Martin Amis On Jane Austen

As you’ve probably figured out by now, I am a huge Jane Austen fan, particularly Pride and Prejudice. In part my love of Austen is her incisive observations on human nature and human interactions with social constraints, in part it’s the wit and irony with which she paints her pictures. And of course, since 1996 it’s been largely encouraged by the superb BBC/A&E 6-hour production of P&P, with Colin Firth delivering the definitive performance as Mr. Darcy. Indeed, I never felt like I fully comprehended the range of emotional repression and depth of Mr. Darcy until this production (and it doesn’t hurt that Colin Firth is drop-dead gorgeous).

Anyway, in the course of my recent P&P perusals on the web, a poster at The Republic of Pemberley posted links to two Martin Amis articles on Jane Austen. Amis is apparently also a huge Austen fan. The earlier article, from the Atlantic Montly, 1990, is a bit rambling and impressionistic (for I have developed a taste for the incisive and analytical, so Amis’ writing often falls flat for me), but I thought what he said about Darcy in his concluding paragraph was quite interesting and insightful:

Darcy doesn’t account for the novel’s eternal humor and elan, but he does account for its recurrent and remorseless power to move. Elizabeth’s prejudice is easily dealt with: all she needs is the facts before her. Yet the melting of Darcy’s pride demands radical change, the difference between his first declaration (“In vain have I struggled”) and his second (“You are too generous to trifle with me”). … This is the wildest romantic extravagance in the entire corpus: a man like Mr. Darcy, chastened, deepened, and finally democratized by the force of love.

This Amis article from the New Yorker in 1996 is much better, in my view, although I find his ultimate concluding paragraph a bit fatuous. He starts in by discussing viewing Four Weddings and a Funeral with Salman Rushdie, which is itself an interesting concept, and then goes on to discuss sentimentality in the course of getting to Jane Austen’s modern lovers and his review of the 1995 BBC production. (aside: I also disagree with him about Benjamin Whitrow’s performance as Mr. Bennet, who I think needs to resort to wryness and twinkle to keep himself sane while being married to such an intellectually inferior woman. Humor is the universal coping mechanism.)

I think here Amis touches on, but does not discuss, another reason why I love Austen: she is romantic without being sentimental. Her most compelling heroines are typically rational actors facing constraints, choosing based on their reason, but still not willing to sacrifice principle for pragmatism. I think here in particular of Elizabeth Bennet and Elinor Dashwood, neither of whom would marry solely to raise the financial prospects of her family, but would marry only for a love grounded in reason, respect and integrity.