A Case of the Februarys

Somehow February lasts longer than any other month.  Something about the accretion of winter’s dark and the mud brown landscape, the middle-ness of it all, neither winter break nor summer vacation on the horizon, that depletes one’s warmth, one’s energy, one’s will.  And worst of all, not a snow day in sight!  So we wash up halfway, grateful at least for three days off for Presidents’ Day weekend.  (Funny how we move increasingly to the generic from the specific, conflating George and Abe, as we conflate so many other concepts.)

The other highlight comes in opening the pages of Pride and Prejudice again. I love the novel not for the love story but for its wisdom about love stories and about marriage and for its offering a countervailing argument to Grendel (though I must admit, I would love to see not zombies but Beowulf running amok in Hertfordshire!).  Austen is so eminently sensible, and from her I have learned to be a rationalist.  The Romantics preach a tale about soul mates and undying passion that somehow excuses the lovers from behaving with any decorum or even heart towards anyone else in the world (yes, Wuthering Heights, I am talking about you!).  Austen instead argues that love requires time.  She grants us the gift of complexity.  We cannot know a person from a first glance but must spend time uncovering his or her richly complex nature, nor can we know someone from words alone.  Anyone can spill forth intoxicating sentences that ensnare a heart, but in the end it is what we do that proves our worthiness.  Hence, Wickham, the man of words, ably covers up a character of moral debauchery with graceful, mannerly language, a mixture of flattery, small truths, and greater lies, while Darcy, the man of action, speaks little but resolves the conflict with little fanfare.  A great novel for young women brought up on tales of Byronic heroes.  (Though I have to re-educate the ones who have seen the Bronte-fied Keira Knightley version of the novel with all that sturm und drang in a raging thunderstorm!)

In addition, Austen writes so tellingly about human nature: the desire for gossip, the worse the better; the difficulty of knowledge–what to believe, whom to believe, when to believe (the novel swirls with misinformation that the reader must sort out as much as the characters have to); the importance of raising children well (Mrs. Bennet not, enough said!); the value of amiability and its pitfalls (Bingley and Jane–easy prey to the machinations of the unkind); and the need to find balance between societal responsibility and individual happiness.  The novel takes us all over England, even to the dreaded London, a place where scoundrels go to hide, but also where the reasonable, intelligent Gardiners conduct business and the hero goes to discreetly save the day–Miss Austen tacitly indicating the rise of the city over the country?

She, of course, also makes me laugh as well, which when one has a bad case of the Februarys, makes her novels even more invaluable.  Here, she describes the oleaginous Mr. Collins as he proposes to Charlotte Lucas:

In as short a time as Mr. Collins’s long speeches would allow, everything was settled between them to the satisfaction of both; and as they entered the house he earnestly entreated her to name the day that was to make him the happiest of men; and though such a solicitation must be waved for the present, the lady felt no inclination to trifle with his happiness. The stupidity with which he was favoured by nature must guard his courtship from any charm that could make a woman wish for its continuance; and Miss Lucas, who accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment, cared not how soon that establishment were gained.

So here we are, halfway through the dirge of February, grateful for Miss Austen and her wry wit.  To Pemberley we go, or wish we could go!

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