Austen’s sentence

I was reading Pritchett’s introduction to Pride and Prejudice yesterday and most of it just put my back up, but there’s this bit where he says that if Austen is superficial, thank God for that superficiality… that set me thinking.

The reason I picked up Pride and Prejudice yesterday was because I was reading A Room of One’s Own for FemJur, and Woolf talks about Austen a lot in it. In fact, we’d discussed the lack of a tradition for women writers to turn to for inspiration. Woolf talks about it in terms of the ‘masculine sentence’ and how there’s no equivalent sentence for women writers. She says that George Eliot and the Brontes are constrained by that, but Austen just ‘thumbs her nose at it and constructs her own’ (that’s not an exact quote) and we were wondering whether Austen’s sentence was ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in possession of a large fortune must be in search of a wife’.

Pritchett says that that’s not just the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, but that all of Austen’s writing is based on it…I think that’s rather unjust of him, but it did connect up to what we’d been discussing! If that is, in fact, Austen’s sentence, why is it, and what does that say about her? You know, men actually think ‘what nonsense’ when they read that sentence? They think it’s about them, the poor sods! Whereas women just crack up thinking ‘I know – so many people think that!!!’ (Yeah, yeah, I just made the fundamental mistake of saying ‘men do this and women do that’, but that’s what happened in the class! Not that the class is representative of all men and women in the world – I should hope not!)

I think that’s a woman’s sentence because it is what Pritchett calls ‘superficial’ – it’s what a woman sees when she looks at the world, and she even knows and acknowledges that that’s not how the world really is! It’s not fact, but it’s not fiction either – it’s experience. And the humility to acknowledge that the experience is not universal. That’s why that’s Austen’s sentence, that’s what it says about her.


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