in the Department of English at Stanford.
She's a specialist of 18th and 19th century British literature, and several of our listeners will be happy to know that she joins me today to talk about Jane Austen.
A number of you have asked for a show on Jane Austen.
I'm certainly looking forward to the conversation, if only because Jane Austen remains a real riddle to me.
Blakey Vermuel knows Austen as well as anyone, and I'm hoping that in our discussion today she and I will not so much solve the riddle as define its terms.
In literary studies, we are wary of solving riddles and explaining enigma's.
We believe that when the Sphinx takes a plunge into the abyss, bad things are bound to happen in Thebes.
That is where we differ from our colleagues in analytic philosophy, many of whom try to rasiosinate their way out of the darkness.
But beware, edipists solve the riddle of the Sphinx by identifying man as the creature that walks with four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening.
Yet look at what happened to him.
He violated the linearity of time which he devised in the riddle and generating children who were both sisters and daughters, sons and brothers.
The Austen riddle has many faces to begin with, much about Jane Austen's life and personality remains elusive,
and it is this elusiveness that no doubt inspires one biography after another.
Likewise, there is a lot about Austen's fiction that remains opaque, despite its treacherously transparent surface.
It is riddle some, as such brilliant and lucid novels can have such a plunging darkness at their core.
And finally, there is the question of Austen's enormous appeal across generations and the ages.
This appeal is so heterogeneous and defies categorization that much of it remains at least to me a puzzle.
But before we jump too far ahead of ourselves, let me bring my guest into the conversation.
Blakey, welcome to the program.
Thank you, Robert.
Blakey, I think it's fair to say that Jane Austen's talk has never been higher than it is today.
Her books continue to sell for digitally.
The BBC has recently begun to cast all her novels into new serial versions for television.
And what is even more strange, as her popularity increases among the lay public, so does the esoteric interest in her work among academics.
So one place to start, I suppose, is with the question of which Jane Austen are these two constituencies reading.
Are you as a professional literary scholar reading the same Jane Austen that millions of people are viewing on masterpiece theater?
That's a great question.
I doubt that I'm reading the same Jane Austen that other people are, but it isn't necessarily because I'm an academic.
I think Jane Austen's novels are famous for being rereadable, even ones like Emma in which the plot of the novel depends to some large extent on the readers not knowing what's actually going on most of the time.
But the paradox is that the more one reread these novels, the darker they get, or at any rate, the more I've become aware of how terrifying they are.
And I know I'm not alone in this.
I don't necessarily think it's an academic thing, although academics are well known for making fun of Austen's blinded and adoring fans and even on occasion for making fun of her characters themselves.
But I think the necessary ingredient to becoming terrified by Jane is not having a PhD, but just reading the novels over and over again.
Is terrifying too strong a word? I ask provocatively, or I ask you to tell us why you use that such a strong term for?
I don't think it's too strong a word. I will admit that as I've gotten older, I've grown darker and more cynical.
I'm increasingly aware of the depths of human depravity and selfishness, but I find so is Jane Austen.
Let's just take Mansfield Park as an example, which next to her other novels is kind of an ugly duckling. It's devastating in its bleak modernity and its refusal to let anybody be redeemed.
There was a gap of ten years between 1798 when she wrote her Pride and Prejudice and 1809 when she went to work on Mansfield Park, a gap during which one of her biographers speculate that she fell into a deep depression.
So if you reread the novel, you'll find it bears evidence of this. It's dark and very troubling. It's a story variously of sexual repression and the pathological viciousness that underlines a kind of victim character.
It's a story of how closely the victim character and the Christian character are intertwined of how the stain of an abusive childhood cannot simply be wiped away by wishing.
But this darkness pervades all of her novels, I think.
So you connect it with a darkness, bringing it into the sphere of what might traditionally be called depravity or the inherent fallenness of human nature, sin, original sin of some sort.
That's certainly one aspect of the terror to tell you the truth, however, what I find terrifying sometimes in Jane Austen is not so much the happy ending, but it's what that happiness is supposed to consist.
I think it's terrifying when I think of what Darcy has to live through after the novel has come to an end, namely to have Mrs. Bennett over at Pemberley all the time, for example.
That's right. There's a reading of Austen that I love by the poet, W.H. Auden, which I think gets at part of what makes her so terrifying.
He wrote a very chilling stanza about her, in which he said, "You cannot shock her more than she shocks me.
Beside her joy seems innocent as grass. It makes me most uncomfortable to see an English spinster of the middle class describe the amorous effects of brass by which he means money, and reveals so frankly and with such sobriety,
the economic basis of society."
That stands it. It really gets to the essence of what's going on in Jane Austen as I reader, and with a lot of British fiction of the time I would imagine.
Is she more terrifying to you than Charles Dickens or George Eliot in this regard? Because I think these authors, all of them are addressing the reality, the social, political economic reality of England at the time, and all of them seem completely obsessed with the rigidity of the social hierarchies, and the desperate struggle for survival, almost Darwinian survival in an economic framework where there's very little wiggle room.
And one mistake can spell your doom.
I think that's right. Sometimes when I'm teaching Jane Austen, I ask students to run the following thought experiment.
So imagine that we are suddenly shut up in our classroom for the next 50 years. Food can come in, and our sort of waste can go out, but other than that we're basically stuck with each other, and whatever materials we find to hand, like chalk, or the chalkboard, or the podium, we can use.
The one major rule of our society is that overt aggression is strictly forbidden as is any obvious self-promotion.
So the sort of question is what would happen to us emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, physically, as we're all forced to interact in close quarters over time.
I think the sort of twist on this thought experiment, though, is that suppose every so often the door of the classroom opened up and in came a stranger.
The stranger could stay with us for a little while and then leave, taking one of us with him, and the only way any of us were ever to get out of the room was by tempting the stranger to choose us and not one of our classmates.
So if the same rules hold as before no over-digression, no obvious self-promotion, what do you do?
How do you even imagine what counts as love under those circumstances?
I mean, what is sort of cleverness, what is accomplishment, what is innovation, what is wit?
So the terrifying thing about Jane Austen and indeed many of the English novelists of the 18th and 19th century is the thoroughgoing materialism of her vision, how it's all economics all the way down to the bottom.
Again, I want to go back to my point, however, which is that the door opens and the Prince Charming walks in and it's all about who can get out of the prison, whereas I would like to suggest that that Prince Charming is going to take you if you're the lucky one and put you into another little cage, just in another classroom down the hall or maybe a nicer, bigger property that even the privileged members,
members of this society, economically privileged, exist within a straight jacket of proper decorum expectations for behavior and propriety, etc.
And we can discuss a vivid example of that when we turn to pride and prejudice, which we want to look at more closely.
But in general, do you think that Prince Charming is such a salvation for the woman who would otherwise remain a spencer?
If that is the case, we know that biographically speaking Jane Austen did receive at least one offer of marriage, which she did turn down.
So would that constitute an example of someone maybe not taking up the offer to leave the room?
I think that's right. I think that if she had taken up the offer, it is fairly clear that she would have, as her mother did, have lots of children and whether that would have interfered with her ability to write her novels.
I wonder, and I think lots of people have wondered that over the years, but sure, you're forced into a kind of slavery of breeding.
Do you think, Blakey, that Jane Austen was too cynical to believe in love despite the fact that at least a surface reading of so many of her novels, suggest that love was a palpable and a very alive prospect for her heroines?
I think that she is very cynical, but I also think that she is trying in some measure to force herself out of her defensive and satirical posture.
I think you can see that in Pride and Prejudice. I think the novel is in some sense a story about having to overcome your own cynical impulses, your own satirical impulses and the impulses in this case are universal to the Bennett family.
And having to in some sense imagine yourself, project yourself into a world in which people don't sit around satirizing each other all the time. That's clearly they're not going to do in the world of Pemberley.
So, however, in the world of the Bennett, you're saying that that's what they do all the time, all of the characters, or is it the father who is particularly cynical?
The father is the worst of all. He sits in his study basically chuckling at human absurdity all day long.
He, for instance, enjoys it when his cousin, Mr. Collins, was as absurd as he had hoped.
He's a kind of erasmion connoisseur of human folly, and the person against whom this connoisseurship is most directed is his wife.
He takes great pleasure in the fact that she, that her ignorance and folly contribute to his amusement. This is not a sort of picture of a happy kind of marriage.
No, it's not. Elizabeth Bennett, who is the hero in Pride and Prejudice, shares a lot in common with her father. Would you agree?
Absolutely. And I think that she has to, in some sense, imagine herself in a world where scabrousness is not the kind of emotional currency.
There's a wonderful scene when Elizabeth Bennett has come back from Netherfield, where her sister Jane was taken ill by a cold because their
scheming mother refused to allow Jane to take the carriage over to Netherfield so Jane gets sick and has to stay at Netherfield for a week or so.
And finally, Elizabeth is able to fetch her back. They get back to the Bennett household.
And the narrator says they were not welcomed home very cordially by their mother.
And then in the next paragraph, they found Mary, one of the younger sisters, as usual deep in the study of thorough base and human nature and had some new extracts to admire and some new observations of threadbare morality to listen to.
So this is, again, the emotional world of the Bennett family is incredibly defended emotionally.
Was that Mary reading? Is that the things that she's getting from her reading?
Yeah, she's sitting there reading just as her father is, in some sense, the kind of terrible truism about human nature.
But when it comes to cynicism in the novel now and Pride and Prejudice, the father clearly has this cynical detachment.
And maybe it's a defensive posture for the fact that he's not a very engaged father or that he hasn't had a son.
Whatever the reason is, you have a mother who is scheming and seems to accept in a kind with almost vulgarity the economic realism, certain economic realism.
And then you have someone like Elizabeth Bennett's friend Charlotte Lukas. She is a cynic because she will marry Mr. Collins without any presumption of loving him because circumstances require that she do so.
Whereas Elizabeth Bennett tells Jane, "I shall never marry without love." And the novel in some ways, in acts dramatizes the trials and tribulations of a hero and who really wants to marry in the name of love.
When you read Pride and Prejudice, do you take Jane Austen to be cynical with regard to these claims that Elizabeth Bennett makes in that declaration to her sister?
I do, but I think it's a kind of interesting cynicism. So Charlotte Lukas, as you pointed out, is a kind of rational, practical person.
And at one point, the narrator says of her, "Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony marriage had always been her object." So along comes Mr. Collins. He's insufficient on all the grounds that you would hope to find in a life partner. He's a terrible, officious bore.
And yet she's able to set herself up at the rectory at rosings with him in such a way so that he really doesn't end up bothering her too much. It seems like a sort of rational, practical solution to the problem.
Is Jane Austen cynical about Elizabeth Bennett's motives for falling in love with Mr. Dorsey? Well, at the end of the novel, she says her sister Jane, when Jane asks her, when did you start to think herself in love with him? She says, as soon as I saw his grounds at Pemberley.
And it's obviously sort of supposed to be a joke, but it maybe cuts a little bit too close to the bone, especially because that is exactly what happens. The moment that she sees his remarkable holdings in Darbyshire, she starts to feel that to be mistress of Pemberley would be something.
Well, let's discuss that, Blake, if you don't mind, because I have doubts about that very conversion scene. Because on the one hand, I want to have a...on the one hand, I'm cynical about what happens there.
It's the grandeur of Pemberley that converts her to Darcy. But on the other hand, there are other arguments that I think are quite persuasive.
And in my addition of Pride and Prejudice, which is the Norton Critical Edition, I was reading in preparation an article by Alistair Duckworth called the Reconcetution of Society, where Alistair Duckworth's
reconstructs that scene and suggests that it's not just the material economic sublime of Pemberley, it's actually the aesthetic good taste at the internal rooms of the place. And then she looks out the window and she sees the grounds, everything's in balance.
And it reflects for Alistair the character, the moral character in an age in which things like the way you disposed your household, the way you groomed your grounds, the way the kind of aesthetic taste you had were all reflections of a moral character.
And that for her, the tour of Pemberley was a confirmation that there was more to this guy than she had been exposed to prior to this visit.
It's a remarkable scene, as you say, it's phenomenal because one of the things that happens in it is that Elizabeth starts to get a kind of fuller and richer mental life than she has had before.
It's almost as if Austin begins to experiment with fictional technique in order to represent before our eyes a kind of growing fullness in the mental scene of her character.
And we can just read a passage from the scene at Pemberley. Elizabeth is walking through the picture gallery at Pemberley with Mrs. Reynolds, who is the housekeeper.
And Mrs. Reynolds has known Mr. Darcy since he was a little boy and she says about him that he was always very, very kind to her.
She, Elizabeth walks on and she finally sees the picture of Mr. Darcy at last it arrested her and she beheld a striking resemblance of Mr. Darcy with such a smile over the face as she remembered to have sometimes seen when he looked at her.
She stood several minutes before the picture in Ernest contemplation and returned to it again before they quit at the gallery.
Mrs. Reynolds informed them that it had been taken in his father's lifetime.
There was certainly at this moment in Elizabeth's mind a more gentle sensation towards the original than she had ever felt at the height of their acquaintance.
The commendation bestowed on him by Mrs. Reynolds was of no trifling nature. What praise is more valuable than the praise of an intelligent servant?
As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people's happiness were in his guardianship. How much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow.
How much of good or evil must be done by him? Every idea that had been brought forward by the housekeeper was favorable to his character and as she stood before the canvas on which he was represented and fixed his eyes upon herself.
She thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before. She remembered its warmth and softened its impropriety of expressions.
That passage has a lot of little causes there that intrigued me. One is that she fixed his gaze upon herself.
She's almost like having him look at her from that portrait, that representation.
And falling in love with Darcy in his absence really is what's taking place through all his representatives.
First, the recommendations that you get from the servant, the portrait gallery.
And then there's another passage, I think shortly after that, where it was a large, well proportion room hand, some lay fitted up, a lizard after slightly surveying. It went to a window to enjoy its prospect.
Now she's looking outside, the hill crowned with wood from which they had descended, received increased abruptness from the distance was a beautiful object.
Every disposition of the ground was good. And she looked on the whole scene, the river, the trees scattered on its banks and the winding of the valley as far as she could trace it with delight.
As they passed into other rooms, these objects were taking different positions, but from every window there were beauties to be seen.
This is another huge recommendation for the owner of Pemberley because of this logic of reflection.
I totally agree. I think this is a wonderful kind of late 18th century aesthetic treatise that Austin is writing.
And it's in fact what she's describing is a kind of intensive aesthetic education that leads to a kind of moral expansion of Elizabeth faculties.
You can almost see her mind expanding and filling as she undergoes this aesthetic education. We're moving from the sort of eye contact of the portrait to kind of expanded sense of the prospect for moving from the inside to the outside.
But the question is what motivates, again, this aesthetic education, if you're utopian like Alistair Duckworth, then you think that the aesthetic education is simply being motivated by a kind of logic of its own.
I think if you're a kind of cynic like me or like Jane Austen, you think that such an aesthetic education, such an expansion of your faculty can only be underwritten by a kind of terrible economic logic.
Well, I'd like you to answer for me a question about why I like to read Jane Austen. You know, just looking at various passages from Pride and Prejudice in preparation for the show.
And I didn't have how much time I couldn't reread the whole thing, but I was again feeling that typical feeling I have when I look at Austin, which is I really want to reread this whole book in this entirety.
I know how it ends, I know how corny a lot of it is, and I know how much undercutting there seems to be in the surface doctrines of love and moral rectitude and so forth.
Or this utopianism of Alistair Duckworth. But at the same time, I've sucked in by it, and I find it irresistible.
And I'm sure that millions of readers of Jane Austen find it irresistible for very much the same reasons. And we can go on listening and being convinced by cynics like you, but I don't think it's going to touch the core of the enchantment that the experience of reading Austen entails often.
I completely agree. I'm extremely susceptible to this enchantment that you mentioned. I mean, I'm one of the people who has watched the BBC Pride and Prejudice that was done in 1995. I've probably watched it ten times. I know that that makes me among the sort of Jane Eyte fans, one of the people who's probably watched it the least.
I mean, we both know people who've watched it upwards of 30 or 40 times. I mean, this is to my mind, the great artistic question about Jane Austen is. Here's a book that she wrote when she was 21 years old. It has all the kind of ingredients of the romance. It's a piece of genre fiction.
And yet when you start to read it, when you read the very first sentence, which is probably the most famous sentence in all of English literature or certainly one of them, you simply cannot stop until you have read the whole book over again.
Do you want to read that sentence? I'll let you read it.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
In light of the rest of the book, it's just the most brilliant ironic sentence one can imagine because it's really the inverse of that. No? Every one of these women unmarried is in want of a man in possession of a good fortune.
What you realize when you read the next sentence, however little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, is truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of someone or other of their daughters.
What you realize is that this sentence is basically being sprung fully formed from the head of Mrs. Bennett who ultimately when you get right down to it is the person who triumphs the most completely in the novel.
She might as well be the author of this novel. She gets everything she wants, everything works out for the best in the best of all possible.
And yet she is mercilessly sent up as an incredibly silly and obnoxious figure.
So maybe this gets back to the question of disenchantment and reenchantment that you were asking is how can it be the case that Mrs. Bennett, who is one of the sort of most memorably batty characters in all of English literature,
is given the kind of moral authority to write a sentence or to sort of vocalize a sentence that will turn out to be completely true.
Yes. In fact, I believe that in most great novels there is one word that summarizes the whole novel better than any other word, and I believe in the case of pride and prejudice that word is property.
Because there is so much of the novel is about various properties. Well, we know that there is another field long-born, Pemberley.
What is the Catherine Deberg's?
Rosing, yes. But then there is this whole idea also of what is proper that this man is considered the rightful property of someone of the other daughters.
So there is a way by marriage as a form of appropriation of another's property. But as you were suggesting at the beginning, how does one get out of the lock classroom?
Well, you have to do it through non-aggressive behavior. You have to do it through decorum. You have to do it without showing that you really want it.
In other words, through what we would call a certain proprietary, the right sort of proprietary behavior, and that too raises a question of what is one's own and how does one negotiate the question of the property?
The other thing I'd like to mention is when you say that Mrs. Bennett is in a certain sense the author and the winner in the whole story, and that as reluctant as we may be to admit it, as readers, it's her schemes that have worked out and have led to the happy ending that everyone is delighted to share in.
And we don't want to recognize that. I also believe I have this reading of Pride and Prejudice, which I've promoted once or twice when I've taught the book regarding Lydia, who I believe is the spitting image of her mother in many ways.
Do you agree that Mrs. Bennett makes it clear that Lydia is in fact her favorite daughter?
When Jane gets engaged in Mr. Bingley, she'll temporarily say, "Jane's my favorite daughter." But, yes, Lydia is the favorite of the five girls.
They share the same sort of vulgarity and the love of costume and spectacle.
They're boy crazy, and they love the officers.
They love officers. They love anything that has a uniform.
And we don't know if Mrs. Bennett had siblings, I don't remember, but...
She does, she has a sister named Mrs. Philip, I believe.
Well, I think one interesting thing in terms of personality psychology that really impressed me with Pride and Prejudice,
I was reading Pride and Prejudice, same time I was reading this book by, uh, "Sullaway."
What can't remember his first name? What's his name? Frank.
Frank's "Sullaway." I think in 1996 he published a book called "Born to Rebell," fascinating book in which he promotes a, um,
a theory of personality based on birth order within the family. His claim is that personalities are completely formed within the family,
and that by far the most determinant factor is where you fit within the birth order, whether you're a first born or a late born.
And he claims that the family is this stage of Darwinian struggle for parental affection, and that the first born are enormously advantaged.
These are either late born because first come, first serve, they're bigger, and therefore they tend to identify with parental authority and power.
And oftentimes in order to achieve parental approval, they take over the parental role, these would be the younger siblings, and we see Jane doing that very much.
Now these are two failed parents. The mother is not a very good mother, the father is it. We know that.
Jane is very tender and consoling and caring for the younger siblings. Elizabeth is very much like her father. She stands in for the father's, the law of the father in some ways.
But what "Sullaway" suggests is that this is what's so radical about the theory is that first borns among classes, races, and genders have more in common
with each other than they do with their own younger siblings. I don't know if that's true or not, but part of his theory, which I find unbelievably convincing, is that if you look at a, he's gone and he's looked at as many records as he can find about who is sort of famous people in history and whether they were first born or later born, and what he's discovered is that the first born is the first born of the first born of the first born,
or what he's discovered is that if you are first born, you're much more likely to be a kind of president of a country or a CEO or somebody who's a general, somebody who is in charge according to kind of institutional structures, whereas if you're a later born, you're much more likely to be a revolutionary or much more likely to be a rebel, you're much more likely to be a prophet, you're much more likely to be a bomb thrower.
Yeah, because the first born tend to identify with the existing structures of society, therefore they tend to be more traditionalistic and more conservative because they have more invested because they are favored by the system they're born into.
Yeah, so William, William, Styron, Sophie's Choice, I think is, I believe that the choice that Sophie makes is to sacrifice the second child.
I think that's the case.
In Pride and Prejudice, what we have almost the allegory of this theory of personality because the firstborns, Jane and Elizabeth are Jane more than Elizabeth, she's the real firstborn, she's conservative to extent of being totally boring, but coming back now to Lydia, Lydia is the lastborn and she's the least invested in reproducing the values of the society and therefore she is one of Sulawai's rebels, born to rebel,
and in that sense her breaking of all the rules and not caring to uphold the family propriety and so on and so forth, which gets the family into so much trouble is very typical of a personality type of a lateborn.
Now, of course Elizabeth is strange because she's not, she's the secondborn, so she has to have a little bit of Lydia in her, a lot more of Jane in the sense that, but she has to have a little bit of the revolutionary in order to turn down the first offer of Darcy in order to claim and the name of love, her own personal rights as an individual.
Lydia, of course, takes this to an extreme where her law is a law of gratification, whatever pleases, go and have fun.
Elizabeth is obeying the rules, but she has a little margin, a little opening of personal freedom that we were so accustomed to in the 20th century.
I think that's a brilliant reading of the novel and I think it's born out again and again in the text itself.
There's a wonderful scene where Lady Catherine DeBerg comes to Longborn to talk to Elizabeth and to try to get her to say that she would not accept Mr. Darcy's hand in marriage.
And, for example, she's a very important person to bring to bear on this line of argument all of the claims of the English aristocracy towards sort of feudalism and kind of family blending and so forth.
And without ever directly staking her own claim in this matter gets by in this conversation simply by negating the claims of Lady Catherine DeBerg.
So that, in some sense, is more evidence for your theory that she's a kind of liminal figure between the firstborn, though obviously she's more on the conservative end of things and the later born.
Well in fact it's true and we tend to forget sometimes that Darcy, it takes a certain amount of revolution, revolutionary personality for Darcy to marry Elizabeth after all because he's breaking some serious rules of his class.
But in a way with it though if you're a male in this world because the status of your children will follow the male line.
So there's plenty of hypergamy, for instance, in the British aristocracy.
But if one were to raise the question of the French Revolution, which never is explicitly invoked here but is always in the background of the fiction of this period in English literature.
And I know that there are three main events in modern history that seloway uses, I think it's the reformation, Darwinism and the French Revolution.
And he does his massive statistical analyses just finding out who was for them and who was against them.
And by astonishing majority of firstborns were the conservative naysayers, they were against the reformation, they were against the theories of Darwin, and they were certainly against the French Revolution, whereas the vast majority of those in favor were lateborns.
And you would imagine that if there's one of these daughters that would go off and become a joint of the French Revolution it would be Lydia, don't you think?
Oh, absolutely. But at the same time I would like to make this following suggestion by allergizing this theory of personality order and say that no matter how much we like to scorn Lydia and we think that she's just an airhead and a knit with, the fact is that she is much more who we are than anyone else of these sisters.
Because very few of us in the late 20th century, early 21st century, a custom as we are to personal freedom and career opportunities, very few of us would actually willingly submit ourselves to the kind of rigid restrictions and manners and conditions of life that existed in Jane Austen's day.
And this freedom and opportunity that we enjoyed, they are the hard one gains of radical rebellion, revolution and reform, and they would never have come about if the status quo had been successfully defended by the firstborns.
So in a certain sense one could say that the 20th century and the 21st century are Lydia in essence or that Lydia points towards us and especially our American 20th and 21st centuries which is in love with lights and glitz and vulgarity and uniform and spectacle and all these things.
Lydia would have loved Las Vegas.
Absolutely, I think that all of this gets going really with the romantic poets, I think the romantic poets are a bunch of later born sons, a Coleridge certainly was.
I believe Wardsworth was too even though he became more conservative as he got older, but you can see Lydia as in some sense a kind of female romantic poet. I mean she's out there just trying to stir things up and make it possible for her to live the kind of life that we all now take for granted.
Sure, well her demand is personal, well one can look at it in positive, maybe I put too much of a positive spin on it, one could also say that it's almost like the she's the ideal late consumers figure who desires are her only law.
And the rest be damned, but I think you're right that the more serious side of these rebels late born rebels would be like the romantic poets and perhaps some of the scientific experimentations and the readiness to overturn dogmas that have kept us in that classroom you were talking about earlier.
I'm very sensitive on this subject because I myself have the typical first born personality, I'm sitting there standing a port history like William F. Buckley, the late William Buckley screaming stop.
He was a first born I believe. I think he had an older brother. Whatever he is the patron saint of people like me.
Well it's amazing if it is true that firstborns have more in common with each other than they do with.
Look at George Bush, he's a classic example of a firstborn who tried to rebel, tried to get away from his terrible stifling parental setup ended up doing everything that his father did but in a kind of terrible pale failed way.
And nonetheless ended up being president.
And I believe that Jane Austen was a late born.
She was the sixth of seven children.
Well there you go. She's like Kitty, but Kitty and Lydia are our parents.
Yeah, exactly. One of the things about Jane Austen that I always find so fascinating is that she grew up in a family where her parents took in boys as borders.
So they ran a kind of boys school. And I think in some respects Jane Austen had a childhood that was more like a boys childhood than it was like a typical girls childhood.
And you can really see it in her juvenileia of which Pride and Prejudice is a kind of late example.
So it was, she first wrote this book under the title First Impressions. It wasn't published. She kept kind of working on it and working on it and working on it.
But when she wrote it, when she was 21, it came at the sort of tail end of a long period of literary experimentation in her life in which, well, I'll just, if you don't mind, I'll just redo it a little bit from biography of her by Claire.
And I think in this passage, you can really see the influence of the humor of young boys on her on her writing.
So she's describing the juvenileia of Jane Austen. Ugly and deformed girls provide another source of humor. One is short fat and disagreeable. Another has a forbidding squint greasy dresses and a swelling back.
Female efforts to improve appearances with red and white cosmetic paints are good for a laugh too. There is a great deal of cheerful violence including several incidents which might be called fun murders.
There's a hanging. There's a steel man trap that catches a girl by the leg. There are characters driven by hunger to bite off their own fingers.
And then she says Jane Austen was a tough and uncentimental child drawn to rude and archaic imaginings and black jokes. She found a good source for this ferocious style of humor in the talk she heard and doubtless sometimes joined in among her parents pupils bursting out of childhood into young manhood.
If she was sometimes shocked and she listened, she herself was learning how to shock by writing things down.
Jumping to another issue to set a curiosity, what do you think is lost in the film adaptations or even television series adaptations of the novels?
It really depends on the adaptation. Some of them are so bad that you just wish that they have never been made.
Some of them are so great that you just want to keep watching them over and over and over again.
I think the two most recent adaptations of Pride and Prejudice are good examples of this. The 1995 BBC version is fantastic. You just can't get enough of it.
It has spawned its own mini culture industry in Britain focused on the person of the actor who plays Darcy, Colin Furr.
And then I believe it is 2002, Kieran Knightley version.
I agree with you. What is it about the BBC version? What makes that successful adaptation?
I think it is partly just that it is very very close to the text.
The screenwriter just lifted a whole bit of dialogue straight from Austin.
They also took a tremendous amount of care in casting it.
The casting is brilliant. The casting of Mr. Collins, for instance, couldn't be better.
I agree with all of them, Catherine DeBerg also, the one miscast character in my view is Jane.
Because I find that the actress in this case is too much to pay off, too much self-pity, too much passivity.
She seems more somehow, I don't know what the word is in the original.
It jarred me to see what that face with the character that I had in mind. Whereas in all the other cases it was very faithful.
Elizabeth Bennett is just fantastic.
After Jane, in the novel, Jane gets engaged to Mr. Bingley, Mrs. Bennett says to her,
"I know you couldn't have been so beautiful for nothing."
Unfortunately, in the BBC version, the actress, I'm sure she's beautiful in person, but they haven't made her look exactly.
I think she should have been much more strikingly beautiful because there's something a little homely about her.
The big fuss, it lacks that little element which makes it all come together.
Whatever happened to the Elizabeth actress, I think I've only seen her in that one BBC.
Apparently, she, that was her big movie role, but apparently she's done quite a lot of stage work, and I guess she recently won an award for her work in Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia.
I see, okay. So she's doing a lot of stage acting.
She's American, where she was raised in America, so that makes it all the dinner.
Another final question, Blakey, do you have trouble teaching Jane Austen to students?
Do they end up at a certain point in a course resenting you for opening up the abyss?
Well, my students come to my classes on Jane Austen at a sort of crucial time, I think, in their reading lives, so they, most of them have been devouring her sort of innocently from the time that they're 12 and 13 and 14.
Here they are, 1921, and they're kind of in that strange transition between adolescents and adulthood that in fact, Austen's characters are in two, and I think they are excellent readers of Austen, and they begin to see all of the different tones and registers in her novels.
Good. When will you teach another course honor?
I'm working on getting one for next year, so we'll see. Great. Well, anyone out there listening? Register now. Thanks for coming on, Blakey's been a pleasure.
Thank you very much, Robert. Bye-bye.