"It is a truth universally acknowledged..."

  William Golding
  The Birds

Anthony Burgess gave English literature a rather back-handed compliment, in one of his novels, by saying that it was almost as good as Russian literature. I will leave it to the reader to decide on the merits of this statement, but one area where the Russians fall far short of us is in the tradition of great female novelists. The nineteenth century English novel would be sadly depleted without their contribution, and not only from the greats such as Austen, Eliot and Charlotte Brontë, but from the much larger pool of writers who never quite reached their heights. Our appreciation of the form would be much diminished.

One thing that can be relied upon when embarking on a 19th century novel, though, is that sooner or later you will reach the section (and there always is one) where things become grim. For the duration of perhaps two or three hundred pages you will have to force yourself onward through the bleak circumstances in which the hero or heroine finds him or herself. And, in keeping with the descriptive nature of classic novels, you will be spared no detail in helping you appreciate just how bad things have become. Characters in books by nineteenth century male authors, of course, experience similar vicissitudes – but somehow the experience is less of an ordeal for the reader.

Despite this, one of the appeals of the classic female novelists was that they were usually fairly imaginative about the circumstances which caused the grim state of affairs to come about. So, for instance, if the main character were female we might have: falling into debt; tubercular wasting; separation from family; separation from the object of romantic attachment; romantic feelings not reciprocated; ill-judged romantic feelings (followed potentially by a disastrous marriage); unfounded accusations against the heroine’s character; physical illness, and finally mental illness (which could be due to any of the above, or simply to the depressive nature of the heroine as seems to be a prerequisite in novels by Charlotte Brontë).

The grim state of affairs will generally run long enough for the reader to become thoroughly acquainted with every detail of the suffering endured by the hero or heroine. It takes an effort of will to drive yourself on through this section but, if you have the stamina, you will finally be rewarded with the triumphant resurgence of his or her fortunes (unless this is a really grim novel which lacks a happy ending, though hopefully the dust-jacket will have given some warning of this). Assuming, though, that fortunes in the story are at least hinting at some improvement you find yourself flying through the last few hundred pages in search of the hoped-for happy ending: will an unexpected inheritance materialise; will the long-lost relative turn up, alive and well after all; will the heroine finally overcome the stifling convention which apparently forbids her even hinting to the hero that she might actually like him, and attain happiness? Hours slip by unnoticed as the story takes over until, finally, the end is in sight. And then, in retrospect, the reader can consider the question, ‘was it all worth it’?

At least the grim section generally stops the final part descending too far into mawkish Victorian sentimentality, although you will probably have to put up with a fair amount of sermonising on how the happy ending is permissible in the cosmic scheme of things. Occasionally, especially with the lesser writers, the travails of the hero or heroine are not handled convincingly enough, and we find ourselves wanting to say, ‘just get on with it!’ But even then, we will probably have forgiven the short-comings by the time we reach the end of the story.

There is one exception to the seemingly inevitable suffering which the reader must undergo to appreciate one of these classic novels – Jane Austen. Although her heroines suffer their fair share of misfortune we can always rely on her to alleviate the pain with a sprinkling of humour. And of course we can tell, from the very structure of her narratives, that all will turn out well in the end (plus the fact that we have probably already seen several adaptations of the story on television). It is part of the genius of Jane Austen that she could come up with novels which were, at one and the same time, great works of literature but also fun.

This is nowhere more apparent than in the very first sentence of Pride and Prejudice, which gives us the famous quote, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ It is worth examining this specimen of her handiwork for a moment in order to see just what a genius she was. Take the first phrase, ‘it is a truth universally acknowledged’ - in any other book we might expect this to lead on to a profound piece of Enlightenment wisdom, but in this case we know we are in for something even better – a Jane Austen witticism. The second phrase puts us firmly into the familiar territory: we are talking about single men and, more to the point, rich ones. It is interesting how the natural rhythm of the words leads to a slight pause after the word ‘man’, conveniently dividing the phrase into its two constituent parts. And so into the final phrase, which delivers the punchline, ‘must be in want of a wife’ – and how better to do so than with a metre corresponding precisely to the last line of a limerick? In a single sentence Austen lays out the whole premise of her novel, sweeping us along in its inexorable logic, just as her heroines will do in due course to the targets of their affections.

No novel which opens with such a sentence could ever merit the description ‘grim’.

All text and images © Insubstantial Pageant 2008-2011