Pride and Prejudice and Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen: Moral Development of an Individual
Jane Austen’s social novel Pride and Prejudice (1813) from the patriarchal regency England employs free indirect speech to examine the notion that moral development can only be prompted by individual interactions and that individual felicity can only be achieved by overcoming social expectations. The responder’s understanding of the context and these enduring values is deepened through the Fay Weldon’s epistolary novel, Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen (1984), whereby the private nature of Weldon’s epistolary form in a post-feminist Contemporary England declares literature and success outside marriage as the modern means to achieve this.
Austen explores the necessity of introspection, through individual interactions, to prompt an individual’s moral development. In Pride and Prejudice, character traits are cultural constructs emanating from class concerns. Darcy’s pride is initially established at the ball, where his refusal to dance with Elizabeth in the condescending tone in “At such an assembly as this it would be unsupportable” reflects the view that social status equates prestige; albeit being merely opposite ends of the landed gentry. Elizabeth’s prejudiced perceptions are furthered through her encounter with Wickham as the tripartite listing describes that “his countenance, voice and manner, had established him at once in the possession of every virtue”. Elizabeth’s focus on salient appearances stems from the Regency preoccupation with ‘accomplishments’; entertaining skills that determined a woman’s worth. However, Elizabeth’s introspective perusal of Darcy’s letter, illustrated by self-contemplative language as she “’read and reread with the greatest attention”, facilitates a newfound understanding that “she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd”. Similarly, Darcy’s confession in the empathic language that “You [Elizabeth] taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous!”, reflects his developed humility in the confrontation of his moral shortcomings. Through Darcy and Elizabeth, Austen reveals the value of individual interactions to catalyse introspection that results in appropriate modesty.
In contrast, Weldon reflects her context and champions the pursuit of literature and its potential to develop empathy, as the greatest source of moral development. The 1980 Education Act focused on increasing the accessibility of education to all, contrasting Regency England education. Weldon initially hints at the necessary presence of literature to equip society with knowledge through the high modality in “We have to be told these things, you know. It is surprising how ignorant we are…” Literature is presented as the means of instruction to alter perceptions of the world, through the extended metaphor of the “City of Invention” in “The good builders, carry a vision out of the real world and transpose it… that reality itself has changed.”; echoing Darcy’s sentiment that reading “adds something more substantial”. Weldon links literary deprivation to an undeveloped emotional capacity through the anaphora in “And above all, too unread, too little practiced in sympathy”. Weldon thus contextualises Pride and Prejudice through statistic data that “only thirty percent married … so to marry was a great prize” to evince that this knowledge vindicates Mrs Bennett’s ridiculed maternal motive “to get her daughters married”; being deserving of sympathy despite “making a fool of herself”. Thus an informed understanding of Austen and Weldon’s contexts explain their differing perceptions of the avenues to moral development; ultimately highlighting the enduring significance of moral growth.
Pride and Prejudice underlines the need to overcome social expectations to achieve autonomy. Before the Married Women’s Property act where married women could not own property, women’s financial dependence in the Regency Era was enshrined in law. Auden establishes Regency mentality concerning marriage in “A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year” to outline marriage’s sole pursuit as an avenue for gaining economic security. The characterisation of Charlotte Lucas as the archetypal Georgian women, evident by her cynical degree that “happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” exposes the economic stability pursued through this suppression of individual felicity. Thus, Charlotte embodies the foil of Elizabeth; Elizabeth’s contemptuous tone in “she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage” displaying the projection of her values onto Charlotte. Meanwhile Elizabeth’s repudiation of Darcy’s proposal in “the concern which I might have felt, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner” subverts Regency subservience; the language of propriety carrying a deeper disdain of Regency marriage as a catalyst for restricted female autonomy. Elizabeth’s acceptance of Darcy’s second proposal reflects how her feelings “are now so widely different” and elicits the hyperbole in “I am the happiest creature in the world” to reflect the individual felicity found in the fulfilment, not modification, of her values. Thus, Austen expounds on the notion that individual autonomy is achieved only through refuting social expectations.
Letters to Alice reshapes female autonomy in the modern context to promote similarly, the significance in overcoming social expectations to achieve autonomy. The Family Law Act 1975 offered women with the freedom to divorce thus promoting individual choice. This pursuit of autonomy is reflected by Weldon decades later by mirroring Austen’s subversive heroine, Elizabeth. The characterisation of her fictional niece, Alice, with “black and hair” manifests modern individuality and the enduring value of autonomy through contexts. She parallels conformity to the repression of “women in loveless marriages” to ironically encourage Alice to rebel against other’s advice, expressed through the hyperbole in “it is murder … twisting your head to get into someone else’s place”. This is reflective of Elizabeth’s rejection of Lady Catherine’s tripartite listing “honour, decorum, prudence” in her pursuit of Mr Darcy. The persona of Aunt fay encourages autonomy, but only under her own prescriptive codes; employing the high modality of the imperative “must”, when asserting that Alice “must know how to read a novel … before writing one”. Aunt Fay’s confession, through the antithesis that “You have proved that it is possible to do what so many of your colleagues claim is impossible”, demonstrates the success of Alice’s novel in her independence from Aunt Fay’s opinions. Ultimately Weldon redefines autonomy for the women in her social context through the success of Alice’s novel; success outside marriage that Second-wave feminism in the 1960s focused with the expansion of women’s roles from the traditional wife and mother. In both texts, the magnitude and distinctions of their context’s expectations is established, but only to convey that fidelity to self can overcome these expectations and enable individuals to obtain happiness.
A critical inquiry into Pride and Prejudice and Letters to Alice reveals the ways in which historical and social contexts influence the composer’s choice of language forms and attitudes conveyed. The intertextual connections explore the enduring significance of an individual’s moral development and individual felicity from overcoming social expectations; differing in how both are achieved. These are values that, although shaped by their context, ultimately transcend time.
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