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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

I Had a Jane Austen Moment


It wasn’t the first time, either. 

Many years ago a man came into my bookstore and somehow got onto the subject of concealed weapons and his right to carry same. Don’t ask me how that subject arose. It was very important to him, so my guess is that he was adept at bringing it into the conversation. But as he was giving his impassioned speech, all I could think was, Are you carrying a weapon? Because I’m not. So we are on very unequal footing. I don’t like unequal footing. And while I occasionally have people wander into my bookstore, hands in pockets or clasped nervously in front of them, exclaiming (much to my annoyance, because it’s not as if I’m running an opium den or a speak-easy), “This is such a dangerous place for me to be!” I can’t imagine any of them would feel the serious need to enter armed. And I thought then, and think now whenever I recall the encounter, of Emma’s protests when she learned from the concern of her friend Mrs. Weston that Frank Churchill, who had flirted with her outrageously, had all the time been secretly engaged to another young woman.
“I have escaped, and that I should escape, may be a matter of grateful wonder to you and myself. But this does not acquit him, Mrs. Weston; and I must say, that I think him greatly to blame. What right had he to come among us with affection and faith engaged, and with manners so very disengaged? What right had he to endeavour to please, as he certainly did – to distinguish any one young woman with persevering attention, as he certainly did – while he really belonged to another? How could he tell what mischief he might be doing? – How could he tell that he might not be making me in love with him? – very wrong, very wrong indeed.”
That Frank Churchill should come into that small country society and behave as a single man, without romantic or marital commitment, when his affection and promise had already been secretly given, meant to Emma that Frank had been treating society, as well as the marriage market of the time, as his personal plaything. “Impropriety!” Emma exclaims.
“Oh! Mrs. Weston – it is too calm a censure. Much, much beyond impropriety! It has sunk him, I cannot say how it has sunk him in my opinion. So unlike what a man should be! None of that upright integrity, that strict adherence to truth and principle, that disdain of trick and littleness, which a man should display in every transaction of his life.”
I am not saying that Jane Austen or the society of her time would have the same attitude toward concealed weapons as they had toward concealed engagements or marriages, only that in my mind there is a parallel. Do we meet openly, as equals, or with our secret selves carefully hidden away until -- ???

Well, that was a lengthy introduction, but get me on the subject of Jane Austen, and I am as likely to be carried away as my one-time visitor with his own pet hobby-horse. My more recent Jane Austen moment came when Mr. X said of Mr. Y that the latter was often considered “arrogant.” Mr. X continued, “When you find out about his life, you see he’s entitled to be arrogant.” Austen fans will not have a moment’s hesitation here but will know instantly that Mr. X’s account of Mr. Y brought Pride and Prejudice to my mind.
Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike .... but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. ,,,[H]e was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.
Mr. Darcy is quickly detested by almost the entire town of Meryton and all the family at Longbourne except Jane (who never thinks ill of anyone) for his insufferable pride, and it takes nearly the whole novel for Elizabeth to realize that she, too, has been guilty of the same deadly sin, prejudiced against Mr. Darcy because he wounded her own amour-propre. A couple of more moderate voices are heard, however, as early as Chapter 5.
“His pride,” said Miss Lucas, “does not offend me so much as pride often does, because there is an excuse for it. One cannot wonder that so very fine a young man, with family, fortune, everything in his favour, should think highly of himself. If I may so express it, he has a right to be proud.”
Elizabeth’s friend, Miss Lucas is in general much less critical of others than Elizabeth, sometimes (as we later learn) carrying nonjudgmentalism to extremes Elizabeth regards with something like horror. Elizabeth’s sister Mary, the family moralist, “who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections,” was the first to make a distinction between pride and vanity.
“Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.”
What, though of Mr. X’s opinion of Mr. Y? Can one have a “right” to be arrogant? A man who takes pride in his accomplishments – or, of course, a woman who takes pride in hers – does not necessarily need to parade them before others to satisfy his or her vanity. But arrogance – where does that put us?

Without consulting a dictionary, and only going by my own sense of the word, I can’t help finding arrogance, as one of Austen’s characters would put it, “a grievous fault indeed.” I see the arrogant individual lording it over others, disdaining others, riding roughshod over anyone who gets in his or her way – and can there ever be a question of a “right” to such behavior?

Yes, I sound like Mary! Sigh! Mary the earnest bluestocking, not the lively, witty Elizabeth Bennett. And yet, I don’t think Elizabeth would put up with arrogance for one minute. She would puncture it verbally and/or turn and dance away gaily in another direction.

P.S. Next day: Here's an interesting site, not only defining but giving tips for spotting and dealing with arrogant people.

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